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Lifesize Entertainment // Unrated // August 14, 2007
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 8, 2007 | E-mail the Author
If you could design a robotic impression of mankind, would you alter, degrade, or just flat-out copy yourself? That's the compelling issue in James Bai's Puzzlehead, a slick sci-fi drama revolving around one man's desire for a technological mirror of himself. It's a difficult, dark film without much heart at the core, but Puzzlehead undoubtedly serves up a harsh, fuming portrait of the power struggle between mankind, his creation, and the controlling exchange between the two.

The Film:

Our story starts with a gruff, narrative overview of our scientist's history as we pan over the lifeless body and surrounding tools used for his assembly. Walter (Stephen Galaida) has done something bordering on the scientifically inane. He has taken his own idealistic self and molded a cybertronic replication, from head to toe. It takes some effort to craft his "Puzzlehead", involving memory programming, mechanical structure properties, and the overall education you would think a fully grown man would require if he were born as an adult.

He manually powers down Puzzlehead quite frequently, and then monitors his activity through a camera embedded within his eyes. As he guides Puzzlehead along his development, Walter begins to resent his creation as it crosses boundaries he couldn't and, in effect, now attempts to hold him back from the world instead of encourage him to explore. From the remedial socialization and humanization Puzzlehead has absorbed, he understands that human beings should try and control free will in such a way. More importantly, Puzzlehead knows they don't have to idly sit back as it happens.

Puzzlehead gets an unfortunate shot in the leg with a sluggish beginning. Its first act moves at a satiated snail's pace. This primarily comes from a sputtering, cold performance from the lead underneath the intentionally lifeless and sleepily monotone narration. Stephen Galaida hits the nail on the head with his incarnation of a cybertonic creation, but his human self is equally cold and mechanical. His lines lack that certain human genuineness in flow and delivery as Walter, lending heartlessness to our cyborg's "God". Though it's wholly forgivable to try and symbolically mimic his creation's mechanical delivery, Walter's demeanor goes beyond the line of emptiness and over into disconnected belief. You fail to like either of the leads due to their cold nature and, in turn, lose that reason for investment. Plus, simply naming your cyber clone your little "Puzzlehead" is a bizarre invitation to neglect any empathy towards said character.

This is a shame, because a creepy and grating narrative surfaces with Puzzlehead's initial lines. Though strongly reminiscent of a crossbreed between David Lynch's better works and countless bizarre human robot films, somehow this film has no problem with story ingenuity. Eerie with surmounting melancholy, this isn't a film that you'll start or stop with a smile. Mix such a flick with an ugly industrial palette rich with grayish olive and mahogany tones and we've got a prime temperament ready for technology's sociological deconstruction. Puzzlehead is an 80 minute Twilight Zone episode, only lacking in title, with a sharp twist looming in the distance. What it lacks in speed and headiness, it makes up for in sheer engrossing flair.

Much like a set of unlubricated pistons in an engine, this sci-fi treat just needs to get moving a little bit to build momentum. The more bizarre and intricately entangled Puzzlehead gets, the more intriguing it becomes. Once the power struggle begins and mind-boggling ensues, you'll realize that it's firing at frustratingly involved levels that demand forced concentration. Though it does grow in intrigue, you still have to push forth with higher focus levels to digest this. It's not due to any painful imagery to behold, but more of an irritating inclination that you're on to the film's sly deception. Puzzlehead left me guessing, but with more adhesion to a conventional disclosure than I'd like in the eleventh hour.

Sticking with Puzzlehead still pays off, though. It's a compellingly strong science based drama that redeems itself after a waning launch. Charming, original effects and a satisfying story embedded within mysterious depths keep this film afloat, even with a few flimsy performances and a hollow nature. Whether Puzzlehead is likeable, however, is a tougher call. I can appreciate and respect the potency it takes to suck you in the way Puzzlehead does, but ultimately I think it lends more of an uneasy air than a gratifying one. Puzzlehead seems programmed to be mildly impressive without much in the pleasure department.

The DVD:

Puzzlehead comes equipped from LifeSize Entertainment in a standard keepcase presentation with slick coverart and similar discart.

The Video:

Taking its roots into perspective, as well as the quality of the Super 16mm deleted material mentioned below, Puzzlehead doesn't look too shabby at all in its 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. There's grain and damage, but altogether we're working with a nice effort. Plenty of dusty blotches and scratches scatter all across the print, though. However, though unintentional, this degradation lends a little something to the visual style. Its dismal color palette also reflects the proper moods universally across the material. Some minor details such as skin texture and swirling items within water really stood out in this picture. Where splashes of color mutedly slip onto the film, it looks quite nice.

The Audio:

Claiming to have a Dolby 5.1 audio track, Puzzlehead sounds more like a strained mono presentation than anything else. Channel separation is exceedingly scarce, limited almost purely to musical elements. Though, there's not a whole lot to listen to in Puzzlehead anyway. Other than the narrator's monotonous voice and the sporadic, almost echoic dialogue, you're not working with a whole lot here. Still, a vast majority of the speech is very clean and easy to hear in this track, only sputtering in sparse points across the film. An English 2.0 Stereo presentation is also included.

The Extras:

- Director's Commentary -
An insightful and compelling director's commentary with James Bai is included, granting some strong insight into the complexity and nuances of the film. It's a very technical commentary in nature with a strong moderation featuring Matt Zoller Seitz that speaks a lot about the great camerawork in the film.

- Deleted Scenes -
Most of these scenes felt unnecessary and pretty repetitive. Aside from the slightly altered beginning sequence (very slight), these subtractions seem primarily rooted in the search for pacing tightness. What's compelling about this portion is the quality of the film. While watching it, I wasn't horribly impressed with how Puzzlehead looked; however, after seeing the original Super16mm print in the deleted scenes, I see exactly how sharp this film now looks.

Also included are a single Poster image and a Theatrical Trailer.


Final Thoughts:

If you wished that Spielberg's A.I. would've taken a darker, meatier turn into the land of the twisted, then Puzzlehead's Lynchian reflection on such material should do the trick. It's an unnerving, compelling piece of science fiction drama that keeps a solid stream of intrigue across the film's short runtime. Though it's a bit splotchy with pacing and purpose in several areas, this is a film that's worth your effort in swallowing down the negative aspects. Puzzlehead is a bizarre, twisted film about technological upheaval that comes firmly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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