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Machine dreams
Greg Pakís Robot Stories at the Brattle

Speaking of robots: the 1977 Star Wars duo, R2-D2 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 1982ís Blade Runner. Letís not forget "Robots, Inc.," an especially spooky half-hour of the 1950ís Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. On a commuter train, Guy One brags to Guy Two that heís 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 Oneís better half. Guy Two leans over his sleeping spouse and, to his horror, hears her industrial, metallic heart!

Thereís a new candidate for the Robotic Hall of Fame: Episode #3, "Machine Love," of Korean-American filmmaker Greg Pakís worthy, ambitious, four-part feature Robot Stories, which is playing all this week at the Brattle Theatre. Pak, a New YorkĖbased 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) whoís placed in a high-tech office. Heís a Sprout G9 by engineering design, but heís programmed to say to those approaching him, "Hello, my name is Archie."

You canít go wrong with Archie. He toils at his computer all day; then in the late afternoon, you push a button in his neck and he collapses in his seat before his screen. The next morning, heís already there, just waiting to be activated. Heís also friendly in a sing-song way, telling every staff employee, "I look forward to our interactions together." But Archie doesnít get very much respect. Heís the donkey for the office workers to kick; they tell him to "shut up," "turn around," and keep working at the keyboard. When will the robot wake up?

Thatís what so often happens in the robot genre: 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, another android. A pretty female one. A damsel in distress, since sheís pawed and felt up by the white-collar males on her job. Archie himself is harassed, his back scratched by the fingernails of female workers in heat. When the two androids find each other, itís a moving, triumphant emotional moment. Donít they stand 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 the intriguing premise that in the future our brains will be digitally copied so that our consciousnesses can go on after we die. An aging man (Sab Shimono) wonders whether to allow himself to be scanned and thus join his already deceased wife in this floating-brain netherworld. His pondering is irritatingly slow and schmaltzy.

Much better are the first episodes. Set in the near-future, "My Robot Baby" explains what happens when a work-obsessed egocentric, Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita), decides itís time for her and her equally jobaholic husband (James Saito) to adopt. Problem is, 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 parentsí level of nurturing to see whether 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. His petulant mother, Bernice (a great performance by Wai Ching Ho), is furious not just at his pedestrian stupidity but also at his failure to get a PhD and his 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 Stories is as cleverly low-tech and almost as anti-technology as Bradburyís futurist works. Pak made this film showcasing a predominantly Asian-American cast; most of these actors are superb. Whatís not to applaud? Yet this indie film doesnít have a distributor, though itís a cult movie in the making.

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@world.std.com

Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
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