It’s too easy to say that Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata is less than the sum of its visuals, which a lot of people will do, because it’s really pretty. The film’s design evokes peak-period Jean Giraud, whose gorgeous science-fiction illustrations inspired Ridley Scott’s films Alien and Blade Runner, and therefore every subsequent depiction of a future built up from the accretion of successive decades of engineering.
In this near-future dystopia, solar flares have altered the Earth’s environment and deserts are expanding across the continents. An economic underclass, mostly ignored by the story, lives in shantytowns on the periphery of a great walled city where residents are served by robots, their history related via an artful photojournalistic montage. Antonio Banderas plays an insurance agent tasked with investigating robot malfunctions who discovers evidence that robots have modified themselves against the explicitly hardwired protocols preventing their evolution, evocative of Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.
Automata has moments of tremendous visual and storytelling elegance which are punctuated with ham-fisted characterization and thunderingly terrible acting. Like preprogrammed automata, the human villains are unable to overcome the hardwired protocols of silly TV bad guys.
This contrasts with the understated presentation of the robots themselves, their flattened affect and subdued gestures somehow inviting empathy. Ibáñez includes a beautiful scene in which a pair of robots observe prehistoric paintings on the wall of a desert cave, a brief note of grace amid the hammy emoting of the humans. The poetry in Ibáñez’s soul has to cohabit with a lot of spray cheese.