Automata opens 30 years from now when increased solar radiation has turned most of the Earth’s surface into a desert and extinguished 99 percent of the human race. Just under 22 million of us are still alive, in walled-off cities under mechanized clouds that block out the sun. Keeping those clouds afloat and doing numerous other menial or major tasks for us are the Pilgrims, a race of robots that represent humanity’s sole technological breakthrough in this bleak and exhausted future. The Pilgrims operate by two supposedly unbreakable protocols: do not harm any living things and do not do anything to alter themselves.
Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), an insurance agent for the company that manufactures the robots, comes across two odd cases in which the second protocol is broken: in the first, a cop (Dylan McDermott) saw a robot repairing itself before he shot it to pieces. In the second, Vaucan himself watched a robot commit suicide rather than risk interrogation for stealing equipment — including a nuclear battery — for purposes unknown. Jacq’s boss (Robert Forster) sends him to find out what these robots are up to, and how their actions may affect the future of humanity.
There are a lot of well-worn science fiction concepts at work in Automata — starting with the robot protocols, which are sort of a twist on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics — but unfortunately director and co-writer Gabe Ibanez cannot charge them up with any new life. This is a deadly dull film almost from its opening scene: even when you get past the exposition-heavy first half-hour, the pacing is terminally slow, and the plotting and characters all suffer from an unsettling passivity. The few interesting ideas that surface — how humans would live in a mostly empty world and whether the machines we build to help us would eventually abandon us — are not exactly new but not given any chance to develop either (see Her for a much better take on that second theme).
There are no clear motivations on display here; it’s implied that the robots are evolving beyond their programming, but the reasons for it are vague as is their ultimate agenda. The transformation of Vaucan’s employers from insurance company to criminal enterprise doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. When characters aren’t delivering repetitious diatribes about the second protocol and how it’s simply impossible to break, everything else about the movie and its dystopian setting is vague and half-formed and borderline incomprehensible.
Same goes for the people. Banderas does nothing for half the picture as he is dragged around the desert outside the city walls by a pack of renegade robots, delivering his dialogue either in a whisper or the occasional oddly-timed shout. McDermott and Forster don’t fare much better, with the former overacting ferociously as a permanently angry lawman and the latter just seeming confused over whether he’s a good guy or a villain (we’re still not sure). As Vaucan’s wife, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen totes her pregnant belly around their darkened apartment, conveniently giving birth just in time to become a pawn in the film’s endgame.
The robots themselves are impressive and even eerie, with a clever mix of animatronics and CG bringing them to life and giving them at least physical presence (it is however jarring to hear the voice of Melanie Griffith — who also has a brief human role — cooing out of one of them). But far too much of the rest of the film is swaddled in overbearing darkness or the monochromatic sheen of the desert. The constant rain, building-sized holograms and trash-strewn streets of the city will, of course, make you think of Blade Runner, just as almost every dystopian film of the past 30 years has, but even that film’s leisurely pace feels like a Paul Greengrass joint compared to the inertia of Automata.
Automata is out now in limited release and on VOD.