In the predictably dystopian future of “Automata,” Earth’s ecosystem has collapsed, leaving only walled cities surrounded by radiation-blasted desert. The city inhabitants are served by a legion of robots, who are controlled by two primary protocols that prevent them from altering themselves. Antonio Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an insurance adjuster for the corporation that created the robots.
With the help of a scientist (Melanie Griffith) and his boss at the ROC Corporation (Robert Forster), Vaucan investigates evidence that the robots may be developing the ability to circumvent the two protocols, and thus develop self-awareness. Thinking this could spell the end of not just their profits and power, but of mankind itself in the form of a robot uprising, the corporation sends a crooked cop (Dylan McDermott) to stop him, and end robot evolution before it begins.
Despite some interesting visual design, and robots that are surprisingly sympathetic and effective, “Automata” ends up another dead end on the A.I. highway. Working from a script he co-wrote, director Gabe Ibanez takes a junior-high cafeteria sized portion of actual plot and stretches it out to a looong 110 minutes. Any goodwill established in the grim CGI cityscapes of the first reel soon evaporates as the story moves to the irradiated desert wasteland.
And, oh that desert. It is so desert. So very, verydesert. Flat and gray-boned, an extraordinarily bleached, arid moonscape, even by the standards of this reviewer, who lives in Ohio and knows a thing or two about sterile environments. A listless, ennervating backdrop for dialogue that strives for a noble kind of low-budget weightiness, but as often as not loses itself in repetitive, slogging loops of shouting and robot speak.
An unhealthy portion of the film consists of a trio of the robots patiently transporting a wounded Banderas across the parched, ashen sands. He lolls his head around, yells for water, a robot natters on about their moisture collector “working very slowly.” This happens at least seven or eight times. Or at least it seems like it happened that often.
Forster and Banderas do the best they can with what they’re given, but an over-the-top McDermott seems to have been air-dropped in from some never-aired episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Griffith’s screen time is brief, and that’s probably for the best, what with her mask-like, immobile face bearing an eerie similarity to her mechanical co-stars. Creepy.
I did enjoy the centipede-thing the robots construct out in their desert base. Its function was not explained to my satisfaction (some kind of robot breeding device?), but it looks pretty cool. And the choice to make the robots real rather than animated gives some extra heft to their interactions with the actors. “Automata” has other scraps of interest scattered about, but can never really figure out what to do about fitting them into the larger picture, and winds up more artificial than intelligent.
The Blu-ray of “Automata” is presented in 16×9 full screen. The dish-water gray color palette of the cinematography is served well by a solid transfer, and the early scenes of the cityscapes are detailed. There are options for English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The audio track is Dolby Digital True HD, and I liked the timbre and balance of robot vs. human voices in the dialogue mix. There are no audio set-up options.
a making-of featurette that is not too long, with interviews of Banderas and director Gabe Ibanez. Of chief interest was the on-set footage demonstrating how the humanoid robots were not CGI, but physically manipulated ‘mannequins’, worked by puppeteers in green-screen suits.
Disappointingly dull and sleepy-eyed, “Automata” reaches for something thoughtful, but is too long, and too visually lethargic, for any but the most dedicated genre fans.