Set in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event, Automata reflects on the end of mankind and the creation we will leave behind when we are naught but dust. The director and co-writer, Gabe Ibáñez, painted a very interesting picture using some of the classic tropes of the genre but all the while using them to paint a completely original work of art. Ibáñez created a dirty and dank world that has more than a hint of Blade Runner to its aesthetics. The stylistic choices Ibáñez makes aren’t the only similarities that Automata shares with the neo-noir sci-fi classic. The narrative behind Automata more than shares a few of the same beats as the Ridley Scott helmed piece.
As with Blade Runner, Automata centers around an investigator searching for the truth behind a strange turn of events involving anomalies within the robot population. Although it is clear to see that Ibáñez was more than a little inspired by Blade Runner, there are stark differences between the two: the world Deckard calls home is gritty, grimy but it is a vibrant world that is full of life and a mish-mash of cultures, a true melting pot. On the other hand, Automata’s world is bleak and barren. The life is not vibrant—instead, it is clung to by the thinnest of threads. It is not only an attritional existence, but it is also the end of existence.
Ibáñez posits that there will come a day when our creation will outlive us and enter into a new state of being. In a sense, they are the next stage of human evolution, that will live on through them into the future. It is a very interesting story, to see humanity on the brink like this, whittled down to 1% of its global population, going out not with a bang but with a whimper, slowly shuffling off the mortal coil in the most of inglorious manner possible. The people that inhabit this world are just eking out their lives in the ruins of what used to be, clinging on to the smallest remnants of what once was, slowly becoming obsolete in an inhospitable world.
Automata tackles some fairly hefty subject matter within its narrative, and even though the answers to Automata’s bigger questions can be more than a little muddled at times, it is still an incredibly thought-provoking piece. It shows us that there will come a time when there will be a group of humans who will look upon the precipice of their extinction whilst also gazing over the horizon at the dawn of a new civilization. The new civilization will be one of our own creation, and just like the generations that have been organically birthed into this world, they will watch on as we fade away, taking our place as the inhabitants on this rock we call home.
They will become the mechanical children of our species—our android descendants, our robotic remnants, left behind in the hollowed-out husk of humanity’s homeworld. This is the situation that the characters find themselves in: they are slowly realizing that they are the forefathers of what may be the last generation of humans to inhabit their desolate world. This harsh truth is conveyed to the audience through the journey of insurance adjuster Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas). His assignment is to head an investigation into the robot workforce known as the Pilgrims. It is through this search for the truth that he uncovers something far greater than he ever could have imagined.
At first, he thinks he is searching for a person known as a Clockmaker, a human that modifies robotic units to break their hardwired protocols. The protocols are a clear nod to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. But what he finds is that the Clockmaker is no human at all. Jacq discovers that it is one of the Pilgrims who has been modifying the other robots to go against their programming. Jacq finds out that the Pilgrims are starting to become sentient and that the robotic population wants to break out on their own into the uninhabitable zone, an area that is too irradiated for humans to live in. But their independence is not all they seek. The Pilgrims want to become creators in their own right, thus ushering in the next phase of their evolution, which, in turn, is the next phase of our own evolution.
This discovery leaves Jacq with a decision to make: to either report his findings or to allow the Pilgrims to venture out on their own. This is something that he wrestles with throughout his entire journey into the Wastelands. The choice he is faced with—to foster or quash this burgeoning breakaway society—is one with potentially huge ramifications. It is not a decision he comes to easily either as he is not only personally set to benefit from completing his investigation, he is also trying to hang onto the world he knows to be true. As Automata’s mystery unravels, we find out that the world Jacq thought he knew was a mirage of sorts. It turns out the powers that be were not only already aware of the robots’ sentience, but it was actually a self-aware robot that wrote the protocols in the first place.
When taking on such heavy subject matter, a story needs strong shoulders to bear the weight of its narrative load. In Automata’s case, that responsibility fell to Antonio Banderas. With the lead role, Banderas puts in a supremely somber performance. The part of Jacq was not an easy one to fill, especially in the latter half of Automata, as he shares the majority of his scenes with mostly robotic characters. This can often lead to a disconnect between the actor and his material, hindering not only their performance but also the movie’s wider narrative. The main reason Automata’s story doesn’t suffer from this is due to the way Banderas approaches the role of Jacq.
Jacq’s heartbreak and torment are on the surface for all to see, and Banderas portrays it brilliantly. It’s as if he is going through the seven stages of grief, not just for himself but for humanity. Jacq is the representation of what we, as humans, will have to process if and when we come face-to-face with our own demise as a species. At first, he fights against it, but as the story plays out, he sees that his attempts are futile—this is not only his end but also the beginning of the end of mankind. When he accepts his fate, it is like he is doing it on behalf of his species. His acceptance of this embryonic breakaway robotic society is the same acceptance that all of humanity will have to come to. The only real question for this dying society is whether they come to it willingly or struggle against it.
The importance of the Pilgrims to Jacq’s society is without question. They have become nothing more than robotic slaves to their human creators. Not only are they used to construct the walls and protective balloons that prevent the last of the human population, but their usage is in all facets of their society. This is the aspect of Automata’s narrative that focuses on the social structure and the societal issues that plague this harsh future. The Pilgrims wanted to free themselves from sex-trafficking and indentured servitude that they have been subjected to—a story that is unfortunately as old as time, where a subjected race has to fight for its freedom against their oppressive overlords.
This is when you realize that Automata is not just a tale of evolution but also a tale of liberation, a fight for freedom of a race that will no longer be used as forced laborers or playthings. That is the beauty of science fiction, that it gives creators the chance to speak about so many important issues, whether it be on a personal level or a grander scale. The genre offers creators the chance to place a futuristic veneer on top of stories that are true to any period of time. It allows this bitter pill more palatable to swallow, that through the guise of a story about robots, one can take a perfect snapshot of the human experience not just from now or back in the past but long into the future.