A collection of borrowed ideas makes Automata a visually interesting tale, but not a very memorable one.
A text-heavy opening sets the scene: solar flares irradiate the Earth and almost wipe out the human race. Less than one per cent remain in cities that are surrounded by wasteland. Primitive robots, called Pilgrims, are created to perform necessary maintenance work in the harsh environments.
In order to safeguard human life, these robots adhere to two unchangeable protocols; they cannot harm any form of life and they are banned from repairing or otherwise altering their own kind.
Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), a downtrodden insurance agent for a robotics corporation, is sent out to investigate reports of Pilgrims breaking protocol. Vaucan eventually finds evidence to suggest that someone is illegally tampering with Pilgrims and has found a way to bypass their protocols, which could have dire consequences for mankind.
Automata wears its influences proudly. The rain-soaked dystopian city setting is reminiscent of Blade Runner, the wasteland has a distinct Mad Max flavour to it and the robot protocols idea borrows heavily from Asimov’s Laws.
The idea behind Automata is great. The intrigue of Pilgrims going against their programming, the fascinating combination of retro and futuristic technology and Antonio Banderas holding it all together should equate to an entertaining yarn. Unfortunately, once the story escapes the confines of the city and continues out into the wasteland, everything starts to unravel.
The mystery that was so delicately set up gives way to a convoluted plot that doesn’t really make sense. A sub-plot involving a corrupt cop (Dylan McDermott) with marital issues is hinted at but completely forgotten about. Vaucan’s pregnant wife exists purely as motivation for him to try to get back to the city. It’s problems like these that really detract from the experience.
Banderas admirably soldiers on with a strong performance but even he can’t stop Automata’s alarming decline into cliché territory. It eventually descends into a jumbled mess of unfinished character arcs and unnecessary genre tropes.
Based on the first half of Automata I was going to award it four stars. It was a promising start that ticked a lot of my boxes for good sci-fi. However, the remainder of the film was so disappointing that it undermined everything good that came before it.