The overwrought, uncontrolled sci-fi thriller Automata is a disappointing example of a film which lacks the imagination to follow persuasively through on its engaging initial premise. Featuring Antonio Banderas as a hero whose bravery in putting his name to the project as both producer and lead far outstrips any valor he might show in the film itself, this is one dystopian drama which goes up in flames at about mid-way, despite solid work initially and a lively sense of visuals.
Automata’s achievements are at the level of intention rather than achievement: with this brave stab at a notoriously difficult genre, both Banderas and director Gabe Ibanez are to be praised for at least trying to take things outside the comfort zone on a restricted budget. The Banderas brand combined with curiosity about this distinctive, offbeat project should guarantee sales interest.
It is the year 2044, and if things indeed decline as rapidly over the next 30 years as Automata would have us believe, then we’ll be in a sorry state indeed. Information overload credits inform us that Earth is radioactive, that the global population is a merely 21 million, that there has been technical regression (a really interesting idea that the script doesn’t pursue) and that corporate-produced robots have been developed to protect us not only from radioactivity, but from ourselves. (2044 may be a little soon for all this, given that humanity has only just invented hand dryers that actually work.)
Insurance agent Vaucan (Banderas) is called in by an angry father after the family pooch has been killed by one of the robots, suggesting that a supposedly unalterable protocol inside the melon-headed droid has been breached (the film draws heavily on two of Asimov’s three laws of robotics, with which Automata’s intended audience may already be familiar). Sensing that the corporation for which they work is facing big trouble, Vaucan’s boss Bob (Robert Forster) tells him to sort it out.
Vaucan’s partner is the pregnant Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), which is about all we learn of her; Vaucan wants to escape with Rachel to the sea, which at times of crisis appears to him in little flashes. Vaucan goes in search of the truth, making dangerous forays beyond the city limits and encountering Dr Dupre (Melanie Griffith, reciting hi-tech explanations), who is working with a rather cute self-repairing robot called Chloe. Chloe is the film’s main female character, and she’s a lot of fun: if only the script had spent as much time on making its people as believable — and in a couple of cases as likeable — as the newly self-aware, soft-voiced bots who have escaped their control.
Visually, Automata is solidly and sometimes spectacularly conceived, at least until its final stretch, though offering little new in its abandoned, rainy cityscape view of things: the notion that technology has apparently regressed to the 1980s is wittily rendered. (Indeed, this is a self-consciously Blade Runner-ish world.) Automata knows it’s a B-movie, but even B-movies need some sort ot control if they’re aren’t to become simply Bad Movies, and it’s fantasies especially that need to be credible. Several decent if well-worn ideas are raised about the relationship between people and the artificial intelligences they create — but most of them are sci-fi staple issues, reducible to the question of who the automata of the title actually are here, the people or the robots.
On the characterization front, it’s automata by name, automata by nature. Only power-hungry, slightly paunchy middle-aged corporate types seem to have survived all the radioactivity, and they all look just as mean as they actually are, with the exception of Bold, who looks mean but is actually OK. That leaves the entire weight of the film’s human interest to fall on Banderas’ shoulders, and though he makes a valiant, committed stab at it as the chiseled, brooding Vaucan, and succeeds in delivering sometimes undeliverable lines to robots whilst only occasionally sounding risible, the script is beyond his powers of redemption.
Zacarias M. de la Riva’s score is fine but overused. The last half-hour of the film has Vaucan being dragged through a radioactive wilderness by robots, all claims on credibility and subtlety gone over its final reel as its makers hope that the sound of gunfire will deafen us to the failings of a script struggling to reach a satisfactory close.