Terrence Malick’s latest game of twiddle sticks cinema peppers the landscape of celebrity ennui with vacuous narrative threads and listless visual poetry. A meandering, overlong death march towards nothingness, the latest from the American auteur is a showcase of a man who’s more than worn out his welcome, who has drip-dried every ounce of juice from the same re-wrung fruit but still yet splashed it up on the screen like a car wreck. Anyone familiar with Malick’s filmography knows to expect little more of Knight of Cups than Christian Bale wandering the corridors of celebrity mansions, beautiful beach fronts and abandoned, dilapidated buildings while whispered trite reveries titter on in the background, theoretically contributing to a greater sense of purpose (that is just not there). In that regard, Malick has played to his devout audience bullheadedly, ignoring any and all critiques of his last critical flounder, To The Wonder, pursuing his own self-parodying style to pertinacious rigidity. Read More
I hadn’t even heard of Autómata when I was sent a digital screener but with its science fiction meets thriller description and a shaved-headed Antonio Banderas at the forefront, I figured I’d give it a go. From the get go, it reads iRobot meets Blade Runner, a lo-fi crossroads between wanna-be philosophical depths and bargain FX. And from the many borrowed circuits from many better movies, Autómata scraps together a fairly watchable though ultimately robotic piece of (English-language) independent science cinema.
Banderas is a Spanish Deckard in a post-apocalyptic world whose population is down by 99.7%. Only 21 million people remain – though that population scarcity is never intelligently touched on – and those that are alive have it kinda rough. Cardboard shanties line the outside of the fortress-tall enclosure that houses the privileged – again, we don’t get much insight into the divide between the haves and have-nots – where beggars set their bots to panhandle-mode to scrimp from the occasional passerby. “Please sir, my owner is hungry,” the flat-faced bots, (obnoxiously foreshadowingly) called Pilgrims, coo. Talk about the furthest extrapolation of human laziness.
It’s Jacq Vaucan’s (Banderas/no, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) job to settle claims of broken Pilgrims. Our first encounter with him sees a poverty-stricken family claiming that a bot had malfunctioned and killed their dog. Banderas contends it is not possible. After all, each Pilgrim is built with a protocol so that they cannot harm any living thing. They’re also prevented from altering themselves. The two protocols work in symbiosis to ensure that no Pilgrim ever offs a human or, say, a dog. So obviously the family killed their own dog, Vaucan assumes, because any alternative wouldn’t be possible. Because our hero must start his journey as utterly unwilling to see the feasible cracks in his worldview. Otherwise the parabola is incomplete. We wouldn’t want to watch a character only half arc. Fella’s got to start at the bottom.
With a baby on the way and only bleakness on the horizon, Vaucan tries to right the ship at home while working as said bot-checking appendage of a totalitarian government. But when he sees a robot, gasp, self-altering his entire world goes up in smoke and he’s forced to hit the road to upend the truth.
Along the way, there’s some frightfully bad acting. Wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is a trying actress who slurps through her lines like a kid with a juice box. Clocksmith Dr. Dupree (Melanie Griffith) one ups her in the awful actress department though, assuming the time-worn craft of acting is little more than emphasizing every other word and making an symmetrically enticing O-shape with her mouth when she’s not babbling. She too closely resembles a starlet on her knees trying to secure the “role of a lifetime”. Attempting to hack her way through technical jargon, she’s offensively bad. Even Dylan McDermott treats his role like a chew toy, slobbering all over it like he’s in a hurry to collect the paycheck to buy some more coke. Banderas is the only one trying to make it worthwhile so thankfully it’s mostly a one man show.
To his credit, Gabe Ibáñez knows Banderas is his strength and tries to pull him out of the ring of fire that is his acting counterparts as much as possible. Problem is, it takes him too long to figure out just where to put him. Accordingly, the pacing is all over the place and doesn’t really ever settle into something that feels relatively comfortable with itself into well into the back end of the second act. A scene where Vaucan drunkenly dances with a pink wig-wearing, doll-faced Pilgrim is maybe the best in the whole movie. It’s basically fan fiction between Deckard and a pleasure model Replicant. It’s weird and hollow and oddly affecting.
When stripped back to Zacarías M. de la Riva‘s percussive soundscape and a dusty gun battle, Autómata excels. When Pilgrim after Pilgrim refuse to fight back against the wanton violence of man, a honest note of emotion rings out. Sadly, those moments are numbered and often boxed in by wooden acting of the nth degree.
In a movie that’s supposedly, subtly about evolutionary superiority, it commits some Darwin Award worthy movie sins. Brutally convenient encounters between characters – waiting to die until in the arms of another character, everyone is always in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, etc. – but these faults are almost less offensive than the punishingly poor acting in some key moments. Autómata wants so badly to be an adult rehash of dystopian themes but it’s undone by that can’t-put-your-finger-on-it spice of amateur acting. I’m a stickler for performance and nothing throws me off more than a couple really bad ones. Having said that though, I have to admit, the robots themselves are pretty dope. Now whether I congratulation the art department or the special effects department on that one is the real mystery.