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rochefort [Celluloid 09.29.14] post apocalyptic scifi action thriller

Whether you know it or not, you’re probably familiar with the Singularity. If you've seen “2001”, “Blade Runner”, “The Terminator”, “The Matrix”, “I Robot”, “Transcendence” or any number of sci-fi films in which robots and/or computers advance beyond (and often turn against) their masters, then you’ve been gradually indoctrinated to the idea that one day our technology will become more sophisticated than us, and when that day comes we may find our spot at the top of the food chain in serious jeopardy. “Automata”, director Gabe Ibanez’s apocalyptic story of a dying earth and a rising robot consciousness, is the latest sci-fi film to tackle this hypothesis, and works really well as an example of just how palpable our anxieties about the Singularity have become.

In 2044, the earth has been so scorched by freak solar storms that the oceans have almost completely dried up, and humanity is losing its war against the increasingly harsher elements. Unable to stave off the planet’s rapid transformation into a decidedly less human-friendly place, we’ve at least managed to advance robotics enough to send metal workers into zones in which we can no longer survive. Antonio Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an employee of ROC Robotics and an insurance agent who specializes in debunking fraudulent claims. Apparently, even in the face of imminent extinction, some people will still try and make a quick buck by lying about their house robot’s safety parameters.

All ROC products are programmed with two quasi-Asimovian laws: the first prevents them from doing harm to any living creature, and the second prevents them from altering themselves or others, including making repairs or upgrades. Vaucan detects a “glitch” in a series of robots that culminates in one of them committing what appears very much like intentional suicide, and the more he investigates the more he realizes that he may be witnessing the first stage of humanity’s end. ROC wants to keep things quiet, so they send cleaners to kill Vaucan and anyone he’s questioned along the way, but before they can finish him off a small group of bots helps him escape to the outer territories. Vaucan knows he won’t last long in this irradiated wasteland, and his hunters are closing in, but the real danger may be in what he sees in his saviors’ work shed.

A smart movie hampered by some frustratingly inconsistent aesthetic choices, the biggest drawback in “Automata” is a bizarre parallel to the key theme, namely that humanity is doomed to be overshadowed by its automated creations. I’m referring to the performances, here.

Banderas is an extremely likable actor, and he’s quite good as Vaucan, playing the beleaguered protagonist as someone who probably used to be a happy fellow until he realized that things were never going to get better, and is now so beaten down that he can barely take any joy from the baby he and his wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) are expecting.

Melanie Griffith proves a strangely inspired choice for the role of Dr. Dupre, a robotics specialist who first notices when one of her robots Cleo (also voiced by Griffith) starts making self-repairs. Griffith, playing what could almost be an older version of the character she played in the cult hit “Cherry 2000”, is a strange sight to behold with her stretched, plastic surgery-enhanced features, but it suits the story eerily well, and she’s fairly convincing. But the majority of the cast is an ill fit for the material.

Robert Forster and Dylan McDermott are simply in the wrong movie, and can’t decide if they take things seriously or not. It doesn’t help that they get the script’s worst lines and don’t make much of an effort to sell them. The same can be said for many of the bit players, particularly the gun-toting heavies who follow Vaucan and the droids into the wasteland.

On the other hand, and I’m not sure if this is ironic, the robot characters are the high point of the film. Unlike the swan-like, butter-faced robots of “I, Robot” or the almost techno-magical androids of “Blade Runner” and the like, the machines here are pretty believable. They move slowly and methodically, and much of their interaction with Vaucan feels plausible.

Ibanez does a nice job of keeping the robot dialogue minimal and logical, and after a while they seem less like simple machines and more like advanced beings who prefer to communicate with humans as an adult would to a child. Most of the human beings in the story are terrified of what might happen if this band of rogue robots evolves even further, of course, and are willing to destroy them to keep that from happening. So much like in the better earthbound “Planet of the Apes” films, the tragic underdogs are the non-human characters, and by film’s end it’s clear who (or what) the filmmakers believe will eventually prevail.

In my opinion, “Automata” is a good but not great improvement on the safe and watered-down take on the Singularity we’ve seen in such Hollywood fare as “I, Robot” and “Transcendence”, but doesn’t rank as high, and doesn’t offer the same thrills as “Blade Runner” or Caradog James’ “The Machine”. But it does keep the cinematic conversation headed in the right direction.

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Frodo (8 years ago) Reply

Just a point that nobody seems to get about the replicants in Blade Runner - they're ORGANIC synthetic humans, not androids or cyborgs... the book has android animals and the like, but the replicants in the movie are definitely organisms... hence the more immediate ethical questions, as they're 'more human than human' ;)
Pity about this movie if the reviewer is correct, although I thought 'The Machine' was a clumsy narrative, as this one looks to be.
Oh, and don't forget the beautiful Animatrix stories of synthetic intelligence evolving... the two-part animation of how the Matrix came to be, from rebel butler robot to global domination, it's better than the two sequels combined...


Koolz (8 years ago) Reply

Japan has already created Life Like Robots with Doll like faces. That's nothing compared to what they do with Holograms now(Full Concerts with a singer being a hologram and turning into an IDOL.)
This movie sounds pretty good I'll check it out. Robots are further along then people know.

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