One day, when machines finally take over, the question of what it means to be human in an age of overwhelming technology will be moot. Until then, artists will continue to ponder whether machines help or hinder humanity, how replaceable we are, and how "human" a machine can be or become.
Such are the concerns that director and screenwriter Greg Pak kicks about in his debut full-length feature, Robot Stories, an anthology of four short films loosely linked by the inclusion of some sort of robot. While all four stories focus on the human rather than the mechanical side of relationships, each unfolds with varying degrees of success.
In the first story, "My Robot Baby," two Yuppies (James Saito and Tamlyn Tomita), hoping to adopt a human child, receive a trial "baby," designed to assess their skills. The test-baby resembles R2D2; it requires a "bottle" of recharge, and is guaranteed to fret, have inscrutable needs and leak graphite fluid. This is a slight story, with predictable excursions into the fears, dilemmas and rewards of parenting. Frankly, it's hard to find some emotional connection to a story about bonding with what looks like a highly stylized appliance. (Full disclosure: I was once given a similar take-care-of-me-or-I'll-melt-down-on-you Robo-Baby as a gag gift. I was so creeped out by it that I never even took the cellophane off the box.)
The best of the quartet is the second segment, "The Robot Fixer," in which middle-aged Bernice (Wai Ching Ho), unable to confront her estranged son's terminal injury, displaces her anxiety by trying to rebuild his childhood toy-robot collection. The obvious narrative charts Bernice's sad realization of her own role in distancing her child, but interwoven is an exploration of what it means to be physically human, literally -- to be made up of what we think of as "parts" (arms, legs, organs) the way a child's toy might be. Yet when broken, we're not as easily fixed with a spare bit ordered from a catalog, however naively we might hope for it. Cutting-edge medicine is, of course, trending this way, and today, the replacement of diseased internal organs with other people's is barely noted. "The Robot Fixer" is an elegant vignette that threatens to collapse from its maudlin subject matter and replacement-parts metaphor but remains beautifully grounded.
The third story, "Machine Love," is the weakest. Pak himself plays Archie, a Sprout G9 iPerson, or a robot temp programmed to adapt to its work environment by learning from its human co-workers. Not surprisingly, Archie's co-workers are boors and slackers -- yet somehow Archie learns from their bad behavior to be a better, more sensitive "person." The point is too facile -- robots need love, too, and their mechanical purity might make them better than us at interpersonal interaction. And Archie's obsession with a female iPerson across the way feels more icky than enlightening. Sexualized robots in the workplace seem like a human-resources nightmare better suited to parody than gentle melodrama.
The final story, "Clay," aims to be cerebral. In the near future, a dying artist (Sab Shimono) is urged by his corporal and digital relatives to scan his memories into a database, where his consciousness can merge with all human knowledge, thereby granting him some perfect afterlife in the realm of ones and zeros. "Clay" is meditatively paced, but its brevity seems to mute its intended effect of celebrating the dignity of human choice, however flawed; the episode is like watching strangers make momentous decisions, without knowing what they might be informed by.
Pak's modest film is unabashedly low budget, with simple sets and props, and no special effects, though these constraints suit his humanist tales. Pak, himself a biracial Korean-American, employs a mostly Asian-American cast, and while the stories are not about race or cultural differences, Pak explains in his press notes that he "always saw the stories that way" in his head. It is notable that he successfully creates a film where non-white characters simply are, rather than reading as obvious ethnic token players or caricatures.
The sub-genre of quiet, thoughtful sci-fi, for the most part, has been trumped by its pushy younger sibling -- the big-budget actioner, where even if there is a deeper message, the flashy techniques and A-list stars come first. Not surprisingly, Pak cites Ray Bradbury and The Twilight Zone as early influences, and movie-goers who prefer their science-fiction to be free of explosions, dimension-busting spaceships and mutant warrior aliens should find Robot Stories a welcome flashback to how we used to think about our future. Ultimately, Pak's message may be that our interpersonal troubles have nothing to do with machinery -- that human beings can create plenty of their own grief.