Much like the westerns of a bygone era, tales of future dystopia pitting humanity against itself as machines grow into sentient beings has created something of a blanket sandbox with which numerous filmmakers could explore both species as kin on a precipice of progress. Whether this is tackled by way of an action thriller, satire, or even quiet meditation, it often relies heavily on the complexity of human behavior on display. It's pretty easy to lose sight of this in all the sheen of rain-slicked streets, dirty hardware, and visions of a world turned garbage dump. It's plasticine that is open to new forms of examination. And what we largely have in Gabe Ibáñez's handsome but perpetually disoriented AUTOMATA, is a desert vision in a parched yearning for texture.
An ecological disaster of global proportion has spurred a desperate humanity into creating the Pilgrim 7000, servant robots initially tasked with the creation of a wall designed to protect what remains from an encroaching desert. Years later, their status from saviors has turned inward as dreams of a return to normalcy have given way to despair, hatred and a general distrust of the Pilgrims has steadily grown, with only two instilled protocols to protect them from harming living beings, and forbidding them to alter themselves. Insurance claims investigator, Jacq Vaucan(Antonio Banderas), is burnt out from his life dealing with the struggles of the beat when a Pilgrim is discovered executed by a local cop. Featuring not only smuggled contraband, but modified parts. Eager for a transfer out of the city, and a baby on the way, Vaucan seeks answers beyond the confines of the city's protective barriers, into grand slums that are often target practice for company guards ordered to shoot looters on sight. Bureaucrats on all sides beset against one another as the world reaches a tipping point.
Soon, as Vaucan's search leads him closer to who has been attempting to augment these machines, revelations about the possibility that humanity's grip on evolution has begun to slip. Whether his encounters include run ins with his boss, Robert Forster, bad cop, Dylan McDermott, and robot scientist, Melanie Griffith, Ibanez attempts to instill a personal warmth beyond his impending fatherhood that feels like a series of prefaces. An unusual solemnity is attempted as the film's muted palette and subdued soundtrack makes a plea for a sober atmosphere that is often eschewed for cacophonous action . But when it comes time to milk the drama for anything potent or enlightening, it recoils without anything clear to say. It's just a shame when a resourceful and lush looking attempt at such material finds itself so bereft of a central aim. Even as the script by (Ibáñez, Igor Legaretta Gomez & Javier Sanchez Donate) scrambles for callbacks and echoes of lyrics planted throughout, but all we get are stanzas in bereft of a core.
It's especially disappointing when we share an era of film so often reliant upon CG to articulate the mechanized characters, and here comes a work where the majority of robot scenes are done with effective on set puppetry. These robots may be slow moving, they may lack heavy articulation, but these are a breath of fresh air after years of often laughably fluid early generation mecha. And as characters with dialogue that is limited, not to mention with an often rusty, lumber to their step, it's a definite highlight. But again, despite the film's attempts to help us better empathize with them, the script leaves the film wanting, needing something desperately to counter all the inert human characters. An issue that ultimately leaves the entire affair pretty but ultimately empty.
A great portion of the film takes place deep in the scorching deserts where there seems to be no horizon, with our hero adrift with a group of sentient machines. This could very well be the best possible metaphor for Automata as a whole. We are in the company of some truly unique engineering and craft, but in service of a destination that seems to incessantly escape us. Like a proposal without a reply. It's a piece that for all its ambitious trappings, and potentially mature presentation, often feels borne out of a middling 1990s vehicle; staid, and saddled with a puzzled look on its face upon reaching the podium. The desert can be a great place to ponder, but without a proper guide, it can drive one to madness. Sadly, that probably would have made for a much better deal.