AutomataReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/25/14 01:42:54
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: For the purposes of "Automata", filmmaker Gabe Ibáñez reduces Asimov's traditional three laws of robotics to two: Do not harm a living thing, and do not engage in self-modification. Most movies about rogue machines would concern themselves with the first, so it shows just what sort of movie Ibáñez is trying to make in focusing on the second.The ROC Pilgrim 7000 robots with those directives installed are ubiquitous in 2044, a generation after increased solar flare activity has drastically reduced the human population and crowded them into a few remaining cities, with walls trying to keep the encroaching desert out. Occasionally things go wrong, and when it does, insurance adjuster Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) works on behalf of the company to attempt to avoid a payout. In what is hopefully his last case before a transfer to a seaside district with his pregnant wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), he investigate the claims of a cop (Dylan McDermott) who claims that the unit he shot was repairing itself. He soon finds that something was up, and his search leads him to "clockmaker" Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith) - and areas his bosses from old friend Robert Bold (Rober Forster) on up would like kept quiet.
The themes explored in Automata - evolution, personhood, and the like - are potentially fairly heavy material, and Ibáñez treats them with the appropriate weight. The newly ungoverned machines are not suddenly more mature than their human progenitors, exploring their situation gradually and often having halting conversations on the subject rather than giving us straight lectures. That sort of philosophical intelligence isn't always reflected in in the moment-to-moment cogwork of the script - there are times when a walk through the desert seems to be happening in real time, with characters withholding information for no good reason and Rachel dragged along mostly because the film needs her around for the finale. That Ibáñez doesn't want his sci-fi movie to be men and robots shooting each other is admirable, but there are moments when they should be doing a bit more than they are.
It is a pleasure to watch Jacq unravel the mystery he's stuck with, though, in large part because it gives us a bit of a chance to explore his world. There's a bit of retro-futurism going on there, with many surprisingly analog devices in use despite having giant holograms on top of buildings and humanoid robots in nearly ever shot, although it's less an alternate history than having to make do with diminished manufacturing capacity, resources, and the lack of useful spectrum due to the increased solar radiation. It's the sort of dirty future we don't see as much as we did in the 1980s unless producers are trying to save budget, which isn't so much the case here - it's an elaborate vision of humanity on the way down and potentially out.
The implementation is in large part practical, too, with live-action robots actually interacting with the actors on-set with what seems like one exception, and that one having a different design that makes CGI necessary makes a lot of sense. There's an impressive amount of variation to them, and I like that there's not a lot of work done to give them human facial expressions, something that Ibáñez increases toward the end even as the audience is starting to empathize with them more.
The human cast is impressive, too. Banderas turns out to be a great choice as Jacq, symbolizing humanity's world-weariness as he makes his way through the story but also able to dig out little bits of hope and humor as the situation calls for it. It seems like it's been a while since he's had an English-language role this good. While he spends much of the movie in the company of robots, the movie supplies him with a very appealing group to play off, from a grimy Dylan McDermott to an upbeat Melanie Griffith. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Robert Forster are fine in their standard-issue roles, and there are smaller gems kicking around the movie as well.I suspect "Automata" won't get nearly the same sort of high profile many less intelligent but more expensive science fiction movies do, and that may be okay - it can be a little tricky to swallow at times. But if you like thoughtful science fiction with a bit of excitement underneath, this may well be a pleasant, well-made surprise.
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