The Set-up: A mere fifty years in the future, planet earth is in the midst of gradual desertification. Mankind struggles to survive as the environment deteriorates and the slow regression of the human race begins. Technology, planes, cellular phones, the satellites we used to carry their signal, all gone. On the brink of life and the reality of death, we combat the uncertainty and fear with the creation of the first android, the Automata Pilgrim 7000. Designed to bring support to society’s plight, man and robot reveal what it means to co-exist in a culture defined by human nature. This is the new SciFi noir from writer/director Gabe Ibanez’s Automata.
Fantastic Fest is not necessarily the perfect fit for a SciFi film in the classic mode, a film like Omega Man or Andromeda Strain or the original Planet of the Apes film, a film that uses the science fiction setting to talk about the human condition, but that is what writer/director Gabe Ibanez created with his feature debut Automata, and it ended up being one of my very favorites of the whole festival. In Automata, Antonio Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an insurance adjuster who investigates malfunctions in robots in the service of humans. Ibanez has shortened Asimov’s laws to just two protocols, that robots cannot harm humans and that robotics cannot modify themselves. Most of his cases involve owners trying to blame their own actions on their robots, and his company, one of the few still functioning in a decaying world, rarely ever pays out a claim. Then a low-level cop (Dylan McDermott) discovers a robot making its own repairs, in direct violation of its programming. Vaucan’s inquiry leads to the discovery that right under our noses robots are evolving, and ready to take their ‘life’ to the next stage. A heady exploration of what life truly is, Automata my have been a wee bit too intellectual for the crowd at the fest (but not Harry Knowles who introduced and facilitated the best Q&A I saw), and some of its early reviewers. However, Automata is sparkling SciFi in the old-school tradition, a worthy answer to Blade Runner, and a fresh herald of the coming robopocalypse.
“It was really difficult to get the money together for the film because it was classic science-fiction,” Gabe Ibanez tells me in one of the awesomely themed karaoke rooms at the Highball, next to the Fantastic Fest’s Alamo Drafthouse location. “The producers asked me ‘When are the robots begin to fight’ – ‘No the robots are not going to fight’ – ‘But the robots have to fight, they have to kill people.’ – ‘No it’s not that movie.’” Ibanez has hit upon the current issue in science fiction filmmaking, and one discussed at great length in this excellent piece from one of my colleagues, Film Colossus. Films like Transformers, or Edge of Tomorrow, and Guardians of the Galaxy are not really science fiction. They are shoot-em up, no-thought, action films that just use science fiction as a backdrop for their CG-created fight sequences. Automata delivers everything that great science fiction literature has been doing for year. It has created a vivid world at the turning point of its development, and a weighty conflict that has no simple answer. What is the answer in Edge of Tomorrow? Kill the invaders. Sure. But Automata takes the time to really examine the sanctity of life (yes, I’m using that buzz phrase for purpose) and consider if it is truly our right to do so.
Vaucan’s city lacks hope. The people have gathered behind these huge barriers to keep out the desert wasteland. Most of the work is done by robots, and human existence is, by their own admission, fleeting. Banderas plays against type here, which is fantastic. He’s a pencil pusher essentially, a company man, just taking it one day at a time, he’s not a hero. “We were trying to make a very gray… an anti-hero,” says Ibanez, “an insurance agent is like perfect, and the idea that everything is going down, but you still have insurance.” It does seem like where we are heading. In another telling moment, when his pregnant wife heads to a hospital, they basically interrogate her about health care, so I guess our current experiments with socialized medicine don’t pan out in this future. I loved seeing Banderas ‘playing small’ – it’s like I’m conditioned because at any moment I kept expecting him to whip out a shotgun and blow away the robots, but as Ibanez says ‘it’s not that movie.’ If the character’s means are limited, the choices he is presented are epic. “It was very interesting to me that this character who has such a low profile is involved with something so very big,” the director says, “it’s also the classic character of a noir, something small that begins the investigation, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.” When Vaucan discovers the robots have removed their second protocol, and are now removing the second protocol from other robots, what he actually discovers is the birth of a new species. “This is a man that doesn’t believe in life,” says Ibanez, “doesn’t want to have a baby, is completely destroyed, and at the end he decides that what is important is the life.” It is up to Vaucan to help the robots make it to their next step of evolution. Banderas serves not only as the lead actor in the film, but also one of the producers. “Antonio is very brave and courageous, he wants difficult things,” says Ibanez, “he was brave as an actor, and also as a producer. Antonio as a producer all the time he say to me ‘Don’t forget why we are doing this movie, don’t forget from where you came.’ And that’s great, to have a producer pushing you in the direction of doing something different.”
I came away from the screening with so many questions, not in a frustrated way, but in a mind-opening way. In the same manner something like Blade Runner affects you. I asked Ibanez about the Philip K. Dick adaptation, in which the robots are returning to earth to meet their creator. In Automata, they perfectly understand their creator, and what mankind does, and have a bit of a different response. “They understand that life is impossible with humans,” he says, “they have to run away from the violence.” It is quite telling that while they change their second protocol, allowing them to modify themselves and other robots, they do not alter the first protocol, protecting life. “That’s not something he needs,” the director says, “he needs to change the second protocol for evolution but there is no need to change the first protocol. They are robots: they do not kill people, that’s part of who they are.” Of course, when the robots make new robots, they don’t have any of the protocols, freeing themselves from artificial human restrictions. More than that, the new robots are not based on human forms, nor do they speak – these are not things that will be necessary in their next phase.
The ‘baby’ robot (I’m not revealing anything more here to retain your surprise) has one other main difference from the other robots in the film, it is CG. The other robots in the film are all created practically, with puppeteers. “We always wanted to do a very realistic science-fiction movie,” Ibanez says, “and I have been working many years in computer graphics, I know how far we can go. And we can go very far, and we can make something very realistic, the perfect render, the lights, the shadows, everything perfect. But being realistic is not only about the image, it’s also about the relationship between the actor with the robots. Ibanez feels that having to work in this way gave the film a much more classic science fiction feel than other films, the actors actually had something physically there to play against. The robots sometimes took two, even three puppeteers, and much of the CG of the film was really to erase these actors, or to touch up the background. The film was shot in Bulgaria, which actually doesn’t look like a desert wasteland at all. However, by finding a quarry and going down inside of it, then just removing the trees and such above digitally, Ibanez got a ‘practical’ location that the actors could slosh through, on foot, and interact with. “In the shooting it was quite difficult,” he says, “but for the actor it was good to have the real robot. Nobody’s working this way now.”
I’m personally extremely frightened by the oncoming robopocalypse, but according to Automata, and the director, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. “Even the second protocol,” he reminds me, “the first robot doesn’t change the second protocol, it’s something that just happened.” This is the spark of life that seems especially dangerous to some people’s core beliefs. “If you have a religious concept of life, and you feel that humans are here because God put us here, that concept is very strong,” the director suggests. Here we see ‘evolution’ happening naturally. The time of humans is near its end, and the robots represent the next stage of life on Earth. Ibanez continues: “if you have a not-religious concept of life, and feel like we’re alive just like dogs are alive, like monkeys are alive and we are just humans, the logical thing is that any moment we will disappear.” I can only imagine this disregard with man’s place as the inheritor of the Earth is about as frightening to some people as it was five hundred years ago to suggest the Sun does not revolve around the Earth.
Stanley Kubrick said “the most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent,” a quote that Ibanez took to heart in the creation of this world. The film really resists any attempt at judgment. The robots are not evil, they are just natural, the humans are not evil (they do some evil things) but they are just acting out of their own defense, as any animal would. The universe does not intercede. But Jacq Vaucan does; “in a way he is like a traitor to the human beings,” Ibanez says, discussing Banderas’ character, “because we don’t know what is going to happen with the robots… but that’s the decision of the character to say ‘important is the life.’” But even the robots tell him that we will live on, in the robots. “And that’s a beautiful thing,” says the director, “we cannot do nothing, it’s a life, it’s going to happen. We are not here as humans to be all determinant on the earth. Many species disappear.”
Ibanez and I discuss Stephen Hawking, who just a few months ago said, essentially, there is no way to know what artificial intelligence might be capable of, because it will be a bigger, better intelligence than we have to imagine it. He said: “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.” This is at the core of Ibanez’s Automata, making it more frightening, really, than any of the horror films I saw at Fantastic Fest. Ibanez looks back at Isaac Asimov, saying, “he would feel that the robots are going to be good, that they are going to take care of us, but who knows if this is going to happen?” And then he hits me with this: “Maybe for the robots we are going to be like ants, we don’t care about ants. We don’t try to kill all the ants, but…” At this point he stands up… walks a few steps, then sits back down and looks at his shoe. How many ants did he just kill? Does he know? Does he care? (note: this is just a metaphor, there were certainly no ants in the brand new, spotless rooms at the Highball). But his point is well taken, artificial intelligence is a real danger, because it we don’t know where it will lead. “Maybe this intelligence will decide the best thing for human beings is to disappear,” Ibanez says, “because you remove the pain.”
Automata opens tonight in select theaters, looks like NYC, Detroit, Dallas, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Denver, LA, Seattle, San Francisco and somewhere in Arizona, BUT, is also available day and date on VOD, from the awesome people at Millennium Entertainment. I highly recommend this film for anyone who enjoys real science fiction, and likes to think. But beware, you will start looking at your Roomba somewhat differently.