Robot Stories (2002)

Review

Greg Pak’s Robot Stories belongs to that rarest of subgenres, indie science fiction. For that alone, I give it some credit; an indie sci-fi fan cannot subsist on Donnie Darko alone. This brief, spirited anthology has a lot of potential. You’re rooting for it, even when it doesn’t quite come through.

The title isn’t a metaphor; the movie is composed of four robot-centric shorts. There is ‘My Robot Baby,’ in which two prospective parents undergo a more technologically advanced version of the old egg-sitting lesson; ‘The Robot Fixer,’ in which an elderly woman tends to her grown son’s collection of toy robots as he lies comatose in the hospital; ‘Machine Love,’ featuring an advanced computer who looks, and begins to act, like a human; and ‘Clay,’ about a dying man resisting a mandate that his consciousness be preserved digitally.

All four stories are at least diverting, though ‘My Robot Baby’ isn’t much more than that. The slightly heartsick robot as featured in ‘Machine Love’ (played by Pak himself, in one of the feature’s better performances) isn’t the freshest of ideas, but it provides welcome relief from the undercurrent of sadness that runs through the other pieces.

‘The Robot Fixer,’ the most emotional of the quartet, has the least to do with literal robotics; the robots of the title are plastic, Transformers-like toys. As her son hovers between life and death, a woman latches onto his toy collection, hunting down long-missing wheels, arms, and wings, avoiding a confrontation with grief. The arc of this piece is lovely, but, as with many of the stories, ambition slightly exceeds the effort. In ‘Fixer,’ this effect is personified by Wai Ching Ho, who gives a touching but amateurish performance as a mother lost in grief. The actress inspires empathy, but her line-readings are frequently awkward; throughout the film, awkward acting forms a symbiotic relationship with the clunky dialogue.

Too much of Robot Stories, then, looks and sounds like a home video production. It is shot on video and, unlike 28 Days Later, doesn’t flip the primitive look into an advantage; Pak isn’t concerned with disguising his movie’s low-budget roots. This can be endearing, depending on your tolerance of really, really cheap sets.

Of course, it’s not production values that Pak is after here, but rather a meditative series of glimpses into the nature of man versus the nature of machines; where we overlap, and where we resist. ‘Clay’ comes closest to achieving this – it’s the slowest entry, but also the most reflective and thought-provoking. The quiet, slightly obtuse tone is best suited to Pak’s abilities.

The movie has heart and brains, those attributes so often missing, robotlike, from Hollywood sci-fi. But there’s an inarticulate quality to the direction, as if Pak feared too much command of the material would shatter his project into spare parts. As it is, Robot Stories feels like it could just as easily – maybe better – work in book form. It’s a mechanical man with a soul, but no armor.