PLOT: In a post-apocalyptic future, robot “pilgrims” are used to carry out menial labor, with the constant fear that one day the robots will become self-aware and rise up against the limited human population. When a pilgrim is eliminated by a drug-addled cop (Dylan McDermott) a claims investigator (Antonio Banderas) from the robotics firm investigates and discovers there's far more to the pilgrims than meets the eye.
REVIEW: Every once in a while a movie like this comes along that totally takes you by surprise. Before the trailer popped about a month ago, no one had really heard a thing about AUTOMATA, and early trades articles would have never suggested it was anything other than a quickie sci-fi thriller made to cash-in on VOD and little else. The trailer suggested otherwise, and sure enough AUTOMATA is one of the most intriguing genre debuts in years, with director Gabe Ibáñez immediately establishing himself as a major new voice in sci-fi.
Despite a relatively tight budget, the world established here by Ibáñez is fully realized. In this future world, 99.9 percent of the world's population has been wiped out, with most of the world being reduced to a desert landscape. However, the chunk that's survived try to carry-on, with several, sparsely populated cities left behind, with the robot “pilgrims” initially being a kind of last resort – being used to do the dangerous, menial work humankind is no longer able to do. The future world is a nifty mix of old and new tech, with the pilgrims and fancy holographic TVs, but other things being antiquated, like old-school printers with the hole-punched paper.
Visually, the film is striking. The cinematography by Alejandro Martinez is amazing, with the expansive desert vistas and BLADE RUNNER-style cities. The music by Zacarias M. De la Riva is classy and sophisticated, giving this an almost art-house style vibe, although the movie itself is fairly commercially minded. It tackles some bold ideas, such as the evolution of artificial intelligence in a world where humans have no interest in evolving whatsoever, with them instead trying to cling to a life they can no longer sustain. However, all of this is put across in an accessible film-noir style, with plenty of action towards the end, and some interesting set pieces that keep the movie rolling along at a tight pace.
Antonio Banderas has tried noir a few times over the last couple of years with mixed results (THE BIG BANG) but other than THE SKIN I LIVE IN, AUTOMATA is his strongest part in about a decade. Looking cool with his shaved head and wearing clothes that bring to mind a kind of future-Philip Marlowe, Banderas gives an engaging performance, with his sympathies making a believable shift over the course of the film. Robert Forster also has a strong part as Banderas' supervisor, with his character also taking an unpredictable turn later-on, while Dylan McDermott is pretty badass as the drug-fuelled cop with a murderous loathing of the “pilgrims”. The only sour note is Melanie Griffith, who's very stiff and not especially convincing as a scientist involved with the pilgrims, although she fares very well as the voice of one of the main robots, Cleo.
AUTOMATA really is a gem just begging to be discovered by sci-fi fans, who'll likely be totally caught off-guard by just how effective it is. One thing's for sure, Ibáñez is one to watch. If he could pull off something like this on a low-budget, just imagine what he could do with a bigger canvas.
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