by Coop Cooper
Quality sci-fi B-movies are hard to come by these days. In the 80’s all you needed was Jean Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren, an evil alien or robot and a bunch of kung fu, guns and explosions. Budgets don’t allow for that kind of stuff in B-movies anymore and it’s a shame because they are now all but extinct. “Automata” harkens back to the quality of those B-films with its flawlessly produced special effects and its strange, off-kilter storyline, even though it doesn’t have near enough action to satisfy completely.
Set in a future where solar flares have killed off 99.7% of the Earth’s population, humans are forced to live in dense cities that protect them from the deadly elements. Robots called ‘Pilgrim 7000s’ were created in mass numbers to combat the climate change, but they failed, becoming second-class citizens in this new world. Burned-out insurance adjuster, Jacq Vacan (Antonio Banderas), working for the company that makes the robots, uncovers evidence that some of the robots are repairing/modifying themselves, a seemingly impossible violation of the robots’ programming. Suspecting human tampering, he teams up with a robot-hating, dirty cop (Dylan McDermott) in order to find a ‘clocksmith’ (Melanie Griffith) who may have been reprogramming the units. Vacan soon uncovers a race of robots who have surpassed their programming and a human conspiracy that will stop at nothing to destroy the self-aware droids and eliminate all human witnesses.
“Automata” borrows its style and tone from many different films about robots. Tonally, it has shades of “Blade Runner” and “Nemesis” (1992). It borrows its plot heavily from “I, Robot” and its setting from “Hardware” (which McDermott starred in back in 1990).
The beginning of the film is its best part. Through a series of pictures during the opening title sequence it visually shows the history of this world without the use of a narrator or clumsy exposition from a character. It’s such a fantastic setup that I wished the rest of the film could have lived up to it. It’s a slow-paced drama, not an action film as the advertisements lead you to believe.
The performances were above-average, with the usually terrible Melanie Griffith making the most out of her dual roles, first as the creepily cold clocksmith, then as the voice of the female robot Cleo who saves Vacan’s life and protects him. McDermott didn’t get enough screen time for my taste, especially considering his character was so angry and interesting. Robert Forster as Vacan’s boss likewise didn’t get enough screen time to justify the dramatic arc of his character. Bandaras is allowed a few important moments, especially the scene in which he gets to eat chocolate for the first time since childhood and he breaks down in tears. He also shares some satisfying emotional moments with Cleo which must stem from his relationship with Griffith. A surprising fact I noticed from the cast list in the final credits was that Oscar-winner Javier Bardem lent his vocal skills as the voice of the ‘blue robot’. Not sure what convinced him to play that small, thankless role but it was nice of him to participate.
This film is another great example of how enterprising independent filmmakers can make a movie that at least looks like an A-grade sci-fi movie with some great technical skills, a few recognizable actors and a clear vision. Neill Blomkamp proved this by receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture with his modestly-budgeted “District 9”. Automata’s budget is estimated at $15 million which is very low for a film that looks this good. It’s also worth noting that although the language of this film is in English, it is technically a foreign film (made by Spaniards, shot in Bulgaria).
While the pace is slow and uneven, the imagery is gorgeous and the CGI special effects are absolutely flawless. I suspect many viewers might become impatient with the slow story and the sparse action. If they can see it through, they will be rewarded with an original spin on a familiar story, even if the script is a bit lacking. “Automata” is currently having a limited run in theaters and it is also now available on cable pay-per-view.
Rating: 3 out of 5