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Robot Stories

01/04/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy Robot Stories in the USA - or Buy Robot Stories in the UK

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Mark finds a film of five Twilight Zone-ish stories involving robots in some way. They are simple stories - most with a strong insightful element. All but one really says more about humanity than about droids.

CAPSULE: Five stories involving robots in some ways conjure memories of the original Twilight Zone series. These are simple stories, most with a strong insightful element. All but one really says more about humanity than about robots. Greg Pak's first feature film has at least three films here that have more human drama than most films in theaters today. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10.

Minor spoiler warning: These stories cannot be adequately discussed with giving away some of the plot details. This review should not damage the enjoyment of the film. Greg Pak is a Yale graduate Rhodes Scholar who until this point has limited his filmmaking to short films. With ROBOT STORIES he takes four short tangentially related films and turns them into one feature film. The opening credit sequence modestly adds a fifth story, or rather a new first story.

This first sequence is animated and if you do not look quick it is passed, yet it sets the tone for the stories that are to follow. The story that runs under the credits shows us a robot, one of a line of robots, that malfunctions in the direction of creativity and personal freedom. The other robots see the malfunction and choose to follow suit. They opt for human values over mechanical ones. In fact, robots are only a motif for the stories in this collection. Robots become a pretext for Pak to look into his human characters. Only the story "Machine Love" is actually mostly about robots and it is the least interesting of the five stories.

"My Robot Baby" features Tamlyn Tomita and Vin Knight as Marcia and Roy, a yuppie couple who are anxious to adopt a baby. First they must prove that they have the responsibility to take care of a young life. They are given an ovoid robotic surrogate baby to care for. It simulates a baby and records the care it receives. One could say it is a logical descendent of a Tamaguchi, the electronic pet that requires care or it dies. Caring for the mecha-baby brings back memories of Marcia's own troubled childhood.

"The Robot Fixer" is really not science fiction at all. As her son lies in a coma after an automobile accident, a woman (Wai Ching Ho) feels helpless. She determines that she must perform a symbolic act to show her devotion to her son. His one fascination in life was his toy robot collection. She determines that as an act of faith she will restore the collection, finding replacements for missing parts and rebuilding the toy robot. This is not a science fiction story. If the boy had been interested in models of jet planes rather than robots there would have been no science fiction connection at all.

"Machine Love" is the slightest of the five stories. Writer and director Greg Pak stars as Archie, a robotic clerical temp in a business office. Initially seriously dedicated, he nonetheless finds love. This may well have been the first of the stories filmed and it has the most rough edges. The input ports on Archie's neck and back seem to be corn plasters. The data that Archie types in is always the same page. Archie's job seems to be typing data into a PC terminal. Why an advanced data device like Archie would use any interface as cumbersome as a human keyboard is unclear.

"Clay" is an emotionally charged but simple story of a great sculptor (Sab Shimono) who is dying but resisting immortality. Technology has advanced to the point where his consciousness can be downloaded to a computer before his birth-body dies. He would essentially go on living and his mind would continue without his body. (Whether this would be really his consciousness continuing or a computer merely simulating his mind is an important issue but not really discussed.) The sculptor prefers death to an electronic life without tactile sensation.

Like the sculptor taking unpromising lumps of clay and sculpting human images from them, the ROBOT STORIES takes the so frequently simplistic motif of science fiction stories and uses it to experiment with emotion and make some profound discoveries about what it is to be human. Rod Serling, in his best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, could perform a certain alchemy.

He would take a simple science fiction story and find deep emotional values inside. (Consider the episode "The Lonely," in which a convict played by Jack Warden exiled to an asteroid gets a robot played by Jean Marsh for a companion. It could well have been the inspiration for ROBOT STORIES.)

While Pak is not yet in his class, Rod Serling would have probably liked ROBOT STORIES very much. Pak writes with wit and insight. It is hard to find a single rating for an anthology film, but I rate ROBOT STORIES a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The film is getting a spotty release around the country, first to film festivals, then to major city art theaters.

Perhaps it will get a wider release in later months.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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