If you’ve seen I, Robot, then you should realise that this has echoes of Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, which are as follows:
“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
It is clear that the filmmakers had intended to adhere to these rules – however, modern intellectual property law being what it is, and what with I, Robot existing, they most likely couldn’t. So they have ably forged their own path; and Automata is a treat to behold nonetheless, for more than a couple of reasons.
Humanity in the future of Automata is restricted to walled-off cities following a particularly destructive solar flare that occurs some time in the near future. The robots of this world were built with the intended purpose of building artificial clouds to replenish the now-radioactive deserts that surround the last few cities, and to keep the shields up which protect the last 20 million people alive. It turns out that the robots aren’t really doing their jobs anymore, and acting strangely besides. Beginning with the execution of one self-servicing robot by Dylan McD’s rogue, sunglasses-at-night, robo-allergic Sean Wallace, Vaucan soon finds himself in the desert, ferried to an unknown destiny by a few sentient robots.
The film tackles such grandiose themes as free will and destiny, all done on a cheap budget and looking the part, to boot. The cityscapes clearly evoke Blade Runner, seemingly a prerequisite for dystopian sci-fi now. A telling production quirk of this film is the CGI-rendering of said cityscapes, but there’s a hands-on, prosthetic, tangible feel to the robots themselves, mostly brought to life with tangible effects. It’s a technique that brings you down to sand-level with these characters.
Whilst some of the plot twists and turns are far too abstract for the average viewer to really chomp down on, Banderas’ humane performance gives us the knife and fork we need – an expectant father who wants to escape the dust, grime, radiation and disease of his daily existence with his family. His desire to leave his job and seek the coast (whether there’s an ocean there or not is a big question mark in this film, leading to the bigger questions of faith and hope for humanity), or simply a better life for his family, is profound. Is that not what we all wish for? A quiet life for our loved ones outside of the big smoke with the same opportunity for work? It’ll definitely leave you thinking.
The problem with Automata is that it escapes from itself. The ideas at work are too abstract to relate to, the plot runs away with itself, and the viewer is left thinking ‘wait – are they asking me to agree with humanity’s extinction for the sake of a few holier-than-thou robots?’. Kudos, though, for a film with such a small budget to have such big ideas, and get halfway to bringing them home.
Automata is the perfect film for buffs of the genre, or those who like to engage with certain pseudo-intellectual debates with their slice of cinema. Unrelatable for the rest of us, were it not for Antonio Banderas’ earthy presence.
A far-too-brief Making Of where Dylan McDermott (still wearing his sunglasses from the shoot) legitimately compares the director to Luis Bunuel. The rest of it barely scratches the surface of the making of Automata, and how could it, in four minutes? Also accompanied by a solid interview with Antonio Banderas where he answers the question we were actually all asking – how did he get involved with this low-budget sci-fi curio?
Review by Daniel Woburn
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Automata is available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD now.