Automata does what countless robot-centric movies wish they could do; take a big bumbling ball of clichés and turn them into something decent. I can’t say fantastic, owing to the severity of said clichés, but I can say that I enjoyed everything about this film except for the plot and its devices. Although… plot constitutes the largest portion of any movie, doesn’t it? Oh dear, perhaps “decent” is too generous. Regardless, the issue with Automata’s grand scheme lies in its predictability; once you discover that the docile and obedient robots are strictly programmed not to hurt humans or self-alter, the remainder of the movie is guaranteed to focus on the fact that one or both of these rules have been broken. On the bright side, with expectations that low, anything Automata cranks out will seem all the better.
Since you can’t shoehorn in less-than-subtle reminders of humanity’s reliance on technology without a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, the state of the world in Automata is less than peachy. Set in 2044, the world has been scorched and irradiated by the sun, and humanity has been forced to rely upon the automatons – known as Pilgrims, or “clunkers” – produced by the ROC (Robotic Organic Century) robotics corporation. Originally intended to help humanity return to its former glory, the Pilgrims fell from grace promptly, earning them their less pleasant title. With Earth’s human populace reduced to 2.1 million, the best plan changed from rebuilding to preserving. Hidden behind walls meant to fend off the encroaching nuclear desert and overshadowed by artificial clouds that regularly spray rain acidic enough to warrant protective coats, the human race is all but cooked.
Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) is a ROC insurance agent, tasked with ensuring Pilgrim functionality and compliance with their two big rules: No hurting, no self-alteration. In no time at all, a ROC enforcer by the name of Sean Wallace (Dylan McDermott) encounters a Pilgrim repairing itself in a subway station and shoots it in the head. A little investigation into the matter reveals a plot to usher in a new generation of sentient machines, though ROC quickly assumes the villain’s mantle and tries to crush the robotic revolution. Gotta keep that bottom line strong, and you can’t do that if you can’t charge for repairs! I’d tell you that Jacq winds up in the crossfire, and that his pregnant wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) portrays a one-dimensional hostage, but the clichés are about as sentient as the Pilgrims at this point.
I found Antonio Banderas’s acting to be over the top, even creeping into awkward territory at points, though I can’t imagine it was easy to keep a straight face while having a dramatic conversation with a life-sized remote-controlled puppet. Especially one with funky plastic nipples who moans in ecstasy while dancing. I- I couldn’t make that up, but you’d definitely need to see it to believe it. No amount of cheesy acting could prepare one for the very cheesy feel-good ending, however, and don’t feel obligated to stick around when Vaucan has his final flashback of some kid playing on the seashore. Seriously, they don’t even explain that. Is that him? Did he lose a kid? What’s with the turtle…?
Jonathan Holland of the HollywoodReporter believes Automata to be appropriately titled in that it proceeds mechanically. That’s to be expected when the most creative aspect of the film is the little air-breathing pill bug that constitutes the revolutionary “next-gen” Pilgrim line, and when your antagonistic force consists of a bunch of nameless corporate goons. As I said before, predictability is what made this film fall short of its ambition. Read more of the Hollywood Reporter take here, if you’re interested.