Chalk it up to worldwide economic and socio-political uncertainty or even global warming, but dystopian films—from the Divergent and Hunger Games series to The Giver and The Maze Runner—are having a moment. The latest entry in the genre is the sci-fi robot “thriller” Automata, directed and co-written by Spanish filmmaker Gabe Ibáñez and starring Antonio Banderas. Unfortunately, like some of the malfunctioning robots in the movie, Automata is a clunker.
Some 50 years in the future, the earth is a mess. Thanks to solar storms, much of the planet has turned into a radioactive desert, most of its population wiped out. Even the much-needed rain is toxic. To help humanity survive the hostile environment (as well as with general housekeeping duties), the ROC Corporation has developed Automata Pilgrim 7000 androids. Each robot is created with two security protocols that cannot be altered: first, the Automata can never harm a life, and secondly, the robot is prohibited from modifying itself or other machines.
Automata starts off as a run-of-the-mill whodunit—someone has been tweaking the Automata Pilgrim robots. In a curious choice for an opening sequence, Dylan McDermott portrays a jaded cop who encounters, then shoots, a robot in the middle of self-repair—looking much like a junkie in a dark alley. (Other allegories on humanity’s downfall abound in Ibáñez’s film; even the name “Pilgrim” has significance.) Given the initial setup, one would expect McDermott in a larger role, but he’s only a minor player. His character is almost unnecessary, a distraction that further muddles the plot.
Enter antihero Jacq Vaucan (Banderas), an ROC insurance claims adjuster. The world-weary Vaucan has frequent, recurring dreams—flashbacks to a happy boy frolicking at the beach. He wants a transfer out of the city, to the ocean, or what remains of it. His pregnant wife, Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), is reluctant to leave. Their lives are in stasis, in what compounds an already depressing existence.
It’s up to Vaucan to find the “Clocksmith” responsible for changing the robots’ protocols, and he asks scientist Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith) for help. Here’s where things spiral out of control—both for Vaucan and the audience. Let’s just say that while Griffith’s doctor doesn’t have much screen time, her robot Cleo does, complete with Griffith’s signature baby voice (other standard androids have sterile Siri voices). What also sets Cleo apart from other robots? Boobs and a wig.
Cleo is among the androids with artificial intelligence, allowing her to break the second protocol, but never the first—remember, only the humans kill. She leads Vaucan to safety, and to a group of rebel robots. The rogue machines are being hunted by ROC executives determined to retain control. The narrative dissolves into a jumble at the end, ridiculous and unintentionally campy with contrived twists and lame action sequences—and that’s before the introduction of a giant, attacking, robot-built mechanical bug/cockroach. It’s a nod to the creation cycle or perhaps even the survivability of the cockroach, but it’s still detritus.
Ibáñez aims for a noirish exploration of humanity’s bleak future and its evolution—in this case, devolution—and for the most part it works during the film’s first third. Through art direction by Kes Bonnet and production design by Patrick Salvador, Automata succeeds in showing how society and technology have regressed in spite of the creation of androids, from the city’s shroud in somber hues to the use of dot matrix printers and old cell phones. While he posits a number of good questions, Ibáñez attempts too much, hitting the audience with platitudes that have been rehashed in other films. Even the reveal of the Clocksmith’s identity is anticlimactic.
Banderas plays Vaucan as an appropriately brooding character, but it’s unclear whether the lack of chemistry with his wife is deliberate. Even after she and their newborn baby are forced by ROC to travel the desert to find Vaucan, the reunion is spark free, despite the heavenly choral music that swells in the background. While Banderas is a tad more playful with real-life ex-wife Griffith onscreen, she fails to convince as the expert who introduces Vaucan to the bigger, more complex issues behind the malfunctioning androids. The chemistry is, in fact, strongest between Vaucan and android Cleo. Mercifully though, the film doesn’t pursue that relationship—Automata is plenty convoluted enough. Besides, that angle’s been covered in Lars and the Real Girl and Her.
If only the audience were spared the rest of the rehash.
Director: Gabe Ibáñez
Writers: Gabe Ibáñez, Igor Legarreta and Javier Sánchez Donate
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Melanie Griffith, Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster
Release Date: In select theaters and on demand Oct. 10, 2014
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.