If there's one issue I have with Blade Runner - which I have designated the greatest film ever made, now and in future (and if you don't agree you must be a replicant) - it's that the bar was set so impossibly high that nothing has even come close.
That hasn't stopped countless rip-offs and wannabes from trying. Look, the basic premise - the uneasy coexistence of humans and humanoid machines, the question of whether machines can have souls, the debate over what it means to be truly alive - is not only brilliant but extremely fertile. That idea can be taken in countless directions, can tell so many tales - and something like 99% of them have been told. But always there remains that 1% of unexplored territory, the place of stories as yet untold. Unfortunately, Autómata isn't one of those stories.
Autómata's particular post-apocalyptic future has come about as a result of intense solar flares that irradiated Earth and killed off 99% of the human population. The survivors have gathered into safe cities and created a line of humanoid robots, called Pilgrims, first to help rebuild society and then be its slave labor, because robots. They function on two unalterable protocols: they cannot harm any form of life, and they cannot repair or modify themselves.
Antonio Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan (which everybody pronounces "Jack Vulcan"), a mopey insurance claims investigator for ROC, the biggest Pilgrim manufacturer around. All poor Jack - sorry, Jacq - wants to do is get his heavily-preggers wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) out of this scraphole and out to the coast. But first, he has to investigate a report filed by loose-cannon cop Wallace (Dylan McDermott), who shot a Pilgrim he believed was repairing itself. Since the second protocol cannot be consciously violated, Jacq suspects a clocksmith - a human tinkerer - made it possible. Find them, his boss Robert (Robert Forster) says, and his days as a mopey beach bum are guaranteed. "Maybe the ocean is still there," he quips humorlessly. That's all the motivation Jack needs to track down the mysterious gynonid, Cleo, and her human mechanic Dr. Susan Dupré. But of course, it gets complicated from there.
At least, it ought to. The film starts off as a mystery, with Jacq discovering a nuclear battery (apparently a source of unlimited power) and using that as a bargaining chip to lead him to the clocksmith. But director Gabe Ibáñez and his co-writers quickly shut this plot down by the end of the first act, and force Jacq and Cleo to flee into the radioactive desert. This turns out to be an almost fatal mistake, as act two brings the pacing almost to a halt; we get a lot of Jack being all "fuck you, you're not alive" to Cleo and her fellow renegade robots and crying about wanting to go home. Up to now this has one of Banderas's more subdued performances, but here he becomes shrill and annoying, hitting the same beats in scene after interminable scene, and I kind of wished the robots had just said "screw the protocols" and left him to die. By the time act three rolls around, in which Jacq finally learns the identity of the clocksmith, it's too little too late.
Autómata is basically a hodgepodge of tired tropes and half-assed attempts at profoundity. We get very scant glimpses of this downtrodden world, never enough to make it truly engrossing. Characters often make stupid decisions to serve the story. At one point Jack follows a Pilgrim out into a restricted zone and is surprised to be shot at, despite seeing a redshirt get killed for doing the exact same thing moments before. A debate between Jacq and the leader of the self-aware Pilgrim reachs for philosophical meaning, but comes off shallow and didactic. In fact, only a later scene regarding the origins of the two protocols has anything remotely interesting to say. Despite the tried-and-true argument that robots and humans are more alike than they realize, the case could be made that the Pilgrims are actually the more compelling characters here.
The acting only reinforces this notion. Jacq is the only character with any real depth, but Banderas (who also co-produced) plays him a little too low-key (and at times, too over-the-top) to be truly sympathetic. McDermott, in danger of following Al Pacino's latter day career trajectory, is shamelessly hammy. Sørensen, like most of the female characters, makes no impression at all. (I did appreciate, however, that the cast was made up entirely of forty- and fifty-somethings playing forty- and fifty-somethings.) Forster at least injects some humanity into his weary corporate plodder; by contrast ROC's security forces, led by a crusty-looking Tim McInnery, are terrible, one-dimensional and played with almost total indifference.
But the most interesting casting choice by far comes in the form of Banderas's former wife, Melanie Griffith (they announced their separation a few months before the premiere). On screen as Dr. Dupré, she's dull and lifeless - not that it matters, because the character is nothing more than an info dumpster. As Cleo, however, she manages to inject the pleasure Pilgrim with a surprising degree of sympathy using only her distinctive voice. A scene in which a drunken Jacq teaches Cleo to slow dance (and nearly comes onto her) has absolutely no reason to exist, but Griffith somehow makes it tolerable.
In fact, that scene would have worked even better if it weren't made up of so many quick cuts. $15 million and a ticket to Bulgaria are obvious signs of a low-budget production, but a good director can make those limitations work for him by using his imagination. Ibáñez chooses to put most of his effort in showing off the robots themselves - practical instead of CGI, and easily the best-looking things in the film - to the detriment of all else. The production design cribs from obvious sources like the works of Neill Blomkamp, while the cinematography is more competent than anything. The few action scenes are devoid of tension; a nighttime car chase lacks any sense of speed, and the climax relies too heavily on dramatic pauses.
Autómata is, in the end, just another cast in the Blade Runner mold, more thoughtful than, say, I, Robot and less ponderous than A.I., but lacking the inventiveness of Chappie and nowhere near as intelligent as Ex Machina. I suppose that puts it square in the "average" part of the sci-fi spectrum, but taken on its merits as a film it still comes up lacking - dramatically inert, flatly acted and roughly 20 minutes longer than it should have been. I believe the basic concept still has life in it for new and exciting stories, but this isn't among them.
Directed by Gabe Ibàñez
Written by Ibàñez, Igor Legaretta Gomez and Javier Sanchez Donate
Starring Antonio Banderas, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Griffith, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Robert Forster and Tim McInnery