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April 27, 2015
Life’s tough for robots. They don’t have a good rep. Break one prime directive in one dystopian sci-fi world and suddenly everyone’s suspicious. The film world is a funny old beast too, it takes high concept sci-fi, bundles it up and turns it into a consumable action vehicle starring a recognisable star. With Antonio Banderas centre stage and a solid if familiar plot, somewhere in the intersection of those two statements, you can find director Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata.
In Automata’s world, increased solar storms have reduced the population of earth drastically, leaving much of the planet inhabitable. Engineered by the shadowy ROC Corporation, the Automata Pilgrim 7000s have been created to aid survival for human beings in the last remaining cities. Taking over household chores, palliative care, manual labour and construction of the mechanical clouds that keep the suns harsher effects at bay. In the intervening years they’ve become a necessity to the ailing society that employs them.
The ROC Corporation have instilled each Pilgrim 7000 unit with two protocols designed to keep them from laying down their brooms in protest / becoming axe wielding robotic menaces. The First Protocol prevents robots from harming any form of life. The Second Protocol prevents robots from altering itself or other robots. As pop-culture saturated viewers, we all know that the path to pliant robotic home-helpers rarely runs smoothly, and a recognisable narrative plays out in Automata.
Enter Jacq Vaucan (or Antonio Banderas to the initiated). He’s an insurance agent who inspects incidence of Pilgrim 7000 malfunction. He’s gotten a lead on something that suggests a spark of sentience in the subservient simulacra. One repairs itself, another kills a beloved family pet, while a third self-immolates while smuggling technology out of the city. We’re told only a highly advanced ‘clocksmith’ could alter the complicated quantum mathematics of a Pilgrim’s ‘bio-kernel’. In fact it’s never been done before. In the Ballardian Ballyhoo that follows, Banderas teams up with his former real-life wife Melanie Griffith (Dr Dupré) and later an altered pleasure unit, Cleo, to investigate.
Long science fiction story short Banderas ends up in the sandbox (the radioactive wastelands surrounding the city) with a trio of automata, pursued by some less than couth ROC corporation heavies. Compelled onwards by their need for self-preservation and their unwillingness to let an injured Vaucan die, the troop head to destinations unknown.
A pissed-off Banderas spends a lot of time fuming and blustering in a series of sub-par dusty desert soliloquies while the film cod philosophises about the nature of existence a little too explicitly. Blade Runner without the ambiguity, Automata borrows as much from Asimov as Philip K. Dick, and even ends up paraphrasing Jurassic Park with “Life always ends up finding its way”.
So far so derivative but Automata isn’t a bad version of what’s been done before, it just feels a little non-essential. Despite aiming high, it never significantly adds to an already over-subscribed genre. Many of these ideas have been knocking around in fiction quite openly since the 50s but, at least, Ibáñez’s world is a solid one, acutely realized and detailed to the last degree.
From the Automata themselves to the holographically enhanced city, you don’t doubt what’s on screen for a second. The characters occupy their time confidently and work through a script that, though told better elsewhere, still has an accomplished visual colloquialism and an oftentimes stunning aesthetic.
Automata is available on VOD from April 27th and on DVD/Blu-ray from May 4th