Skip to main content

The second protocol exists because we don't know what can be beyond the second protocol.

Automata
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Gabe Ibáñez’s assured sci-fi B-movie is an unashamed throwback. Heavily influenced by Blade Runner, it surrounds itself with sand rather than rain but is otherwise a similarly imagined world of holographic animations, old school sci-fi sound effects, and probing questions over the nature of consciousness. In the latter respect, it scores over the more recent I, Robot, although both movies rely heavily on Asimov’s laws of robotics (redefined here as protocols). Indeed, the first 40 minutes or so suggest this could be something special, a B picture rising above its limitations through sheer force of well-expressed ideas. It’s a shame, then, that Automata settles back into standard pursue-and-destroy plotting during the last half.


Ibáñez certainly makes the most of his $15m budget and cost-conscious Bulgarian shoot. This world is spartan and derivative, but precisely devised. So too, the robot designs are distinctive and memorable. There’s no money for the Apple-tech of I, Robot, but the use of physical animatronics lends welcome tangibility.


Antonio Banderas is Jacq Vallan, an insurance investigator for the ROC company (about as prestigious a job as Chris Pine’s compliance officer in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), manufacturer of robot helpers called Pilgrims. It’s 2044, and solar flares have devastated the Earth’s population to a miniscule 21 million; the robots are able to operate in the inhospitable, irradiated desert environment while the humans make do in fortified cities. Vallan is called upon to investigate an apparent case of robot self-modification, an act running strictly against their protocols; they are (familiarly) unable to harm humans, and also prevented from altering/improving themselves or others. As Vallan’s investigation proceeds, searching for the clocksmith (one who upgrades robots on the black-market) responsible, so the ROC Corporation acts to bury the evidence.


Ibáñez and co-writers Igor Legarreta and Javier Sanchez Donate incorporate many familiar elements from the cinematic legacy of Philip K Dick. The modified sexbots suggest Blade Runner’s pleasure model replicants, even though these are decidedly rudimentary by comparison. Vallan, like Rick Deckard, is burnt out and wants to leave (perhaps in a nod to the studio-dictated 1982 release conclusion of Blade Runner, Vallan wants to escape to a mythic ocean of his childhood memories). Dylan McDermott’s dodgy cop Wallace is a vision of greedy ‘80s pestilence, slicked back hair and permanently-in-place shades. He wouldn’t look out of place in a Trancers sequel. His pet name for robots (“Clunkers”) is similar to the vernacular adopted in Blade Runner with its “skin jobs”. There is even a cylinder of boiling eggs, although no one puts their hand in it.


There’s also an elegant score from Zacarias M de la Riva, underlying that the picture is aiming to be as much of a thought piece as it is a revel in dystopian gloom. Then there’s the duplicitous company, a futuristic mainstay from Alien onwards. More recent still, the mass garbage dump outside the city, where trespassers are shot on sight, recalls the singular (as in one-note) vision of Neill Blomkamp.


Automata’s best plot element relates to the conundrum of how these robots could be modified to the point where they can achieve self-actualisation. This is beyond the abilities of the best clocksmith; amending the robots protocols is memorably expressed as trying to hold a soap bubble in one’s pocket. The backstory, when it comes, offers the kind of tantalising intrigue the picture loses as it progresses.


The first created Pilgrim wasn’t bound by the limitations of the protocols, and its understanding progressed exponentially beyond that of humans; after nine days, “we stopped being able to understand it”. Why that robot then (in the eight days previous?) obediently put in place the protocols for all that came after is unclear, as is why/how it was allowed to wander off on its own into the desert (unless this is another robot imbued with understanding; if so, Ibáñez and co have not made themselves clear). Nevertheless, it’s an arresting idea that travels if isn’t poked at too closely.


One thing the manhunt of the second half allows is exploration of the robot consciousness. Sure, the Clunkers are given some clunky lines (“To die you have to be alive first” Clara “sarcastically” parrots back at Vallan when he expresses concern for the robots’ safety; earlier he used the same sentence to disparage her) but their implacability is winning. They refuse to take Vallan back to the city (“If we go back to the city we will die”, they repeat as a mantra), but do their best to uphold the first protocol by feeding him bugs and manufacturing a water condenser.


If Vallan’s transit from disinclination to care isn’t entirely convincing, mainly because we never really believe he holds the robots in callous disregard in the first place, Ibáñez wholly succeeds in creating empathy for his automatons. From the first scene, where one shields its face before Wallace blows it away, it’s evident whose side he’s on. This continues with a robot self-immolating, several cruel instances of robot massacres, and the crescendo of protests that accompany Wallace threatening Vallan (“Stop sir, you are putting a human life in danger”).


Unfortunately, this all leads towards a rather clumsy speech in which the original robot (if that is who he is intended to be) considers the passing of humanity on a cosmic scale, and the continuance of the robot race (“Surviving is not relevant. Living is” it replies when Vallan notes the Pilgrims were supposed to help humanity survive). The problem with the reveal of the original is that this robot with a brain the size of a planet can’t possibly impress us accordingly (even if it isn’t the original, it’s surely been out in the desert longer than the nine days it took that robot to advance beyond the point where humans could understand it; maybe it’s having to dumb itself down to chat to Vallan?) On the other hand, reformatting automaton kind into the form of the most attuned survivor, the cockroach, is a neat touch.


Ibáñez is unable to create the ambient coherence of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, but he includes the occasional notable element. The child assassins who turn up at the door of Melanie Griffith’s clocksmith are a suitably sick touch. The subplot involving Vallan’s wife is a damp squib, though, and bringing her out to the desert seems like a really desperate plot choice. It doesn’t help that Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is rather annoying (I found her to be so in Borgen too, so it’s probably just me).


The supporting cast are suitably B-reliable. McDermott has fun being a bit of a dick. Robert Forster is dependably grizzled, while Griffith looks so surgically modified she might be an automaton herself. Her vocalising of Cleo is beautifully modulated, however (Javier Bardem also provides a robot voice). There’s a Brit contingent here too, with Andrew Tiernan, a mystifyingly underused Geraldine Somerville (did all her scenes end up on the cutting room floor?) and a tiresomely and rather OTT-motivated Tim McInnery. Banderas is solid enough, spending much of his time acting against robots, but he’s a more engaging actor when he’s allowed to express a bit of brio.


Automata isn’t anything special, then, and it drags once its plot decelerates into formulaic bad guys chasing the good guys/bots, but it’s a reasonably engaging and undemanding B-movie. Ibáñez knows how to create a milieu, and if this is a Hollywood calling card it won’t be long before he’s playing with the big guns. They just shouldn’t let him write his own scripts, though; he may have more ideas than a Blomkamp or a Paul W Anderson, but as yet he’s unable to pull his material together into something satisfying.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.