Decades into the future, an environmental catastrophe has turned earth into a decaying wasteland. A few wretched specimens of humanity survive by using a mix of old and new technologies. Everything is grimy and gritty. Oh, and there are robots. If this sounds like a story you’ve heard before, join the club. These are some of the most tired, weatherworn elements of dystopian sci-fi, a genre that has been ticking along for almost as long as the motion picture itself. But they are given an enchanting new lease on life in Automata, an ambitious film by fledgling Spanish director Gabe Ibàñez, which opens in the US in limited release and on-demand on Friday, October 10th. Don’t let the familiar images in the previews dissuade you: this is a richly atmospheric, lovingly detailed movie that is a must-see for any sci-fi fan.
Our story in Automata begins in 2044, several years after increased solar activity has turned large parts of the earth into desert and made many wireless devices useless. Humanity constructed a line of humanoid robots called the Pilgrims to try and stop the desertification, but they failed, and the robots have since descended into miserable household caretakers and menial laborers for their human masters. The robots are programmed to obey two protocols: 1) a robot cannot harm any form of life 2) a robot cannot alter itself or others, a setup that is almost identical to legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s "Three Laws of Robotics" (Ibàñez unabashedly cites Asimov as a major source of inspiration). The chief mystery concerns several robots that appear to have unauthorized modifications to their intelligence, and finding out who or what is behind it all falls upon a burned out robot insurance agent named Jacq Vacuan (a bald Antonio Banderas, giving one of his best performances in years). Violence and depravity ensue, and before long, Jacq finds himself in way over his head, as does the rest of humanity.
Dirtied, dented machines moving around with alternating grace and clumsiness
Automata gets so many things right, especially when it comes to world building. Ibàñez, who came up as a visual effects artist, decided early on to create his robots using practical effects — full-scale puppetry — rather than relying on CGI. The results are impressively authentic and appropriately eerie, with dirtied, dented machines moving around with alternating grace and clumsiness, clearly occupying the same physical reality as their dishevelled human counterparts. The use of practical effects also makes the haunting scenes in Automata that much more disturbing and iconic, and there are many. A quick, opening credits still shot of human laborers assembling the Pilgirms in a Foxconn-like factory is admittedly blunt, but also poignant. A robot beggar with a staticy voice caught on loop, pleading for money on behalf of its human owner, who lies curled up beside it in a darkened tunnel, is almost profound.
Automata doesn’t shy away from computer generated imagery, though: instead, computer art is laced subtly throughout the film in areas where it works especially well, such as in the holographic displays and controls for many of the machines. The combination of low and high technologies has been done before many times, but seeing a pager and fax machine being used alongside the holograms and advanced robots in Automata, unironically and without comment, is a comically nostalgic, oddly reassuring thing to behold. From acid rain coats to nuclear batteries, every prop in every scene seems to fit together perfectly, adding to our sense of complete immersion in a filthy, hopeless future.
If the props and scenery are the root of Automata’s success, it’s the cast that sells the rest of the film. Antonio Banderas, who has had a long career playing both a romantic strongman and a psychopath in various movies, downplays both aspects to become the ideal lead in Jacq, letting us feel all of his resignation, wonder, fear, and regret. Robert Forster, who received wide praise for his guest-starring role toward the end of Breaking Bad’s run, is also superbly cast as Jacq’s hapless boss. Dylan McDermott, who seems to relish taking on increasingly unsavory characters, gets to be more despicable than ever as a drug-addled corrupt cop. The fact that Melanie Griffith and Javier Bardem lend their voices as robots seems almost too good to be true, but there they are (Griffith also appears briefly as a black market, human mechanic).
The only problems in Automata emerge toward the end of the film, when the story leans too heavily on cliché. Even then, the use of stock sci-fi ingredients is not enough to sour the overall experience. The movie is at its best when it uses classic science fiction not as a strict rulebook but as a reference, leading us assuredly from the territory of Asimov and Mad Max into a whole new bizarre, yet identifiably human, world. Not since The Matrix, or perhaps even Blade Runner (which Automata also liberally references), has a dystopian world seemed so compelling in-and-of itself. Automata is the rare modern sci-fi movie that leaves a lasting impression long after the credits, in this case, a variation of Mark Twain: the future doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.