DVD Review: Automata—Clunker with a Heart of Gold

I missed this movie when it came out a year ago, but that’s nothing new. I miss a lot. And foreign-made films don’t always rate first response from the American press. I suspect that’s why the reviews were not so good, either. Hollywood loves nothing so much as itself, even with Antonio Banderas in the lead role and Dylan McDermott and Melanie Griffith backing up. It’s just not a Hollywood flick and that speaks volumes. Even Robert Rodriguez rates better press than this from his Texas stronghold, but then he follows the bang-bang playbook to a ‘T’.

Okay, so ‘Automata’ might not be ‘Birdman’ or even ‘Matrix’, but it’s not bad, not bad at all. It’s not easy making a good sci-fi film. It has to be ‘scientific’ enough for that crowd, yet realistic enough to be believable, and still satisfy the human need for narrative and sympathy—not easy. Apparently the main beef seems to be that it doesn’t live up to its promise. Geez! Give it credit for even having a promise! Most sci-fi flicks don’t, and action films don’t even pretend to..

‘The Matrix’ was great, but totally unbelievable. ‘Star Wars’ doesn’t even count. That’s just live-action animation based on the ‘Hero with a 1000 Faces’ mono-myth like 1000 other stories. And space-based tales like it and ‘Star Trek’ are largely a failed paradigm now—too bad—though ‘2001’ will never be surpassed in that genre. Space is dead—for now. Wait for the Mars space program—if we’re lucky. So we’re left with robots for our science fix, still relevant if kept up-to-date.

And give ‘Automata’ credit for basing in a future that is at least plausibly believable, without wallowing in the lovely dystopian muck of a ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Mad Max’ or something with Snake Plissken. It’s all that, yet still half-way realistic, the familiar human-like robot with a brain but no vengeance, nice touch. There are even robot hookers—clunkers. And one of them, Cleo, becomes our heroine—nice.

‘Automata’s strength is its understatement, really, something Hollywood doesn’t specialize in. That takes narrative discipline, not bang-bang shoot-shoot. The plot itself is fairly simple: revolt of the robots, sympathy of a human or two, bad guys strike back and rediscovery of a world of Nature ‘out there’, however tentative, out beyond the apocalyptic cities, a pet theme of mine. I still love ‘Logan’s Run’. Now ‘Automata’ offers the hint of a robotic love interest—maybe, hooker with a heart of… platinum.

Melanie Griffith’s role here is larger than her cameo as the soft-hearted scientist. She also is the voice of Cleo, the clunker. Now I won’t say that director Banderas is making some statement here, but suffice it to say that this little sign-off to their long-term marriage is not exactly ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ Still that patented little purr of hers gets new life in a fresh body, to generally good effect. And she doesn’t look bad herself, after rumors of bad Botox work and worse. She’s come a long way from ‘the Drowning Pool’. But can Cleo really, uh, you know—snuggle? I’m waiting for the sequel…