Can we all agree this ever growing science-fiction trope of technology evolving beyond human thought into other realms of understanding is a bit played out at this point? We have seen it done well in Spike Jonze‘s Her to poorly in Wally Pfister‘s Transcendence, and those are just from the past twelve months (and are not the only two to grapple with this issue). From Blade Runner to I, Robot, we have seen just about every way to tell this type of story, and until we find a new way, there should be a moratorium put on it, which brings me to the subject of this review: AutÃ³mata. This pushes itself as a thinking man’s thriller, and it is neither thought provoking or thrilling. It recycles the same points all of its predecessors bring up while lulling you to sleep.
The film takes place in 2044 A.C.E. The world has gone to waste, becoming an inhabitable radioactive desert, aside from a few cities here and there. The world population has been reduced to twenty-one million people. In order to help rebuild, the ROC Corporation developed robots, called the Automata Pilgrim 7000. Once rebuilding was complete, the robots took to jobs of maids and other service positions. These robots have been programmed with two unchangeable protocols. 1.) They are to prevent any kind of harm to life. 2.) They are not able to alter themselves or other robots. We have to let all of that resonate with us in the first ninety seconds as that is all in a text exposition dump, which is never a promising way to start out a film.
In comes Antonio Banderas, an insurance agent for ROC, going around from robot to robot, making sure they are all in working order. When he is given a case of a robot that has been shot by Dylan McDermott, who alleges that the robot was trying to repair itself, Banderas soon finds out that it is not the only one able to defy the second protocol. If you do not see where this is going, you need to watch a few more science-fiction films.
The one thing I can praise this film on is its use of practical effects. The robots are all mechanized and have weight in a scene. When characters are interacting with one, you can feel the back and forth. The design of the robots is not particularly inventive, but I applaud director Gabe IbÃ¡Ã±ez for choosing to keep it grounded. The same cannot be said for the design of the city, which is about as generic a dystopia you can get (complete with giant CGI projections of scantily clad women, wearing masks, dancing). It is dark, ugly, and uninspired.
Aside from the robots, everything about this film is so familiar. The corporations we think are the good guys are actually the bad guys. What?! The robots may be more human than the humans. What?! In a story about the continuation of life, the main character’s wife (Birgitte Hjort SÃ¸rensen) is about to give birth. What?! The movie falls back on every trope and every clichÃ© you can possibly muster up.
I will admit that for about the first thirty to forty-five minutes, I was mildly interested in where the film was going. Yes, it felt familiar, but it was not overwhelmingly terrible. Then, Antonio Banderas gets dragged off into the desert by some robots, and the film stops dead. We are subjected to scene after scene of Banderas screaming “I want to go back to the city!” with no sense of plot or character progression to be found. Just screaming, yelling, and complaining. We will occasionally cut back to the corporation, where an underutilized Robert Forster works, to get exposition on the truth behind the robots. Nothing is moving forward. The film is stuck in this slump for about half an hour and never can pick itself back up after that.
The film tries to inject thrilling elements, like a car chase or a shoot out, but it all feels tedious. Banderas being threatened by an always over-the-top McDermott doesn’t feel suspenseful. It just feels like a thing that would happen in this type of movie. The same can be said of most things that occur. The plot goes through the motions in order to expound upon the themes and ideas we already know so well, but the filmmakers think are new.
The big, profound line the film purports is “Life always finds a way.” Quite frankly, if that is the thesis of your film, I expect a whole lot more complexity in the way you are telling it, because that is about as simple as it gets. It is particularly irritating when multiple characters say that exact sentence out loud in revelatory moments. Banderas tries his best to sell it to us, but the material is incredibly thin. In a world where Blade Runner is easily available to watch, seeing a poorly rendered imitation is just boring. Despite a good performance from Banderas and good use of practical effects, the stuff that makes a film engaging are totally missing.