We all cry out for original genre movies that aren't just cashing in on existing franchises. But it's sad when an original film comes out, and it just rehashes the classics, even more slavishly. It's even more heartbreaking when you get a movie like Automata, which has a clever, original idea. And smothers it in clichés.
It's pretty impossible to talk about Automata without delving into some spoilers, so here's your spoiler warning.
We were incredibly excited about Automata when the stunning trailer came out a while ago — so it's especially disappointing to see the actual film (in theaters and on VOD today) and find kind of a derivative mess. It's doubly disappointing because there's a brilliant, original story in there, which the movie doesn't trust enough to run with, instead of veering into overdone ideas from other movies.
The basic story of Automata is a neat spin on Asimov's robot stories. In the near future, there's been a disaster and most of the human race has been wiped out. So we've built robots to help ourselves rebuild, and instead of Asimov's three laws, we've given them just two laws: 1) They can't harm a human. 2) They can't repair or upgrade themselves.
The story pretty much kicks off when a human police officer finds a robot that's damaged, and it's repairing itself. Meaning the robots have learned to get around their second directive. As someone explains to investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), this directive is the most important of all — because if robots can upgrade themselves, they'll evolve incredibly quickly, and within weeks they'll surpass human intelligence. And then we'll be screwed, even if they still obey the first directive.
The robots are basically trapped in a state of arrested development, because of human fears.
It's brilliant, because most movies would find some way for the robots to break the first rule, against killing humans — but in this film, the real threat is that the robots will just get too smart for us, and that they'll be able to customize themselves. And make other, better robots.
Jacq Vaucan, through a series of mishaps, ends up trapped out in the radioactive wasteland with rebellious robots, who can't let him die because of their first directive. But they also won't obey his orders, and they're running away to some kind of promised land, where robots can be free to remake themselves.
The whole thing leads to a final act that's actually quite powerful, in which we see the first of a new breed of robots, and we also see how low humans will stoop to keep robots under our control.
So the basic idea of Automata is terrific, and the bones of a great story are fully there. Unfortunately, writer/director Gabe Ibáñez keeps detouring into every lazy trope he can think of — both in terms of the movie's visuals and its storyline. The main robot that Jacq meets is a sex robot, and all the usual "Pris from Blade Runner" tropes are there.
Speaking of which, Automata's dystopian future city is a clone of Blade Runner's Los Angeles, including the holographic women popping up everywhere. If you drink every time you spot a Blade Runner homage in this film, you'll die. The post-apocalyptic wasteland that Jacq ends up in is also every post-apocalyptic wasteland you've ever seen. And the robots look like pretty much every robot you've ever seen — they're sort of Sorayama robots, sort of "Svedka vodka advert" robots.
And meanwhile, the actual storytelling is a grab-bag of noir tropes that are press-ganged into service despite not really serving this story. Like, almost all of the humans are gangsters — including the people who run the company that makes the robots that humanity depends on. The cops are all cookie-cutter corrupt cops from every noir film ever. People keep behaving in ways that make almost no sense, except if you think of them as following some script borrowed from an old-school crime movie. There are car chases and gunfights, which are shot in an unimaginative fashion and feel like they're just placeholders for interesting plot developments.
And the human characters in this film are completely unlikable and uninteresting as people, including Jacq himself. If you fast forward past every scene where two humans are talking to each other (except maybe for the one bit where Melanie Griffith's robotics expert is explaining the movie's premise to Jacq) then this is a much, much better movie — all of the interactions between people in this film are painfully illogical, but also just grating. Like, the storyline involving Jacq and his pregnant wife, where he wants to escape from the city and she doesn't understand, is weirdly unsympathetic.
Automata might have been better as a short film, where Ibáñez could tell his story about runaway robots and the human that ends up stuck with them, without having to try and spin it out into a full-length movie about people and a whole futuristic society. As it is, this is a movie about robots who are hobbled with irrational limitations — and the film itself, too, is unfortunately limited by its over-reliance on what's come before.