San Sebastian Film Review: ‘Automata’

Gabe Ibanez’s post-apocalyptic thriller about robots learning to alter themselves is a dystopic mess.

'Automata' Review: Antonio Banderas Stars in

Post-apocalyptic thrillers don’t come cheap, so perhaps there wasn’t enough left over from the “Automata” budget to pay for a decent script doctor. Spanish helmer Gabe Ibanez (“Hierro”) and co-writers Igor Legaretta Gomez and Javier Sanchez Donate pick from “Blade Runner,” “Terminator” and countless other pics in what feels like a late-night brainstorm at a sci-fi geek convention, yet did the producers — none of them novices — not think to ask: “Does this work?” Set in the near future, when a vastly reduced mankind is assisted by robots that suddenly become self-sufficient, this dystopic mess will get some traction from star Antonio Banderas and indiscriminate sci-fi fans, but exposure is likely to be minimal. It opens Oct. 10 Stateside.

The lure of making a full-blown English-lingo futuristic thriller must have been particularly seductive, and Bulgarian locations, with Nu Boyana’s seasoned studio crew, no doubt allowed costs to stay within reason. The production designer’s vision, however, isn’t enough to anchor a fantasy story: Even for sci-fi, some logic has to enter the plot, which also needs to be devoid of major holes if it’s not to fall into ridiculousness, and that, unfortunately, is where “Automata” lies.

Lengthy intro titles explain the situation: It’s 2044, and the Earth’s surface is so radioactive that 99.7% of the population has been wiped out. Technology has regressed (they’re using continuous stationery printers), and safety can only be assured within the cities. Robots designed by the ROC corporation serve basic human needs like construction, and are incapable of becoming threatening because they’re installed with two security protocols: One, they cannot harm any form of life, and two, they cannot alter or repair themselves.

In a transparent floor-length raincoat unlikely to challenge the fashion rage of Neo’s “Matrix” duster, hardened cop Wallace (Dylan McDermott) shoots and destroys a robot that is apparently altering itself. “How’s that possible?” everyone asks. Insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Banderas) is sent by boss Bob Bold (Robert Foster) to find out. But Jacq (pronounced “Jack”) is tired: His wife, Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), is about to give birth, and he’s yearning to escape the dust-colored city, perhaps for the seaside he sees in visions from his (possible?) past.

A dissatisfied insurance dick is a mainstay of film noir, and until about now the script holds together even if Wallace’s contribution isn’t really clear (and never will be). Jacq chases a rogue robot into the “ghetto” outside the city confines, where he witnesses the automaton setting itself on fire. No one believes Jacq’s story — robots can’t alter their protocols, we’re constantly told — plus experts can’t explain why the two oddly-functioning machines were secreting spherical “nuclear batteries.”

Jacq learns there’s a hooker robot named Cleo acting a little fishy, so he tracks down its creator, Dr. Susan Dupre (Melanie Griffith, also supplying Cleo’s voice as well as a dyed platinum version of her “Something Wild” hairdo for the robot). She offers some information, sort of, though the movie itself isn’t quite sure what to do with the character apart from having her add a little unnecessary complication. Basically, the ROC people, headed by Mr. Hawk (David Ryall), are flipping out because if robots can fix themselves, then the company’s warranty income plummets, putting them in the same position as the Maytag repairman. They’re also concerned because “the 2nd Protocol exists because we don’t know what’s beyond the 2nd Protocol.” OK, got it.

Meanwhile, the impossible is happening: Somehow certain robots’ “bio-kernels,” or brain matrices, are being altered, making them forget the 2nd Protocol (the 1st remains sacrosanct). Jacq winds up being taken by Cleo and three rogue units into the desert, where radiation should presumably be killing him, but apparently that would inconvenience the plot. Wounded, helpless, the battery on his technologically regressive pseudo-Blackberry gone, he tries to get the robots to return him to the city, but they’re bent on bringing him to their mysterious leader.

Wasn’t the audience told this mysterious leader had been deactivated? Why does he create a kind of dog-cockroach using the nuclear battery? Can real birds of prey exist in radioactive environments? Why does neo-classical choral music suddenly invade the soundtrack? These and other questions won’t be answered anytime soon, possibly because the scripters themselves don’t seem to know. Instead, they’ve chosen elements from other dystopian films and put them clumsily together, uncertain how to build character or logic beyond basic outlines. Even the robots are hazily drawn, at times creepy but never truly malevolent (Cleo is just plain silly).

Banderas (also credited as a producer) gives a classic Banderas performance, meaning he gamely invests significant energy in a role that surely he knows is more cartilage than bone. Griffith’s two brief screen appearances add a certain life, but that’s largely from camp value (who greenlit the line “That’s Dr. Dupre to you”?), and Sorensen, from the hit Danish series “Borgen,” is completely wasted as Jacq’s underwritten wife.

Patrick Salvador’s production design owes a great deal — too much — to “Blade Runner,” yet what’s with the giant holographic projections of masked semi-naked women dancing around the city? It doesn’t constitute entertainment now; nor is it likely to do so in a mere 30 years’ time. Some interiors are allowed to be properly lit, like Dupre’s lab, while others, specifically Jacq’s apartment, would get more clarity from candles. Music is OK until the aforementioned choral swells, and the Charles Trenet song “La Mer” isn’t used quite as well as it is in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

San Sebastian Film Review: ‘Automata’

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 20, 2014. Running time: <strong>110 MIN</strong>.  

  • Production: (Spain-Bulgaria) A Millennium Entertainment (in U.S.)/Contracorrientes Films (in Spain) release of a Millennium Film, Green Moon Producciones presentation of a Nu Boyana, Green Moon production, with the participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: Millennium Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Danny Lerner, Les Weldon, Antonio Banderas, Sandra Hermida. Co-producer, Yolanda Jiminez Polonio. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Emanuel Nunez, Boaz Davidson. Co-executive producer, Lonnie Ramat.  
  • Crew: Directed by Gabe Ibanez. Screenplay, Ibanez, Igor Legaretta Gomez, Javier Sanchez Donate. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Alejandro Martinez; editor, Sergio Rozas; music, Zacarias M. de la Riva; production designer, Patrick Salvador; art director, Kes Bonnet; costume designer, Armaveni Stoyanova; sound (Dolby Digital), Gabriel Gutierrez, Ivo Natzev; visual effects supervisor, David Ramos; visual effects producer, Scott Coulter; casting, Kate Dowd.  
  • With: Antonio Banderas, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Melanie Griffith, Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Andy Nyman, Tim McInnerny, David Ryall, Lubomir Neikov, Harry Anichkin, Andrew Tiernan, Christina Tam. (English dialogue)