In 2044 AD solar flares have irradiated large sections of the Earth and drastically reduced human population. Huge, heavily-guarded walls separate vast wastelands from wealthier dystopian cities where humans have come to depend on sophisticated robots in order to survive. These robots are governed by two unalterable laws: they cannot harm a human being nor alter themselves in any way. Which is why city cop Wallace (Dylan McDermott) freaks out when he finds a robot upgrading itself in an alley. He shoots it dead. World-weary insurance agent Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) of the ROC robotics corporation is assigned to investigate any case of robots violating their protocols and harming humans. So far he has never found any, but evidence suggests someone is tampering with their primary programming when a sex droid called Cleo (voiced by Melanie Griffith) shows signs of becoming self-aware. Unfortunately, Vaucan's employers come to believe he is himself involved in a possible plot to overthrow the human race.
Despite the star-power of Antonio Banderas, the Spanish-Bulgarian-Canadian produced Automáta flew under the radar and was strangely derided by those few that did see it in theaters. Which is sad given this is a science fiction film that admirably champions ideas over mindless spectacle although the disjointed narrative admittedly does not always propel those ideas with the proper verve. Robot detective stories were a staple of science fiction literature long before they found their way into movies, most famously with Blade Runner (1982) based on Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and I, Robot (2004) loosely based on the writings of Isaac Asimov. With its neon-lit dystopian city shrouded in fog, ceaseless rain and giant pornographic holograms the film inevitably evokes the seminal Ridley Scott movie though its preoccupation with ethical dilemmas resulting from the development of artificial intelligence echoes Asimov's work.
Central to the film is the idea that life on Earth endures in one form or another. Whether through the unborn child carried by Vaucan's heavily-pregnant wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) or the seemingly newly-emergent robo-sapiens voiced by Melanie Griffith and Javier Bardem (who snags several of the more thought-provoking and moving speeches), "life always ends up finding a way." The script, co-written by Spanish director Gabe Ibáñez and writers Igor Lagarreta and Javier Sanchez Donate, posits that an artificial intelligence would inevitably evolve into a sentient being by virtue of its capacity for rational thought, a philosophy perhaps more in line with the Buddhist-Shintoist influenced science fiction manga of Osamu Tezuka than the more measured theorizing of Asimov. Ibáñez depicts a world where mankind grows increasingly humanized (conscience-free corporate villains, gun-toting child assassins, jaded cops) whilst robots prove themselves more capable of empathy, reinforcing a second theme that the art of living is far more important than mere survival.
If the viewer does not buy into these ideas the film might prove a bit of a plod. Banderas gives a full-throttle performance while a sub-plot about Vaucan's anxieties over raising a child in this bleak future realm add a not of human warmth lacking in Blade Runner, but for the first half Ibáñez seems content to toss around disparate characters and plot directions in the hope one of them will stick. Things pick up around the forty-five minute mark with Vaucan on the run in the desert with a band of self-aware robots. Having started out as a visual effects artist for Alex de la Iglesia, Ibáñez exhibits considerable skill in realizing a vivid dystopian future that is detailed without being overly effects driven. In a welcome break from films like I, Robot the robots here are brought to life through a combination of puppetry and animatronic effects that gives them a certain warmth and personality. Listen out for an electronic rendition of "Daisy, Daisy" over the end credits. A possible nod to cinema's first malfunctioning artificial intelligence: HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A solid supporting cast also inject a touch of class including a cameo from Griffith in human form, a near-unrecognizable Dylan McDermott as seedy cop Wallace and Robert Forster as Vaucan's boss-cum-brother-in-law. British viewers might have some trouble accepting comic actors Tim McInnerny and Andy Nyman as hard-boiled American cops though they are pretty convincing villains. One wonders whether McDermott and Griffith felt any sense of deja-vu as certain aspects of the film do evoke Hardware (1990) and Cherry 2000 (1987).