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At what point, exactly, does a robot cease to exist as merely a “machine” and become something more? It’s a question that’s been an integral part of science fiction practically from the genre’s creation, a question that’s been examined by literary luminaries like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, across works as unforgettable as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “I, Robot” and “2001.” The questions are always the same fundamental ones: What is the primary difference between intelligent machines and humans? Can a machine ever “become” human or, at the least, human-like? Do robots possess the capacity for emotions? Can you program “sadness,” “anger,” “hatred” or “love”? If robots were capable of self-awareness, would this be the tipping point?

Cinema, for its part, has been asking the same questions for almost as long as we’ve had movies: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is probably the first example of a cinematic tradition that’s been going on for almost a century, a tradition that includes such diverse films as Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1972), The Black Hole (1979), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), Short Circuit (1986), RoboCop (1987), Cherry 2000 (1987), A.I. (2001), I, Robot (2004), WALL-E (2008), Moon (2009) and Chappie (2015). One of the newest inclusions into this amazingly eclectic group, Spanish writer-director Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata (2014), also ends up being one of the better ones: barring a few missteps and unnecessary clutter, Automata is a gorgeously filmed, thought-provoking look at what separates us from the machines…and why they just might be better at “living” than we’ll ever be.

The year is 2044 and the Earth has been decimated by solar storms that have, in effect, turned the whole planet into a radioactive wasteland. 99% of the population has died, leaving the survivors to take shelter in the few remaining cities, the equivalent of ants scurrying to get away from the magnifying glass. Since atmospheric disturbances have wrecked holy hell with radio transmissions, electrical grids and the like, technology has regressed to your typical dystopic state of being: in other words, humanity is completely and irreversibly fucked, our future sizzling away like so much fat in the fire.

Into this rather terrible situation comes the ubiquitous ROC Corporation (think RoboCop’s Omni Corp and you’re in the right neighborhood), creator of the “primitive” Automata Pilgrim 7000s, a type of robot which does everything from building the walls and coverings which protect the last cities to helping take care of kids, cooking meals and fighting wars (despite our truncated timeline, humans still need to kill each other, apparently, which always seems to be our one constant). By the time the film opens, there are millions of Automatas running around, each one governed by two very fundamental protocols: robots may not harm any form of life (including themselves) and they are forbidden from altering themselves or other robots. Like the Prime Directives in RoboCop, these are unbreakable, unalterable and, obviously, in place to help preserve humanity’s increasingly precarious place in the pecking order.

Our “Deckard” in this particular instance is Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), one of ROC Corp’s ubiquitous insurance investigators. Jacq’s job is to run around and look into any and all insurance claims levied against his employers: when we first meet him, he’s looking into the case of an Automata that’s been accused of brushing a family dog to death. Jacq is completely burnt-out (no pun intended) at his job and dreams only of moving his pregnant wife, Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), to the seashore, if such a thing still exists in this brave new world.

As befits the “one last case” trope, Jacq is called on to investigate one of ROC Corp’s Automata that has been unceremoniously shot in the face by wastoid police officer Sean Wallance (Dylan McDermott). It seems that the “dead” robot had been modified in some pretty significant ways: not only was it capable of “self-repair” (a big no-no) but it also seemed to be smuggling illegal parts (an even bigger no-no). Jacq’s boss, Mr. Bold (Robert Forster), gives him the news that he’s been impatiently waiting for: find someone, anyone, to blame for the modified robot and Jacq will earn a one-way ticket to his dream destination (provided, of course, that it’s real and not an actual dream destination).

From here, Jacq dives into the deep end of the case, tracking the robot’s “clocksmith” all the way from the city’s stereotypically dystopic slums to a creepy android sex parlor and, finally, into the radioactive wastelands colloquially dubbed “The Sandbox.” As Jacq learns more and more about the modified Automata and its ultimate purpose, he also uncovers hints of a wide-ranging conspiracy, a conspiracy that could affect the very future of mankind. With no one but a group of Automata to guide him, Jacq must confront the truth behind the robots, a truth that will eventually lead him to a godlike being and, just perhaps, the long-rumored ocean that he’s always yearned to see. What separates us from the machines? As Vaucan will find out, quite a bit less than we might think.

Right off the bat, Ibáñez’s Automata is an absolutely stunning piece of film-craft: to not put too fine a point on it, the production design (courtesy of Patrick Salvador), cinematography (beautifully handled by Alejandro Martínez) and general mise en scene (Kes Bonnet handled the art design) are nearly flawless. For a film with an estimated budget of $7 million, Automata looks like it cost roughly fives times that. Using a mix of CGI backgrounds and actual animatronics for the Automata, the film is completely immersive and, to be honest, looks just as good as any of the accepted modern sci-fi prestige pictures: again, it’s hard to not belabor the point but Automata blew me away early and managed to keep impressing me for the entirety of its nearly two-hour run-time. If the film has any issues (and it has a couple), they have nothing whatsoever to do with the look, ambiance or general production.

Performance-wise, Automata’s cast is exceptionally solid: Banderas is fantastic as the world-weary investigator, McDermott turns in one of his patented “loose cannon” performances, Forster is suitably paternal as Jacq’s kind-hearted boss and Tim McInnerny makes a great villain as ultra-slimy “company man,” Vernon Conway. Sørensen does a fine job with what she’s given, although her character doesn’t really come into her own until the film’s final third. There’s also a really nice, subtle vocal performance by Javier Bardem as the godlike Automata: he brings a perfect combination of intelligence, gravitas and parental concern to the performance and is definitely one of the film’s highlights, even if he doesn’t get much screen-time.

In fact, the only performance that doesn’t quite connect is Melanie Griffith’s take on Dr. Dupre: even though the actress gives it her all, her performance is never quite as realistic as the others’. Too often, it feels like she’s attempting to make sense of nonsensical dialogue and she never really sells the character: the scenes between her and Banderas have an awkward quality that’s rather off-putting. Ironically, Griffith is much more convincing in her dual-performance as the voice of Cleo, the sexbot: her vocal performance is much more subtle and nuanced than her “full” performance.

One of the most impressive aspects of Automata is how it references and takes elements from other classic sci-fi films, yet manages to make them seem wholly organic. In many ways, the film throws Blade Runner and Westworld into a blender and seasons the concoction with various elements from films like Alien and RoboCop: the Automata “weep” white tears, ala Alien…the godlike robot has a weary intelligence and understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, ala Blade Runner’s Roy Batty…there are sex-bots, like in Cherry 2000 (Griffith’s vocal performance as Cleo is also a great reference to her role in the ’80s film)…the giant hologram ads that “roam” the city are reminiscent of Blade Runner’s chaotic culture-shock…they all add up to make Automata seem like a part of a much bigger universe, a much further-reaching combined aesthetic.

Unlike many multiplex sci-fi thrillers, Automata is an endlessly intelligent film, one that’s not afraid to offer its complex science and mythology with a minimum of hand-holding. The film might open with the equivalent of an info dump but, in a way, that’s also to be expected: when you have a lot of details to impart and a limited time to impart them, sometimes the best way is also the bluntest way. At times, Automata threatens to become too complex and confusing, especially once we get into the robots’ “mind kernals” and their attempts at “self-improvement” and evolution. This, of course, is always the danger one assumes when dealing with a genuinely smart film: it makes demands of the audience and, if you aren’t willing to stay engaged, you’ll most likely be left behind.

In fact, if I had any real issues with Ibáñez’s film (he co-wrote the script with Igor Legarreta and Javier Sánchez Donate), they all lie with the unfortunately hackneyed, old-as-the-hills “corporate conspiracy” that lurks at the heart of the film. Without that silly, action-oriented facet, Automata would be a much slower, more thought-provoking film, much closer to the grandiose vision of Blade Runner than it ultimately is. We’ve already been shown such wonders by the time that an anonymous group of authority figures determine that Jacq “knows too much” that it feels like a serious cop-out: for all of the film’s grand vision and intelligence, the climax still devolves into one of those de rigueur “final shootouts,” as Jacq battles Vernon for ultimate supremacy. The conspiracy angle also introduces at least two subplots too many, subplots which help to drag the film down rather than propel it forward.

Ultimately, however, my quibbles with Automata are minor: this is first-class, grade-A filmmaking all the way, the kind of intelligent sci-fi film that should make any fan of the genre sit up and take notice. While Ibáñez and his extraordinarily talented cast and crew don’t blaze the kind of bold, new trails that pioneers like 2001 and Blade Runner did, they still turn in a film that stands, head and shoulders, above similar pretenders. There is genuine beauty here, along with a tremendously powerful emotional core and some truly unforgettable images: the scene where the Automatas create life is one of the single, greatest nods to Frankenstein that I’ve ever seen and would be a crowning showpiece in any film. As only his second full-length directorial effort, Automata showcases Gabe Ibáñez as a truly formidable new talent, a visionary who will practically demand my attention, from this point on.

If you’re a fan of good filmmaking, I heartily suggest that you follow along, too. I’m not sure if Ibáñez is the next Ridley Scott or merely the next Alex Proyas: either way, I have a feeling that he’s got plenty of amazing things to show us.