MOVIE REVIEW: AUTOMATA / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: GABE IBANEZ / SCREEENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: ANTONIO BANDERAS, BIRGITTE HJORT SORENSEN, MELANIE GRIFFITHS, DYLAN MCDERMOTT, TIM MCINNERNY, ROBERT FORSTER/ RELEASE DATE: TBC
2014 has seen the quiet return of intelligent science-fiction filmmaking. Edge of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat or whatever you may choose to call it) was the acceptable face of blockbuster cinema, Christopher Nolan made a decent effort at creating a 2001 for the 21st century (if you catch our drift) with Interstellar, and the year’s been peppered with oddities and curios like Under the Skin, Her and The Congress. Gabe Ibanez’ debut feature, Automata, may not quite reach such giddy heights but it’s another thoughtful, measured slice of original modern sci-fi which flies right in the face of the incessant tide of spandex superheroes, reboots, and robots and giant monsters which dominate and dumb-down the genre in the lazy, hazy days of summer.
It’s 2044 and solar flare activity has scorched the Earth and toasted over 99% of the world’s population. 21 million human survivors live in gloomy hi-tech cities and clunky robots called Pilgrims have been created to help the last of humanity thrive in an increasingly-hostile environment. In best Asimov style, the robots have two overriding protocols: they must preserve human life and they must not modify themselves. Jaded insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Banderas) is intrigued by reports of a robot which appears to be modifying and upgrading itself. His investigations into the underworld of the clocksmiths, who illegally tamper with robot protocols, leads him to discover that the Pilgrims may indeed be capable of independent thought and they’re no longer happy with their existence as unfeeling mechanical creatures.
By its very nature, Automata can’t help but remind us of too many other similar dystopian science-fiction futures and tales of anthropomorphised artificial intelligence. A bit of Blade Runner here, a dash of District 9 there, sprinkle a bit of I, Robot and A.I. and leave to simmer for a hundred minutes. The resulting stew has a familiar flavour which could have been enlivened by a few fresh ingredients or at least the occasional splash of something diverting and unexpected. Automata sets up its grim vision of humanity’s ultimate fate with powerful economy and there’s much promise in the scenes of streets lashed with potentially-deadly rain, outsiders scavenging in the city’s debris and the last flickering vestiges of a technology which has nothing much to offer beyond superficial stimulation and nothing at all to promise for the future of mankind. The central premise of robots striving for humanity is deftly set up but the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with it and certainly has nothing new to bring to an idea which is, in many ways, as old as sci-fi itself. To its credit, Automata is absolutely not an action movie; there’s much philosophical posturing with the idea that mankind is losing its humanity even as the robots strive to find it, and the only concession to the popcorn crowd is a brief car chase and a last-reel desert shoot out.
Occasionally ponderous but undeniably thought-provoking, Automata doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions nor, in the end, any real idea where it wants to drive its story. There’s nothing here we’ve not seen before but it’s done with a pleasing noirish style which its relatively-tiny budget belies, and it boasts a welcome return to form for Banderas as the world-weary Vaucan and a strong supporting cast of Brits including McInnerny, Andy Nyman and David Ryall.
Resolutely grim and refreshingly low-key, Automata doesn’t always hit the spot but it’s heartening to see another slice of sci-fi cinema which suggests that the idiots haven’t necessarily completely taken over the multiplex asylum.
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10
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