THE YEAR IS 2044. The situation on Earth is not so good. The population of the dominant animal, humans, has collapsed. This dramatic decline, we are told at the beginning of the movie, is not our doing. It was pure bad luck. What happened? A gigantic solar flare erupted on the red-hot surface of the sun and scorched the surface of the green earth. Everything became a desert. And in this endless desert rose a city. And in this city emerged a corporation, ROC, which makes robots. The robots do almost everything for humans: domestic work, construction work, and even sex work. One employee of ROC is Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas). He is an insurance investigator. If you make a claim on a malfunctioning robot you bought from ROC, he is the man who determines if the problem is with the product or with you, its owner—and from Jacq's first scene, we get the impression that the fault is almost always with the owner.
One day, a macho drug-addicted cop patrolling the dark and seedy streets of the city comes across a homeless robot that's doing something odd—it's repairing itself. Robots are not supposed to do such a thing. To repair yourself means you are conscious of yourself. How can a robot be self-aware? The cop shoots the damn thing in its plastic face. The remains of the machine (wires, metal, bolts, nuts, bulbs) are sent to ROC for an autopsy. The examination of the blasted parts soon reveals a mystery, which Jacq is assigned to investigate. Jacq is jaded and about to become a father, and he hopes his managers will approve his request to be relocated to a place by the sea. Jacq's apartment is not as beautiful or interesting as Deckard's in Blade Runner, but from Jacq's window, we see massive and ghostly holograms of strippers dancing around the city—the end of the world is not all that bad. But this film is not at all good. Not only are there massive holes in the plot, but also its ideas about technology, urbanism, and capitalism lack any imagination.
Though directed (by Gabe Ibáñez) and written (by Ibáñez, Igor Legarreta, and Javier Sánchez Donate) by Spaniards, the film is firmly fixed in pre-crash (2008) American ideology. To begin with, the city in Automata has no public transportation system. Cars are still the dominant mode for urban mobility. Can you imagine that? Humans are on the verge of extinction, and yet they still can't live without their goddamn traffic jams! Next, there is actually a ghetto outside of this city, which is, like a medieval town, protected by a wall. Even the sun itself could not end capitalist-induced inequality and slums; the sun could burn every bloody green thing on earth, but not capitalism. It's not only intact, it's thriving in this, the last civilization. More amazing yet, the corporation, ROC, is making good money from the robots. But if robots are doing all of the hard work, where are the profits coming from in this slave economy? Who is this corporation exploiting? It only has one market. This makes no sense.
The makers of Automata seem to believe capitalism is exactly like that goose in the fable. Wealth makes wealth; geese make golden eggs. And while this society's robotic technology is far superior to what we have in 2014, it has reverted to beepers and dot matrix printers (the '80s and '90s). We can only guess that the thinking is this: The solar flare was so bad that it caused some technological regression. But such thinking is plain silly. To go back to an old technology that's no longer in use, like a pager, is, socially speaking, much harder than going forward from one that is in use.
But I've said enough negative things about Automata. Let me close by mentioning one positive thing: I came close to liking the crazy love scene between Banderas and the hooker robot.