by Niall McArdle
There may well come a time when the dominant life-form on the planet is not carbon-based, but silicon-based. It is a possibility that philosophers and scientists say could follow the Singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and takes on all the aspects of consciousness and identity that we hold is the preserve of humanity. It is a rich source for science-fiction storytellers, and it has been mined again and again, and at this point there doesn’t seem to be anything new to say on the topic. We have had robot slave uprisings, robots in philosophical search of their maker, robots sent back in time to ensure their victory in a future war, and a computer with a self-conscious OS, which outgrows its owner.
Automata attempts to carry the idea of the Singularity to its logical conclusion: robots deserting their makers and creating robots of their own. Parts of it are interesting and original, and it has a central performance by Antonio Banderas that is filled with sadness and confusion and just the right level of hamminess for this sort of thing, but it is hampered by an unoriginal plot and an unevenness of tone, and it borrows from so many genres I am not sure if it knows what sort of film it wants to be.
Set in 2044 after solar flares have irradiated most of the planet, reducing the population to mere millions, at times this dystopian future looks like a cheap knock-off of Blade Runner, with a grim cityscape and acid rain falling out of the poisoned air, but most of the technology looks like it’s from now, or even earlier, so although robots and holograms are ubiquitous, there are no flying cars or teleportation devices (actually, more than anything it resembles the glum future as seen from the standpoint of the mid-1980s of Max Headroom.) There is a clunkiness to the robots (they’re even nicknamed clunkers) instead of the smooth and sexless mannequins that we usually see in sci-fi, and Banderas lives in an ugly apartment with a hideous view. No wonder he dreams of the ocean – is it a dream or a memory? – and he desperately wants to take his wife and unborn child to the coast.
Banderas is an insurance investigator for the corporation that makes the robots (originally designed to be used to build the mechanical clouds that protect people from solar radiation.) The machines are used as domestics and also as construction crew on the walls of the city (outside the city is a forbidden no-man’s-land of garbage and radiation.) In a variant of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, the robots are controlled by two protocols: they cannot harm any form of life, and they cannot be altered. So when it looks like some machines are repairing themselves and improving their design, Banderas investigates.
The film runs through several of the cliches of the genre. TV weather forecasts include pollution and acid rain warnings. Computer boffins from central casting fiddle with machines. Nobody knows what lies out there in the desert. There is a ghetto in the city where robots can be illegally altered and repurposed as prostitutes, and Banderas pokes his nose in like an old gumshoe detective.
The film has some odd casting and frankly bad performances from some of the supporting players. A remarkably bland Melanie Griffith shows up to provide a lot of exposition and move the plot forward. There is also a disgruntled cop who hates robots (for unexplained reasons.) He’s played by Dylan MacDermott in a trenchcoat, slicked greasy hair, stubble and sunglasses (remember Stallone in Cobra? He looks like that.) He’s terrible in the role, and he behaves as if he’s in a different movie. Similarly miscast is Tim McInnerny, who trades in his plummy tones and plays a nasty and cartoonish villain with a strangled mid-Atlantic accent. Robert Forster is also in the picture, looking weary and probably wondering if Tarantino is ever going to call again.
The robots, which are nicely designed and rendered by the visual effects, are voiced by the likes of Javier Bardem. There is a lot of standard-issue ‘you’re just a machine, you don’t know what it is to feel’ dialogue. Banderas gets drunk and dances with a female robot to the sounds of “La Mer”. The climax takes place in the desert and is staged like a shootout from a western.
Automata is a solid if uninspired entry into the sub-genre of Singularity sci-fi. It’s no Her, but it’s a damn sight better than I, Robot.