Consider the robot. Is there any classic element of science fiction that can tell us more about humanity? Whether shiny tin or realistically fleshy, pets or children, robots become a reflection—often unflattering—of whatever humans happen to share space with them.
The robots of Greg Pak’s anthology film Robot Stories are down-to-earth as these things go. There’s nothing unbelievable or magically CGI about them. They run the gamut of complexity from a Mr. Potatoheadesque trial baby that records everything and emits graphite in “My Robot Baby,” to an almost human couple of G9 office tempbots in “Machine Love,” to the toy robots of “The Robot Fixer” and the eternal life of uploaded consciousness in “Clay.” These variations, coupled with the subtle shifts in timing and texture between the individual stories, deliberately build a complex, coherent world rich with human flaws.
Let’s talk about the deliberation for a sec.
Pak is an extremely gifted screenwriter, a fact you can confirm by reading Robot Stories and More Screenplays, which collects several short and two feature-length scripts, all with introductory notes. Several short scripts focus on exploding stereotypes about Asians, especially where sexuality is concerned; “Asian Pride Porn” is the most successful, sending up the myth of inept, subservient men and exotic, sex goddess women. The unproduced feature script “Corporis Vesalius,” which dramatizes Andreas Vesalius's pioneering study of anatomy and eventual death at sea, won an award for its depiction of science. There’s a clear sense throughout that Pak is giving the writing of his movies the attention it deserves and, not only that, has a real gift for it. It’s a relief to see a young director relying so heavily on strong writing. Pak’s interests are too complex to be served by anything less.
In Robot Stories he has taken a series of short scripts dealing with artificial intelligence that were written over a number of years and created a seamless “fix-up” out of them. Anthology films live or die based on the strength of their individual threads and thematic unity. Pak has expertly cast and directed the film so there’s a consistency that crosses all four chapters. No weak link spoils the whole, although some viewers may have their favorites (I did). The true accomplishment here is in the larger story these films create.
Robot Stories fits nicely into that category of ever-rarer genre films not interested in flash and effects, but in people and story. Science fiction films these days hardly ever engage this particular viewer beyond a surface, edge of the seat plot level—and rarely that. Two fairly recent exceptions would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the shamefully lesser known Happy Accidents, on the basis of which I’d started to develop a theory that the romantic comedy was going to be the sole basis for artistically successful, emotionally engaging, socially relevant science fiction films.
Obviously, I’m an idiot, because Robot Stories manages to be all three of those things without touching romantic comedy. Yes, there’s humor. There’s even hot robot love. But, mostly, the film succeeds because each chapter is a thoughtful examination of another angle on how people connect, or don’t, with each other at different times in our lives.
Pak also pulls off a neat trick by casting the movie entirely with Asian-American actors (yes, it’s in English) but creating characters so universal that I barely even noticed. In his introduction to Robot Stories and More Screenplays, David Henry Hwang writes, “In each of his 'Robot Stories' tales, Greg’s use of Asian-American characters generates a subversive subtext, forcing us to re-examine our roles in contemporary society.” At heart, what Pak is doing on this level reflects what he does with the larger film, just as the robot always tells us who we are. Pak’s robot stories ultimately challenge our assumptions about what we are doing as humans, as people, and with the lives and world we make.
Gwenda Bond is currently finishing her first novel for young adults. She posts often about books and writing at her blog, Shaken & Stirred, writes an advice column for Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet as everyone's Dear Aunt Gwenda, and co-edits Say... magazine with writer Christopher Rowe.