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.

Once, he thought, I would have seen the stars. But now it’s only the dust; no one has seen a star in years, at least not from Earth –Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Familiar to many as the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is another classic of science fiction. Published in 1968, it dresses the traditional tropes of nuclear apocalypse, religion, and artificial intelligence in a brittle dystopic modernity. But its real subject is the eternal puzzle of our own humanity.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? describes one very long day for bounty hunter Rick Deckard, who is charged with “retiring” six  androids who killed their human masters on Mars and escaped to Earth to try to live as human beings. The novel considers the issue of artificial intelligence obliquely—it is assumed that the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’s  dwindling Earth have their own desires and motivations, and are all but impossible to tell from natural humans without highly specialized empathy tests. In this world, it is not the androids’ ability to be self-aware that defines the difference, but their inability to feel for anyone but themselves. Or so the humans believe, in order to justify how androids are treated. Decker “had wondered… precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted with an empathy-measuring test” (30). This question, and the assumptions it carries, twist beneath the plot in a way that never quite reaches an answer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is full of quiet desperation laced with dry humor. Every smile, every scrap of joy in this dusty world seems to be poisoned with sadness and disappointment. The apocalypse has come and gone, and the world still straggles on: “The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties” (8).

Normal, Special, Other

Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?

Radiation-damaged humans are kept separated and dispossessed: “Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind” (16). But even a special can instinctively grasp what the normal human characters often overlook: “You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all” (204). On an Earth where the damaged are not considered truly human, it is the androids who can become the “other people,” who enable even a special man to fully live.

Human and android characters intersect frequently, both openly and in disguise. But they are all still dogged by loneliness, isolation, and the long slow drag of dehumanization. Decker’s wife explains that, “although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it… then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.'” (5). The absence of appropriate affect is attributed to androids by their human masters, but the androids, enslaved on Mars, feel the emptiness, too: “‘nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age'” (150). Distinctions are not so clear as the humans would have them.

Over the course of the novel Decker passes through stages of doubt, belief, and renewed doubt in android empathy. There are many descriptions of the range of emotions in the androids. “He did not like the idea of being stalked; he had seen the effect on androids. It brought about certain notable changes, even in them” (57); and “The androids,” she said,” are lonely, too” (150). But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  leaves such references only partially explored by unreliable narrators, making them hard to evaluate. Even as the androids express needs and desires of their own, their reactions are presented as distinctly not human—at least not as humanity is defined by the human characters. When threatened with death, “The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to” (200); when using facts against faith, “They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed” (214); when asked to react to a rare-to-vanishing living wasp, “‘I’d kill it.'” (49). But the differences described are vague and subjective. Decker’s inconsistency is understandable.

Empathy, Sympathy, Compassion

An Android Owl
An Android Owl

It is not only Decker. Many of the human characters are themselves adrift, searching for a way to connect. Post-war society has warped into something that enforces separations. Yet faith still endures. “At the black empathy box his wife crouched, her face rapt. He stood beside her for a time, his hand resting on her breast; he felt it rise and fall, the life in her, the activity. Iran did not notice him; the experience with Mercer had, as always, become complete” (177-8). Mercer, a Christ-figure, is the means through which believers experience community. But they do it in their own separate cells, using their own individual machines. They commune in solitude.

Empathy boxes are not the only mechanical attempt to connect with another being. With most animals dead, humanity has created artificial ones like the title’s electric sheep, robotic pets to fill the void left by extinction. But the nostalgia these imitations beasts produce is palpable:

“For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came to his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day–foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits” (42)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? purposely muddies the distinctions between human and android, electric animal and living beast. It is never cleanly established what makes the androids truly different from humans. Aside from a short lifespan and a slower emotional response time to human-centric questions, they resemble their makers in all essential ways. What Decker believes about the androids is not always supported by what he observes, yet he clings to his version of the truth even as it seems less and less true. He has to. In a world where humans fill a void by embracing clockwork substitutes for real, living creatures, he cannot afford to embrace a substitute for himself.

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 Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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