Automata is an extremely good looking film, it has a grainy, gritty sci-fi look that is reminiscent of District 9 with nods to Blade Runner, although the dusty desert scenes and girly robots do also bring Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to mind.
Visually, the director has done an awful lot with very little, and although the film toploads its special effects somewhat with some stunning cityscapes that give way to somewhat more bland desert scenes it is stylish throughout. Like District 9, Automata was made on a limited budget but it includes solid graphics and a sense of style that puts other high-budget, blander sci-fi to shame. The robots look great (if a bit ‘I Robot’ inspired), even the sex robot, although putting a wig and big plastic arse on an industrial robot doesn’t really make her an attractive prospect surely, unless she mainly caters to Apple fetishists. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sex robots but she looks you’d have to be extremely careful not to press the wrong button when inserting appendage A into socket B.
Unfortunately the story and acting are diabolical, with some absurd dialogue and delivery that caused me to burst out laughing – for example when the tough-guy cop (Dylan McDermott) is told that a sex robot will get him off better than his wife he shouts ‘I DON’T HAVE A WIFE ANYMORE!’ before throwing a tantrum. I mean, it’s not like his recent lack of a wife is discussed at any point: he didn’t just lose his wife outside of the building a few minutes before entering, nor has he previously mentioned losing his wife to some tragedy. The issue of a missing wife will not be raised again in the film. He just comes across as a guy who is extremely sensitive about no longer having a wife for some reason. This sort of character development is pretty typical of the film, for example Antonio Banderas is apparently primarily motivated by his memory of playing with a mysterious turtle as a child.
Mr. Banderas plays downtrodden robo-insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan. He can’t take the job anymore. We know this because he clearly tells his boss that he can’t take the job anymore – it’s a film where most characters just state clearly exactly what they are doing and thinking as if they are trying to describe the scene for the visually impaired. I’m not sure where Banderas has been recently but here he has reinvented himself as a hunched, shaven-headed, gritty sort of guy and he looks great – his weatherbeaten and creased face adds to the visual maturity of the film, he looks like Clive Owen recovering from quite a bad beating, or if Michael Stipe forgot to have a bath for a year. But as soon as there is any sort of talking involved the whole thing collapses into absurdity, any gravitas he may appear to have collapses as he mumbles, hops, shouts or cries almost at random. Melanie Griffith is even worse, to the extent that her scenes seem like they are a surreal joke that I just don’t get – she is less convincing as a doctor than the wig-wearing crushing machine is as a sex robot (actually she voices the sex robot too and she is fine in that role). She doesn’t even hold a glass of whisky or sit on a chair convincingly, it’s disconcerting to watch. At some point the director has to be to blame – Gabe Ibáñez has a visual effects background but here he also writes and directs. Clearly someone should be noticing when the actors are delivering their lines wrong, or that the dialogue doesn’t make sense. He really needs to get a script and performances from actors that are on a par with his beautiful visuals.
I gather that there is some criticism of Automata for having a few too many similarities to Blade Runner – this is no great crime in my book (and actually it reminded me more of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). If anything I think there should be more films that emulate Blade Runner’s fantastic sleazy cityscapes or include themes like human obsolescence or artifical intelligence. The greater crime is that Automata covers these themes with as much sensitivity and insight as a first year media studies student’s hastily written homework. The most poignant dialogue seems to be paraphrased from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: ‘Life will find a way’. The technological singularity – the unknown fallout of artifical intelligence surpassing human intelligence, and a potential extinction event as described by Professor Stephen Hawking – is a fascinating concept, but here it seems to be represented by some robots making a robot cockroach baby. For a better representation it is worth watching the TV series Person of Interest.
Tim McInnerny is terribly miscast as a shotgun wielding assassin – leading a crew of similarly miscast assassins who look like they have been recruited from the accountancy department of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace hospital. The only thing more absurd than this group of assassins is Jacq’s plan to deal with them by running them over, despite the fact that they are holding his wife and child as human shields. He speeds towards his family, apparently just hoping that they will dive out of the way. Or perhaps that his new-born baby will be more resistant to the truck impact than the five guys shooting at him with their shotguns. An alternative cut of the film where the bad guys jump out of the way leaving Jacq to collide with his bemused wife before they shrug and shoot him would have been quite a fitting end to a car crash of a film.
There are too many plot inconsistencies to go into, but in the end I think the film works better if you watch it with the sound off and with this synopsis for the plot in your head: Antonio Banderas is having a midlife crisis brought on by his wife getting pregnant. He just wants to go to the beach and mess around with turtles. He runs off to the desert with a sex robot to eat chocolate and drink whisky and is super happy but his wife tracks him down so he tries to run her over. Just enjoy the visuals.