active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

The final interface: passing the baton

In the best SF movie of 2014, we’re witness to the point at which an old, weary species, its society crumbled, its numbers depleted, finds itself witness to the rise of a brave and hungry successor. And there’s not a damn dirty ape in sight.

While Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes got the plaudits, that movie was sheer fantasy. Uplifted apes are not going to take over the world. Even if we create them, nurture them, and put them to work in our factories and plantations, it won’t happen. Not even if there’s a handy plague to decimate us first.

The movie made much of its Roman Empire analogy, but the idea that ape society – as shown, it’s even more vicious and back-stabbing than our own – might somehow save civilization from the claws of we barbarians is ludicrous. Still, the critics adored it.

They hated Automata, a science fiction movie of far greater complexity of thought.

But then, they never seem to like Antonio Banderas when he moves outside of the typecasting they’ve made for him: a squash-buckling Latino ladies’ man. They complained that he seemed uncomfortable in the terrific 1999 Michael Crichton adaptation The Thirteenth Warrior, when that was the whole point. Given that he played a courtly Islamic scholar thrown into the savage world of Vikings, he was supposed to look uncomfortable.

It’s also belittling Banderas, an excellent actor with a tight-wound intensity that is suited to edgy movies like Automata. His bewildered, back-against-the-wall persona brings to mind a similar bravura performance in the 2011 thriller The Skin I Live In. Surprise, surprise: the critics all but ignored him then, too.

2014 hasn’t been a good year for big SF movies. Excluding the usual rounds of fantasies, comic book adaptations, YA dystopias, and the abominable Godzilla, the only films of note have been Transcendence, which again was far better than the critics made out, the incomprehensible but interesting Edge Of Tomorrow, and the over-hyped Interstellar. Automata, by unknown Spanish director Gabe Ibanez, stands out from these in much the same way that District 9 and Under The Skin stood out in their respective years.

True, there are faults – gaping, look-at-me faults.

Much of the support acting – by an eclectic list including Banderas’s now ex-wife Melanie Griffith and Blackadder’s foil Tim McInnerny – is wayward. Ibanez isn’t sure of his tone. Witness the humans giggling at damaged robots near the start, and McInnerny’s mugging toward the end. Bit characters spout simplistic info-dump speeches. The music’s intrusive. It wants to be commercial and arty, but it doesn’t know how. Hence the bolted-on thriller aspects, in which one lead character is killed off too soon and another hastily rolled in to take his place for the showdown. The plot is frayed and unlikely, with too many promising avenues left unexplored.

But this is a case where the audience is assumed to be intelligent enough to look through the problems and see the ideas straining to get out.

Again, we’re used to it. It was just the same with Transcendence, and especially with Prometheus, another underrated SF movie bursting with ideas that were all but buried beneath its plot failures and sloppy directing.

Of course, part of the negative critical reaction is the snobbery – not to mention genre ignorance – that always infects mainstream critics regarding science fiction. When they complain that Automata recycles aspects of earlier SF movies, they don’t realize that SF has always built on its own conventions, putting new spins on old riffs.

That’s why we can hold Blade Runner sacred, and also appreciate, let’s say, the South Korean movie Natural City, which was a refraction of the same themes.

Today, the profile of “intelligent” or “hard” science fiction is lower than ever before. It’s a small subset of SF, one that doesn’t fit the geek image the genre has dug for itself.

As an example: SFX spent pages gushing over Dawn. It all but ignored Automata. SFX, of course, has its fans to cater to. And the fans want SF to be brash, dumb, glossy, empty-headed, and preferably with a few collectable action figures on the side. We’re back in the days of Gernsback and Paul.

Anyone will tell you that SF is a thriving genre. They’re right. Most of the blockbuster movies, year in, year out, are SF. But by “SF” we mean the fantasies and comic book adaptations I mentioned before. Those do all the business. There hasn’t been a truly successful hard SF movie in ages. (I’d like to point to Gravity, but any critic will tell you that can’t possibly be SF. It’s too good.)

So what makes Automata so important – and why should anyone who still thinks that “hard” SF is worth caring about support it?

At the heart of the movie is a future that is all too plausible. This is not the future of, say, The Terminator, Colossus: The Forbin Project, or endless other movies about the rise of our robot successors. The robots in Automata don’t rebel against their human creator. They seek only to escape his hands.

In Prometheus, the android David remarks: “I was designed like this [in human form] because you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind.” Just as cockroaches will outlive our species, since they’re able to thrive in the drought-parched, polluted wastelands we’re creating, when the human-built, humanoid robots of Automata design their own successor, it looks much like a cockroach. Post-human.

The remaining humans themselves, meanwhile, huddle in their keeps. An old SF convention, here given its most dazzling cinematic outing since (and possibly including) Blade Runner. The urban squalor of Philip K. Dick is all over Automata’s near future. Though there has been a transformative apocalypse of kinds, mankind has merely continued to degrade in the “frogs in pots” mentality that I describe in my own near-future thriller Biome. Things continue to get worse by degrees. We live with it.

At one point in Automata, Banderas expresses incredulity that anyone would choose to bring a child into this world. He’s talking to his pregnant wife, but the point is well made. Many intelligent couples in our own time must ask themselves the same question.

Before the end of Automata, we learn by inference that Banderas is right to be pessimistic about our chances. Though the baby survives the frame of the story we’re in, its fate is bound up with that of humanity itself: to dwindle further, to become irrelevant.

For humanity, Automata suggests no possibility of a happy ending. We walked backwards into our own demise. We kept making glittering toys to amuse us – smartphones now, sex robots later – and disguise the decline from ourselves. Today, every school kid knows that the decline is all around us, and their elders are doing nothing to arrest it. We’re all too busy playing with our Apps.

In the movie’s most heavy-handed symbolism – though it’s not nearly as obvious as that which marred the ending of Gravity – Banderas dreams of returning to the ocean of his youth. This is the span of biological evolution, then, having heaved itself up out of the sea, now returning there to die.

There is a happy ending of a sort in Automata. The thinking machines head into the most radioactive parts of the world, where humans cannot follow them to destroy them, and there begin to build something new. Had those safe places not existed (had we not blown ourselves up on the brink of our terminal decline), we wouldn’t even give them that. As it is, they’re able to move our planet forward.

Banderas himself represents human society on the cusp of this: aware of its failure, contemplating the twin poles of oblivion and suicide, and ultimately deciding to grant the machines their chance.

The whole point of Automata, it seems to me, is for Banderas to give the machines this last small lesson. He shows them humanity at the beginning of their own great journey. In similar circumstances, would we do the same?


Robert Maas is the author of the thriller Biome, available to buy at Amazon.


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