Starring Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, Dylan McDermot, Robert Forster and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen
Directed by Gabe Ibáñez
From Green Moon and Millennium Entertainment
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
What began as a crusty Blade Runner clone quickly turned into a fascinating sci-fi experimentation before evaporating into the wind. Automata has no shortage of ups and downs, that’s for sure.
It opens in a neon-painted haze of cheap futurism. And there’s Dylan McDermott doing his best “Marlboro Man in space” impression. “This is not going to go well,” is the first thing I thought about Automata. But then the Gabe Ibáñez’s film started to grow on me, and then it impressed me. A lot. I can’t say that I stayed impressed, but that’s life at the movies.
I didn’t know anything about Automata walking into it, which is rare even for people who avoid the trailers. I went in so green to Automata’s charms that it took me a minute to recognize the star — “Holy shit, that’s Antonio Banderas!”
He plays Jacq Vaucan, an insurance agent for a big robotics manufacturer in the distant future, when boxy robots clunk around as maids, dishwashers, chefs and babysitters. These aren’t the sleek space-bots of other sci-fi films, but the slow-moving plastic robots coming out of Japan even today. The robots, called Pilgrims, are programmed with basic protocols: first, to not harm anyone, and secondly, to not attempt to alter itself or other robots. The first protocol is the catch-all, and the second is the insurance policy, because a robot can’t change the first rule due to the existence of the second.
For the most part, the protocols work, until strange things start happening: one robot is seen fixing itself, another sets itself on fire in an attempt to hide evidence, and a third, a sex robot, seems destined to start a robot revolution, which goes against both protocols, not to mention all of Isaac Asimov’s robot rules.
The early parts of the movie are infused with mystery and wonder — and minimalist low-fi special effects — while the characters propel forward seeking out answers in the techno-geek universe. Jacq and his robot counterparts fall a little flat, but the world is so intriguing it fills in the holes with its neo-apocalypse details: a giant robot-built wall separates the city from a nuclear wasteland, everyone wears Blade Runner-like plastic raincoats, holographic billboards use the skyscrapers as stripper poles, the gloomy fluorescent-blue lighting gives the world a headache-inducing sheen and the sky is filled with metal blimps, huge dirigibles tethered to the earth with clusters of metal pipes. Occasionally the blimps rain contaminated water down on the city and its plastic-wrapped residents. What does it all mean? I don’t know that Automata has all the answers, but it sure does look great.
The middle of the movie begins when Jacq and several robotos, including the hooker model (voiced by Banderas’ soon-to-be ex wife, Melanie Griffith), escape the city and start pulling a Lawrence of Arabia across the nuclear desert. And this is where the movie started to slip. The mystery and building dread abruptly stop as the human and his robotic buddies wander through the wasteland. I kept hoping their ultimate destination would be a worthy payoff, but it’s mostly just wandering to no end. After 30 minutes of this, it’s sad to look back at the beginning and recall how fresh and inventive it started. It could have been this year’s District 9, but then it floats away. Not that’s it a complete failure — it just had so much potential.
Still, though, sci-fi fans will find plenty to gaze at in this under-the-radar flick.