reviewed by Audy Elliott
– Banderas' Jacq Vaucan to robot
Philosophical, derivative, uneven, schlocky, hazy, slightly imaginative, imitative, cheap
The movie’s theme of life
Tension of classic v. futuristic ideological motif
Design and character of robots
Uneven technical visuals
Ill-fitted film depth and dimensions
Lack of professional presentation in production, casting, writing and overall theatrical polish
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
In a future where earth's ecosystem verges on collapse, manmade robots roam the city to protect dwindling human life. When a robot overrides a key protocol put in place to protect human life, ROC robotics insurance agent, Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), is assigned to locate the source of the manipulation and eliminate the threat. What he discovers leads him, ROC Robotics and the police into a battle with profound consequences for the future of humanity.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
This movie is director Gabe Ibanez’s, vision on the exploration of several separate theatrical science fiction subjects and how they intersect and the complexities caused by society’s over-reliance of machines to increase man’s life expectancy in a decaying world. First, life is a prevailing theme that presented in Automata. He is using life as a narrative tool, as a philosophical quandary, and as motivation for the movie's characters to become predetermined by their dependence of it in order to avoid their own mortality. Second, Ibanez tells his story by constructing it in an allegorical voice: the historical context of slavery and the different class systems naturally create an opinion on how his futuristic dystopia chooses to deal with it. Ibanez wants to explore this critique for not only dramatic purposes of slavery, but also study the causal reaction of history’s mistakes by way of robots as they are harbingers in this world’s futuristic uprising. Ibanez is selling his robots as if they are people. He asserts in his script that these robots can think, make independent decisions, and live a life where they are free from “slavery” and can “live” how they want without being chained against their enlightenment, in the form of built-in protocols, which override their absolute free will and serve as a failsafe due to humans' mistrust to empower a robot completely. The weight of the movie’s thesis comes from Ibanez exploring that very theme of life, and how it is applicable to the robots in this world. Also, life comes in the form of Vaucan’s pregnant wife (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) who is ready to have their child. As this is occurring, Vaucan, under orders from his boss to find the escaped robot, leaves her to handle the birth of their child without him. This gnaws at his conscience, and strengthens his resentment towards all robots. In the beginning, life is nearly extinct, as Ibanez’s script called for solar gamma rays to burn the earth's surface, decimating the human population, where the humans created the so called “Pilgrims” (servant robots) to go outside and cultivate for the survival of humans, with two commandments: 1) Preserve human life (which Vaucan will later regret) and 2) Do not modify themselves (good luck with them following that). Having failed to decertify the scorched earth, society no longer viewed the robots as saviors and decided to devalue the robots to perform service industry types of functions to a simple implication. The humans begin to harbor an anger, an expectant prejudice towards the robots since they are no longer purposeful and failed in the job they were created to do, and now a real motivation of the movie’s trappings developed through humans' inherent resentment towards the overrated robots in the most xenophobic way. This creates a haunting hatred that is evident seeing the first frame of Dylan McDermott’s greasy bearded crooked cop on the search for the same robot leader. He pulls his futuristic gun, squeezes the trigger without hesitation and blasts an unsuspecting look-alike robot, destroying it in a reckless brawny manner. This action strengthens the director’s choice that robots could possibly have life or should have life, creating the context that humans consider robots disposable and nothing more, when it’s obvious the movie wants you to feel differently.
Throughout the film, style and design lends itself like similar genre movies of classic architecture with a merging of futuristic voyeurism. The movie is built on rundown buildings, tattered roads, occupied by burnt out humans mired in unmitigated depreciation towards the future but the past stubbornly still lingers, remaining ever present. The city is rancid. It’s meant to be. It's marked with dangerous subterranean disgust that the director assimilates against classic, pristine almost angelic lighting to off-set the visuals from becoming too murky, too downtrodden. The city, like the philosophy of the movie, is representational of change, but not yet fully a metamorphosis. Change is treated more like a pause in the passage of time – the city itself, and like the movie, is having identity issues mirroring the robots and humans that inhabit it. This movie is reflected in the future, but doesn’t want to necessarily commit to changing from the past, conflicting in the struggle of relinquishing control to the robots even with the inevitability of it all coming quick. Old meets new. Old doesn’t passively relent to new, but old depends on new for its very existence or else face extinction. Ibanez creates and presents his robots in a well crafted, thoughtful manner. The robots are completely convincing and to a certain point, outside of Banderas' lead, the only other aspect of this movie that rates this plagiaristic movie passable by its limited originality. The robots have dimension: they carry feelings as best as robots can, but there is a real sympathy you attach yourself towards, as they are trying to move on with from their predicaments. One particular robot named Clio (a call girl robot used primarily for sexual deviant fetish acts for humans) finds Vaucan. She is representational of a woman whose robotic soul can be saved. It can be because she thinks she has one that needs saving to begin with. She is built with all the curves a woman of that ilk would or could have, plastered with a vast emptiness for a mask, rounded lips and perfect cheekbones. Her hair is cut bluntly, with lined bangs that hang where they are supposed to. She helps Banderas find his robot. She is equal parts threatening and non-threatening, but ultimately underutilized. She was potentially the most interesting element in the movie. Banderas finds her interesting and appealing but nothing more than an advanced toaster with sexy parts. He feigns fascination towards her but only in passing. In the trailer, Ibanez calls himself a visionary, but how can one be a visionary when most of this environment and set design was from other, better, more rewarding sci-fi films? For the most part, Ibanez’s world is one big Neill Blomkamp wet dream. The city, with China girl holograms outside of Banderas’ burnt out condominium window, blatantly scream Blade Runner, even down to the same type of Deckart trench coat Banderas’ Vaucan uncomfortably wears. There is imitation and then there is this. Also compounding the sloppy mess of the uneven special effects was the discrepancy of the authenticity of filmic depth between foreground and background. In order to create Ibanez’s futuristic pot stew, the foreground was shot live, with a cheap green screen in the background to give the illusion of a bigger world than there actually was. I understand the movie didn’t have an enormous budget, but the incongruities of the visual effects were offensively shoddy. The film was cloaked so badly in amateurism with its production, actors, sets and screenplay that it forced Banderas to stick out like a sore thumb. He was head and shoulders above the rest of the production it gave off the perception he possesses a greater acting stature than he really does. This isn’t Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but in this movie one would be hard pressed not to watch him in that light. You couldn’t help it since he was the producer that helped the film get made in the first place. Banderas, to his credit, was strong and viable enough that regardless of how audiences have seen him before, his characterization works in this film. He is not asked to do anything beyond what he brings to the table. Ibanez wants the bells and whistles of the world, the robots, and the theology of his world to entice you – but it’s really Banderas' natural charisma that earns your trust, not Ibanez’s cinema aspirations. Banderas harnesses a seriousness that makes you believe in the character, the situation, and how Vaucan will react given the unforeseen circumstance. He portrays a solemn and pensive lead. This is the most hardened I’ve seen his acting. He shaves his head, rarely looks anyone in the eye, and pushes forward with contempt, bravado, while remaining virtuous to the task at hand no matter how diluted the movie is.
Insightful dialogue and lines are delivered in a clunky manner that echoes the movements of the robots. Not only did Ibanez fail the direction of the film, he also failed at writing a compelling screenplay. He had a lot of promise and talent to work with: from the science to the humanistic allegory to the actual definition of “life” and how that can be applied to this world from his vantage point - but it was all wasted because he couldn’t get what was most important right - narrative structure. Case in point, in science fiction movies, the world plays just as big of a part in telling the gravity of the size and scope of that director or creator’s world. It’s what helps sell the narrative on how time is affected, and how it’s handled itself in being affected by that very same future. George Lucas’ Star Wars, in particular Episodes 4 through 6 treated his universe that exhibited a uniquely built characteristic in another galaxy; his world was light years beyond our time. What Lucas decided to do was not make things pristine, immaculate or even totalitarian like his THX 1138, he chose to depict a future that was for the most part, uneventful, ramshackled, or woefully rundown. He wanted the future to show just how awful the galaxy had become with a bunch of assholes in a ship for a planet running things – which was into intergalactic shithole, or the galaxy equivalent America's rust belt. Lucas’ world was singular in its presentation and had a built-in visual narrative that agreed to the kind of film he was making. Automata doesn’t do that. Outside of ripping off Blade Runner’s gotham sewer drain of electro-pop, jumping to the characters occupying in shanty’s outside of the city like a bad District 9, Ibanez is painting us a picture with other people’s brushes seen before with better tones and mediums. This isn’t influences afflicting this picture, because there is no homage being exercised. This film was drawn by a director that saw what he liked and figured to utilize it and put his robots and intellectual premise in it, hoping that audience’s would overlook the connection by being immersed in the awe of the robots he created. It would have been better had he paid homage to these films, but the movie gets stuck due to its lofty ambitions and self-reverence for not knowing how to ultimately borrow something from a far superior film and make it his own.
This scene, when viewed on its own without the context of the entirety of the movie, looks good but it’s really fool’s gold at the end of the day. Alone, this movie looks well crafted, and to an underwhelming extent it slightly is. When Ibanez puts the whole thing together that is when the amateurism and the director’s over ambitions disobey your trust. The scene encapsulates Vaucan as he finds himself in less than ideal circumstances, where rationality of the robots overcomes his irrationality in wanting to go back home as home is out of the question. Irony is at play here as it’s the very same protocols to protect the humans that is the very same dialog that could possibly kill Vaucan. Furthermore, you get a striking visual of Clio and what makes her fascinating and intriguing, almost trivializing the scene and Vaucan’s petulant reactions within the frame.
The best compliment I can give this movie outside of Banderas’ relatable performance, and the design and realism of the actual pilgrim robots, is the vast potential this movie embodies. Mostly derivative, and without a well founded bridge to merge a seamless schism of Ibanez’s ideas with compelling storytelling, Automata virtually fails on all levels. When viewed in snippets like the key scene or one of the trailers, this movie looks more than legitimate, hence why I had an interest to even review this movie; but framed as a whole, it clangs and clunks, like the downcast robots it follows as they traverse through a grueling thirty minute desert scene accompanied by a then already fed up Antonio Banderas. Afflicted with a choppy narrative, nonsensical ending, fundamental continuity issues and a weak cast highlighted by a cameo from Banderas with then wife, Melanie Griffith (playing a scientist out of all professions), this movie is recognizably silly and ultimately delusional in its attempts to be a game changer. As I finished watching this movie I found myself hoping for a third protocol: protect my eyes from ever having to watch this again.
1.5 out of 4