PLOT: When a burned-out insurance agent for a futuristic robotics corporation is assigned to investigate a broken protocol, large consequences loom for the fate of humanity.
REVIEW: Five years after making waves with his directorial debut HIERRO, Spanish writer/director Gabe Ibanez returns this year with AUTOMATA - a staggeringly intimate sophomore stint of poignant science fiction. Sure the film grows a bit ponderous in the final third - but with such capable and committed actors like Dylan McDermott, Melanie Griffith, Robert Forster and Javier Bardem (who lends voice-work) leading the charge...AUTOMATA creates a wonderfully realized, fully involved world - with its dustily desolate atmosphere and hallucinatory robotic cityscapes - that we can actually believe. And of course, none of this would be even remotely possible without the tortured, internalized turn of one Antonio Banderas - who not only co-produced the film - but dominates every damn frame of the film in a way that demands we recall what a brilliant fucking actor he is. So, if thought-provoking sci-fi thrillers regarding robotics and the future of humanity strike your interest - do yourself a solid and plug into AUTOMATA at once!
The flick commences with a spate of superimposed tidbits. Apparently, in the future world of AUTOMATA - Earth's population has dwindled to a mere 21 million humans, this as a result of untenable solar flares essentially cooking the planet's surface. The line of recourse? A race of manmade robots are in place to protect humans from not just the sun, but the deadly acid rain as well. They do so under two strict protocols. The first, robots cannot harm humans. The second, robots cannot alter themselves or other robots. They must remain inalterable. Enter Jacq Vaucan (is this a reference to Jaques Lacan?), a grizzled insurance agent for ROC - Robotics Organization Corporation - whose clearly burned the wick to the wax. He's hit the wall. Yet, his boss Robert Bold (Forster) tells him that, in order to get the desired transfer to the coast he so desperately wants - away from the filth-ridden city streets - Jacq must go investigate a violation of the second protocol. Robot tampering!
That's to say, the threat of robot uprising comes when humans can no longer program them. In AUTOMATA, the primary concern of automatons arises when they become too sentient, too intelligent (TERMINATOR style). So, Jacq is assigned to snoop around a robot that has transcended its own limitations. A robot that is becoming autodidactic. A robot growing a mind of its own, far superior than that of humans. If that sounds confusing, I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers, but also, the flick is quite experimental in its narrative - not so much plot heavy as it is ambient and immersive - so again, I urge you to check the flick out if you're at all interested in these sorts of issues. Along the way, we meet Wallace (McDermott), a hardened rival of Jack's who has his own nefarious motives, as well as Dr. Dupre (Griffith) a robot scientist who leads Jacq down his investigative path. There's also Jacq's pregnant wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), who nicely counterbalances Jacq's necessity for human contact amid all the robotic entrenchment.
What I dug most about AUTOMATA - apart from Banderas' doggedly disturbed performance - is the utterly imaginative world Ibanez has created. Like most good sci-fi films, there's a whole vernacular created here to specify, in great detail, a believably immersive atmosphere. Words and phrases like pilgrims (robots), bio-kernels (power sources) and the like instantly make for a specific environment we can actually invest in and adapt to. In terms of a visual and tonal template, think BLADERUNNER meets the DISTRICT 9 meets the ghost of I AM LEGEND - that sort of palpable despair amongst a ruinous multicultural ghetto - acrid desert-land by day, glowing cityscapes by night. For a flick made for only $15 million or so, the visual FX are quite an achievement. Look, I'm the quickest person to be taken out of a film by chintzy CG and cartoonish VFX, and I'm happy to say that was not at all the case with AUTOMATA. For the most part I bought the robots, I believed in the FX, and even when I didn't, the story and performances were good enough to cut it some slack. For instance, even in the third act, when one of the robots manages to concoct a bizarre robot-dog creature - the FX got a little shoddy - but because so much credit was already banked from the first hour...I was willing to overlook the deficiencies.
Moreover, this is a movie with hefty themes lurking in the background. Obvious climate concerns frame the entire plotline, as thin as it might be, with solar flares acting as the catastrophic culprit. Then we move to the equally frightening prospect of robotic sentience, which seems more and more an inevitability. But it's not just that machine will rise up, but that it will rise up to a level akin to humanity, surpass it, therefore find humanity obsolete, thereby terminating it. The terror here lies in the robots innate and growing ability to teach itself, yes, but also that we humans engineered them that way in the first place. We're complicit in our own inevitable obsolescence. That's the main point I took from AUTOMATA, certainly the most alarming one in the context of a horror site. Even better though is that the film isn't preachy in its message, like I said, the large themes loom in the fringes.
No question, if you're into sci-fi that challenges futuristic notions of man versus machine, check out AUTOMATA. Banderas thoroughly owns in a determined role out to do right by both his wife and unborn child, as well as his shady employers. But more than that, the wonderful world Ibanez has crafted on a modest budget for an FX driven film - replete with its own specific verbiage and distinct visual aesthetic - is what I'll remember the flick for. That and it's interesting take on socially relevant topics like climate change and the currently buzzed-about idea of singularity. That's not to say the film is faultless. Because of its limited resources and demanding VFX display, the film really sort of bogs down in the last third after an impressive first hour. The flick halts in both pace and setting, as we're basically confined to a desert wasteland in the final reel...counterpoint to the slick high-rises and stunning production design of the post-apocalyptic metropolis early on. And that aforementioned CG dog-robot-hybrid, yeah, not that impressive considering what preceded it. Still, because of the completely committed performances of Banderas, Forster, Griffith, McDermott (not to mention Bardem's voice), I was quick to forgive such issues. Check this shite out!