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.

Chappie came out in March, 2015, and its trailers looked gritty and funny and sharp. Writer/director Neill Blomenkamp had expanded the concept from his 2004 short Tetra Vaal into a full length movie. But the reviews upon its release were not encouraging. It earned only 30% on Rotten Tomatoes and 41% on Metacritic. Audiences liked it more than critics did, but opinions were still roundly mixed. I wrote Chappie off as one of those movies I might watch when it got to cable. Maybe.

Then, I spotted this on Twitter from Wiliam Gibson: “Taint of Disneyfication is exclusively from Sony’s excruciatingly misguided marketing. If Chappie‘s not cyberpunk, nothing ever was.”

Chappie
Chappie

I have great respect for William Gibson. If anyone knows what is or isn’t cyberpunk, it is him, and he has been vouching for Chappie since its initial release. So, I watched it. And while I understand some of the negative critical reactions, I also fully understand why Gibson got behind it with the weight of his authority. Despite any flaws in the filmmaking, Chappie is an eloquent, moving, hopeful movie about what makes us who we are.

Chappie happens in that space which Gibson loves so well, the intersection of society’s grey economy fringe-dwellers and its ubiquitous hi-tech. Cyberpunk is defined by this crossing of paths. The rich fund the technology, the disenfranchised steal and adapt it. In keeping with that, the character of Chappie begins his days as a police robot, the apparently sole product of Tetravaal Corporation. The robot is acquired by a desperate gang of abandoned-factory dwelling outsiders and his new awareness molded to support their criminal plans.

This is the barest frame of what drives Chappie’s action. The story, though, is of much wider and deeper scope.

Chappie is portrayed engagingly through voice and motion capture by Sharlto Copley. Chappie’s maker, Deon, is played with almost adolescent intensity by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. The self-named Ninja and Yolandi are members of the South African rap/rave group Die Antwoord. Both are charming in their roles as marginalized criminals, and their personal styles vividly display a retro punk aesthetic. The gang is rounded out by Jose Pablo Cantillo as Yankie. He gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as a thug who learns to care about a robot.

The big-name star power is much less effective. Hugh Jackman is underutilized and underdeveloped as Vincent, a soldier-cum-engineer who carries a gun in the office and behaves in a way that should get him walked out by security. Vincent is crudely and unbelievably religious, and pathologically invested in his own creation. He has to reject the idea of a conscious, feeling Chappie in order to adhere to his own agenda and move the plot along.

Sigourney Weaver, also playing an underdeveloped character, brings her usual cool authority to Tetravaal’s CEO Michelle Bradley. Although her early scenes show some strength, Michelle’s willingness to cave into Vincent’s intense pressure is a glaring plot device and one of the weak points in the movie.

Spoilers ahead.

Set in the too-close-for-comfort near-future of 2016, Chappie is a take on artificial intelligence that focuses on emotion instead of intellect. According to his creator, Chappie is gifted with “proper, full artificial intelligence”—which, here, includes the ability to love.

The robot’s transition into awareness is like the taming of a wild thing. Chappie’s awakening is smoothed by Yolandi, a female gang member who dresses like an anarchic Rainbow Brite doll.  Yolandi is weirdly yet believably maternal toward Chappie, calming him, protecting him, advocating for him, tucking him in at night. The scenes between Chappie and Yolandi are full of sincerely-played, mutual trust and affection for each other.

It is a different relationship than Chappie has with his actual maker. Deon, an ambitious programmer for Tetravaal, passionately believes in Chappie’s personhood and fights for his acceptance as an individual. Yet there is still an element of paternalistic command in the way he interacts with the robot. The gang leader, Ninja, on the other hand, is slower to accept Chappie as anything more than a tool. Yet, with the prodding of Yolandi and laid-back third gang member Yankie, he eventually takes on the role of Dad for the young AI.

The creation of the family unit is extremely well done—often silly, never sappy or maudlin, and without any emotionally manipulative moments. It feels right. That quality is vital, because the believability of this affection is the basis of all that follows.

Dad, Mom, and Chappie
Dad, Mom, and Chappie

The evolution of the ties that bind happens against a background of disenfranchisement and its collision with conspicuous consumption. So much of Chappie’s environment is Johannesburg’s bleak cityscape—all empty, weedy lots, urban rubble, and tin-shack slums thrown against the contrast of sleek, disconnected corporate facilities and rich suburbs.

As part of that, Yolandi’s and Ninja’s real-life South African Zef style is on full display, underscoring the great divide between the wealthy and the marginal.  They cannibalize eighties culture—He-Man, Lisa Frank, mullets, armloads of watches, heavy gold chains—in a way that dovetails with the urbanized decay of the abandoned industrial sites, warehouses, and office cubicles that shape the story.

One haunting scene is set in an abandoned apartment tower emblazoned with a Vodacom logo, decaying and now colonized by a powerful gang. The courtyard is filled with rubble and the sky is far, far away past stories of crumbling balconies. It is reminiscent of the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes, littered with the broken bits of normal life.

While visually effective, f rom a narrative standpoint, there are too many implausible actions taken. There is huge oversimplification of the childish political maneuvering within the company. And there are awkward plot twists that leave holes behind them—why would the gang let Deon come and go at will? How can Vincent use the security key in Tetravaal’s main office without anyone noticing? Why does Michelle cave without question when Vincent wants to put his robot into action?

Having said all that, I now ask you to ignore it. Questions like these may distract from the genuine emotional resonance of Chappie, but they cannot blunt it. Chappie is the real thing.

Because Chappie is a feeling being, the climactic battle between Vincent’s murderous military ‘bot and the gang that is Chappie’s family is heartbreaking. Yankie dies, Deon is gut-shot and will die soon, Ninja tries to sacrifice himself to draw the killing machine away, and Yolandi takes a fatal bullet to save Ninja. Chappie’s outrage at their deaths is wrenching, and his reaction stems from the emotional core of this story. This is his family. He loves them, and they love him. His rage is real, and viscerally honest. When he goes after Vincent his vengeance feels justified. We understand the drive to avenge such a loss. We feel it with him.

And so the true implication of Chappie’s “proper, full” AI is not that a machine is self-aware, or even self-interested. It is that a machine has learned to love another being, to risk and give and strive. For Chappie, love is the transcendence that makes a machine a person like us.

The hope I see in Chappie exists not because any of the characters will escape the fringe where they live—their saved consciousnesses housed in new, robotic bodies almost guarantee they won’t. The hope exists because they love each other. An unexpected sentiment for a genre as cool as cyberpunk—but who am I to argue with William Gibson?

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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