Disclaimer: There will be spoilers.
Isaac Asimov is one of the inspirations for early cyberpunk creators. He is responsible for the concept of the “Three Laws of Robotics” and many sci-fi tropes that still find life in fiction. That his world and concepts would be used in current cyberpunk should seem logical. Though, like famed crime author Elmore Leonard, Asimov’s work seems to be loved more for what it isn’t rather than what it is.
Like I, Robot (2004), Automata (2014) takes principles from Asimov’s famed novel and attempts to place it in the world of an action thriller. And much like the previous adaptation, Automata takes an Asimov story in a very un-Asimov direction.
In 2044, after the world is ravaged by solar radiation, rendering most of the planet inhabitable, and killing off more than 99% of the human population, Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), an insurance agent for ROC Robotics, investigates claims of robots breaking the protocols of robotics. Protocol 1: a robot cannot harm any form of life. Protocol 2: a robot cannot alter itself or others. He finds none until he’s paired up with Sean Wallace (Dylan McDermott), a police officer in the unnamed and non-uniformed police of the city, who found a unit he described as “human” and was altered to disobey at least one of its two protocols.
Jacq is a melancholy man who lives with his wife Rachel Vaucan (Brigitte Hjort Sorensen). They are awaiting the birth of their first child as Jacq’s investigation takes him to the slums beyond the city walls, and into an underworld of robotic tampering that is both illegal and violates company policies. Both are things the insurance agent is there to investigate. Soon the working relationship between Wallace and Vaucan breaks down and the officer decides to be proactive, throwing Jacq far from the protection of the city and into the Sandbox, the vast wastes of desert land that exists beyond the slums of the outer ring of the city.
Having fled for his life, and collapsed before he could get to safety, Jacq is saved by units who’ve broken their protocol against alteration but continue to be bound to their need to preserve human life. Though he is kept alive, he reaches out to Wallace at the first opportunity, and when the police arrive to kill Jacq, suspecting him of being involved in the alteration of these and other units, he is saved by the robots again and send the surviving police flee with evidence.
Rachel is left to endure her pregnancy alone as her husband has inexplicably disappeared. Robert Bold (Robert Forster), Jacq’s boss, is forced to explain his employee’s innocence to the heads of ROC Robotics and police. Jacq, no longer able to argue with the machines who refuse to return him to the city, witnesses firsthand the act of “reproduction” by the units when they create another robot so intelligent and advanced it communicates on levels his mind cannot conceive of. Jacq is conflicted at the humanity they exhibit.
With ROC Robotics convinced of Jacq’s guilt, Rachel and Robert are pulled into the company’s efforts to contain the outbreak of sentience among their machines. They track Jacq to the edge of the Sandbox, a gaping canyon that’s traversable only by a cable car, and a fight ensues for lives of Jacq and his family. When the dust settles, the police and ROC affiliates are dead, and the surviving robot and their creation continue to travel, leaving Jacq and his new family to drive to their new home far from the old city.
If there is one element of this film that deserves praise it is the art direction. A city built vertically, where holographic advertisements float between buildings like phantoms, peering into apartments, spying on the living with advertisements; where cloud generators are tethered to roofs to keep the streets healthily gloomy and the radiation off their depressed faces; cramped apartments where people are hoveled into grimy tiled places where their cubed projections keep them distracted and their servant machines do all the work is a place I can see only existing in a hyphenated-punk setting.
The slums of the people outside of the official protection, living in the slums, attempts to recreate Animoid Row from Blade Runner, and while it doesn’t live up to the original in terms of gloom and triviality you’d feel when seeing Roy sidesteps a parade of cyclists, it works in its own right. And the bleakness is apparent when you see a boy of ten murder a woman on the order of police.
Sandbox is a place that could’ve well been in an Asimov novel, where everything is seen as hopeless, a true sign of the earth being ravaged by the sun and man’s destruction. And the brief spots of life you find are enhanced by their bleak surroundings.
The only subplot present is that of Rachel’s pregnancy, and, I’m sorry to say, is perhaps more interesting than the main tale of the film. There’s nothing extraordinary about this pregnancy; Rachel and Jacq’s baby is by all means healthy and normal. What is of interest is the bureaucratic infrastructure in place to benefit citizens of the city. Though it’s glimpsed rather quickly, you learn of the anxiety surrounding the loss of insurance, the blessings of employment, the threat employers hold over their subordinates, and the dread of being a single planet in a world where society is run like a corporation.
In film we’ve seen similar societies like in the cyberpunk/biopunk cult classics Repo-Men and Code 46. And there are countless examples in novels, a favorite of mine being Jennifer Government. The idea that what will save society will be a ménage of corporations that act in their own interest, and public institutions like police and hospitals act in kind is pure cyberpunk, poignant, and feels as though it was the most developed portion of the script. It’s a topic that deserves more attention.
Prologue Title Cards
Whenever I see that a director has chosen to take the first minute or so to tell me what’s happened in a story, I already know I’m in for a chore of a watch. The visuals may be great, but I know the plot has been undercooked, characters barely developed, and I’d be surprised if the script had gone through a second draft.
Never should there be a reason for the audience to be lectured in order to accept the world presented to them. While film does not have the luxury of colorful exposition as novels do, art direction, dialogue, and even omission work to satisfy the viewer’s curiosity of what has transpired. If presented well, anything can be accepted. A confident director knows this. If a director feels they need to explain it’s a sign of their lack of faith in their own project.
The score to this film is inconsistent in every way. The sound is disjointed in feel and pace from what was transpiring on screen. That isn’t to say that industrial is they only sound that can fit cyberpunk, or that assortment of sound doesn’t work. However, film remains primarily a visual medium, and sound is there to enhance, never distract or annoy.
A patchy beard and waxed hair doesn’t make a villain. Despite a few dickish lines and a hatred for robots, never is there given a reason to dislike or like any of the police or corporate heads that come for Jacq and his family. Then again, to be fair, never are we really given a reason to care about Jacq or these sentient machines. With almost two hours of film that aims to explore the humanity of sentience and how such a thing can be extended to artificial life, never is an emotion shown nor a thought shard that doesn’t beat the audience over the head with its message or comes with a tough-guy grunt. In the whole film, the only place you’ll find an exploration of humanity is between Jacq and Rachel exploring their future together in a city where they blot out the sun to live.
At one point in the film, looking for the person responsible for altering machines, Jacq meets a woman who goes by Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith). Quickly Dupre—who’s in the film for all of five minutes—makes a point of explaining the evolution of humans and how that translates to making a comparison to machines who are infinitely faster than any human would and the basic humanity of thinking and how it is also extended to them as well. While this is true in the exploratory science of artificial intelligences, it’s explained in the most pedestrian of ways while attempting to be erudite. And while I didn’t expect this to be a documentary on theoretical adapting machines, a story that is grounded in the concept of self-aware machines must make more of an effort in communicating such things properly and not keeping it to a fraction of the film, crammed into a few scenes.
Another example of the simple trying to sound smart comes in the conflict between the police and the robots. Not until the very end does one machine step up to defend Jacq from imminent violence with an act of its own. And despite this, various police officers remark to Jacq that the machines are beneath them, scum, subhuman. One policeman goes as far to tell Jacq that he has betrayed his species in favor of the enemy. It’s laughable, embarrassing, and actually gave the machines more personality and humanity than anything they’d done on their own for the entire film.
Automata is not a film you need to rush out and see. Visually it’s fine, though there are times where the difference between CGI and props can be very apparent, but it never executes what it had hoped to. Based on interviews and press releases, Automata wanted to do Asimov justice. In reality it barely keeps pace with the overly-long and unnecessarily shiny I, Robot. By the middle of the second act I wanted more of the soap opera between husband and wife in the backdrop of a cyberpunk city than I did the robot thriller. That shouldn’t have happened. Like a pretty face passing you on the street, this movie will be remembered for its looks and not much else.
Automata – 5/10
I sort of enjoyed this movie. Like the review says, it failed to deliver but had such great potential. Automata is the only cyberpunk movie I know that was mostly done in my mother’s country Bulgaria.
There was a lot of tension in this movie, but the release never really satisfied. It ended up feeling way too drawn out and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next. But the part that really got me thinking was how the pleasure bot was able to go against it’s protocol and “hurt” a human, but, in the end, it was able to do so because it was giving pleasure. To me, twisting up logic like that, is the most human action from the movie.
Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas)
I enjoyed Automata a great deal. Good story, good visuals, but the characters were cardboard. It was amazing to me that it was easiest to relate to the pleasure bot. Something is wrong there.
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