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Autómata has a lot on its mind, and usually that’s a good thing in a science fiction film. But there are so many potentially important ideas in Autómata, and they get packed in so densely, that it’s nigh impossible to appreciate any of them.

Jacq Vaucan, Robot Claims Adjustor

Jacq and Cleo don't see eye-to-sensor
Jacq and Cleo don’t see eye-to-sensor

Jacq (pronounced “Jack,” and played by Antonion Banderas sporting a bald pate) investigates robot failures in the year 2044. Autómata has a convincing futuristic look; it’s not as dizzying as Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, but has the same mix of neon and grime, technology and poverty.

The first of Jacq’s investigations we see shows us how his job works. A robot is accused of grooming the family dog to death. Jacq is basically a claims adjustor, reviewing the facts on-site and deciding how much his company owes the customer.

Jacq’s wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, little more than “the girl” in this film) is very pregnant and just wants stability. On the other hand Jacq dreams of moving to the coast — if the coast still exists — did I mention that it’s all set in a world where 97% of the population has died and the earth has become a nearly barren desert? So there’s that, too.

Thou Shalt Not Evolve

The robots in Autómata don’t follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics; they only have two: First, a robot cannot harm any form of life (similar to Asimov); and second, a robot cannot change or improve itself. That second law is an interesting change from “obey human orders.” It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the power of evolution. This second law springs from the fear that, without biological constraints, a robot will evolve far beyond human comprehension in a matter of days or weeks.

The second investigation we see reveals a robot which has been cleverly altered by a “clocksmith.” The work is so impressive it sends Jacq on out into the streets to hunt for a strong, small power source called a “nuclear battery,” and the legend of a robot whose “biokernel” has been stripped of the second law.

One of the people Jacq interviews is Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffit), a robot expert who created a hooker-bot named Cleo (also voiced by Griffith). Cleo has a slightly fuzzy view of the first rule — she can hurt you if that’s what you want. Another investigator, Conway (Tim McInnerny), shoots Cleo after she makes a remark about his dead wife.

Lost in the Tumult

First science fiction, then detective story, Autómata later turns into a pilgrimage. Cleo and a few other robots help an injured Jacq across the desert in search of the hermit-like Clocksmith. The authorities, including Conway and Jacq’s boss (Robert Forster as a stern but flexible manager) are in pursuit to bring the fugitive robots back to the city.

Toward the end, Autómata starts to slow down, then whirls out of control. The final scenes bring lots of developments and revelations, none of which seem to sum up the essence of what has come before. The many endings feel tacked on, more confusing than revelatory. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say a new type of robot appears at the end. And where all of the other robots seemed to have a physical presence — they walked, scooted, and gyrated — the new ‘bot seems to belong to a different film. It is composed of several separate parts that do not touch; it can hover and fly; it looks like a Disney-animated crab or lobster. In short, it violates all the plausible physics that the rest of the movie was so careful to establish.

Still, there was one revelation that I found interesting. It was spoken by Cleo to Jacq, having to do with the next phase of life on Earth, and how she thought Jacq — and humanity — should react. Only the music told me that what she was saying was true and important; otherwise, the scene would have been lost among the tumult.

I wanted to like Autómata. The production design felt like a triumph of creativity over budget. The organic classical-music score makes a nice contrast with the futurism of the visuals, helping ground the emotion. But the scattered ending leaves you wishing for a more focused, satisfying sense of conclusion.