Wednesday, October 19, 2011

DRONES (2010)



Dilbert, The Drew Carey Show, The Office and Office Space have worked hard over the years to shatter the illusions built up by pro-Capitalism extravaganzas like How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Cash McCall. Modern entertainment has proven that corporate-culture office work can be more monotonous and soul-crushing than the first few weeks of military boot camp, certain to leave you a dry and empty husk alone in your cubicle. “Can be”, obviously; much different than “is”. Drones is the anti-“is” in this situation.
The cubicle civilization depicted in Drones is comprised of more or less comfortable workers. Unchallenged though they may be in most aspects of their lives, in and out of the office, the employees of Omnilink are not merely enduring their work-day. They work reasonably-hard doing reasonable tasks and at the end of the day, they go home. Even the artificial crises that pop up—the decreased lead time, the looming deadline—do little to jolt them from their routines. A key element in their daily existence is gossip, and that fills the space between forms and databases. Who is sleeping with who—the essential and possibly only ingredient. If Ian is such a creep, why does Miryam keep taking him back? When will Brian ever ask out Amy? These are the distractions from the database that corporate switched unwisely from its chronological to alphabetical structure. Discussions take place right out in the open because, well, the water cooler doesn’t work.

Encouraging the romantic pairing of Brian (Johnathan M. Woodward of Buffy and Firefly fame) and Amy (cult goddess Angela Bettis) is the centerpiece of Drones, setting the movie’s low-key catastrophes into motion. Office romances, you see, are discouraged by management for a reason. Breakups can lead to hostile working conditions or worse: galactic destruction. At best, it’s a distraction, so everyone would be better off keeping things professional. Unless you want a hostile race of aliens marking the human race for extinction and blowing up the whole planet? You don’t want that, would you? Bad for business.
Directed by Buffy co-stars Amber Benson and Adam Busch, Drones is a dry, droll comedy that has managed to fly under the radar for most of the film-going public. Well-received at Slamdance in 2010, theatrical exposure eluded it because of its very underemphasized nature. Critics dove into their thesaurus of clich├ęs and hauled out that old indie standby, “quirky”, and slapped that appellation over every review. The problem is that Drones is not “quirky”. “Quirky” was coined for movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and 500 Days of Summer and anything starring Zooey Deschanel or Parker Posey (the ‘90s version of Zooey). Drones on the other hand is quite the opposite of “quirky” as it’s the most perfectly-deadpan movie to come along in such a long while.

The strong script by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (yes, I know; shut up) posits the time-tested hypothesis that aliens walk among us and in Men in Black fashion, they’re prepping reports, Xeroxing documents and shuffling data along with the rest of us. Opening with a Powerpoint presentation that will evoke dread in anyone who has ever endured the real thing, Drones’ company Omnilink is compared to a hive, with each member playing its part for the betterment of the colony. “A bee uses its tongue to extract pollan from a flower. We at Omnilink do the same thing. We use our tongues daily, but over the phone.”

The company’s interpersonal strategy: “The buzz of a job well-done is 1) keeping your cool; 2) reaching out; 3) and interacting with others.” Co-operation is vital and everyone should do their part by visiting neighbor’s cubicles, chatting—“Say, Bob, wasn’t that a great Powerpoint presentation Peter gave this morning?” Human relationships invigorate the hive.

Which is why everyone from supply-closet king Clark (Samm Levine) to spreadsheet crusader Cooperman are pestering Brian to ask out Amy. Not that he sees any problem with that. They’ve flirted in the past, but there are doubts. “She uses capital letters in her I.M.’s,” explains Brian. “I’m more of a lowercase kind of guy.”

“Tut,” tuts Cooperman. “Relish your differences; they're as important as your sames.”
Despite the shock of catching Clark “communicating” in the supply closet and revealing that he’s an alien, Brian retrieves a box of staples and delivers them to Amy. Then pops the question. Which envokes an extremely logical response. “You’ve asked me out in return for bringing me staples. It seems…disproportionate.” But they give it a shot, meet for drinks after work and over the weekend agree that they’re “dating”. Brian hardly gives Clark’s revelation a second thought.

By Monday, Amy is so excited about their new status as a couple that she drops her own bomb on Brian: She, too, is an alien, a race called Soyka, and the copier isn’t her “pet alien robot” but a communication device through which she talks to a co-worker (Jafe) on her own planet (Elg). But this, on top of Clark’s news and the sudden pressure of dating, makes Brian freak out. Unlike Clark’s people, who merely want to enslave the human race—

Clark: Nothing will really change except that I’ll be your boss.
Brian: Can I get a raise?
Clark: Sure!
Brian: Then I’m good.

—Amy’s people want to destroy the planet for fuel. But that plan is on hold “for now”. Brian’s reaction, though, drives a wedge between him and Amy and by lunch they’re no longer dating. The next day, he preps a Powerpoint presentation in which he uses a bar graph to declare that “Amy Is A Jerk”. Still getting used to her new human emotions, Amy doesn’t take well to this sort of thing, particularly as it had nothing to do with the new Planicka account and just serves to extend the meeting. So she contacts her people and tells them that it’s time to move up the deadline. The armada, she is told, will be there sometime after lunch.
Drones pulls this oddball story together with the conceit that, like any other office, this imminent disaster is met with the same urgency as any other client demand. Not only does everyone accept Clark’s and Amy’s extraterrestrial identities in stride but they pull together to help figure out the problem before the planet is destroyed or they have to work overtime. And with this approach, Benson, Busch, Acker and Blacker manage the ultimate triumph of zero cynicism.

Unlike so much of our entertainment, particularly in the realm of “indie” or “quirky”, the Omnilink drones are not the oppressed creatures from Office Space, comprised only of tension and teeth. Drones isn’t about revenge on corporate America but instead tackles the old fashioned notion of doing your job and going home. As ironic a term that “post-ironic” has become, that’s precisely what Drones is about. There’s no winking at the audience, no elbow-nudging or cooler-than-thou posturing. It asks, quite literally, what would you do if you found out a co-worker you liked and thought you knew was going to destroy the planet where you keep all your stuff? Would you go hysterical and attack her with a paper cutter? Or would you just try to talk her out? Because neither is going to make 5pm come any sooner and one seems like it would take more effort than the other. What is the corporate cubicle-jockey’s path of least resistence? And could it be done through interoffice email?

So many things could have scuttled Drones. In the hands of showier directors with something to prove, this alien-invasion-cum-coffee-break could have gone over-the-top, bug-eyes, hysterical mugging, punchlines with the extra punch. But Benson and Busch handle the material with knowing restraint. Even when Brian is at his most hysterical, Woodward’s performance barely raises beyond pitched incredulity. The movie they made is not about madcap artificiality and because of their mature approach Drones is delivered with likable characters and funny material. Nothing is ruined in the name of appeasing the Hollywood over-the-top machine. Which, of course, is why it was deemed an impossible sell.

As of this writing Drones is only available through Amazon’s on demand streaming service or through extended cable (I happened to catch it during a free weekend of Showtime). Reviews for the film thus far either stuff it into the aforementioned “quirky” category or dismiss it outright as a “nothing new indie thing”, citing the amusing score by Jonathan Dinerstein and Dan Bern (and Busch’s band Common Rotation)—especially the appropriate opening song “Strongly-Worded Memo”—as pretentious “prog-rock. (But again, that’s the too-cool-for-you crowd for you, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t being a hipster no longer cool? Or being knowingly uncool make you cool?) If you can watch it without falling prey to your own misconceptions of what a “festival movie” is or is not, you might find yourself charmed by Drones’ quiet story about humanity, aliens and spreadsheets.

Hail Soyka.