automata

automataAutomata, a bit of Spanish-Bulgarian science fiction from 2014, begins in familiar territory. A post-apocalyptic world. A monolithic city with the remains of humanity huddled inside. A vast, radioactive wasteland. And, naturally, sentient robots.

Many films have made these components work. But despite some talented actors, dramatic scenery, and the best of intentions, Automata does not manage to bring its vision fully to life. After a strong start, Automata falls into the trap of easy sentimentality and loses its way.

***

Automata is set in 2044, after the world has effectively ended. Humankind has been reduced to a only few million, living in fortress-like cities and served by ROC Corporation’s Pilgrim 7000s–humanoid robots designed for protection and manual labor. The robots operate under two immutable protocols: They cannot cause harm to any living thing, and they cannot repair or modify themselves or any other robot.

And then, one is discovered making its own modifications.

Insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan is assigned to find out who broke the robotic protocols and enabled the robot’s new ability. His search leads him deep into the remains of society’s underbelly, where he encounters dirty cops, dirtier corporate enforcers, child assassins, robotic sex slaves, black market “clocksmiths,” and, eventually, evolving, self-determining robots.

***

automataVisually, the cityscape is very much Blade Runner, right down to the rain, but without all the teeming people. The depopulation aspect spoke more to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the dull cubicle apartments hearkened back to Brazil.

Yet despite its obvious derivativeness, Automata’s worldbuilding is pretty good. The aged machinery, the old cars, and the ancient tech all contribute to the weariness of the world. What is left is either industrial and dirty, with monolithic structures and walls, piles of garbage, or a bleak, dusty wasteland. The culture is adapted to the conditions without becoming outlandish. The slang seems unforced, with the bulky robots nicknamed “clunkers” and the radioactive desert called the Sandbox.

But Automata is less successful with building its characters.

***

automataThe cast, overall, is overqualified and quite good, but many of the roles are flatly written or simply stock-types, too underdeveloped to be fully alive.

Antonio Banderas stars as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator sucked into the heart of a mystery. He is as brooding and mournful as ever, bringing a believable jadedness to his character. Dylan McDermott is threatening, cynical, and wasted as the corrupt cop, Wallace. Robert Forster plays Jacq’s supervisor Robert Bold believably as a worn-down but still compassionate company man. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen plays Jacq’s pregnant wife, Rachel, with convincing frustration and fear. Melanie Griffith, on the other hand, fails to convince as the robot-altering clocksmith, Doctor Dupré, with her baby voice and painfully slow delivery. She is more credible as the voice of the modified robot Cleo. 

The remaining cast is filled out by Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, David Ryall, Andrew Tiernan, Christa Campbell, Bashar Rahal, and, surprisingly, Javier Bardem. The actors’ talents far outshine the scopes of their roles.

***

automataAutomata’s plot also has problems. The film wants us to believe it is deep, but it is more stylish than substantive. The story builds steadily until Jacq leaves the city and enters the desert with a group of robots. From there, the plot loses its focus enough that at a reasonable 109 minutes, Automata felt padded. The long, sweeping scenes of desert and sky, the multiple flashbacks to the sea, the lingering close-ups of automata, all add length without contributing any needed development of the characters or story.

For all the visual grandeur, Automata is far less philosophically nuanced than Ex Machina or even Chappie. The robots are credited with incredible intelligence that far outstrips humanity’s. Unfortunately this intellect is expressed in soppy platitudes like, “Surviving is not relevant–living is,” and in creepy human-robot interactions that fail to highlight the intelligence of either species. Characters frequently toss out the idea that someone thought a robot was alive, but the implications of a living robot are addressed in a cursory, melodramatic way. The idea that the automata have become autonomous remains unexplored. The attempted religious overtones are not supported by the underlying themes, and the predictable action and sentimentality of the ending feels lazy rather than revelatory.

***

Automata is no classic, but it is not entirely a waste of time. While the plot is thin and the story stretched, the film is still quite beautiful. Banderas turns in one of his reliably lovely, melancholy performances, and the supporting cast is polished. In the end, I enjoyed it for what it is–an average film that wants to be more, but never does figure out how to get there.

Ghost Stories

ghost storiesGhost Stories is a low-key movie that blends the supernatural and the mundane into a genuinely eerie episodic tale. In structure Ghost Stories is a loose anthology, with the traditional three short stories surrounded by the framing story. But instead of tying everything neatly together, the framing story becomes more and more disjointed until it finally falls apart entirely. What is revealed is frightening, but not in the way you would expect.

Ghost Stories uses all the trappings of traditional supernatural fare, with revenants, wild devils, and irresistibly spooky places creating the chills. There are well-placed jump scares, but no blood and little violence. It doesn’t need it. The fine cast and mysterious episodes are quite terrifying without any gore.

“Like everyone else I presumed you were dead.” “How do you know I’m not?”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories begins with Phillip Goodman, a professor who has devoted his life to debunking claims of the paranormal. He is summoned to a remote seaside caravan by Charles Cameron, a fellow debunker who disappeared many years earlier. Cameron gives Goodman three cases he has not been able to disprove, and challenges him to show that the cases can be explained as ordinary events.

The first is a night watchman at an abandoned asylum, tormented by the ghost of a young girl. The second is a teenaged boy who ran into the Devil on a lonely road. The last is a successful businessman haunted by a poltergeist, who may be his wife who died giving birth to a monstrous child.

It soon becomes clear that Goodman is somehow connected to these cases. For him, that is the scariest thing of all.

“No frayed edges, no loose ends, all straight, all smooth”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories is full of strange cuts and stutters in the visual flow, building the sense of unreality. The colors are rich but diminished by a wintery, overcast light. Scenes are set in desolate, run-down places full of trash and broken things, or in spaces so sleek and spare there is no human warmth to them. The atmosphere these techniques create is one of loneliness and threat, with no safe place to run to.

The film loses some of its sharp edge when it borrows too obviously. Ghost Stories lifts the rushing-over-the-ground effect straight from Evil Dead, and the tearing of the fabric of reality is a familiar trick from multiple films. Still, though, the obvious cribbing can’t weaken the overall sense of dread.

“I don’t want anyone thinking there’s anything wrong with me”

Ghost StoriesThe film is written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, based on their play of the same name. Nyman also stars in it as the brittle, troubled Phillip Goodman. Martin Freeman plays the overachieving businessman Mike Priddle, with his usual likability buried under arrogant cynicism. Alex Lawther is heartbreaking as the fragile, terrorized teenager Simon Rifkind, while Paul Whitehouse is effectively blunt as the beleaguered watchman Tony Matthews.

Watching these characters suffer as they try to understand their experiences is as disturbing as the horrors themselves. 

“The brain sees what it wants to see”

Ghost Stories sets itself in the vast grey area between supernatural phenomena and a mind’s tricks on itself to craft its sad and spooky narrative. Objective truth doesn’t matter, here. The twist in the tale makes the anthology’s conclusion a moral tragedy. But it doesn’t lessen any of the fears–real or imagined.