(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.