So after having just introduced my girlfriend to my recent pawn shop purchase of the superb ‘Ex Machina’ (2015) Blu ray, while also having just seen the better-then-expected ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017), I thought that I would stick with the ‘Machines Questioning Existence’ theme and FINALLY get around to watching 2014’s Spanish / US / Canadian / Bulgarian entry ‘Automata’. I’ve been meaning to get to this low-budget Antonio Banderas vehicle for a good while now…the proper moment simply hadn’t presented itself…till today.
Taking place about 50 years from now, after the world has been ravaged by catastrophic solar storms and a huge portion of the world’s population has been killed off, robots have become a fixture in society, created in vast numbers to build the walls and shields that now protect what’s left of humanity. In one unnamed city, an insurance investigator named ‘Jacq Vaucan’ (Antonio Banderas) working for the massive robotics corporation ROC, is brought in to investigate the ‘corpse’ of a robot that was destroyed by a drug-addicted cop named ‘Sean Wallace’ (Dylan McDermott). It seems that the ruined body was in the process of repairing itself, and had many unauthorized alterations to its body and systems; alterations that violate the basic ‘laws’ of robotics (as they’re established in this story). As he digs further into the mystery, he finds himself on the run, in the desert wasteland, from criminal forces, including ‘Wallace’, that hope to kill or exploit the secret of what’s occurring.
For my viewing of this flick, I again whipped out my trusty notepad, and scribbled away as the movie played. Below are my notes, along with my explanations…ENJOY!
– Cool Intro. Sun spot footage. The title scrawl detailing the fall of humanity under the onslaught of the deadly solar storms plays over cool images of actual solar activity. Looked nifty.
–VERY ‘Blade Runner’. Rain. Litter. Holograms. Plastic Rain Coats etc. What can I say, 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’ made one helluva dent in the cinematic approach to futuristic dystopian urban landscapes, and its influence was plain-as-day here. That’s not a complaint.
–Neil Blomkamp-like production design, esp robots. Even if Blomkamp’s movies are shit (looking at YOU, ‘CHAPPiE’!), his worn-but-functional aesthetics are very much up my alley, given how influenced they seem to be by that other futuristic visionary, James Cameron. Many aspects of the designs and visuals here felt similar to the work of those two guys…and that’s A-OK with this nerd!
-Robert Forster! Yes! For some reason, I’ve always liked Forster, going back to such early flicks such as ‘The Black Hole’ (1979), and ‘Alligator’ (1980), all the way up to more contemporary fare like the underrated ‘Jackie Brown’ (1997) and ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ (2013). He just has an easy going charm about him and, in a humble way, elevates the material he’s part of…in my opinion.
–Love the blimps. Actually, they more resemble the barrage balloons used to protect ships from fighter attack in WW2, but many of the shots here have these silver balloons in the background, moored to (or supporting) huge bundles of cables on the outskirts of the city. We’re never told their purpose, they’re just there. Looked sweet.
-Nice n grimy production design. I like grime in movies. Always have and always will. I’m constantly noting it in my reviews and this is another that gets extra points for how dirty, banged-up and lived-in the world of ‘Automata’ looks.
–World feels large. This flick apparently had a mere $7 million budget, spread out from 4 different countries (Spain, US, Canada and Bulgaria) but I’d say that every dollar is there onscreen. They did a good job of making is all feel quite expansive, despite their limited finances.
–Some creepy robot imagery. There were several scenes where the mannerisms and actions of some of the robots were shot and cut in a way that made them genuinely creepy. I liked it!
– How’d he get back to the wall?!! This was more of a plot-hole, than anything else. There’s a sequence where ‘Jacq’ is at the wall and it’s clearly established that anyone approaching the barrier from the outside is shot on sight. At one point, he follows the robot he’s been tracking into the dump just outside the wall, and is almost immediately fired upon. They show him ducking and weaving to avoid being killed, only to stumble on to the fugitive robot in a ruined shipping container, where some aforementioned ‘creepy robot imagery’ ensues. Then cut…he’s back in the city. There is NO explanation for how he avoided being killed off by the sentries while returning. Definitely felt like material was missing. A bit sloppy.
–Cool sound design on the robots. The incidental sounds the robots make when moving were cool and were bolstered by the fractured voices they used when communicating, especially when they were malfunctioning. Just another nice technical touch.
–Dylan McDermott!! Yes! Another actor I’ve liked for a while, going back to ‘Hamburger HIll’ (1987) and ‘Hardware’ (1990). Always a treat to see pop up in a flick.
–Haha! Melanie Griffith! Woah! Plastic surgery overload! There was a time when I found Melanie Griffith to be a sexy lil thang, despite how grating I could sometimes find her ‘Betty Boop’ voice, but here I felt a wee bit bad for her. Woman has DEFINITELY had some work done, and now her face doesn’t seem to work. She looked like she was wearing a mask and that’s just not cool. And if I recall correctly, her and Antonio were on the verge of a divorce around the time this was made. Maybe he got a look at her brightly-lit robot face in the ‘dailies’ and realized “DAMN! Shit’s gone downhill there!!”. Just speculating. *Note – She plays a human character…just sayin.
–Griffith = Memories of ‘Cherry 2000’, same stilted delivery. I have fond memories of 1987’s tongue-in-cheek science fiction flick ‘Cherry 2000’, where my impression of Griffith as a former hottie comes from (seeing that flick at puberty nailed me probably helped), but even back-in-the-day I thought her line deliveries felt wooden and slightly awkward. Her face may have changed…but THAT aspect didn’t.
–I like the explanation for the 80’s-style tech, dot-matrix printer, pager etc. Using the solar storms to say that the world’s communication grid had been set back several generations was a clever way to pay homage to many science fiction films from the 1980’s, which this movie clearly shares a kinship with. I was ok with that.
–Sweet car chase! Good finale. There’s a cool sequence where ‘Jacq’ is escaping the city with a rogue robot behind the wheel, as they’re chased and shot at by goons. It’s an exciting (but short) scene, despite the budget limitations, and it worked for me.
–Reminds of Judge Dredd; walled city, poison environment etc. To be clear, I’m referring to the kick-ass Karl Urban version ‘Dredd’ (2012), not the idiotic Stallone P.O.S. ‘Judge Dredd’, from 1995. Ugh!
–Antonio looks haggard! A significant chunk of the flick has an injured ‘Jacq’ trekking across the desert wasteland with a collection of robots…and he looks like shit. All bang-up and sun-blistered. Looked rough.
–Obvious ADR is obvious. There are a couple sequences where I’m guessing the actor in a role didn’t have a good grasp on English, and was dubbed over in ‘post’…and it’s really friggin obvious! Luckily it didn’t happen too often…but when it did…laughter ensued. Note – ADR stands for ‘Automatic Dialogue Replacement’
–Some desert scenes were a lil too washed out. Some colour would’ve been cool. While I understand that the wasteland here is supposed to be bleak, it was also, at times, strikingly drab. EVERYTHING had a whiteish gray sheen to it, like the surface of the moon (yeah, yeah…probably the whole point…shut up!). I would’ve liked a bit more of the ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ treatment, where the visuals, while also bleak as hell, popped with a vibrancy in the chosen color scheme.
–Very little obvious CG. Lots of impressive ‘practicals’. Obviously for many of the scenes of the city and the wall, CG was required to add the scope and the non-existent futuristic details, but the vast majority of the scenes depicting robots were done ‘in camera’, and it was great. I’ve said it before…and I’m sure I’ll say it again…CG ages…’in camera effects’ do not. I like that it seems that Hollywood (and others) are getting wise to this. There’s a reason so many flicks from the 70’s and especially the 80’s STILL hold up today. Because they damn well did (almost) everything ‘in camera’!
–Flick’s a bit long. I guess a better way to put this is that the flick FEELS a bit long. While I do appreciate patient pacing in a film, I can understand why this one didn’t work out too well in the theatre. Some elements do drag and make the 1 hour 49 minute run-time feel a bit bloated.
–Decent flick. A little long-winded and unfocused, but impressively crafted. See below.
All in all, ‘Automata’ was impressive in what it was able to pull off with it’s decidedly limited budget. It’s a story we’ve seen before but it carried itself fairly well. I loved the rough n tumble aesthetic, the robot designs were both functional and creepy, Banderas was solid as the lead and there were a couple slick action scenes. It did drag in some places, Melanie Griffith was pretty terrible in her mercifully short role, the villain’s motivations were murky and the story wasn’t as tight as it could’ve been. On a scale of 1-10, I’d give this a solid 6 1/2. I can recommend this one to fans of flicks like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Cherry 2000’, ‘Mad Max’, ‘Dredd’ and ‘Ex Machina’, or to anyone looking for a familiar science fiction story with an interesting new coat of paint, that proudly wears it’s influences on its shoulder.