A mid-budget science-fiction effort that borrows so freely from so many other genre favorites, “Automata” barely has an original piece of circuitry in its mainframe. In fact, this writer could have taken the easy way out and simply filled this review with the slew of motion picture and literary titles the film draws its many “inspirations” from and called it a day.
Yet at the same time, it’s hard not to give a backhanded compliment to Gabe Ibanez, who used to be an animator before venturing into directing live-action genre fare, since he doesn’t let his second feature dive too far into shameless schlock territory. He manages to execute the technically and philosophically ambitious screenplay with at least a small degree of credibility.
When it comes to seeking halfway decent examples of hard science-fiction in film, the kind that don’t awkwardly dilute the ingredients of the genre with slapdash attempts at action, martial arts or even romance, hard-core fans usually find themselves in a “Beggars can’t be choosers” type of situation.
Despite all of its obvious shortcomings, and even though it cannot resist the allure of the minimum allotment of badass action sequences via a brief car chase, and a quick Western shootout during the third act, “Automata”sticks to one of the main tenets of hard sci-fi, exploring the complexities of the human soul through the metaphor of advanced technology.
The opening expository text doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence right off the bat, as it exploits clichés from two separate tired science-fiction subjects: post-apocalypse and artificial intelligence. We’re informed that, due to solar storms, 99.7% of the human population was destroyed, leaving a need for robots called Pilgrims to help humans rebuild civilization. It’s like someone copy-pasted Ben Kingsley’s narration from the beginning of “A.I.” and ripped all the emotion out of it.
In order to protect humans, Pilgrims are hard-coded with two security protocols (one more and you get a free Asimov reference), they can’t harm human beings, and they can’t replicate or repair themselves. The final text informs us in bold letters that these protocols are inalterable, leading the audience to begin their timer to bet on how far into the first act they will suddenly become, gasp, altered.
Inside one of the small number of cities on Earth that are protected from the deadly rays of the sun, but not from a production design that’s a blatant rip-off of “Blade Runner,” lives bitter insurance agent Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), who’s in charge of making sure Pilgrims operate the way they’re supposed to. While investigating a mysterious case involving an alcoholic cop (Dylan McDermott, not Dermot Mulroney) who destroyed a Pilgrim he swears was fixing itself, Vaucan is thrown into a dangerous plot where a possible breach of the second protocol might lead to the extinction of mankind.
As a doctor of artificial intelligence named Dupre (Melanie Griffith, an actress with three decades of experience who sounds like she’s cold reading her lines as a 17-year-old valley girl with no previous acting credits) explains to Jacq, if Pilgrims learn how to construct and fix their own kind, they can zip through the kind of evolution that took humans millions of years in a manner of weeks.
Aside from the obvious Asimov inspirations, I would be very surprised if the three credited screenwriters, Ibanez among them, never read the Philip K. Dick short story “Second Variety,” about simple machines that build an entire civilization for themselves within months of being given self-repair capabilities. The story itself was adapted into the underrated 1995 B-movie “Screamers.” In fact, considering some of the developments during the third act, “Automata” can almost be considered an unofficial prequel to “Second Variety”.
The many scenes dealing with the shortening gap between human and machine intelligence swing back and forth between intriguing and full-on movie parody from a ’90s episode of “The Simpsons.” A sequence between Jacq and a self-aware Pilgrim named Cleo (voiced by a dual-role Griffith, who should have stuck to voice work only) uses the mind-bogglingly clichéd line “If humans made me, what made humans?” without a hint of irony. It’s hard not to imagine this scene being watched by Bart Simpson after he sneaks into an R-Rated science-fiction movie hoping to see some boobs.
Yet, with all of its glaring faults, “Automata” has some shining moments, most of which come during the surprisingly emotional climax. Ibanez shows a lot of promise as a director, and with the right material, that hopefully steals a bit less from a warehouse full of better works, there’s no reason why he can’t bring something solid to the already barren hard sci-fi landscape next time around. [C]