RogerBW's Blog

Automata 15 November 2014

2014, dir. Gabe Ibañez, Antonio Banderas, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen: IMDb / allmovie

After the vast majority of humanity has been killed by solar storms, robots keep the remainder alive in a small numer of cities. But some robots seem to be breaking their rules.

Not that they're Asimov's Three Rules, mind you. They're simpler: a robot may not harm any form of life, and a robot may not alter itself in any way, including self-repair. Those of us who have read Asimov will immediately spot the loopholes, but that's not what this film is going to be about. Ibañez has never seen a cliché that he doesn't like, especially if it was in Blade Runner; sure, protagonist Jacq Vaucan may be an insurance claims adjuster rather than a replicant hunter like Deckard, but a lot of the shots could still fit into that earlier film. There are Significant Turtles. Jacq's very pregnant wife (trope alert!) is even called Rachel.

So Jacq, whom we are never given any particular reason to like or support, takes an investigative tour through the seedy underbelly of Seedy Underbelly World and soon realises he's In Over His Head. Yes, of course there's a sexbot. I suppose it's meant to be a tale of attempted redemption out of a dark grey world, but why should I care whether Jacq achieves his redemption if I didn't think very much of him in the first place? Even if he is played by a shaven-headed Antonio Banderas?

The story might be an interesting one, but my goodness, it's so overloaded with boring stuff that we've seen so many times before that most of the individual scenes turn out to be both tedious and predictable, and often also clangingly Significant. (And at a flabby pace there's plenty of time for things to drag.) Probably the best is fairly early on when Melanie Griffith, as an illicit robot-repairwoman, explains to Jacq something he should really have known already about the need for the non-alteration protocol in order to keep humans relevant; but that's because Griffith is good enough to carry it off, not because the scriptwriters suddenly had a good day.

Ibañez and his two credited co-writers are obviously trying to tell a story about machine evolution and the future of intelligence, but they and their main character are so mired in the biochauvinist xenophobic mindset that they can never quite break away and accept the unavoidable consequence of the scenario they've set up. So we're stuck with the same old tedious tale of existential risk that we've seen in The Machine and Transcendence, because most of the time nobody involved is able to conceptualise that life is life, and thought is thought, whatever the physical substrate on which it occurs. Maybe that's an idea that you can accept, and maybe it isn't, but that's where the discussion should start; nobody here can even recognise that the concept exists at all until we've had the vast majority of the film and we're in the run-up to the final action sequence. I'd have been much more interested in a film about the robot underclass within human civilisation, rather than what we got.

Camerawork is a blend of generic and claustrophobic Blade Runner city shots and rather more interesting wider scenes in the radioactive desert outside. The soundtrack is gratuitously classical at times, and the music over the final seconds of the credits left me laughing (not in a good way). It's a perfect auditory capstone to the film, just as the perfect visual one is an early scene showing a robot that's committed suicide with "tears" leaking from its eyes as the smoke rises from its toasted brain.

If you've never previously thought about AI and existential risk to the human species, you may find something new here. Some reviewers are calling it "highbrow"; I fear that in the context of a mainstream audience they may be right. Otherwise, well, it's OK, I suppose; the grime is pretty, but I can't really recommend it for more than atmosphere.

Two separate people are credited for "product placement: Power Horse" (an energy drink, apparently; I didn't notice). And even in a world full of acidic rain and baking sun, nobody ever wears a hat.

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