Do robots have soul? Here’s an extremely popular science fiction theme that has been tackled, with various degrees of depths and success, in all medium for nearly a whole century. Whether they are androids, robots, cyborgs or replicants, artificial intelligence definitely continue to fascinate artists and inspire them compelling stories such as Autómata.
It is the second movie from Gabe Ibáñez, and first English speaking one after the 2009 Spanish speaking thriller drama Hierro, which he co-wrote with quasi newcomers Igor Legarreta and Javier Sánchez Donate. Despite being produced by Millenium Films, the more respectable branch of Nu Image and producer of The Expendables series, Autómata is very much a European movie (the crew is mostly Spanish crew, the cast in a good mix of multi-European nationalities and the movie was shot in Bulgaria) which is rare enough in recent science fiction to be mentioned (the last leading example being Duncan Jones’ Moon in 2009). And if the movie doesn't really add anything new to the science-fiction genre, it has the merit of doing it in an often visually stunning manner which, relatively speaking, reminds in some instances the 40s/50s Film Noir atmosphere of the genre’s benchmark: Blade Runner.
2044 A.D. The sun has destroyed 99.7% of the human population and left Earth in a state of technological regression. In order to survive, a robotic corporation called ROC created the autómata pilgrims, robots destined to help the remaining humans to survive from solar radiations. These robots have two security protocols: they cannot harm humans and they cannot alter themselves. In this context, Jacq Vaucan, an insurance agent of ROC, is asked to investigate the case of a robot that was shot on suspicion of altering itself...
The first strength of the movie is to hook you up right from the beginning. From a frighteningly relevant introduction depicting the nefarious effects of solar radiations, followed by black & white opening credits rhythm by G.F. Handel’s Arrival of Queen Sheeba, to the surprisingly moving self destruction of a robot to protect a key element for its existence, Ibáñez and his cast and crew completely immerse the audience in their gloomy depiction of a believable future.
The second one, and maybe most important, is the use of practical robots instead of digitised ones. It doesn't really come as a surprise when you know that Ibáñez was animator on Álex de la Iglesia’s crazy Day of the Beast and Dance of the Devil and Daniel Monzón’s great fantasy homage Heart of the Warrior before becoming a director, and you can genuinely feel his love for real robots. What comes more as a surprise is the extra level of empathy this technique brings towards them. There is no doubt that for Ibáñez, the robots are the good guys in the movie and whether they are treated like scum of society by humans (the movies shows tramp robots, crippled robots, sex slave robots) or worst than animals (the first him with Jacq shows him confronting a family man trying to put the family dog’s death on their robot to collect insurance), and this despite actually helping save the human race, you can only adhere to their quest for existence. This aspect of the movie also allows it to touch on very interesting ideas, unfortunately not as much developed as they should have been, such as the fact that the humans race cannot prevent from destroying itself and its perception of other forms of life.
Autómata also benefits from an solid cast of actors which, to the exception of a creepy Melanie Griffith in the role of a pseudo scientist (much more convincing as the voice of Cleo) and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Banderas’ irritating wife Rachel, are all very believable: Antonio Banderas is looking sufficiently expert at what he does while feeling disconnected from the world he lives in, the underused Robert Foster brings an adequate mix of wisdom and cowardice as Jacq’s boss, and Dylan McDermott is genuinely despicable as the sleazy drugged up cop initiating the story by shooting a “suspicious” robot.
Unfortunately, the second part of the movie is not as satisfying. Although containing very interesting elements (development of relationship between Cleo and Jacq, discovery of a fascinating character, an emotional climax) Ibáñez does not really manage to retain the interest created by the first part. I also think that Autómata is a bit too long (one of the main defaults in recent movies) and I’m convinced that it would have greatly benefited from being 15-20 minutes shorter in this second part.
In any case, this does not remove the pleasure of seeing a genuinely interesting European sci-fi movie and I actually think that it is a shame that Autómata was not released in cinema in the UK to do justice to its beautiful cinematography and above average ideology...
Autómata is released by Lionsgate UK on Demand on April 27th and on Bluray/DVD on May 4th.
The movie is presented in a 1080p transfer in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio which, although not massively impressive, does a relatively good job in rendering the 2 main settings present in the movie: grey and cold in the first part of the movie and white and warn in the second part. Details are quite good in general and benefit both humans and robots. Taking into account its relatively low budget compared to other science fiction movies, Autómata looks quite good on bluray.
On the audio quality side, there are no choices on the disc: only one audio track which sounds like Dolby Digital.
The bonus section is relatively interesting but quite short.
The first bonus is a very short making-of (less 5 minutes!) which although very promotional allows seeing the robot operators, which were later removed in post production, in action during one of the early scenes in the movie. The only participants in the making-of are the director, Gabe Ibáñez, and stars Antonio Banderas and Dylan McDermott.
The second one is a meatier interview with Antonio Banderas which is mainly a longer version of his contribution to the making-of. During 15 minutes, the actor/producer evokes the main aspects of the movie (story, characters, director, cast and crew, etc.) and discusses how he got the script for the movie while shooting Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In.
In short, nothing massively exciting but nothing to be really ashamed of.