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Automata

Year: 2014
Studio: Green Moon
Director: Gabe Ibáñez
Writer: Gabe Ibáñez/Igor Legarreta/Javier Sánchez Donate
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, Javier Bardem, Melanie Griffith

Robots and our relationship to them have always been rich picking for movies. Blade Runner, I, Robot (the book, not the too-flashy Will Smith movie), Wall.E, The Terminator and even Star Wars have investigated the consequences of us building electronic humanoid helpers.

Automata won't go down in history amongst those classics, but if you're interested in the science fiction of ideas rather than laser guns and aliens, it's well worth your time.

It's a similar world to that of Judge Dredd where huge, dangerous and dirty self-contained cities dot a desert wasteland. Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) is an insurance investigator with ROC Robotics, the company that mass-produces the robotic helpers that were supposed to save humanity from environmental and social collapse but have fallen out of favour.

Protocols governing robot behaviour similar to Asimov's three laws forbid them from harming humans or modifying themselves, but when a robot is found in a burned out slum adding new parts to itself, it's going to have far reaching effects on humanity. Even more disturbing is that when the cop who finds the errant machine raises his gun to destroy it, the robot puts its hand up in a classic defence gesture – something no robot is supposed to have.

Jacq is called in to get to the bottom of the mystery even though his mind's only half on the job – he wants to get transferred away from the city and live a better life with his wife and soon-to-be-born child.

He finds what he thinks is the chip responsible for the error, but when he goes on the trail of whoever reconfigured it, it leads down a rabbit hole with only one conclusion. Somewhere, for some reason, a robot decided to repair itself, suggesting that the robot population is becoming somehow sentient.

Unbeknown to Jacq or his boss Robert (Robert Forster), ROC Robotics' top brass has forseen – or at least prepared for – such a development, and pretty soon agents of the company are dispatched to put down the rebellion once and for all.

After a violent chase, Jacq finds himself being dragged through the desert by a small group of robots with ROC gunmen on their trail. As their programming dictates, the robots are tasked with ensuring Jacq's safety, but they're apparently on their way to start their own civilisation.

The thrilling central question of the film is that when computers can change and improve their programming far faster than mere biological matter can evolve to give us self-awareness or language, doesn't it stand to reason that if we build computer-driven robots, sentience and a very human survival instinct might arise spontaneously (and quickly)?

Spanish co-writer and director Gabe Ibáñez unspools the mystery in a very evocative setting, using effects that are great for what looks like a low budget sci-fi flick. The fleet of dirigibles that maintain the artificial weather in the city are haunting, reminiscent of World War II imagery. But it's the robot effects that are the most impressive. There seems to be a lot of animatronics involved but some scenes would only be possible using CGI, and in all but a few visuals you can scarcely tell where one ends and the other begins.

The film does a great job setting up the world and the central thesis, but it does a less successful job answering its own questions. As Jacq and his new friends reach a robot outpost on the edge of a cavernous valley, the reasoning behind what the robots are doing isn't as clear as you want it to be, and you might need to watch it more than once.

The other down note is Melanie Griffith, who plays a black market parts dealer and also gives voice to Cleo, the leader of the robot band. We haven't seen Griffith on screens for a long time, and since then she's resorted to absolutely revolting plastic surgery and Botox instead of aging gracefully (and that's not just the bitchiness of judging an actress on her looks – Griffith looks so ridiculous it distracts from the movie).

Banderas brings a Rick Deckard quality to the role of Jacq, tired and jaded but thrown into a world not even he could've imagined. Ibáñez's design is also strongly influenced by Blade Runner, especially inside the city with huge moving pictures projected against skyscrapers, the echoes of lights blinking through the haze and a grimy slum at ground level.

It's not the most original movie about robots and moral systems and not the best, but it's a worthy addition to the canon.

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