Just by virtue of being a smaller, lesser-known project with a scrappy underdog mentality, Automata has an instant advantage over similar sci-fi dystopias of recent memory like Elysium, the Dredd remake, Oblivion and the godawful In Time. The comparison to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and his earlier District 9 is especially unavoidable, as the world-building employed here is every bit as important and every bit as impressive. This is a distinct Earth that’s very unlike our own, but it doesn’t take a second to get used to.
The credits sequence says it all, really: our ecosystem has crumbled and our atmosphere has become unbearable, and so the future humankind invents a whole host of technological solutions: mechanical “clouds” that produce fake rain and shield our planet, massive walls that keep the desert from encroaching upon our cities, and most importantly a vast array of “automata” – robot slaves who weld our machines, cook our food, wash our dishes and wipe our asses when we get old. The credits sequence already pulls a 180 on us, though, by depicting this future as the past. By the time the events of Automata take place, humankind is jaded to the wonders of these technological advances, and the automata themselves seem to have become a bit jaded too.
Antonio Banderas plays our protagonist “Jack”, spelled “Jacq” simply because it’s the future. Jacq is an insurance investigator specializing in cases involving the robotic automata, and a particularly intriguing case reaches his desk one day: an automata seems to have violated one of the two “protocols” installed in each robot, designed to keep humans safe. This causes Jacq to question the morality of the human-automata relationship and ultimately assist a handful of robots who have rejected their constricting protocols.
If this reeks of Isaac Asimov, that’s probably because…well, because it absolutely reeks of Isaac Asimov. The infodump at the beginning of the film explaining the protocols is so unoriginal that I had to check to make sure I didn’t pop in I, Robot by mistake. Automata succumbs to nearly all of the other genre clichés too, including the standard reflection on machine life (“you can’t die unless you are alive“) and the good ol’ fashioned ape-to-man analogy. But the overall design aesthetic is great, and the times when Automata resists the temptation to dip into those clichés are pretty great too. The world that these characters inhabit is beautifully crafted.
Banderas’s Jacq is an uneven character, though, and that’s still a lot more than one could say for his supporting cast. Jacq doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d be the force for morality in an immoral world, and the first time he protects a robot by killing a human is jarring in an eyebrow-raising sort of way (although his method of murder is completely badass, almost enough so that it renders the implausibility moot). Banderas is acting at a level way above what the character demands, and the writing simply isn’t enough to hold up his performance. Though he puts in a more than valiant effort, Jacq is just pretty flat. Everyone else is a cardboard cutout.
Automata is by far the biggest directorial effort of Gabe Ibáñez, and the visuals are impressive enough to warrant a hope that he’ll be back soon with another feature film. And no offense, Mr. Ibáñez, but I’m happy to throw my name in the ring for a Writer credit.