'Automata': San Sebastian Review

Automata Film Still - H 2014
Nu Image/Millennium Films

Automata Film Still - H 2014

A sci-fi thriller that rates high on ambition, low on execution

Futuristic nightmares about the troubled relationship between Antonio Banderas and a load of robots

The overwrought, uncontrolled sci-fi thriller Automata is a disappointing example of a film that lacks the imagination to follow persuasively through on its engaging initial premise. Featuring Antonio Banderas as a hero whose bravery in putting his name to the project as both producer and lead far outstrips any valor he displays in the film itself, this is one dystopian drama that goes up in flames about midway despite solid work initially and a lively sense of visuals.

Automata’s achievements are at the level of intention rather than execution: With this brave stab at a notoriously difficult genre, both Banderas and director Gabe Ibanez are to be praised for at least trying to take things outside the comfort zone on a restricted budget. The Banderas brand combined with curiosity about this distinctive, offbeat project should guarantee sales interest.

It is the year 2044, and if things indeed decline as rapidly over the next 30 years as Automata would have us believe, then we’ll be in a sorry state indeed. Information overload titles inform us that Earth is radioactive, that the global population is a mere 21 million, that there has been technical regression (a really interesting idea that the script doesn’t pursue) and that corporate-produced robots have been developed to protect us not only from radioactivity, but from ourselves. (2044 may be a little soon for all this, given that humanity has only just invented hand dryers that actually work.)

Insurance agent Vaucan (Banderas) is called in by an angry father after the family pooch has been killed by one of the robots, suggesting that a supposedly unalterable protocol inside the melon-headed droid has been breached (the film draws heavily on two of Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, with which Automata’s intended audience may already be familiar). Sensing that the corporation for which they work is facing big trouble, Vaucan’s boss, Bob (Robert Forster), tells him to sort it out.

Vaucan’s partner is the pregnant Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), which is about all we learn of her; Vaucan wants to escape with Rachel to the sea, which at times of crisis appears to him in little flashes. Vaucan goes in search of the truth, making dangerous forays beyond the city limits and encountering Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith, reciting hi-tech explanations), who is working with a rather cute self-repairing robot called Chloe. Chloe is the film’s main female character, and she’s a lot of fun: if only the script had spent as much time on making its people as believable — and in a couple of cases, as likeable — as the newly self-aware, soft-voiced bots who have escaped their control.

Visually, Automata is solidly and sometimes spectacularly conceived, at least until its final stretch — though offering little new in its abandoned, rainy cityscape aesthetic — and the notion that technology has apparently regressed to the 1980s is wittily rendered. (Indeed, this is a self-consciously Blade Runner-ish world.) Automata knows it’s a B-movie, but even B-movies need some sort of control if they aren’t to become simply Bad Movies, and it's fantasies especially that need to be credible. Several decent if well-worn themes about the relationship between people and the artificial intelligences they create are touched on — but most of them are sci-fi staples, reducible to the question of who the automata of the title actually are here, the people or the robots.

On the characterization front, it’s automata by name, automata by nature. Only power-hungry, slightly paunchy middle-aged corporate types seem to have survived all the radioactivity, and they all look just as mean as they actually are, with the exception of Bold, who looks mean but is actually OK. That leaves the entire weight of the film's human interest to fall on Banderas’ shoulders, and though he makes a valiant, committed stab at it as the chiseled, brooding Vaucan, and succeeds in delivering sometimes undeliverable lines to robots whilst only occasionally sounding risible, the script is beyond his powers of redemption.

Zacarias M. de la Riva's score is fine but overused. The last half-hour of the film has Vaucan being dragged through a radioactive wilderness by robots, all claims to credibility and subtlety lost over its final reel as its makers hope that the sound of gunfire will deafen us to the failings of a script struggling to reach a satisfactory close. 

Production companies: Nu Boyana, Green Moon Espana
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Brigitte Sorensen, Dylan McDermott, Robert Foster, Tim Mcinnerny, Melanie Griffith
Director: Gabe Ibanez
Screenwriters: Gabe Ibanez, Igor Legarreta Gómez, Javier Sanchez Donate
Producers: Danny Lerner, Les Weldon, Antonio Banderas, Sandra Hermida
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Emanuel Nunez, Boaz Davidson
Director of photography: Alejandro Martinez Production designer: Patrick Salvador
Costume designer: Armaveni Stoyanova
Editor: Sergio Rozas
Composer: Zacarias M. de la Riva
Casting director: Kate Dowd
Sales: Millennium Films

No rating, 110 minutes