Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Automata, for the People

Ever thought Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were too complicated? Happily, the ROC robotics corporation has distilled them down two prime directives. Essentially, all robots are hardwired to cause no harm and never alter themselves in any way. However, there seem to be a handful of rogue ‘bots, self-repairing and maybe even self-upgrading. An insurance investigator slowly starts to suspect singularity may really be nigh in Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

By the year 2044, an environmental catastrophe and its radioactive aftermath have killed over ninety-nine percent of the earth’s population. Yet, enough people are still paying premiums without filing claims to keep Jacq Vaucan’s insurance company in business. ROC is their bread and butter client, so every nocturnal day, Vaucan goes out to debunk claims of robot wrong-doings. Frankly, it is easy work, because the First Protocol is ironclad (and people are idiots). Supposedly, the same is true of the Second Protocol, but Vaucan’s investigation turns up a maintenance robot that was reportedly healing itself before the crookedest cop in Oceania blew it away.

Before long, the trail of self-aware robots leads Vaucan to a “clockmaker” in the forbidden zone, who inadvertently awakens a sexbot, before company goons crash the party. Not exactly the sharpest sonic-screwdriver in the Tardis, Vaucan does not realize his own people are out to get him, but since the First Protocol is still in force, the newly sentient robots drag him through the desert to temporary safety in a ridiculously overlong sequence that cries out for the MST3K treatment (think “rock-climbing” in Lost Continent).

Sure, one might say Automata “owes a debt” to Bladerunner, but it still has the palpable feel of a lived in world teetering on the brink of anarchy. Yet, it is also happens to be one of those strangely contradictory genre films that uses the specter of A.I. run amok to scare the willies out viewers during the set-up, but lectures us in the third act that we have had this coming all along for our environmental naughtiness and should therefore willingly resign ourselves to extinction and just toss the keys to the planet to our stoner roommate’s Xbox. Perhaps, I am paraphrasing a little, but the point is it gets preachy, in an apocalyptic way.

Nevertheless, Antonio Banderas does his moody hardboiled thing with authority as a Vaucan. Likewise, the Robert Forster is reliably flinty as Vaucan boss, Bob Bold. Melanie Griffith is not wildly convincing as the underground robot tinkerer, but hats off for the professionalism she and Banderas show in their scenes together, considering recent events. The rest of the ensemble looks like they wandered in from the Network 23 boardroom in the old Max Headroom show.

While Automata’s robot design is not wildly dissimilar from scores of films, Ibáñez and production designer Patrick Salvador fully realize the grungy dystopian world, presumably on a limited budget. Too bad they are so determined to end it all. Ambitious but too self-important to fully deliver the genre goods, Automata opens this Friday (10/10) in New York.