Some recent happenings from the actual, current field of robotics: In July, a study published in the New England Journal Of Medicine found no higher rates of success in bladder cancer surgery conducted by robots (touted as minimally invasive) than by human surgeons, leading to questions about the justifiability of hospitals purchasing such expensive equipment. On a lighter note, this week the annual CEATEC (Combined Exhibition Of Advanced Technologies) electronics trade show is being held in Japan. New models on display include a three-legged robot who plays ping-pong and 10 robot cheerleaders, 36 centimeters tall, who dance in perfect unison.
Such current images and concerns bear little resemblance to the trudging drones of Gabe Ibáñez’s Autómata, a dreary “what if robots had souls” exercise that takes place after solar storms have chopped the globe’s population to a mere 21 million. Boldly drawn stills tell the opening credits montage story: Robots were created to help out in the wake of environmental catastrophe, but these Iron Man-resembling “Pilgrims” failed, unable to beat off the desert’s advance. Autómata’s generic urban 2044 dystopia is a realm of hazily gray CGI buildings, many rubble-strewn and abandoned. The desert (now radioactive!) is cordoned off, outside city borders. Once humanity’s would-be saviors, badly treated robots are now just cheap construction workers and maids.
An insurance inspector for robot manufacturer ROC, Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) understandably wants to get away from the city, where sky-high gray holographs of lingerie-clad women inexplicably light up the night. In the meantime, an investigation into a robot’s alleged malfunctioning leads him to Dr. Susan Dupre (Melanie Griffith), who gives him the conceptual rundown. Robots were programmed not to harm living things, and also not to alter themselves or others. If those restrictions were removed, the evolutionary rate of consciousness development might blast away humans quickly. Later, she messages him to let him know that, like mankind’s evolving ancestors, robot prostitute Cleo “has come down from the tree.”
That would make Cleo the technological counterpart to this summer’s Lucy, but the robots in Autómata—old-fashioned mechanical effects rather than CGI, much to the film’s advantage—have their speech frustratingly limited to a few basic pre-programmed sentences, with minimal access to a larger vocabulary. They’re not especially impressive or desirable as representatives of the speculative future of life on this planet, which moots any potential pathos generated by their plight or awe at their abilities. Meanwhile, Jacq’s story—chasing a investigative trail into the desert while pursued by thugs sent by his inevitably untrustworthy employers—stagnates fast. The city is dreary and a car chase rudimentary, but at least there’s some reasonably lively chaos. Once the film hits the desert, a little before the halfway point, Jacq has the energy sucked out of him and so does the film, limping along while he repeatedly throws histrionic fits.