Proclaimed as the beginning of the thespian maturity of Antonio Banderas, Automata is a 2014 Sci-Fi/Thriller shot in Bulgaria and Spain. Financed by a modest budget of 15 million dollars and thus unable to compete with large-scale blockbusters, the movie nevertheless represents its genre more than honorably. It offers a new, human outlook on robots for audiences that are still to become familiar with such machines of the future.
Borrowing from the asimovian principles of robotics and exploring elements of American exceptionalism, the film shows a grim future in which solar flares make the surface of the Earth radioactive. Rain becomes a burning acid that degrades the skin of broken men and the permanently dark sky from which it pours bears no resemblance to the calming blue of today. Masses fuel their desperation and fear into the policy makers to whom walls become the only answer. Walls that separate cities from the “desert”, a vast stretch of land that slowly consumed the oceans and pastures of the globe, now threatening to choke the life out the remnants of humanity.
From this desperate necessity, the Pioneers rise. Durable robots that can work tirelessly to stop the desert from engulfing all of life, they become a beacon of honest hope for the huddled masses. But as years pass and the desert advances inexorably, the robots’ failure is obvious. Thus representing only a grave disappointment from now on, the Pioneers are turned into polite servants and workers that patch up the walls, reduced themselves to keeping the refugees and the poor outside.
Enter Jacq Vaucan (Banderas), an insurance agent of ROC robotics corporation that spends his days on the filthy hallways of crumbling skyscrapers, looking into complaints filed by owners of servant robots in order to earn a living for his wife and their unborn baby. Carrying out his monotonous existence, Jacq is an unwilling witness to the misery of both human and robot life until finally stumbling upon an anomaly. A report filed by a drug-abusing cop in which he claimed to have shot a robot that was fixing itself, thus breaking one of two inalterable protocols: to protect human life and to limit its own capabilities.
Jacq’s further investigations take him outside the wall to the refugee camp, looking for a clocksmith, as the non-corporate robotics engineers were called. Accompanied by the cop Wallace, Jacq finds Cleo, a robot prostitute. Volcanic in temper and impatient, Wallace shoots Cleo and threatens Jacq into following her owners as they take her for repairs. The journey that follows takes Jacq outside the boundaries of his routine ridden life and makes him bear witness to the rise of a new form of life and consciousness, the first steps of an organic overthrow of the still dominant, although slowly decaying, human race.
The main character is that of the new type, in continuation of the flawed, human heroes such as Tony Soprano in the Sopranos or Mad Men’s Don Draper, that has conquered the screens and hearts of audiences worldwide. The obvious science-fiction character of the film adds the element of novelty to the environment of such a hero and shows that the said genre has much more to offer as special effects catch up to the imagination of genius writers. Automata does not rely on such effects, though, but chooses to explore the very nature of humanity in relation to another species, one that we created with our own hands, taking the role of creators. Society-oriented science-fiction movies are inherently political in this way, portraying profound changes in the organized (or not) way humans interact to each other and a number of new life forms or adapt to new environments, both imagined years and years ago.
What follows, you shall see.