Fast forward thirty years into the future where mankind is struggling to survive as the environment around them deteriorates, whilst technology thrives. The corporation at the helm of robotic intelligence, ROC, has set forth security protocols to ensure mankind maintains control over the android population. However, as ROC agent Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) investigates cases surrounding defective robots, he begins to uncover dark secrets behind these androids and their capabilities. The truth he uncovers is far more complex than the make or model of any machine.
Beguiling Futuristic Actioner
- Automata review by RS
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For the first 45 minutes it’s a dud. Another dystopian urban Blade Runner future, recalcitrant robots and a downbeat investigator. Roberto Rodriguez whispers his lines in such stilted English that you may well need subtitles to understand him. It’s all so depressing, turning what could be an exciting set-up into a world-weary plod.
Then suddenly there’s a game-changer and we’re into a wonderful new film. Baby-faced sexbot Cleo makes an evolutionary breakthrough, the visuals become stylish, there’s a finely-shot night-time car chase and the action moves to a beautifully-realised bleak desert called the ‘sandbox’, all underscored by an exciting percussive soundtrack. Just when you were beginning to give up on it, everything begins to fascinate. There’s even some potted philosophy on which to ponder. Example: ‘Surviving is not relevant. Living is.’
The best scene, which works on many levels, is where Roberto teaches Cleo to dance to ‘La Mer’ (great choice of music, again for several reasons) and accidentally triggers her sexual programming. The plot builds to a gripping Western-style climax with the baddies in greatcoats like Henry Fonda’s in Once Upon A Time In The West. In all, this is a film of two halves: an abysmal first half and a beguiling second half that leaves you wanting more.
Avoid the trailer, which (as usual these days) gives the whole plot away.
Automata is the type of sci-fi that makes you appreciate other science fiction movies. You see the rain soaked streets of a dirty metropolis and you’re reminded of how great the cinematography was for Blade Runner. You see the intricately detailed robots of this society and you’re reminded of how cool it was to see the wonders of Short Circuit or A.I. To give the film some credit, it does an exceptional job on its production of throwing stellar sci-fi elements together. They’ve been done before and far greater, but if your movie is going to steal it might as well steal from the best.
The world of Automata is a dystopian Earth where resources have been depleted, the solar radiation has increased, rivers have dried up, etc. Long story short, humanity has become dependent on robots on everything from building structures to washing dishes. Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) acts as an insurance agent for the main robot supplier, ROC. He inspects faulty or deficient robots that have either been illegally altered or just acting up. But he’s burnt out on the beat. Making a house call about a model that apparently killed a family dog, Jacq merely does a routine safety test with the robot and claim it was not it’s fault. He has bigger things on his mind right now such as a future in a better location for his wife and soon-to-be-born child. His desires for a better life are not shared by either his boss who wants him to be grateful or his wife who is too fearful to start over.
Focusing on work, Jacq discovers that certain maintenance robots have been stealing tools and bringing them to the filthy ghetto wastelands. Delving further into dark corners of the slums, he discovers that (surprise) a few of the robots are becoming sentient as opposed to being modified for theft. After such a shocking revelation, Jacq soon finds himself stranded in the desert with a collective group of robots who do not obey humans. The bots want freedom to live outside of human rule, the ROC corporation fears their newfound intelligence and, well, the film pretty much writes itself from there.
The better moments of Automata are the simple scenes of exploring the environment. Jacq frequently walks the gloomy streets of the city, passing by a graffiti-covered robot begging for money for his poor master. Every night he eats frozen dinners with his wife in an apartment with a giant, sexual hologram advert right next to his window. The divide between the lower and middle class is separated by a wall in which guards shoot any wandering individuals on site. Even the smaller details of this slightly advanced society are interesting as when Jacq’s wife views her child through a scanner that projects the fetus in a 3D hologram. Society must be pretty advanced if that technology not only exists, but is affordable enough to have in your home.
For all the effort that was put into the visuals, the script leaves much to be desired. The whole sentient robots plot is nothing new and just begins to go through the motions once we reach the second act. There are a few attempts to provide some deeper angles as the explanation for the robots is not given a definitive answer. When Jacq asks the first robot how he came to understand his new identity, the mechanical being simply replies that he is here the same way humans arrived. It may sound a little too esoteric for logically based beings, but the truth about his consciousness doesn’t matter anyway.
Automata is good looking science fiction trapped in a far too standard script. With all its somber tones and dark atmosphere, it’s a pain to see such a world wasted on substandard shootouts and a ho-hum detective arc. Credit should be given to Antonio Banderas who tries to put his best foot forward in a role which doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with. Interestingly enough, he’s at his best when he’s in the desert arguing with robots. A lesser actor would’ve made the repeated loud lines “I am human” too campy, but Banderas gives such simple bits of dialogue just the right amount of intensity. Just as with the visual effects, he too is struggling to do something more in a plot that offers little originality.