AUTOMATA is a smooth jazz riff of a film noir that covers familiar territory with an intriguing twist, and a novel brand of hopeful melancholy. Its a melancholy time, here in the near future as the sun slowly kills off what is left of humankind. Its a time of huddled masses doubling-down in cities that protect them from the encroaching radiation of the deserts, and weather is both mechanized and deadly.
In this dystopian future is Jacq (Antonio Banderas), an insurance investigator faced with the prospect of fatherhood and a robot population that is no longer performing as programmed. The former fills him with conflicting emotions about bringing a life into a world that is dying, the latter fills him with confusion, because the careful programming in the robots prevents them from doing what they are in fact doing, harming living things and altering their programming. The ROC corporation, for whom Jacq works smells scam, so does his boss (Robert Forster), but the more Jacq delves into the mystery, the less convinced he is that anyone is telling him the truth.
Its the classic noir trope, and Banderas, head shaved, eyes weary, body always ever so slightly slumped from more angst than he can handle, makes for a perfect noir everyman. He is the embodiment of the psychic shock humanity suffered when brought to heel by nature. His adversaries, including his internal struggle between hope and despair, include corrupt cops, an all-powerful corporation with no scruples, and a glimpse of the future that he has trouble processing as either good or evil. Director Gabe Ibanez strikes a quiet moodiness, with the requisite lurking danger finding interesting outlets, and philosophical conundrums elegantly posited with a minimum of sophistry, and a lovely punch line involving a cockroach.
The robots, who neither replicate human appearance, nor aspire to, have, of course, started to attain consciousness, as robots will do in such stories, and the most disturbing element of their subsequent plan is how little humans figure into it. Patient with our silliness, strict in their devotion to their directive to not harm humans, and only a shade short of condescending about our sense of importance in the scheme of things, their actions and reasoning are as sensible as they are provocative. Also provocative is that the birth of consciousness in artificial intelligence is an element of the story, but not the reason for it. Rather, this is a tale of evolution on a cosmic scale, in which it is not humankind that has irrevocably altered the conditions on it mother planet, but rather the laws of physics and celestial mechanics.
AUTOMATA is about ideas, not special effects, though when used, as with holographic advertisements that resemble the ghosts of missing humanity, they serve the story with intelligence and restraint. As for whether the story has a happy ending, one of the best things about this film is that it doesnt decide for you.