“Surviving is not relevant. Living is. We want to live.”
– Blue Robot, Automata (2014)
You’ve probably felt the looming darkness in the world. A cold, gradual march through the wastelands of unfulfilment. A longing for the world to get its act together. For world leaders to get their collective hands out of their asses and just do something, right? The longing for change is, as futile, as expecting anything other than contributing even more so to the end of the human race.
Sadly, that’s not a film I’m writing about here. It’s life on this planet. It’s the realisation that the human race is contributing to a multitude of tumours attacking Mother Nature herself. It’s the realisation that we’re killing this veritable paradise. Killing through the gradual degradation of a cancerous growth known as the human race. Remember that infamous and malevolently haunting line from Agent Smith in The Matrix?
“The human race is a disease…”
As society begins to corrupt itself with its own bloated sense of humour so does it bloat itself with its own misguided sense of purpose. Purposes that come with masked intent. For instance: greed masked as purpose, pollution masked as progress, fascism masked as ideology. And let’s not forget slavery masked as convenience. Too much, you might say? How often do we give rise to added convenience despite the effect it has on slavery?
“I see the future following a similar path to the world of Killtopia,” says writer and co-creator Dave Cook. “Where people continue to care less about how governments and corporations treat them, as long as there’s something addictive on TV or social media to distract them from it. I mean, the world is on the brink of environmental disaster and the majority of people seem either completely disinterested, in denial (it is terrifying to be fair!) or they still think it’s a hoax.
“But, that said, I do think people reach a point where they say, “no more.” We’ve seen people across the world waking up to injustices, from protests in North America, to my home of the UK voting against the right wing party that has torn our society to shreds for over a decade now. The arc of Killtopia is similar, as the people of Neo Tokyo slowly come to realise that they deserve better in life. I just hope it plays out that way in real life too.”
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Absolute power corrupts while that same power is granted at the expense of the poor. The poor are given the jobs no one wants to do. Pay gets less and with it; so do choices. Is existing enough when you’re not really living in the first place? Director Gabe Ibánez’s Automata answered this question, at a time when a Blade Runner sequel felt like a pipe dream.
Beginning the comparison of Automata and Killtopia
Automata takes place 20 years before the story takes place, solar flares irradiate the Earth, killing over 99% of the world’s population. While in Killtopia a deadly disease ravages the world’s population. The survivors gather in a network of safe cities and build primitive humanoid robots, called Pilgrims, to help rebuild and operate in the harsh environment. These robots have two unchangeable protocols: they cannot harm any form of life and may not repair, modify, or alter themselves or other robots in any way.
Initially seen as mankind’s salvation, the robots are relegated to manual labor when they fail to stop the advance of desertification. Society has regressed due to lack of technology besides the Pilgrims, as a lack of functional aircraft or other transport prevents travel and cars are a rare commodity, and humanity is on the brink of extinction.
The protagonist, Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator for ROC (who is the Rickard Deckard of the film), the company that manufactures Pilgrims—investigates a report from Wallace, a police officer who shot a robot he claims was modifying itself. As Jacq looks for a robot they suspect was stealing parts, it leads him outside the city. When he finds it inside a shipping container, it sets itself on fire.
As he and a team open up the burned robot to see what it was hiding, they discovers the robot had a rare nuclear battery that could power a robot indefinitely. They are able to power up the robot once more, but when he asks it why it set itself on fire, it burns out again. Without the backdrop of machines and their role in humanity, Gabe Ibánez doesn’t have a film.
“We often see machines as blunt instruments,” says Cook. “(They are) tools to make our lives better, perhaps without giving much thought to how amazing they are. I get annoyed at my Macbook when it starts to freeze because I have too many apps open, but really, it’s still an amazing piece of technology that I’ve abused by pushing it too hard.
“In Killtopia, Neo Tokyo’s Sector-K district is infested with Mechs that are terraforming the ruins of the city and causing humanity to get sick with a disease called the Rot. This is why the bloodsport of Killtopia is borne, so skilled killers called Wreckers can hunt the Mechs for money, fame and power. None of them ever really stop to question where they came form, why they are terraforming and if they are perhaps capable of sentient thoughts like fear, pain and friendship.
“That’s why Crash is a bridge into that world. Shinji may form a strong friendship with Crash in the first two issues, but even though his intention is good, he is still using Crash like a tool to fix a problem. This tests their friendship through the rest of the arc in ways I won’t spoil here.”
I return to my earlier thoughts of how Killtopia echoes the harsh reality for machine life, as depicted in Automata. Jacq salvages the remains and speculates to his boss, Robert, that there may be a “clocksmith”, someone who illegally modifies robots, who is overriding the second protocol. Incredulous, Robert rejects this possibility but offers Jacq a transfer out of the city if he can find evidence. Jacq’s pregnant wife initially rejects his plans but she eventually relents.
Jacq and Wallace investigate a brothel, where they find Cleo, a modified robot that Wallace subsequently shoots in the leg. When Jacq objects, Wallace says that Cleo’s owner will lead them to the clocksmith; Wallace also threatens to kill Jacq if he does not split the proceeds of the battery on the black market. Jacq follows Cleo’s owner to a clocksmith named Dr. Dupré, who claims not to know who altered Cleo, an action that would destroy Cleo’s CPU. Jacq leaves the burned robot’s CPU with her and offers to give her the battery if she can locate information on the clocksmith. When Dupré installs the modified CPU in Cleo, Cleo begins self-repairing. Dupré contacts Jacq, who alerts Robert; however, ROC intercepts Jacq’s message and sends a team of assassins to Dupré’s lab.
Automata reminds me of High Action Neo-Noir Futurism evident in Cult Favourite Animes
By the time you get this far into the film of Automata I begin to become reminded of the high action stakes and blending of neo-noir futurism that fit so well in the creation of a range of cult favourite Anime films. Films that Dave shares influences in common:
“That whole world of old school anime, manga and Japanese culture has just always fascinated me ever since I really got into videogames as a kid. Having been to Tokyo myself I can safely say it’s my favourite place in the world, from the culture, the great people and more. There was never any doubt that Neo Tokyo would be the setting of Killtopia as it just fit the themes and visual style I had in mind when writing the script.
“Another huge influence on the story was Japanese action games, from directors like Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4, Vanquish) and Hideki Kamiya (Bayonetta). Their work includes big, brash characters, wild action and other tropes I wanted to pay tribute to in the comic, so this reinforced the Japanese setting as well.”
I turn back to Automata. With the character Dupré killed, Jacq escapes in a car driven by Cleo. When Cleo takes them into a maze of stanchions, both cars crash; the assassins are killed, and Jacq is injured. Cleo takes Jacq with her into the desert, where they are joined by three other robots, none of whom will obey Jacq’s orders. However, the first protocol forces them to prevent his death.
Desperate to return to the city to be with his pregnant wife, Jacq makes contact with Robert, who sends Wallace to recover him. Wallace threatens Jacq’s life and destroys two of the robots, who have objected to his actions; Jacq kills Wallace with a flare gun before he can also destroy Cleo. Wallace’s partner flees after taking a battery from one of the robots.
Robert’s boss discloses that the predecessor to the first Pilgrim was a quantum mind created with no security protocols and no artificial restraints on its computational power. Before they deactivated it, its makers tasked it with designing the security protocols that govern Pilgrims. Robert’s boss informs Robert that no one has been able to break Pilgrim security protocols because they were created by the unrestricted quantum mind and ROC purposefully limited the computational power of all subsequent AI.
ROC forces Robert to accompany a team sent to kill Jacq and the unknown clocksmith before the robots can evolve further beyond human understanding. When Robert objects to their kidnapping Jacq’s wife and baby daughter, Conway, the leader, shoots him and leaves him for dead. Meanwhile, Jacq meets the robot responsible for modifying the others.
The robot says that he and the other robots plan to go to the radioactive area where humans cannot go. Initially skeptical, Jacq eventually accepts that the robot naturally evolved, like humanity. After a series of philosophical discussions, Jacq gives them his battery, which they use to complete a new design, a sort of dog/insect robot. The robots repair a vehicle for Jacq, and he leaves for the city.
Like Automata, Killtopia has this mix of unending bleakness mixed with a hopeful outcome. A future that can save itself at a moments notice were the right decisions to be made. Although, both seem to be edging closer towards total oblivion.
As Cook explains, “In Killtopia, almost everyone on the planet has a disease called the Rot. Across the arc we’ve seen people go to great lengths to get the healthcare they need, from selling their own children to corporations, to risking their lives while hunting Mechs as part of the Killtopia bloodsport. This is also something people can relate to, especially here in the UK, where people are working three jobs to support their family, yet still have to resort to food banks because the cost of living is so high.
“In fact, Killtopia was first born as a response to the health care service here in the UK, the NHS, which is free to all. Our government is trying (and sadly, slowly succeeding) in selling it off to big pharma, which means our healthcare may no longer be free in years to come. I just don’t know how people who are already struggling are going to survive if that happens. It’s unthinkable and this is what inspired Killtopia, The Rot, the bloodsport itself and the Mechs. It all came from wondering how we’re all going to survive if the unthinkable happens.”
When Conway reaches the robot outpost, he destroys two of the four robots. Jacq finds the dying Robert and returns to the outpost as Conway wounds Cleo and kills the evolved robot. Jacq kills all ROC assassins but Conway, though he is further wounded in the battle. As Conway prepares to kill Jacq, the new robot saves his life by pushing Conway off a cliff.
Jacq overcomes his distrust of the uninhibited robot when reunited with his family, and he leaves for the coast with them, as Cleo and the new robot venture further into the irradiated desert, where no humans can follow them. Arriving at the coast they see the ocean, and discover that the Earth is recovering and that hope remains for human beings.
In its essence, Automata questions the evolving humanism in a new race of machines, in an almost poor man’s answer to Ghost in the Shell.
Machines that look little more than barely operating servo’s yet answer the call to live as their masters live despite the oppression. Slaves. Slaves carrying out the work of their masters despite the literal and metaphorical boots to their cybernetic necks. A tragedy exemplified in a way that mirrors our own modernised capitalism: conform or perish.
With Killtopia the very same question is asked. As is the question of “what is it to truly be alive?” A question that continues to elude us – but can a robot truly have a soul?
“That’s a great question, as the character of Crash does start to question why he was made as the story progresses,” says Dave Cook. “The question of purpose is a big one we all think about at some point. Why are we here? What are we meant to do with our time here? These are huge questions that aren’t easy to answer, especially when the future seems bleak.
“As for machines becoming more aware, I don’t think they’re self aware but they’re getting smarter at understanding us as people – our likes, dislikes, our preferences and routines. That does trouble me a little bit, not because of the machines themselves, but because of who is gathering all that data and – more importantly – who else are they selling it to without our consent?
“I’ve worked in digital marketing for many years before getting into comics and you learn some pretty dark stuff. Yes, Alexa and Siri are indeed always listening to you, what you say is being recorded and it is being sold off to companies who want to know more about you. That has never sat right with me, as our privacy is important and I am a big supporter of safeguarding consent when it comes to my data. So yeah, the machines themselves are fine, but I think we do need to think deeper about what happens to all that data being stored about us, and if we are actually happy for it to be sold off to the highest bidders.”
Do Automata and Killtopia exist in the exact same space?
Definitely not. But they certainly intersect. They ask the question of purpose, reality and sing a ballad of cyberpunk cover songs like many who have come before them. Though what I find the most fascinating is the grounding in a reality that could be closer than we think. Thanks to the brilliant penmanship of Dave Cook and the immersive artistry of illustrator Clark Bint we have a world which is as immersive as Automata.
Whilst providing a tone that is as similar as it is the polar opposite of Director Gabe Ibánez’s futuristic robotic dream cum dystopian hellscape, we have two worlds here that explore what robots can and would do for the human race. Yet somehow they both come to realise that as much as the human race created robots for our own convenience, the fact of the matter is this: we don’t deserve robots.
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