The opening credits sequence of Automata suggests a satirical, playful sci-fi venture, one that seeks to interrogate the nature of technological innovation amid socio-economic ruin. But it’s a false alarm, a bright blip in a black hole, given director Gabe Ibáñez’s impending slog of senseless, jargon-heavy dialogue, and swaggering, gun-toting baddies. After a loud, dialogue-free opening scene, in which a thuggish type named Wallace (Dylan McDermott) silently shoots a defenseless, protesting robot inside the ruins of an abandoned mall, Ibáñez offers a black-and-white montage of still photographs, revealing the assemblage of an artificial intelligence known as the Automata Pilgrim 7000. These units go from the assembly lines of what appear to be Asian sweatshops to the stage of a black-tie event and finally to the display windows of urban spaces. That Ibáñez elects to score the sequence with a classical Handel piece speaks implicitly to class warfare, even slavery, where exploited labor proves foundational in maintaining the wanton luxuries of those with extensive disposable incomes.
These ideas are mere lip service, however, to launch into perverse genre jollies, here forming an ungainly mix of melodrama and violence. It’s the year 2044, where Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) is an insurance investigator for the ROC corporation, which seeks to maintain peaceful relationships between robots and humans. Several of the bots have recently gone defunct, propelling Vaucan to seek the help of Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith) and his boss (Robert Forster), who’s adamant that the issues can be promptly resolved. These developments effectively lead Vaucan into a series of numbing dialogue exchanges that merely revel in the film’s extensive exposition, with empty, transparently symbolic platitudes like “a machine repairing itself is a complex concept. Self-repairing implies some idea of a conscience” spouted ad nauseam. Those words, spoken to Vaucan, can be directly transposed to a fractured relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), whose sole role in the film is to be pregnant and offer an out for Vaucan from the toil of a corporate-mandated existence. The out, as it were, is escaping to the “breeze of the ocean,” free from technological destruction. Naturally, that path isn’t so easy, as Vaucan ends up a fugitive in the desert, with a robot named Cleo (voiced by Griffith) as his only companion.
Ibáñez relies far too heavily on sci-fi basics to distinguish the film’s narrative, dealing with hackneyed reversals which reveal the bots to be more empathetic than the stock character villains, whose only real aim throughout seems to be firing numerous bullets into robot CPUs, set to the melancholic tones of Zacarías M. de la Riva’s score. There are less violent moments, such as when Vaucan and Cleo dance together in brief isolation, but little manifests from any of this material other than comprehensibly unfavorable comparisons to previous films. The Blade Runner debt is almost too obvious to mention, but Automata bears an even more striking resemblance to Elysium, from its depiction of futuristic slums, yellow-tinted visual palette, and sentimental romance threatened by extensive machine-gun fire. But perhaps most damning is just how humorlessly all of it is rendered. Much like a spate of recent summer blockbusters including Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there’s a tiring sense that every single facet of the narrative has to be rendered with truculent solemnity. As such, there’s little particularly informative within Automata and, even worse, nothing remotely fun.