Saturday, March 7, 2015

Streaming tip: catch up with Gabe Ibáñez's profound sci-fi/robot mystery, AUTOMATA

So far as I know Gabe Ibáñez has given us only two full-length films, the strange and brooding missing-child movie Hierro, and the much-better-than-you've-heard, dystopian sci-fi/mystery/thriller AUTOMATA, one of those films that garnered mixed-to-negative reviews and disappeared before it had time to find its audience. Fortunately, Netflix is streaming the movie now, so there's little excuse to let it get by you. One of the strengths of the film is that it relies on its smart mystery plot -- what's happening and why? -- rather than on special effects to keep you watching. It also offers a decent script, wonderful visuals, and a very good cast of actors (with one notable exception) doing up-to-snuff work.

Señor Ibáñez, shown at right, has managed to treat an oft-done subject -- robots and humans -- in ways that are actually different from the pack, in the process giving us one of those "origin" stories that gets to the core of ideas such as what it is that actually makes us human. The filmmaker understands that to be human is to be both good and bad, and when the latter wins out, one must finally ask if we are all that special, or even necessary. Ibáñez directed and co-wrote the screenplay (along with Igor Legarreta and Javier Sánchez Donate), and handles these ideas in a manner that is quiet and thoughtful but never boring. He alludes to things without banging you over the head, constantly making you observe and consider. His movie is graceful and beautiful, occasionally violent but finally humane. Best of all, I think, is that his robots don't try to look all that human. Yet, by the end of the film we've come to care about them, too.

The movie opens with a rather long set of explanatory verbiage regarding how the world got to the point we're about to see. Ordinarily, I'd object to this kind of exposition. Here, however, it sets us up nicely for what follows. This is mainly mystery, soon combined with chase thriller, all the while keeping on point with its robots-and-humans theme.

I mentioned earlier the good cast, led by Antonio Banderas (above), Robert Forster (below) and Norwegian actress Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (whom some of us will remember as the gorgeous young newscaster on the great Danish TV series, Borgen).

The one ringer in this most effective group is Melanie Griffith, below, who plays a  top-notch scientist about as effectively as she once played a supposedly tough NYC detective in A Stranger Among Us. Ms Griffith looks good, but she possesses a breathy, Betty-Boop voice that she has never seemed interested in developing or expanding. That voice can work wonders in a movie like Working Girl, but when she is called upon to portray a character of high intelligence or noticeable professionalism, Griffith comes up short.

But that's a small cavil in a film that delivers so much so well. The robots are beautifully designed and executed (Javier Bardem voices one of them), and a scene in which Banderas dances with the very interesting "female," Cleo, is handled with particular delicacy and restraint.

There is action aplenty, too (a sunglasses-bedecked Dylan McDermott has a supporting role), and the stark, deadened look to much of the world we see proves quite effective, even on a relatively small budget. But it is the troubling themes the movie tackles that will stay with you longest.

From Millennium Entertainment (now known as Alchemy) and running 109 minutes, Automata is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital domains such as Netflix.

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