Film * Gabe Ibáñez * Solar Flare Apocalypse Also Robots * 2014
I really had no intention of this, uh, “feature,” becoming a catalogue of apocalyptic foreign films, but here we are anyway. At least this one is in English and features recognizable (to Americans) actors, even if it does hail from Bulgaria. Like all of these films, the budget is pretty slim, but what I’m seeing so far is that in a lot of cases, the small budget doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot. Automata looks good, you know? I like the robot designs, and the post-apocalyptic city is nice and grimy, and the stark, barren desert is also beautiful. Also like these other films, the story is kind of all over the place and never really cements into something that works as a narrative. Once again, this movie isn’t bad. There are some aspects that work better than others, and maybe it’s not the most satisfying film ever made, but it’s still coherent. It just kind of is, which I guess isn’t the most resounding endorsement.
One of the issues facing Automata is that it wants to do all the things all at once. I suspect there’s been a similar situation with all of these films so far, in that a director is given a few million dollars for the first time and they want to make the most of it. Automata in particular seems to want to do too many things. It wants to be an original post-apocalypse. The setup is that solar storms have wrecked such havoc on Earth that only like 20 million people are left. Most of the oceans have burnt off, and the vast majority of the landscape is now radioactive desert. The few remaining people have created a walled city from which they can hide from the poison atmosphere and surroundings. Automata would also like you to think fond thoughts of Blade Runner. The city has every appearance of a corporate dystopia, with giant holograms projected into the moody, rainy night sky. Oh, and also the film is about artificial intelligence becoming self-aware. It’s actually mostly about that last one, just couched in all this other stuff.
To be fair, the way these three different kinds of fucked-up future are married together is actually kind of cool. I like where the idea is going, even if I’m not in love with the results. Humanity is dying, and has contracted into a few large cities for survival. As such, many of the social structures we were dependent on are still intact. The protagonist, Jacq (played by the Nasonex bee), is an insurance claims adjuster, for crying out loud. So everyone’s in big, festering cities trying to reclaim the glory of human civilization and slowly failing. As such, technology has regressed – and this is the part that’s kind of cool. Everything is clunky and analogue, including the robots. The robots, which are actually reminiscent of the other Automata, are big and slow and chunky. Automata also borrows heavily from Asimov, in that these robots are limited by two protocols: you can’t harm living things but also you can’t repair yourself. Obviously, the robots find a way to circumvent those protocols.
Okay, so we’ve got Jacq, who is burnt out on his job and is looking old and grizzled and totally over the whole miserable dystopia on the edge of oblivion thing. Somehow, because movies I guess, this totally unremarkable dude has a beautiful young wife who is just about to have his baby. Given the state of the world, his wife Rachel was a moment where I was like, “age appropriateness aside, how on earth is this lady so bright and pretty and vital when literally everyone else is a sad lump?” Anyway, she’s mostly just there to act as a motivation for Jacq, which is unfortunate. There are two other major female characters. One, Melanie Griffith, is shot in the head by a child. The other is a sentient sexbot. I’m not going to go on a whole sexism rant, mainly because the only compelling characters of any kind are the robots, and they don’t actually do a whole hell of a lot.
Jacq, who becomes more insufferable as the film goes on, comes across a strange case of a “pilgrim” robot who is accused of repairing itself, which you may remember as violating one of the two protocols, which is supposed to be impossible. Anyone who’s into robot fiction knows that of course it’s possible, and you better buckle up because half the time when the robots become self-aware it’s bad news for humanity. Given the fragility of humanity in this movie, self-aware robots would likely have little trouble finishing us off. Considering how humans behave in Automata, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. By the end of the movie I was actively hoping that the robots finally rise up and start murdering these assholes, and I was disappointed that they took the moral high ground. Ugh, we’re the worst species. Anyway, the robots of course are thinking for themselves, but they’re not terribly interested in human activity, even if they’re still seemingly bound by their first protocol, which forbids them from harming humans.
Automata kind of goes off the rails about halfway through, and I rather lost the thread of what it was going for. After all, for as cool as the setup for the movie is, it’s still trying to do entirely too many things, so the fact that it bogs down and fails to capitalize on any one thing isn’t a surprise. There’s a sudden shift away from the weird, post-apocalyptic noir thing it had going on in the beginning to a tepid message of robot acceptance at the end. Things end up going sideways for poor Jacq, and his own company tries to murder him. He’s saved by Cleo the sexbot and some other sentient robo-buddies, if by “saved” you mean “doomed to a slow death by radiation.” Turns out they have a hidey-hole in the desert, and they’re creating robo-life out there where humans can’t go. Until they do, and they bring guns, and the robots are like “oh no we never expected this please stop shooting our heads.” None of this feels terribly connected to the beginning of the film, even when there’s a clumsy attempt to bring Rachel (and her baby) back as a foil for Jacq.
Here’s the thing about robot fiction and sentient A.I.’s in general: stories need to start pushing further than “are sentient machines alive?” There’s a lot of screaming and yelling in Automata about how impossible it is for a machine to be alive, but that runs counter the past fifty years of science fiction. By now, we know that once artificial intelligence becomes self-aware it will be a new form of life. Johnny 5 is alive, motherfuckers, we know this! It’s like zombie movies where the characters don’t know what zombies are. It’s frustrating as a viewer when the people onscreen are somehow exempt from decades of culture. That’s why something like last year’s Nier: Automata was so refreshing. Every character in that game is an artificial construct, and therefore consider themselves alive – that’s the basis. The rest of the story is figuring out what that means in the context of the larger world. Instead, this film is content to pore over the same worn territory, which squanders the intriguing initial setup, and that’s a shame.