Robots (now streaming on VOD services like Prime Video) is a satirical sci-fi rom-com starring Shailene Woodley and Jack Whitehall as amoral humans and their less-amoral robot doppelgangers. As the tagline goes, HE is a womanizer and SHE is a gold digger and BOTH have automaton versions of themselves, and I’ll be doggoned if wackiness doesn’t ensue. How could it not? Adapting the short story The Robot Who Looked Like Me by Robert Sheckley, the movie comes off like a Philip K. Dick Lite adaptation crossed with a McConaughey rom-com from 2010, which could be a winning formula, but more likely will fulfill the sentiment of the cringe that surely appeared on your face when you read the phrase “Philip K. Dick Lite adaptation crossed with a McConaughey rom-com from 2010.” Now let’s find out for sure.
ROBOTS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: It’s 2032, and the Caucasian President of the United States is celebrating the completion of a wall along the Mexican border. He delivers some crucial exposition when he says hooray for “the Tesla Corporation” for developing humanoid robots to take all the crappy jobs, cutting illegal immigrants right out of the economy. The robots have rubber faces that look like the company that makes Ronald Reagan Halloween masks had surplus inventory. One of them works at the skate-rental booth at the rink where “Charles” (Whitehall) likes to pretend to fall down so he can meet-cute women. He has a whole routine and everything. “Charles” goes to work and goes through the motions then comes home and greets Charles, who’s on the couch in a Fyre Festival shirt, playing video games. I can hear you right now: WOT TH’ HEY! “Charles” is actually C2, a lifelike replica Charles had made so he doesn’t have to do tedious shit like work or go on dates or shave his own taint. In fact, C2 primes women with dinner and bike rides and whatnot, and when they’re ready to hop in the sack, Charles takes over to perform the deed. THE PERFECT CRIME.
And it is indeed a crime to possess one of these clonelike constructs – black market cost: “two million dogecoin” – so Charles has to be very careful while executing this ruse. The only person who knows what’s up is his best pal Ashley (Paul Jurewicz), an obnoxious wacky guy who goes by the name Fat Ninja; I mention this character not because he’s not annoying, because he’s definitely annoying, but because he exists to walk through the movie’s wide-yawping third-act plot holes. One day at the rink, C2 meets “Elaine” (Woodley) and- well, you already know what happens, because I put the quotes around her name. The real Elaine uses her E2 bot to butter up men so they’ll buy her expensive gifts – designer handbags, jewelry, butt plugs – that she pawns for cash. Beats working for a living, I guess.
Not at all unexpectedly, when one ruse like this meets another ruse like this, both ruses like this go tits up. Especially since C2 and E2 have robot sex and decide they’re in love and R-U-N-N-O-F-T with each other and put Charles and Elaine in quite the predicament, especially after the automatons appear to have framed them for – get this! – it’s quite the laff! – a mass shooting! Haw haw. So funny, such comedy. So the humans go on the run, hiding out and trying to track down their robot doppelgangers. It’s worth noting that Charles and Elaine loathe each others’ innards; I mean, he’s a pig and she’s a swindler, so how could either of these two highly attractive people ever be attracted to each other? It’ll never happen, ever. I insist. NEVER EVER.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Robots kind of wants to be Her with the quirk-satire tone of Alexander Payne misfire satire Downsizing and the high-larious lothario-isms of, I dunno, what’s a really awful one, let’s say Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
Performance Worth Watching: I choose to blame Woodley’s middling output in recent years on having dated that creep Aaron Rodgers.
Memorable Dialogue: C2: “Do you not recall the conversation we had while I was shaving your perineum?”
Sex and Skin: Whitehall’s bare butt.
Our Take: The way one can differentiate humans from their robot twins? The robots have glass eyes, and that’s a running gag leading to the most incidents of eye-poking in a piece of visual entertainment since The Robonic Three Stooges. And let’s face it, if I’ve gotta invoke The Robonic Three Stooges, that means we’re taking on water fast and should probably grab a flotation device — ship’s going down! Robots wants to be a zingy-smart satire balancing incisive political commentary with a mushy romantic center, but it’s too slipshod and lazy to drive home its cynical point: Dystopia is inevitable, so we might as well find respite in each other.
And even that interpretation is rather generous. Robots is a lackadaisical mess that stirs up some ideas about human interactions in the age of artificial intelligence and the socio-political future of the U.S., and bolsters such heady content with taint jokes, grumpy-old-man reaction shots and Fat Ninja. It takes some shots at the cruelty of far-right politics, addresses the uproarious topics of sexual assault and mass shootings, then unleashes the phrase “doorbell camera butthole flasher.” There’s a wacky supporting character who I think is supposed to resemble Donald Trump Jr. and a scene in which the robots have sex and the orgasm is so intense that cats yowl and the electricity surges, and none of this faux-comedic floundering fits together tonally – I think the goal might be misanthropic whimsy? – or inspires a single laugh. It’s weirdly ineffective and unmemorable, leaving Woodley and Whitehall to just gut it out. You don’t have to, though.
Our Call: Robots blows-bots. SKIP IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.