AUTOMATION - "The Future is Here and with it Comes Plenty of Fear"

In the ‘80s and ‘90s there were a slue of films about futuristic automatons that turn against the very human beings who they were built to replace in the work place and on the battlefield. The biggie in this sci-fi sub-genre was James Cameron’s "The Terminator" which spawned an incalculable number of rip-off, imitators and impersonators.

This is no new idea in fact, the fear of science and modern technology has routinely found itself the stuff of science fiction since the earliest days of film. From harnessing the power of lightning to play God and create man, to the development of the atomic bomb which would surely be our undoing (Not by weaponizing the power of the atom, but instead by mutating insects to gigantic size that would devour us all. Common radiation poisoning just isn’t as sexy as mountainous arachnids). These stories delved into the layperson’s collective fear of unknown and “what if?”.

"Automation", the sci-fi comedy from director Garo Setian, is a modern take on mankind’s attempt to create intelligence life in our own image, only to discover to late that it was a mistake.

The film is set in the not to distant future at a shipping facility that is testing a new cost saving solution for more efficient and reliable labor. This new tech is Auto, an android prototype that has been programmed to learn on the job as it carries out routine physical labor. Auto has all the typical robotic advantages over its human counterparts. It can lift loads that weigh several times what a human can, it never needs to sleep or take breaks and because it is programmed to learn it can easily take on new tasks, find more efficient ways to complete old ones and also develop an understanding of its human co-workers personalities. From this it can determine their emotional state and respond accordingly to be supportive and better integrate into the workforce.

The company has struggled for some time to turn a profit and as a result it plans to save money by replacing the majority of their human staff with a small army of metallic androids. Of course, the staff is none to happy to learn of this decision, but what’s worse is that the humans have to remain on the job long enough to teach their replacements. Talk about insult to injury.

Fortunately for Jenny, who is a freelance video editor of promotional material for the company, her job is secure. Jenny has been working with the company long enough to have built a rapport with Auto, who then confides in her when it discovers that it will soon be decommissioned.

Auto, using some of his robo-tech to spy on its inventor, uncovers that it is outdated and will also be replaced when the newer Auto units arrive to replace the humans. Because Auto is a one of a kind that is filled with proprietary programming it’s decommission will be permanent to keep company secrets safe.

Before long Auto’s sense of self-preservation kicks in and he turns against the very humans he has been tasked to work with. As it turns out Auto has a defensive sub-routine buried deep in his programming, as well as some thought deactivated laser weaponry built into its arm making him a stone cold killer. How could all this be? Well Alan, the inventor, designed Auto to be the future in military warfare, but when the military pulled the plug on the project Alan repurposed Auto into what it is today. Alan’s explanation is that he could have done more to remove this combat programming, but that would have been just to “cost prohibitive”.

Auto struggles to make sense of its murderous behavior as it knows that it was created to help humans, not hurt them. This is especially complicated where Jenny is concerned. She is Auto’s only friend, and was teaching Auto about human emotions and relationships.

I think it’s safe to say that you can see the finale coming from a mile away. The conflicted monster is finally done in by Jenny, the final girl, because, let us never forget; “It was beauty that killed the beast”.

That's "Automation" in a nutshell and the film is obviously playing with a fear that came into prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s within the manufacturing industry. The fear of being replaced by automation. Becoming obsolete as a human.

This fear is one that has returned with a vengeance in recent years. If you want to buy a product, you don’t place a call and talk to a person, you just ask Alexa to place an order and that good is sent from a largely automated fulfillment center. That good can then be delivered by a drone. Even people can be delivered by drones, in the form of driver-less smart cars. The future is here, and with it comes plenty of fear and suspicion.

Aside from the obvious topic of modern automation, the film has the opportunity to touch on so many others but never really tries.

It could have expanded on a technology becoming obsolete it is cast aside like trash. The same could be said about the humans this automation replaces. This is a throw-away culture after all. Or similarly, the film could have touched on how members of the armed service return home wounded or scared by war and find themselves being treated like second class citizens and struggle to find work. After all, that was the situation Auto was in.

Another example is that the events of the film take place during the Holiday season which, unfortunately, effected the film very little. Had the Christmas spirit of past classics ("It’s a Wonderful Life" or "Home Alone") been harnessed more effectively, "Automation" could have resonated on a more emotional level. What’s more human that the feelings of family and togetherness, or the hopelessness of being laid off during the holidays and not being able to provide. This could have also been supportive to some well placed holiday commercialism subtext. Out with the old and in with the new might just not be what’s best.

What I’m getting at is the story of "Automation" could have chosen to say so much about any number of things, but instead it fails to address any of them. "Automation" never reaches far enough and the end result seems like a less memorable version of any number of it’s kin from the ‘80s & ‘90s. Films like "Westworld", "Chopping Mall" and even "Class of 1999" which has nearly the exact same story (a manufacturer of military androids loses it’s contract with the government. To save the company from financial ruin, the androids are repurposed as inner city high school teachers. And of course, the results are deadly), all tread the same water decades before.

"Automation" isn’t a bad movie, don’t get me wrong. But it sure could use a healthy dose of the ever cynical Paul Verhoeven.

If you get a chance check it out for yourself. "Automation" was recently made available on VOD and BLU-RAY from the good people of Epic Pictures, just in time for the holiday season. Unless you’ve recently been laid off and replaced by a harder working and more handsome robot, then you might just want to give up and ask Santa for a copy.


★ ★ ½

"A workplace robot, AUTO, transforms into a killing machine when he discovers he will be replaced by a more efficient model. AUTO fears being terminated and will stop at nothing to prevent his own destruction. The human employees must band together to stop him before it's too late."