Due for a UK DVD release in May 2015, it may be arriving slightly late to the recent ‘technological singularity’ party but “Autómata” nevertheless finds some interesting angles from which to explore the subject.
In the 2040’s, humanity is on the verge of extinction following devastating solar flares which irradiated much of the Earth’s surface and killing 99.7% of the human population. Gathered in the remaining safe cities, humanity has turned to robots called Pilgrims to assist in the rebuilding of the world. The Pilgrim robots, manufactured by ROC, are governed by two laws: they cannot harm any form of life, and they may not modify any robot. When Jacq Vaucan (an earnest and intense Antonio Banderas), an insurance investigator for ROC, is called to investigate a police incident involving a modified robot, he finds himself involved in a conspiracy which could change the future of the world.
“Autómata” owes a considerable debt to Asimov’s three laws and it could be a variation on a theme of “I, Robot”, with a liberal sprinkling of “Blade Runner” style grime. The general technological and societal regression of humanity offers a gritty backdrop to the story as well as saving money for the production budget to focus on the renegade robots. There’s a roughness at the edges to the world building here, with aspects jostling uncomfortably with each other rather than meshing into a convincing whole. With nearly the whole human race wiped out, it seems unlikely that the job of insurance claims adjuster would actually exist as a vital component of the struggle to survive.
Despite having some intriguing ideas, the film can’t seem to settle on what it wants to say. Is it a story of corporate evil, of humanity’s doomed struggle to survive or a more esoteric exploration of the emergence of a new form of life? Because it can’t quite make up its mind, it ends up feeling muddled and derivative, its metaphysical and spiritual musings wrapped up in a grubby, wasteland aesthetic: “Mad Max” lite.
Although basic, the design of the robots is interesting and they develop distinct personalities through the quality of the voice acting. The closest we get to the uncanny valley is a cameo appearance from an almost-unrecognizable-thanks-to-cosmetic-surgery Melanie Griffith, who also voices one of the robots along with Javier Bardem. The ROC boardroom is bulked out by some British (of course) thesps: David Ryall, in his final feature film role, and a scenery chewing Tim McInnery as a ruthless corporate stooge. Dylan McDermott rounds out the star names as Jacq’s corrupt partner.
Director Gabe Ibáñez delivers a handsome film, eking the most out of the modest budget in order but the story is simply too thin to support the competing issues it wants to explore. It’s an ambitious film that despite a quality performance from its leading man and some great ideas work just can’t break free of its limitations.