From Her and Ex Machina to Age Of Ultron via Chappie, cinema seems to have a preoccupation with robots and artificial intelligence of late. Directed by Gabe Ibanez, dusty sci-fi thriller Automata is the latest AI-themed movie to roll off the production line.
In the near future, an environmental catastrophe has left Earth a virtually uninhabitable shell where only a tiny percentage of humanity remains. A new type of robot, dubbed the Pilgrim, was created in the hope that it could stem the advancing deserts by building high city walls and erecting zeppelin-like artificial clouds – but to no avail.
Decades later, a kind of apocalyptic gloom seems to have settled over the human race, which is holed up in a walled city battered by desert sands. Robots are kept on as servants, yet they’re also treated with suspicion and contempt. There are rumours floating around that certain robots are attempted to contravene their programming and modify themselves – something insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) initially dismisses as a fantasy. But then Jacq, sent by his paymasters at robot-building company ROC to investigate a supposed self-modifying robot, sees some strange, uncannily human behaviour in the machines for himself. Are the robots somehow becoming conscious?
There are distinct shades of Isaac Asimov’s seminal novel I, Robot in Automata, with its future full of servile machines governed by pre-programmed laws. Ibanez, who co-writes as well as directs, riffs on those hard-SF ideas artfully, and convincingly depicts an uneasy symbiosis between human and machine. It helps that Automata’s robots are, for the most part, depicted with practical effects; we can feel the weight and potential strength in them, and the paranoid feeling that we never quite know what’s whirring away behind those round, unblinking eyes.
Automata seems equally influenced by the dirty, down-at-heel future of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and Ibanez uses real industrial locations (in Bulgaria) plus dashes of CGI to create a similarly oppressive future city. For the first hour, Automata effectively builds an air of intrigue as Jacq tries to find out what exactly those furtive robots are up to. The tension’s heightened further by the presence of a trigger-happy, robot-hating cop named Wallace (Dylan McDermott, almost unrecognisable behind a bramble patch of stubble and a huge pair of shades) and Robert Forster as a surly yet likeable superior at ROC.
The plot goes somewhat awry when Jacq is taken out of the city by a gynoid, Cleo, and winds up in the middle of the desert. New villains emerge, among them an assassin played by Tim McInnerny, and certain motivations begin to cloud over. At one point, characters are criss-crossing back and forth or being kidnapped for little discernible purpose, and Jacq falls under suspicion of treachery for reasons which don’t entirely convince.
While the thriller element doesn’t quite get going, Automata convinces as a speculative story about how artificial intelligence might emerge and what form it could take. This isn’t a reactionary one, either; there’s an implication throughout that artificial life may actually be a worthy successor to our own species.
Automata’s indie budget tells at times, but Ibanez wisely tips his funds into making his robots seem real. I like the way they tread the line between vulnerability and menace, unreadable blankness and pathos. Ibanez has an eye for simple yet striking images, the most memorable being a shanty town devoted to robots, where they lie around gloomily under makeshift roofs made from pallets and plastic sheeting.
Automata also features one of the most eclectic casts in a recent sci-fi film. Melanie Griffith shows up in a brief role as a robot repair expert (she was still married to Banderas at the time of filming, so maybe they did some kind of two-for-one deal), there’s a role for veteran David Ryall as a cold-hearted corporate type, and Javier Bardem even does a bit of voice acting work as one of the robots.
Visually arresting but often messy and over-familiar – Banderas plays yet another hard-drinking sci-fi protagonist – Automata is more a collection of interesting shots and ideas than a complete, satisfying film. Like one of its battered, tired-looking Pilgrims, Automata is imperfect and ungainly, but it’s also studded with occasional moments of intrigue and pathos.
Automata is out on VOD from the 27th April, and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on the 4th May.
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