Watching director Gabe Ibáñez’s “Autómata,” it’s hard not to note and appreciate the skill, will and invention brought to the effects sequences, a mix of practical magic and CGI trickery, nor to marvel at how Ibáñez’s film gets a billion-dollar look out of a “mere” $15 million. As a demonstration reel or test clip, there’s no doubt that “Automata”‘s finest moments would get Ibáñez some well-deserved work.
But I come to bury “Autómata,” not to praise it; every innovation or nicely-finessed moment of work is outweighed by a lumbering, slumbering, overlong running time that’s the bulky, rattling container for every single cliché the topic’s already given us, and then some.
Co-written by Ibáñez, Igor Legaretta and Javier Sánchez Donate, “Autómata” begins with too much exposition in its opening titles: it’s 2044, solar storms have reduced the human population to 25 million people, and robots are made to improve human lives but not improve themselves.
We’re plunged into this world, with its decrepit skyscrapers and huge holo-ads looming over the landscape, alongside Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), who isn’t some cop or bounty-hunting Blade Runner but just an insurance claims guy, trying to figure out who exactly will pay for the messes made when humans and robots interact.
Jacq stumbles into a case much bigger than he can imagine, thanks to hopped-up cop Wallace (Dylan McDermot, undershaven and overacting), who shot and destroyed an android he found repairing itself in clear violation of the regulations all robots must follow in Ibáñez’s film. Any similarity to Asimov’s Three Laws is purely deliberate.
Jacq and all humans are worried about what might happen if the robots meant to help humanity rise up to destroy it; I’m not suggesting this plot has cobwebs, but I will note it resembles the basic outline of Karel Čapek’s “R.U.R.,” the 1920 play that gave us the word “robot.”
Worse, Ibáñez’s film is incredibly badly-paced, with too much time spent on a tired, dehydrated Banderas out in the desert with only Cleo, an ex-sex bot deliberately evolved past her pleasure protocols, as his company. It’s not the mythic emptiness of a Lean or a Jodorowsky; it’s just bare and boundless, with the lone and level sands stretching far past the point where the audience’s interest runs out.
Banderas, shaved-headed and wearing a clear rainslicker out of “The Conversation,” is all wrong as Jacq — shouty where he should be stern, confused where he should be clued in — and other castmates like Robert Forster and Melanie Griffith can’t do much either, swaddled immobile inside a story that’s made of large, unbending pieces of other films.
Along the way, one character notes, regarding the rogue robots, that “Life always ends up finding its way,” a line that will evoke happier memories of “Jurassic Park” more than it will endear anyone to “Autómata.” Jacq walks us through his childhood dreams of the shore and his hopes to move to the coast with his pregnant wife and dances mournfully with Cleo as a jukebox scratches out “La Mer,” as if we might not get the visual and metaphorical idea of water as a balm to this sun-scorched earth’s weary survivors.
“Autómata” is a movie that’s all look and no feel, all sizzle and no steak; while it’s remarkably easy to appreciate a film with such nimble visuals, the lead-footed storytelling makes it difficult to care.