We’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a walled city surrounded first by slums (whose denizens are shot on sight) and then by radioactive desert. Beyond that, no one’s sure. Insurance adjuster Jacq (Antonio Banderas) has faint recollections of the sea, but who can trust memory? His world is gray and sooty, occasionally doused with acid rain; there’s no greenery in sight, and the only surviving animals appear to be scavenging dogs and vultures.
Spanish director Gabe Ibanez has set Automata 30 years in the future, after some sort of environmental collapse, though it’s also greatly indebted to a certain movie now 30 years in the past: Blade Runner. Jacq and his colleagues (led by the ever-kindly Robert Forster) wear suits and ties, communicate by pager, and keep filing cabinets in their office. Instead of ray beams: shotguns and six-shooters. The future has failed in more ways than one. No wonder Jacq is so glum about his wife (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) being pregnant: This is a planet unfit for life, where robots perform the tasks a collapsing population can no longer manage.
Jacq’s job is to investigate androids (or automata) gone awry, though he’s thwarted by a cop (a very ’80s Dylan McDermott) more intent on shooting than interrogating the rogue machines. (Besides bullets, they’re constrained by two hard-wired directives descended from Asimov.) Unlike the lively recent class parable of Snowpiercer, or Elysium, there’s no high-living one percent here. Jacq’s pursuit of some errant robots brings him to a scientist (Melanie Griffith) who warns of their becoming self-aware, but neither does this lead to Terminator-style war between man and machine.
While most of the pan-Euro Automata—filmed in English in Bulgaria—feels constructed of other, better sci-fi pictures, there’s a certain weary B-movie integrity to the proceedings. None of the stars seem particularly invested in a happy ending here (Griffith has just one scene with her soon-to-be-ex Banderas), and even the robots are committing suicide. Head shaved to stubble, Banderas’ usual vitality has also been clipped and grayed. He fairly sweats fatalism and defeat; and with a better script, Jacq could be a creature fit for Chandler or Hammett. When one android suggests, “Maybe your time is running out,” Jacq says nothing to contradict him. Opens Fri., Oct. 10 at Southcenter. Rated R. 109 minutes.