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Robot Stories

     Speaking of robots: the 1977 Star Wars duo, R2D2 and C-3P0, would win any popularity contest, though I lean to the mechanized evil Maria of the 1926 Metropolis, Robby the Robot of the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet, and, of course, the replicants of 1982's Blade Runner. Let's not forget "Robots, Inc.," an especially spooky half-hour of the 1950's "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show.

     On a commuter train, Guy One brags to Guy Two that's he's replaced himself at home with a look-alike robot, who takes care of his quarrelsome wife. You should get one also, he lectures Guy Two. So what happens? Guy One is murdered by his robot self, so the robot can settle in with Guy One's better half. Guy Two leans over his sleeping spouse and, to his horror, hears her industrial, metallic heart!

     There's a new candidate for the Robotic Hall of Fame: the brilliant Episode Three, "Machine Love," of Greg Pak's worthy, ambitious, four-part feature, Robot Stories. Pak, a New York-based performance artist and comedy performer with a Jim Carrey frame, wrote and directed the quartet of tales; but he also stars in "Machine Love," as a Barbie-world android (note the Ken-perfect hairdo and sideburns) who is placed for work in a high-tech office. He's a Sprout G9 by engineering design, but he's programmed to say to those approaching him, "Hello, my name is Archie."

     You can't go wrong with Archie. He toils at his computer all day, and, in the late afternoon, you push a button in his neck, and he collapses in his seat before his screen. The next morning, he's already there, just waiting to be activated. He's also friendly in a sing-song way, telling every staff employee, "I look forward to our interactions together." But Archie doesn't get very much respect. He's the donkey for the office workers to kick, told to "Shut up," told to "Turn around" and keep at the keyboard.

     When will the robot wake up? That's what happens often in the robot genre, that the mechanical creature has more hidden heart than the cold and unfeeling humans. So it is that Archie looks out the window and discovers, across the courtyard in another office, typing on, day and night, another android. A pretty female one. A damsel in distress, for she is pawed at, felt up, by the white-collar males on her job. The same harassment happens to Archie, whose back is scratched by the fingernails of female workers in heat.

     When the two androids find each other, it's a moving, triumphant emotional moment. Can this tale be read politically, with robots standing in for every have-not Other about the modern office, from dumped-on interns and temp workers to the invisible immigrant crew of janitors and night watchmen?

     The concluding episode of Robot Stories, called "Clay," is the weakest, a lugubrious take on a really interesting premise: that in the future, our brains will be digitally copied, so that our consciousness can go on forever after our deaths. An aging man (Sab Shimona) wonders whether to allow himself to be scanned and thus to join his already-deceased wife in this floating-brain netherworld. His pondering is irritatingly slow and schmaltzy.

     Much better are the first episodes. "My Robot Baby," set in the near future, tells what happens when a work-obsessed egocentric, Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita), decides its time for an adoption with her equally jobaholic husband. But the adoption policy has changed: first they must take in a robot infant for a month, a rotund Humpty-Dumpty, whose hard-drive will record the parents' level of nurturing, to see if they qualify for a real-life child. In "The Robot Fixer," a non-science-fiction story, a computer programmer, lies in a coma after being hit by a car, while his petulant mother, Bernice (a great performance by Wai Ching Ho), is furious at his pedestrian stupidity, but also by his failing to get a Ph.D., and by his incommunicative, nerd lifestyle. Slowly, she gains respect for him as she grasps the importance of his superhero "microbots" toy collection.

     Filmmaker Pak admires the stories of Ray Bradbury, and his Robot Tales are as cleverly low-tech and almost as anti-technology as Bradbury's futurist works. A Korean-American filmmaker, Pak made this film showcasing a predominantly Asian-American cast, most of whom are superb. What's not
to applaud? Absurdly, this indie film doesn't have a distributor, though it's a cult movie in the making.

(March, 2004)


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