Automata (2014) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language and some sexual content
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Melanie Griffith, Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, Javier Bardem (voice), David Ryall
Director: Gabe Ibanez
Screenplay: Gabe Ibanez, Igor Legarreta, Javier Sanchez Donate
Review published October 15, 2014
Spanish director and visual effects animator Gabe Ibanez (Hierro) helms this English-language science fiction flick mish-mash that does borrow from a variety of well-known sources (especially Blade Runner and the works of Isaac Asimov) but ends up making a thoughtful film that will likely please the genre fans that will comprise of most of its audience. Although shot for a limited budget, the movie doesn't appear to suffer from it, recorded in Bulgaria in New Boyana Film Studios (where 300: Rise of an Empire and The Expendables films had been made for a reasonable fee).
The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth of 2044 that sees nearly all of humankind wiped out from global solar radiation and the survivors forced to live in small inhabitable ghetto-ized cities. Thanks to the ROC corporation, robots (dubbed 'Pilgrims') have been constructed in order to help people in their day-to-day needs, with each coded with strict protocols to ensure that they work to keep humans from being harmed, and also to restrict them from tampering with or repairing each other in any way. When a cop (McDermott, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) ends up blowing away a robot he claims was trying to repair itself, burnt-out ROC insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Banderas, The Expendables 3) is called in to find out what's the cause of these robots breaking the 2nd Protocol, and more importantly, who to bill.
Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" get reduced to the basic two protocols we have here, though the 2nd one seems a bit more like a plot device than an actual hard and fast rule, presumably created by the ROC corporation so that their own products won't put their high-priced repairmen and manufacturing plants out of business. Plus, it keeps the fast-learning robots from exceeding humans in terms of ability to evolve beyond the point where they can be easily controlled.
The robots depicted in the movie aren't real, of course, shot with sophisticated puppets and some CGI in one particular instance. They're alternately sympathetic or eerie, depending on the scene and situation. But it's the sympathy that remains in the memory once the end credits have come and gone, as we feel sorry for these beings that are at least conscious enough to know to put up their hands to try, in vain, to deflect an incoming bullet, and in one striking case, to go out and beg for money to help feed its starving owner.
Special effects are minimal but often strikingly used. Mammoth holographs loom large in the city, showing titillatingly provocative female figures or boxing matches for people to view from the comfort of their high-rise windows. The retro-futuristic look at humanity's future will, of course, remind viewers of Blade Runner most, but the thematic differences are enough to keep this property from being an out-and-out rip-off of that 1982 visionary masterpiece. Outdoor environments are decidedly low-tech, showing that most of the Earth is now a barren radioactive desert, occasionally spelled by acid rain that's the opposite of a life-giver.
Automata is bolstered by a fine Banderas performance, perhaps his best non-animated work in some time. The rest of the cast chips in admirably in far smaller roles, though McDermott labors to portray a convincing dirt-bag cop, and Banderas' real-life soon-to-be-ex-wife Melanie Griffith (Shade) is a bit easier to take providing the voice of converted pleasure-bot Cleo than in the overdone plastic surgery-augmented Dr. Susan Dupre (recalling Asimov's Dr. Susan Calvin). Javier Bardem (The Counselor) gets a tiny but significant voice role as one of the key robots that Jacq meets later in the film.
And speaking of later in the film, that's where, unfortunately, Automata begins to falter, trying to create a gripping action-adventure that feels curiously devoid of true suspense or genuine excitement. It's not enough to undo the pleasure of the solid build-up, but it is certainly anticlimactic, and could have used a bit more work. That the themes of the potential of mankind to possibly reduce itself to obsolescence, whether it is through lack of concern for the environment or its growing dependency of technology to solve all of its woes, does make Automata an engaging think piece. The protracted Western showdown we get at the end of the movie seems a poor substitute for something more poignant to cap off such intelligent concepts.
While the appeal of Automata may be limited to science fiction enthusiasts, it definitely creates a world where it would be interesting to see more of, though its inherent lack of broad appeal will likely keep this to a one-shot storyline. Nevertheless, science fiction seems to draw cult audiences, so its possible that this property could be resurrected in comic book form many years down the road.
©2014 Vince Leo