1 hour, 50 minutes
The weeks leading up to Halloween typically don’t offer a whole lot in the way of cinematic variety, but this year is especially bleak. On offer this week, as far as new films, it was “Ouija,” a horror film I have no intention of seeing, and “The Book of Life,” which looks cute, but which I’d already promised my little girl I would take her and her birthday party too next weekend. What’s especially galling is that there is a movie that opened wide this weekend that’s getting rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Keanu Reeve’s latest shoot ‘em up, a phrase that doesn’t necessarily guarantee long lines at the box office, “John Wick” (Don’t set him off!) exploded onto the scene everywhere but here, it seems. I have a friend who made firm plans to see “Wick” this weekend for his birthday, and all last week he was calling, asking if I knew what time it was going to show. “I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but I don’t actually think we’re getting it.” “Whaaaaaat?!” came the reply, doubled when I told him that we were getting “Ouija” instead. So instead I decided to seek out an independent sci-fi film I’d heard about called “Automata,” starring Antonio Banderas. The tale of robots gaining sentience and rising up is nothing new, but the bleak setting, beautiful cinematography, and unsentimental special effects did offer a unique take on an old tale.
Isaac Asimov came up with the concept of laws governing robots in his series of novels from the 1940’s and 50’s. This theme has been carried over many times, with the latest iteration being the basis for the tale told in “Automata.”
Set in 2044, the film takes place in a world blasted by radiation, where society has all but fallen apart. At some point in the past, the ROC robotics corporation created a new kind of machine, one that would serve mankind and carry him through the terrible environmental crisis it was facing. Called Pilgrims, these robots, or automata, could perform a variety of tasks, so long as said tasks fell within the jurisdiction of two guiding protocols: 1. A robot may never harm a human being or allow, through inaction, a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot may not perform repairs on itself, other robots, or create new robots. These protocols are, we are told, inalterable.
Unfortunately, mankind was not saved, and now, with everythign falling to ruin and desolation all around, people are crammed into just a few remaining cities, choked with garbage and shimmering advertisments for all manner of sin. Many automata have become a permanent subset, peppering the city’s homeless population. Others still work dangerous jobs, but many are idle, and a very select few are neither jealous nor under the sway of mankind. These appear to have found away around the previously mentioned protocols, and it falls to ROC insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan, played by a weary Antonio Banderas with a Bruce Willis bald pate, to figure out what’s going on. What he finds will eventually change his world forever, though I can’t say any of it is particularly surprising.
“Automata” is pretty to look at, and has some interesting themes, but never got to the level of blowing my mind, mostly because it’s cribbed from so many other science fiction tales. Banderas is a great actor, but he’s joined by Dylan McDermott and Robert Forster, both of whom seem to be merely going through the motions, and Melanie Griffith who is just terrible in her small role. The real stars of the film, howver, are the robots and I was very pleased with this element of the movie. These robots look vaguely human, but only just barely. They’re not cute, nor wisecracking, nor do they transform or produce weapons from their clunky bodies. The design feels very real, very possible. I was reminded somehwat of the robots from “A.I.” though these are much more rudimentary than that. Interestingly, the movie I kept returning to in my mind is “The Matrix” specifcally “The Animatrix.” In that film of short stories, one piece shows the world prior to the Matrix, and the war between humans. In that short film, we see the world before the robots, and how the two groups were unable to coexist. That situation didn’t actually turn out all that well for the humans, now that I think about it. As far as the production was concerned, I appreciated one elements especially. One, the lead characters of the film, Jacq, and others, never seemed afraid of the robots, so ingrained is the first protol. It’s a subtle touch, but I picked up on it. Maybe I’m part Automata. Grade: B-
Automata is rated R for language, nudity, and violence, and can be found on iTunes streaming.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.