– Summary –
Director : Gabe Ibanez
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Antonio Banderas, Birgitte Hjort Soernsen, Melanie Griffiths, Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, David Ryall.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: Jacq Vaucan is an insurance agent of ROC robotics corporation who investigates cases of robots violating their primary protocols against harming humans. What he discovers will have profound consequences for the future of humanity.
What we think : A good idea ruined by an overabundance of imitatory visuals, story points and standardized sci-fi elements, Automata starts well, stumbles midway through, and shudders to a climax that’s as overwrought as the effects are good. Antonio Banderas looks lost, the robots are surgically devised yet compromised by decades of previous concept design, and the overall story just reeks of a cobbled corn-kernel of ideas from other, better films. If you like your sci-fi to stimulate your intellect, Automata might do it for you for a while, but in the end it’s just another also-ran.
Robots In Disguise
My favorite recent “robots living in a human world” movie of recent times would be Alex Proyas’ version of I Robot – a divisive film for fans, sure – because it represented a realistic, perhaps achievable attempt to capture what our world might look like in 20 or 40 years. Robot servants doing our menial chores, leaving us free to soak up all that spare time in debauchery and wanton disgrace. Well, that’s my plan, what’s yours? Automata, which appeared to be marketed along a similar tone to I Robot, looks rather melancholy, almost understated, even though Antonio Banderas isn’t Will Smith and the robots once more look like something Steve Jobs designed before he shuffled off this mortal coil. WTF is a “mortal coil” anyway? Some kind of cooking device? Ahem. Anytime filmmakers attempt to give audiences a thinking man’s sci-fi piece, it’s often fraught with danger; often, the thinking isn’t as well developed as the explosions, and this sub-genre of film has considerably more failures than successes. Bravo for people trying, though. So is Automata’s intelligent design worth the admission price? Or is this I Robot-like film something of a kitchen-sink venture of generic proportions?
Synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: In the future, solar flares make the earths surface radioactive, killing many people. People build robots, the Automatas, to help them rebuild in harsh environments. The robots have two unalterable protocols: the first obliges them to preserve human life; the second limits them from fixing themselves. Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) works as insurance claim checker for the company that makes the robots, ROC. One day he investigates a report from a cop Wallace (Dylan McDermott) who shot a robot claiming it was fixing itself and looked alive. The next day Vuacan follows a robot which was stealing parts, and when Jacq find it hiding outside the walls, it intentionally burns itself. He takes the burned robots brain core. Jacqs boss Robert (Robert Forster) tells him that there might be someone, a clockmaster, who somehow succeeded to alter the second protocol. After accompanying Wallace to a sex-robot, Vacuan ends up learning that some robots appear to be able to self-repair; he is taken into the desert by Cleo, the sex robot, and a group of others, and is pursued by agents of the ROC corporation.
Dystopian futurist films tend to make for a somewhat nihilistic view of humanity; ceding to our baser desires naturally leads us to inevitable destruction and, often, near extinction, which isn’t exactly heartwarming movie-making. Yet often these melancholy reflections on a civilization lost can draw focus on that which we need to bring attention to today. In Automata, it’s our reliance on machines for our salvation. In our quest for fast, better, more labor-saving devices, are we inadvertently moving down the path to our mutually assured redundancy? If robots can do everything for us, why do they even need us? This problematic overtone is one of the key tenets in Automata’s machine-based thematic narrative, as Antonio Banderas’ Jacq Vaucan investigates robots “breaking one of their laws”. Isaac Asimov always postulated the “three laws” conceit – a robot cannot harm a human nor allow a human to be harmed, a robot must obey all human instruction, and a robot must protect its own existence except at the expense of the first two rules – and for the largest time, those three rules held sci-fi robotics in good stead. Automata reduces Asimov’s idea down to two rules, and then throws that out the window as promptly as it can in the name of good storytelling. Automata isn’t great storytelling, but at least it’s trying to offer up something different…. maybe.
Automata ostensibly reeks of the genetic codes of other (mostly better) films. Part I Robot, part Blade Runner, part I Am Legend, Automata often struggles to rise above its own foundation as it searches for a unique voice. At one point, Jacq even says “…life finds a way”, a tenet I wish this film had taken more seriously during its writing process. It starts strongly, sets up a fairly interesting premise (and Banderas is solid as Vaucan), until it implodes under its own weight. The script’s derivative, meandering style drips with a wry wit, but cannot muster enough energy to overcome a deficit of distinction to thwart genre cliche. Indeed, the very premise of “two laws” of robotics is something most sci-fi fans would understand anyway, and while Automata’s more eloquent moments might transcend some of what we’ve seen before, in the end it becomes a slave to the genre and the history within. In trying to smarten up, Automata outsmarts itself. And you know you’re on a downward spiral when you’re quoting from Jurassic Park.
From a production standpoint, Automata at least looks the part. Dark and dingy, a smidge of District 9 and a slew of Blade Runner’s rain-swamped streets, even with a lower budget, the film manages to eke out a genuinely evocative locale for the story to unfold. Vaucan’s beach-side flash-forwards invoke Dark City’s “Shell Beach” tangent, and about the only thing of particular note on the design of the city is the constant holographic giant nude woman swaying about the skyline, which would (to me, anyway) be nothing but a distraction. Alejandro Martinez’ cinematography soaks the films in layers of shadows and darkness, occasionally brightened when Vuacan ventures into “the desert”, and the monotone, pallid, dreary aesthetic is certainly apropos for the state of civilization the film is set in. In keeping with the visuals, the story tends to list towards dreary as well, a hopeless, kill-or-be-killed survivalist drama that lacks the resonance or cohesion to convince or subvert.
Populated by weird characters, downtrodden policemen, a rough-riding boss and Vaucan’s heavily pregnant wife, Automata is your typical freakshow, and not in the nice, Luc Besson way either. Sweaty foreheads and moist metallic surfaces become the order of the day as Automata’s smooth-but-depressive visuals begin to wear one down. Banderas struggles to find a character within Vaucan, who seems to be some kind of cross between Harrison Ford’s Deckert and a block of wood – his acting lumbers on the screen, lacking fluidity and feeling more and more like he was blundering through the film not quite knowing what on earth he was supposed to be doing. Melanie Griffiths shows up with an unnaturally taut face, for a brief cameo as a technobabble expert, and Banderas’ on-screen wife, played by Birgitte Hjort Soernsen, is nothing more than “token pregnant demanding wife” for all her development. Name-checking Robert Forster, who continues to look like he’s carved from the same block of granite as Danny Trejo, and Tim McInnerny as a ROC lackey, as well as Dylan McDermott as a renegade cop, and you have a full roster of decent actors involved in a project that should have been a substantive level better. About the best part of this entire film is the emergence of the robotic Cleo (voiced by Melanie Griffiths in a dual role), who actually feels more like a real character than the human ones.
Automata has its share of problems, the main one being that it just can’t exceed its own genre limitations. The effects are generally superb for a low-budget B-movie, and the cast (while deserving better) do their best with a script that’s as ramshackle as it is unoriginal, and there’s certainly no deficit of style from director Gabe Ibanez’s choice of camera shots and use of editing. It really tries hard with what it has, but comes up too short to make anything more than a cursory impact at best. Anyone who’s ever seen Bicentennial Man, or even Elysium, or even Spielberg’s AI, will have seen most of this film before the opening credits even roll. Perhaps all the good ideas have already been taken.
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