As the world coos at the latest CGI effects in films like Jurassic World, it may behoove us all to remember that there is still a place for puppets, damn it. And although old school animatronics may have their limitations, films like Automata – now available on instant streaming – can make grand use of practical effects to create a futuristic world that feels more real than fantastic, and more creepy than beautiful.
Directed and co-written by Gabe Ibáñez (Hierro), the sci-fi drama Automata stars Antonio Banderas as an insurance investigator in the near-ish future, after solar flares have wiped out most of the human population. Now, to get most of the work done we rely on clunky robots called “Pilgrims” that have only two unbreakable rules: 1) They cannot allow harm to come to any living creature, and 2) They cannot alter themselves in any way.
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Hardcore and even casual sci-fi fans will probably predict where this is going, and will most likely presume that a robot apocalypse is inevitable. They would be very wrong. Although Ibáñez’s film wears many of its influences quite proudly on its sleeve, it eschews most conventional action sequences in favor of pensive, atmospheric mystery. Automata is the story of a man who struggles with his place in a world that no longer sustains him, fears for the future of his unborn child, and wrestles with serious philosophical ramifications when the Pilgrims begin repairing themselves and fleeing their human oppressors.
Automata has moments of violence but overall, thrills are not on the agenda. It could probably have used some. The film’s thoughtful mentality and its dedication to drippy atmosphere leads to multiple slow moments that feel unnaturally languid. If anything, by the time Banderas finds himself stuck in the radioactive desert and surrounded by the robots who will eventually replace mankind, Automata is outright depressing.
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But that’s as it should be. Automata is intelligent science fiction, trawling familiar ground but staking its own claim with moody presentation and intriguing, otherworldly effects. The many robots of Ibáñez’s film are produced practically, interacting with the actors in appropriately stilted mannerisms that make them feel distinctly “other,” whereas similar CGI creations – like those found in the comparable but largely inferior I, Robot – take on a wholly human quality, albeit with a different skin. These robots are not “us,” and Ibáñez doesn’t even work hard to make them relatable. They are profoundly different than the irrational and emotional human characters and that greatly contributes to the film’s unsettling theme of man’s self-destructive refusal to accept change.
Automata is not a “fun” movie, which in itself is almost rather refreshing against the current backdrop of sci-fi fantasy. It has the visual ambition of a blockbuster but the dreamy mentality of the art house. Halfway between Steven Spielberg’s A.I. and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, it rests a little uncomfortably, like an alien entity trying to make us understand what it means to feel alien. Whatever Ibáñez’s film isn’t, it certainly is impressively realized. Automata may be best suited for serious sci-fi enthusiasts and fans of practical visual effects, but for these audiences it has been made very, very well.
Automata is now available on Netflix and for a rental fee at Amazon Instant. Availability is subject to change, so watch it while you can, and come back next week for a new underrated movie recommendation from CraveOnline’s Now Streaming!