While craftsmanship is required to create a unique item, in terms of quality control and predictable outcomes for large volumes of units a well managed production line in a manufacturing plant is the way to go, but don’t expect individuality. So it is with robots, in this case those of Robotic Organic Century (ROC) who for twenty years have offered machine assistance in manufacture and menial tasks, even begging on behalf of the poor.
The year is 2044 and following a period of vastly increased solar radiation only twenty one million people survive on Earth, 99.7% of the world population wiped out resulting in a regression to a more primitive state. In an echo of Asimov’s three laws of robotics, the Pilgrims 7000 models are governed by two protocols, the first preventing them from harming any form of life, the second prohibiting them from altering themselves or any other robot. Unable to repair or enhance themselves, this keeps the robots strictly subservient to their masters.
When police officer Wallace (Dylan McDermott repeating his one-note psychopath routine of American Horror Story: Asylum) shoots a Pilgrim whom he claims was making repairs to itself in violation of the second protocol, ROC insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (The Skin I Live In‘s Antonio Banderas) is called in to investigate and finds that it was carrying a nuclear battery which would have vastly extended its operating lifespan and that several of its components originally belong to other units.
Tracking one of those robots to a construction site, Jacq believes it is hiding something from him; he follows it, but when he confronts the robot destroys itself. Seeking further robots who may have been illegally altered, Jacq tracks damaged pleasure droid Cleo back to Doctor Susan Dupré (Melanie Griffith, no stranger to robotics having once starred in Cherry 2000) who shares his concerns; “Self repairing implies some idea of a conscience; muddy waters.”
She believes it to be the work of a clocksmith, someone whose skills exceed even her own and whose work threatens the balance of the human/robot relationship. While it took seven million years for the brain to evolve from monkey to man the Pilgrims could complete that journey in weeks, the only limitation preventing them the second protocol, an evolutionary step ROC cannot permit to occur.
As it is with mass production, so it is with director Gabe Ibáñez’ Automata which resembles so many other stories dealing with similar themes it is almost impossible to isolate the circuit pathways which have led to it, but while a dominant strand is Alex Proyas’ 2004 interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, this upgrade recycles significant design features of other established models.
It is a brave director who consciously draws specific and repeated attention to his influences, but with dirigibles haunting the skyline as they did in Caprica City before the fall and the projected holograms calling to mind the V-world Zoe Graystone found herself trapped in, Caprica is undeniably present but not so overwhelmingly as Blade Runner, begging the question at what point does homage drift into plagiarism?
With the ever present rain pounding on the city police cars, Jacq walking the streets in his clear plastic raincoat before visiting a noodle bar, dream sequences featuring a turtle turned onto its back and eggs boiling in a clear pyrex pot, all images co-opted from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, all that is missing is an origami unicorn, but the end credit rendition of Daisy, Daisy instead offers memories of a different artificial intelligence, the HAL 9000.
Banderas is a dependable performer, as is The Black Hole‘s Robert Forster playing his conflicted supervisor, both of them suitably rumpled and tired, the roles written for acting rather than action men, but other parts are tiresome. The unstable Wallace and Tim McInnerny’s brutal hitman shoot anything which gets in their way without ever asking intelligent questions, but worst is Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen who serves little purpose as Jacq’s wife Rachel other than to be placed in jeopardy to make him react, the critical relationship unbelievable when her personality is limited to incubating his child.
These details might fade more into the background had the script by Ibáñez, Igor Legarreta and Javier Sánchez Donate developed the intrigue of the opening forty five minutes, but as soon as Jacq and Cleo leave the city for the radioactive desert wasteland of the Sandbox the gears become clogged and all momentum is lost, a disappointment when the film is technically superb, particularly in the realisation of the robots through puppetry and convincing digital characters and with excellent use made of industrial locations and barren landscapes to create a world one small step from apocalypse.