The quartet of short films that comprise the whole of writer-director Greg Pak’s Robot Stories is not only concerned with detailing the various interactions of an unsettling, fragile humanity with its own technology but it also seeks to ennoble those moments of intersection with an allegorical flourish, finding within them the impetus toward various degrees of both reflective self-examination and social critique. In this sense, Robot Stories is a product of the “higher” aspirations of its genre. Science fiction, in its pedagogical or sermonizing mode, is dedicated to affecting a new awareness on the part of the observer by providing a series of moral or cultural lessons and warnings that often disguise themselves as glimpses into some future state, in both the political and metaphysical senses of the word.
In the realm of sci-fi cinema, the end result of this philosophizing runs the gamut from melodramatic sentimentality and pseudo-intellectualizing (Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes) to over-determined earnestness (Silent Running, Metropolis) and from the brilliantly flawed (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Zardoz) to the movingly sublime (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner). If Pak’s anthology film (featuring the shorts My Robot Baby, The Robot Fixer, Machine Love and Clay) has an agenda, it is to enlighten—to apply the sci-fi conceit in the manifesting of a seriousness of purpose when examining whatever one might mean by “the human condition.” And while it may be the very broad generalities of that term and its usage that at times tarnishes the film’s multilayered structure, the work remains compelling if only because Pak balances his clichés with moments of genuine insight.
Narratively, each short may be articulated differently, but alienation is the common thread—the emotional distance separating people symbolized by the robots littering the spaces between them, glimmering reflections of human confusion. The two most overt examples of this paralleling occur in perhaps Robot Stories’ relatively weakest entries, My Robot Baby, concerning a woman coming to terms with her own childhood psychological abuse by attempting to nurture an artificial “infant,” and Machine Love, in which a robotic office worker finds himself developing an impossible to comprehend emotional pull. Both traffic in an unfortunately overwrought language of the melodrama of lost, unknown or poisoned love and yet are never dishonest.
My Robot Baby most directly recalls Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive with the sins of the parent (the outside world) being answered, tenfold, in the form of a monstrous child (the tormented interior). Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita), the obsessive, driven career woman at the center of the short, is haunted by memories of her own distant, resentful mother and, when she and her husband are given a robot baby to test their readiness to adopt a human child, she must struggle with the fact that the shadow of her mother is still lodged somewhere deep within her. After a period of maternal neglect, the robot goes on a rampage, tearing the apartment apart, and Pak tips the film into the arena of horror imagery.
The child becomes “monstrous other” in the parent’s eyes only because that parent is unable to recognize her own complicity in its creation. As her mother shaped her, so Marcia shapes her “baby” until both are driven to hide in the prison of the inside, here represented by the literal space of a bedroom closet. Both mother and child become linked by their shared sorrow. The metaphor is a compelling one, if only on melodramatic gut level, but the heavy-handedness with which the target is hit belies a certain damaging obviousness. The same could be said of Machine Love, a far more formally lighthearted but no less essentially serious investigation of what happens when Archie (Greg Pak), a robotic employee and new office toy, discovers that “he” too needs love.
Treated with little more than contempt by everyone save his human handler Bill, Archie eventually finds himself yearning for not only compassion but physical contact, the rituals of touching. He watches the people around him—indifferent, cruel and callous—and is continually reminded of something that he saw while on his way to work on his first day: the image of a man sobbing on the subway. The inarticulate spaces between these impressions of humanity come to bother Archie as he begins to sense that the various aggressions that he witnesses are but a mask for a profound fear of separation. Of course the irony is that Archie demonstrates his increasing levels of “humanity” by beginning to feel lonely. In the end, Archie is but the plasticized, prepackaged version of the people around him, a product that hints at the lonely hollowness within the purchaser.
To Pak’s credit, the short is well paced and fluidly constructed with a subtle sense of humor, but one cannot escape the feeling of over familiarity with the material, at least in a generic sense. Machine Love comes across like a well-done “Twilight Zone” episode that you’ve seen a thousand times. However, despite some flaws, both My Robot Baby and Machine Love are still quite impressive, especially when one considers that Robot Stories is Pak’s first feature length work, and an independent one at that. Yet it is in the remaining two shorts, Clay and The Robot Fixer, that the anthology truly finds it own voice.
Set in the relatively distant future, Clay concerns a dying sculptor, John Lee (Sab Shimono), faced with the decision to either allow himself to pass away naturally or to have his brain electronically recorded and thereby achieve a kind of computerized immortality. Hauntingly haiku-like, Clay allows itself to sketch only the barest outline of a life, to hint at and suggest the reservoir of memory being threatened with extinction. John, now an old man, is left with his work and the holographic reminder of his lover; she is the flickering promise of an afterlife, a sanctioned ghost. Yet accepting the new deathlessness means a loss of what is for John a necessary physicality. When John “plugs” himself into the system to be with his lover, taking on the form of his younger self while spending time in what amounts to a weigh station between life and death, Pak repeatedly cuts back to the real John, the tired old man laying on his bed, desperately clutching a pillow as if in hopeless imitation of his online fantasy.
There is despair in John but also resolution, fear but refusal to bend. The copies may be able to move anywhere in the world, be many things to many people (“Where are you now?” John asks his replicated lover, who responds placidly with, “I’m here with you…and watching the sunrise…and singing a lullaby to a little girl in a hospital”), but the cost of that liberation is the loss of the urgency of mortality, the specificity of any given moment. Pak presents the viewer less with a debate, the pros and cons of an artificial immortality, than with the image of a man who has made his decision and now must spend his remaining time coming to terms with it. The viewer is asked to bear witness to the last few days of a life willing and waiting to be extinguished. Coming to terms with death is also at the heart of The Robot Fixer wherein a mother (Wai Ching Ho) is faced with making the decision to terminate life support for her son, lost in a coma.
This short is the least sci-fi; at least, it has nothing overtly to do with the genre. The title refers to the mother’s quest to repair her son’s toy robot collection in an attempt to become closer to a child from whom she had become increasingly alienated over the years and, perhaps, affect some miraculous cure. Her obsession to complete the collection plunges her into a whirlwind of memories of her son: his sullen withdraw when he was younger, the hours spent gazing at his toys, her disregard for what must have constituted his world. His silence now enforced by a shattered body, his mother can only reassemble pieces of broken toys as if performing some arcane ritual that will allow her to speak to the dead. The Robot Fixer is the strongest of the four shorts, moving and eloquent; a skillful sketch that hints at far more than is ever on screen. While as a whole Robot Stories may have its relative ups and downs, Greg Pak is to be applauded for his fundamentally sensitive, deeply felt work in a genre that, when not concerned with exploding bodies and probing aliens, is all too often burdened with its own self-importance.