Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Automata is an ambitious science fiction fable that tackles its lofty premise in occasionally affecting ways, opting for familiar tropes of the genre and a simplified, melodramatic romantic story instead of conceptually driven storytelling. The film produces an engrossing lead performance from Antonio Banderas in a role that asks him to be on the brink of death for much of the story, allowing his troubled soul to consider his personal life and just how much his family means to him. What allows for a promising emotional core turns into a derivative sci-fi tale with lofty themes: what if human beings have grown inhuman while robots have evolved into conscious, emotionally charged beings? It’s a semblance of a strong thematic pull that could’ve been told in an excitingly new way. Instead, it feels like a combination of blockbuster elements from films like I, Robot and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
The film centers on Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), an insurance agent of ROC, a robotics corporation that has prided itself on its advanced automatons. Thirty years into the future, solar flares have messed with the Earth’s atmosphere, killed 99.7% of the population, and humanity had to recuperate somehow. By developing these automations called Pilgrims, they put in two protocols that they must follow in order to sustain human life: they cannot harm human beings, and they cannot repair or replicate themselves. Sure enough, Jacq’s investigations lead to him finding robots getting past that second protocol, repairing themselves and resembling some form of consciousness. He also has a home life involving a pregnant wife, Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), who mostly exists as a love interest while Jacq fights for his life. Meanwhile, Wallace (Dylan McDermott) and other members of the robotics corporation hunt down Jacq on suspicion of him helping the robots bypass the protocols, fueling anti-robot rage.
There’s a certain technical capability to Ibañez’s direction, as he tackles an extraordinarily massive topic and attempts to produce it around a single individual on a modest budget. Emotionally, the film doesn’t tackle nearly as many powerful moments as it should, but there’s a scene that strikes me with its audacity and bluntness. Jacq discusses the future with a robot that has clearly developed an understanding of humanity, and the robots puts it eloquently: that humans are finite and robots can use their evolution to be infinite, all of which is thanks to humanity’s conception of robotics. That’s powerful. Visually, the film stuns and captivates because the effects feel seamless. The robots interact masterfully with humans and the story uses them to build interesting cinematography around the dichotomy between the two. Ultimately, though, the story relies on clichés and an overly familiar, rudimentary romance that simplifies the female’s role and makes her dispensable. Nonetheless, ambition is admirable and Automata uses its far-reaching premise to sporadically engaging results.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)