Film Review – Autómata
In Isaac Asimov’s Robot series of short stories and novels, he introduces the three laws of robotics to safeguard humans against a potentially superior force.
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The core of all robot programming lies within these three laws, and much of the Robot series hinges on the possibility that one or more of these rules has been broken or never installed in the first place. (Impossible!) While there is a lot of fun to be had trying to determine if it is possible for robots to commit murder, there are also a lot of other nuanced discussions available, such as the possibility of human free will when robots are programmed to prevent people from harming themselves. A lot of enjoyable things people do are a little – if not a lot – harmful, and characters in the Robot novels are always having to talk robots into letting them do stuff. It’s a fun and interesting mind game, made more so by the fact that you can fry a robot’s positronic brain by presenting it with conflicting imperatives. (Fun to think about, not to do. That would be mean.)
In Gabe Ibáñez’s new film Autómata, there are two protocols for robots:
1) A robot cannot harm any form of life.
2) A robot cannot alter itself or others.
The first protocol seems a little overbroad and feels like the filmmakers could not get the rights to Asimov’s laws, so they just made their own version. But it’s the second protocol the film is mostly concerned with. In the future everything sucks: the population has decreased, communication technology is failing, and the planet has become a hostile environment. Robots have been mass-produced to do the crap work, and now make up a sort of nonsentient slave underclass. Grumpy cop Wallace (Dylan McDermott) is on his beat when he sees something very strange – a robot carrying out repairs on itself; this seemingly harmless action violates the second protocol. The only conclusion he can reasonable come to is someone must have reprogrammed the robot. Enter insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) who is brought in to find out the responsible party and deflect attention away from the ROC robotics corporation. He teams up with robot programmer Doctor Dupre (Melanie Griffith) who accidentally creates a sentient sex robot (because of course she does) named Cleo (also the voice of Melanie Griffith.) Vaucan gets implicated as being responsible for the self-aware robots and there is a lot of traveling in the desert and a nuclear powered robot dog and some shooting and stuff.
So this is not a good movie, although it is not a failure of crass commercialism; it just sort of doesn’t make any sense. I watched the whole movie with mild interest and if you got stuck with a date in the theater, you wouldn’t want to die or anything. It’s just kind of nothing. None of the characters are well-drawn and a lot of the plot is nonsensical. Things unfold in a strictly by-the-book fashion predicated on genre conventions rather than any internal logic contained in the film.
The two protocols are the biggest problem though. The first is way too general. Are all forms of life equal? What constitutes harm? In Asimov’s books these ideas are constantly being debated. Here, not so much. But the second protocol is where the greatest confusion lies. Why does self-repair violate the second protocol? At one point Dr. Dupre states that self-repair indicates “some idea of a conscience.” A conscience is that little voice in your brain that argues about right and wrong. What does that have to do with installing a new leg? Did they mean that self-repair indicates a sense of self-consciousness or self-knowledge? It’s those kind of logical inconsistencies that make this film kind of silly.
Let’s talk about the ladies for a moment. Vaucan’s wife is about to give birth, so she is a loving and protective stereotype. The robot Cleo is the main female character, so of course she is a sex robot and reduced down to another female stereotype. (There is a creepy-ass dance scene with her and Vaucan that I don’t even want to try to unpack.) The fact that she is given Melanie Griffith’s little girl voice just furthers the distastefulness of it all. And that same voice, which we know the sex robot has, negatively impacts Griffith’s believability as a super robot programmer. The male roles are equally flimsy, and I regret to say there really aren’t any standout performances to elevate this material. It’s a competently directed film with a horrendous script. Sometimes the robots are kind of creepy, and that is the best thing I can say about this movie.