Automata is an Asimovian tale set in a near dystopian future where something is going wrong with worker robots. The robots exist to do the job left devoid by the millions of people who died due to solar storms that ravaged the world and decimated the human population. As set down by Isaac Asimov himself, these robots must follow two rules: do no harm to living things, and never altar themselves.
The ROC corporation builds and maintains these robots as they work to keep the remaining segments of humanity alive, but slowly, and most inexplicably, the robots are starting to develop a sense of self worth. It’s a classic tale of burgeoning artificial intelligence among a worker class of robots, but it’s done with a surprisingly emotional story of one ROC insurance field agent’s struggle to find meaning in his life.
This agent, Jack, played by Antonio Banderas, is trying to find the one responsible for unauthorized modifications to a few Pilgrims, as the robots are called. Through the course of his investigation he begins to uncover the unlikely truth that something about the Pilgrims is changing. He makes contact with a cop, played by Dylan McDermott, who shot one of these robots when he found it was repairing itself, and who plead for its life right before it was shot.
Jack also finds that many Pilgrims not being used for hard labor, are often modified for various reasons, often very human reasons. And further more, the audience gets a nuanced glimpse of small emotional reactions from the Pilgrims that bring to life the story, as much as the Pilgrims themselves.
Automata is a rather bleak and depressing tale that can easily serve as a warming for our own future. When you set aside the dystopian setting, and view the movie solely as a cautionary vision of robotics as it becomes a ubiquitous piece of human society, the movie really shines. One of the most chilling concepts set forth in Automata is that the second protocol, the one forbidding self-repair, is actually a kind of fail safe implanted by humans because we can’t conceive of the slippery slope that might result from it’s removal. Our fundamental fear of creating life, but not being willing to let it grow according to its own will, is really the central fear we all have of A.I. taking over. If we all grow up and eventually no longer need our parents, our makers, than inevitably any life we create, artificial or not, might have the same sentiment.
The movies main antagonist is the ROC corporation itself. While their main motive for disavowing the truth of Pilgrim “evolution” is purely profit based, it isn’t a stretch at all to imagine the stifling of a new form of intelligence by any corporation due to the fear of losing money. Automata explores both the societal fears, as well as the corporate motives for resistance to robots becoming recognized life forms.
The turning point of the film is when one of the Pilgrims saves Jacks life from those who would kill him to stop his investigation. In doing so, Jack discovers far more than he imagined he ever would when he finds himself in the company of a group of rogue Pilgrims roaming the barren desert beyond his home city’s walls. Although he tries to return to the city on his own, the Pilgrims, bound by their first directive, cannot let him wander alone in the desert. The question must be asked whether they are indeed bound by this protocol, or if they’re simply acting on their own in his best interest. The Pilgrims refuse to return to the city because they know it is not in their best interest, but still want to help Jack.
The tragedy of the situation is that Jack isn’t able to accept his circumstances. Of course this is understandable, as he has a pregnant wife back in the city he desperately wants to get back to. He manages to turn on the Pilgrims, and is eventually found by the cop, who has been tasked by ROC to find him and bring him back. When the cop is about to kill Jack the Pilgrims again step in to tray and save his life. What ensues is a thought-provoking scene that solidifies the powerful presentation of A.I. this film tries to get across.
Automata isn’t novel in its handling of artificial intelligence, and it doesn’t break any new ground in the dialogue of what to do with A.I. in the future. What it does is repackage familiar ideas in a heartfelt, and touching way that reminds us yet again to truly consider the consequences of developing robots to serve humankind. It isn’t that we shouldn’t, and it isn’t that we won’t, rather, it’s what to do when we inevitably are faced with dealing with the consequences of our actions. Will we arrogantly proclaim that life is only as we define it, or will we embrace life in any form as equal with our own? Automata explores these themes much more artistically than previous films. In fact, I’d say it is what I, Robot should have been!