At the brink of human destruction, with almost all of the Earth’s population killed by a massive increase in solar storms, one city remains. It’s humanity’s last gasp, complete with artificial cloud cover created and managed by the primitive Automata Pilgrim 7000 robots. Millions of them. All working to keep the last vestige of humanity alive.
In a nod to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the millions of robots in this dismal future world are ruled by two inalterable, built-in security protocols: Robots are prohibited from harming any form of life and Robots cannot alter themselves or any other robots. But what if they started modifying themselves anyway?
Automata is a dark and intriguing dystopic sci-fi film that’s just as much about Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) searching for his humanity as it is about the singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and acts upon it. With his stark Bulgarian post-industrial exteriors and harsh lighting, Spanish director Gabe Ibanez delivers a smart, original sci-fi thriller about evolution and the sunset of humankind on Earth.
As an insurance investigator for robot manufacturer ROC, Vaucan (Banderas) is at the forefront of humanity’s realization that the robots are becoming sentient. For humans, it took thousands of years of natural selection to evolve, but for robots, that could all be compressed into a few years or even a few months once they apply their mechanical expertise to the problem.
Offering a stark juxtaposition to his increasing fear about the rise of the automata, Jacq’s wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) is pregnant, poised to give birth to a child in as horrible a world as you can imagine. Dark, dirty, the world of Automata is a depressing mashup of Mad Max and Blade Runner, where ROC Corporation runs the show and people all live in concrete bunkers with flickering florescent lighting.
The most dangerous of the ROC executives is Vernon (Tim McInnery), the head of security. For the corporation, it’s all about profits, all about control, and the possibility that the robots they’ve unleashed on the world are becoming self-aware is irrelevant. They are machines and have no rights, garner no respect, and can be terminated at any moment without concern.
Unhinged alcoholic cop Wallace (Dylan McDermott) represents the dangerous chaos and control of The Establishment in the film, first denying then trying to prevent the evolutionary development of the robots. In a film that’s occasionally too meditative, Wallace brings a needed reminder of the dismal world within which the events transpire.
Also part of the cast is Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith), an entirely throwaway character who seems like she should be critical to the storyline as the person in charge of robot programming, but turns out to be completely forgettable. This could be from Griffith’s utterly lackluster performance: in some sense she is God in the film, the person who is directly involved with the coming singularity, with the robots learning to modify themselves even when security protocol two ostensibly prohibits that from occurring.
The more interesting female role was of the robot Cleo, who had an exaggerated bust and the smooth, featureless face of a Kabuki dancer. By the end of the film, however, she has ripped off this false mask and unveiled her true, robotic face. It’s feminism writ large in the robotic world and it’s a powerful step towards the independence and rise of the robots.
The pacing of Automata is a bit off at times and the beginning is a bit heavy-handed with the overlay titles, but give it time. This is an original and compelling indie sci-fi film that delivers a thoughtful exploration of the nature of humanity, evolution and robotics, in a manner far, far better than recent mainstream films like I, Robot and Lucy.