Movie: Modern science fiction anthologies seem to owe a lot to shows like The Twilight Zone for a lot of reasons. Among them, the need to tell a story quickly, get the main quirk of the short out of the way so as to allow the story to proceed, and the science angle handled in a manner with a moderate amount of sophistication. Rather than include a lot of filler material as a longer, larger budget release would call for, such films can focus on the crucial element, the mulligan, more readily rather than try to bury it like films from Hollywood feel obligated to do. With this in mind, I turn my focus to a short independent anthology released by Kino Video, Robot Stories.
Robot Stories, is now being released at a time when audiences seem to feel comfortable with the roller coaster ride styled science fiction movies like I, Robot, The Matrix Trilogy, and so many others that rely far more on big budget effects and big name stars than on writing, continuity, and all the aspects that make art house films worthwhile these days. My own experience is that science fiction rarely plays well at such venues due to the type of audience they attract (many of which seem to think they're above this type of release) but every once in a while, this genre clicks in them. Robot Stories seems to be such a film due in large part to the themes addressed as much as how they are presented by the talented Greg Pak. With four short films to take a look at various slices of the human condition, with the supposed robot theme as the driving force, Pak seems to know that technology has come to push humanity into a sort of "go with the flow, make no waves, do what you're supposed to" type of life. The essence of the four films here is to teach us to think beyond those boundaries and realize that technology is just a tool and we don't have to become tools in order to use it. Here's a brief look at the four films:
The first film, My Robot Baby, takes a look at a couple in the near future where it seems that in order to have a baby (either by legislation or some unmentioned moral code), you have to take care of a robot baby that simulates the parental experience. I have to say that it's a good idea having watched far too many people breeding without any skill at raising kids but that's an aside to the movie. In the film, a yuppie couple has a robot baby for a month; it learns from them and records their ability to nurture with the reward being the ability to get a real child if rated high enough. Those of you that have raised babies will see the difficulties coming a mile away but it doesn't lessen the impact of the moral of the tale, and the established patterns of the leading "mother" seem all too real.
The next film, The Robot Fixer, is a story about a mother who's grown son is in a coma and she comes to see his childhood toy collection as a means to obsessively try to "fix" him in her mind if only she can complete the missing/lost parts of the toys. Going from junk shop to garage sale to anywhere she needs to in order to find missing parts, she comes to realize that no matter what she does, her son's time has past but don't consider that much of a spoiler since getting there is far more important than the outcome. Addressing a number of issues in our disposable society, Pak found the perfect cast to pull off this film and it was the least science fiction oriented of the pack.
The third film, Robot Love, starred the director himself as a work android that is taught to learn from his interactions with those around him. This causes several problems at the office since they are alternately creeped out and fascinated by what he learns even if they don't realize where the behavior is coming from. The fact that the office slut plays around in front of him and his handler is a bit of a social outcast seemed to perfectly capture the social structure of many modern offices (if you've never worked in one, count yourself lucky). In the end, the android or "iPerson" as he's called, teaches us more about ourselves than the technology of the time. The excellent use of sound effects, however low budget, managed to keep the film believable throughout the show.
The last film was Clay, a short film where an aging sculptor of some acclaim is in poor health. Society has progressed to the point where his personality and ideas can be immortalized electronically, freeing him from the burdens of his body and allowing him the opportunity to continue his work. There was a lot of subtext in this one that will allow the audience to make their own minds up about the details but the sculptor's resistance to change even in face of his electronically saved girlfriend said a lot more about the lines between reality and fantasy than The Matrix could ever handle.
I really liked Robot Stories and while I'd have liked to see what Pak could've done with a bigger budget, I think his inexperience and the limited resources forced him to focus on the parts of storytelling that are usually lost in big budget Hollywood movies. If he can keep true to his roots, I suspect he'll manage to get even better as time goes on since he managed to instill the intelligence of the stories without relying on the eye candy that is an easy path to take for those without the creativity. For the appeal of the films, the solid extras, and the well done technical aspects of the films, I'm going to give this one a rating of Highly Recommended for fans of science fiction, short films, and stories about the human condition.
Picture: The picture was presented in the usual 1.85:1 ratio non-anamorphic widescreen color. The films were shot on digital camera and looked low budget but the editing was decent, the lighting slightly on the low side, and the overall look in line with the kind of show it was. Low budget anthologies tend to be made on the fly and Pak appeared to make the most of his very limited time and resources but if you're expecting it to look like a Hollywood release, you'll be disappointed.
Sound: The audio was presented in stereo English with a minor amount of separation in some of the shorts. The music was fitting and mixed well but had a kind of folksy twang to it that could be best described as a slight tribute to country and blues when not specific to the robot theme. The dynamic range wasn't all that great either but some attention was paid to detail and for a low budget release, it showed some care.
Extras: The best extra for fans of short stories would be the short feature Mouse, an early film by director Greg Pak. Like the other shorts of the DVD, it used the technique of using subtext to establish two levels of storytelling; on one level, it was about a man trying to catch vermin in his apartment and on the other, it's about him trying to escape responsibility in his life. I think it won a number of awards at various film festivals so you may have already watched it (it has been on PBS several times too).
The next best extra was a series of audio commentaries by director Pak and some of the cast. While the stories themselves were basic enough that you'll catch most of what Pak was trying to say, it was interesting to hear him discuss the technical aspects of the movie, the financing, film festivals, and how he got into making the films included on the DVD. If you've seen the films at festivals and appreciated them, you'll want to listen to the commentaries as they helped complete the picture with a myriad of details.
The next best extra was a set of deleted scenes and alternate endings with an optional commentary by director Pak (he had an optional commentary on all the extras, including the trailer, except the photogallery). While I could see why they were deleted, the scenes ranged from having some merit to being fluff or filler; depending on your point of view. Low budget short stories rarely have such a bonus so they might add to your entertainment value depending on how much you enjoy the films but check them out either way since they do help fill in the blanks at times.
The last extras were the aforementioned trailer and photogallery. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of such extras but the trailer did fairly represent the film, something you generally won't find on this kind of anthology. It might have been interesting to see all the awards the short films had won (around three dozen at last count) or have some interviews with the director and cast but the commentaries covered much of that so I can't fuss too loudly.
Final Thoughts: Robot Stories is a rare breed of anthology that managed to combine the ideas of science fiction, the down to earth nature of the indie film, and more humanity than most of what you'll find on shelves today yet never sinks to the level of the weepy melodrama most of us are familiar with. If you can get past the low budget nature of the films included here, you'll likely find them to be well worth your time and money.