“Automata” takes place 30 years from now, when environmental abuse has wiped out all but 21 million of us. Most of the world is a parched, radioactive wasteland. Any activity outside one of the few safe zones must be accomplished by sophisticated robots — who also take care of much of the work in the remaining settlements. The one task utterly forbidden to robots is, logically, repairing themselves. ROC, the corporation that manufactures them, has implanted two inviolable directives: First, they can not harm — or, through inaction, allow harm — to come to any living thing. Second, they can’t alter themselves, which might allow them to rewrite the first directive (among other scary possibilities).
Antonio Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an insurance adjuster employed by ROC to investigate claims about malfunctioning units. As you have already figured out, Jacq stumbles across signs that some robots have altered their programming in direct violation of the second directive.
The outline of this plot will surely ring some bells, since, yes, the story is very similar to “Blade Runner,” a film a few of you — and by “few,” I mean 90 percent — have likely seen. There is no discreet tip of the hat to the Ridley Scott masterpiece anywhere in the press notes, but director/cowriter Gabe Ibanez surely knows the comparisons he’s inviting. Still, to say that “Automata” is no match for one of the greatest science fiction films ever made is hardly a damning putdown.
So, to get the inevitable out of the way: no, there is no aspect in which “Automata” can best “Blade Runner.” Abandoning that competition and taking Ibanez’s film on its terms, however, it’s pretty good. And, to put another issue to rest, the similarities never rise anywhere close to plagiarism.
Vaucan is a burnt-out case. His wife (beautiful Danish actress Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) is nine months pregnant, and Vaucan doesn’t want to raise a child in their dismal world. He dreams of living by the sea, and his boss (Robert Forster, turning an expected bad guy character into something more complex) has promised him a transfer if he can track down the “Clockmaster” who must have been the first to alter some robot’s directives and set off a chain reaction. Unless the deviation can be traced to its source and quickly snuffed out, each altered robot can alter more robots, and protection of “self” can propagate through the mechanical population like a plague.
Banderas’s wife, Melanie Griffith, starred in “Cherry 2000,” another Man vs. Robots film from the 80s. She has a dual role in “Automata”: in addition to playing brilliant scientist Dupre, she also provides the voice for Cleo, a sex-provider robot with a motionless plastic face.
The budget was apparently half that of “Blade Runner,” which — adjusting for inflation — represents about a tenth of half as much. Ibanez makes good use of the means at his disposal, setting the first half of the movie in a decaying urban environment that makes the chaotic streets of “Blade Runner” look like Quiet Day at Versailles.
There may be little here that we haven’t seen before, but Ibanez keeps the pace fast and manages to suggest a bit of religious allegory without bonking us over the head with it.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).