Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics go as follows:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders it is given by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Using these laws (and variations on them) as a foundation, Asimov explored a myriad of science-fiction ideas in a wide range of works. The laws have been borrowed or slightly altered by many books, television shows and movies on quite a few other occasions (including the very loose Asimov adaptation I, Robot), so it's hardly surprising when Gabe Ibanez's science-fiction film Automata opens with its own version of of the Three Laws:
1. A robot may not harm a human being.
2. A robot may not alter its programming.
3. A robot may feel free to ignore either of the previous rules, because robots don't need your stupid rules, man.
Okay, I made that third one up, but it might as well exist given the way things play out in Automata. Here's a movie that spends a great deal of time painstakingly explaining the way its derivative-but-compelling post-apocalyptic universe works and then proceeds to ignore all of its own ground rules for the sake of... what? Delivering a surprising twist? Sure, it's a surprising twist, in much the same way that Superman suddenly turning into a frog at the end of Man of Steel would be a surprising twist.
Automata begins in the year 2044, when 99.7% of the human population has been wiped out by solar flares. In addition to eliminating the vast majority of human life, the flares caused a major technological regression. In response, the humans built robots designed to help rebuild civilization in the midst of a harsh environment. The robots have been valuable, loyal, harmless tools thanks to the aforementioned programming laws, but then a cop (Dylan McDermott, American Horror Story) claims to have seen a robot modifying itself and insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas, Femme Fatale) gets called in to determine whether or not the cop is telling the truth.
For the first forty-five minutes or so, Automata is a thoughtful, engaging Blade Runner imitation that features some impressive low-budget world design (the movie was shot for $15 million, but it looks a bit more expensive than that) and an involving story. Banderas is exceptional as the burnt-out investigator struggling to find motivation to keep living in this dreary world (he has a loving wife and a kid on the way, but his job has sucked the life out of him) and I was eager to see what sort of loophole the robots had discovered that was allowing them to do things they weren't programmed to do.
An intriguing possibility is presented with Cleo, a sex robot voiced by Melanie Griffith (Pacific Heights). The robot has been modified to be able to cause humans pain for S&M purposes – Cleo claims she is very sensitive to whether or not the pain she dispenses is something humans actually desire. Could that be it? Could robots have found a kinky sex loophole that permitted them to start their own revolution, spanking and whipping humans into oblivion? Alas, no.
Just as things are getting interesting, a series of contrived circumstances send Jacq and Cleo out into the desert for a long, tedious hour of walking, shouting and preposterous philosophical discussion. Being tossed into the middle of nowhere has a negative effect on Banderas' performance: previously nuanced and consistent, he starts ping-ponging between pathetic whining, overcooked screaming and exhausted whispering. It all builds to an uninspired gunfight, a biologically impossible revelation and a long conversation with a robotic cult leader voiced by Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). By that point, I was ready to throw something at the filmmakers – perhaps one of Asimov's books.
The frustrating thing is that with a smarter script, Automata might have been a refreshing piece of hard sci-fi. Ibanez's work is strong enough on a technical level to make one expect that he'll be getting more prominent assignments at some point in the near future, and the movie really is an absorbing mystery up until Banderas hits the desert. The sun(flare)-baked cinematography by Alejandro Martinez produces a number of memorable images, and the original score by Zacarias M. de la Riva is loaded with rich material (particularly some strong choral stuff featured in the film's second half). Regardless, the answer to the movie's big mystery is brainless woo-woo that exposes Automata as pseudospiritual babble rather than scientific speculation. Somebody should have turned the screenplay off and on again before filming started.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Year: 2014