Automata (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Automata (2014)

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As the climate around the world began to collapse, a single city is left standing against the desert.  Jacq is an insurance adjuster for the largest provider of robotic helpers in the city.  When he begins investigating robots who seem to have developed independent thinking, he is drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the few surviving humans that remain. 

Salvaging the wastelandOne of my favorite maxims about cinema comes from Jean-Luc Godard, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” What’s important about his phrasing is that by making another movie you are performing an illustrative act. The question becomes which sources of art are quoted for each movie, what balance of tone through visuals and action is obtained, what is the dialogue saying or omitting, and so on. To make another movie is to create another point of comparison out of the void, and from there we can begin to properly criticize as a constructive practice.

So it’s helpful that with Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata that response has already been created with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Both films are sincere to a fault, and to their benefit, glorifying their approach to science-fiction in different stylistic ways but never betraying their respect for the source. The key difference between the two is while Automata and Interstellar both take science-fiction seriously, Automata has an identity crisis about how best to approach its vision while Interstellar is crafted from someone who believes love runs the universe and by god that’s what Nolan’s going to show us.

Many interesting subplots are introduced throughout Automata, like the way trauma can affect the trasference of affection.

Many interesting subplots are introduced throughout Automata, like the way trauma can affect the transference of affection.

Automata has moments of imagery that show the Spanish-born Gabe Ibáñez can incorporate moments of striking surrealism from his countrymen. The problems begin with the way Ibáñez is unable to stick to one idea throughout Automata. It’s an abundance of ideas, from the concept of robots workers replacing the human proletariat in a post-capital society to a budding technophile’s barely discussed lust for machines as a pleasurable transference from disappearing humans. Those and many more of the ideas in Automata could carry their own film but the 100 minutes or so we have is not enough and feels disorganized because of this.

Before getting to the issues with this lack of focus I need to make clear that Ibáñez, if he is able to continue making feature films, should have quite the career ahead of him. Automata is his second feature-length production and shows that he has an interest in big ideas and trying to influence those through his visual storytelling. Surreal moments like the robots anchoring giant water-collecting blimps in the sky by flimsy cords speak both to Ibáñez’s knowledge of surrealist art and the way he uses this image to introduce the idea of the robots bound by larger corporate influences. As the robots start to think for themselves we return to that image of bondage, like the protective layers the robots are equipped with to seem more human, that show Ibáñez is capable of a consistent and striking motif that works well for the story.

The problem is that there is not one motif. Some shots seem to take place in the world of a paranoid conspiracy thriller with their specific and small focal lengths and distorted angles. Other moments look like a perversion of grand epics with the sweeping vistas replaced by desolate sands and unforgiving storms. Ibáñez does not settle on a specific visual idea for Automata and as a result the film switches from different genres on a visual basis so consistently that sometimes the entire tone changes between each shot.

This probably has to do with the screenplay for Automata, which shares three credits with Ibáñez, Igor Legaretta Gomez, and Javier Sanchez Donate. As a sign of the subplot bloat that Automata has our hero, Jacq (Antonio Banderas), faces not one, not two, but three different levels of conspiracy plotting against him. These go from his boss and his relatively benign suspicion, to a paranoid street-level killer, and a shadow conspiracy that, as the old saying puts it, “all the way to the top.” Ibáñez struggles with this balance and it’s easy to see why considering those three different subplots all carry their own visual style. When the screenplay starts loading on another shadowy character who may or may not help the robots, Jacq’s pregnant and lonely wife, the encroaching desert, and so on the film becomes difficult to follow.

I shows a firm grasp of different visual techniques to tell the story but would have benefited from commiting to a single style.

Different visual techniques tell the story but Automata would have benefited from committing to a single style.

The only glaring fault with Automata is with one performance. No, it’s not the commonly maligned Banderas. Even with the multitude of emotional beats he has to hit Banderas does a great job modulating his performance to whatever individual moments demand. The sore spot comes from Dylan McDermott, who plays a tough so slimy and generic it almost circles back to being memorable. McDermott has a Nick Cage-esque talent of taking already absurd material that one extra step, but that only works if he’s already working in the deep end (his bonkers recent work on American Horror Story is a good example). But he sneers, he waves his gun around, and he always sounds like he’s a toddler play acting in the sand.

Automata’s sore spots don’t completely detract from the film. They’re just indications that Ibáñez is a promising director who is just going through some growing pains. The moments of inspiration were not enough to stem my growing disinterest but those looking for a curious film to whittle away the evening they could do far worse than Automata.

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Tail - AutomataAutomata (2014)

Directed by Gabe Ibáñez.
Screenplay written by Gabe Ibáñez, Igor Legaretta Gomez, and Javier Sanchez Donate.
Starring Antonio Banderas.

Posted by Andrew

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