The disparity between ambition and aptitude has doomed more than one indie, as a veritable graveyard of worthy half-hour films padded to interminable feature length attests. What a pleasure, then, that writer-director Greg Pak gives each episode in his four-part Robot Stories precisely the running time needed to explore its ideas, and not a moment more. Pak, in fact, is savvy and sensitive enough to hold something back in each tale—an audience-grabbing technique even the similarly themed, overdeveloped-in-every-sense A.I. couldn’t manage.
As the title says, Pak uses an ostensible sci-fi motif to link his four pieces. What truly binds them, however, is a subtle exploration of the tension between the human and the synthetic, and the sometimes fuzzy distinction between the two. The film also has a distinguishable arc, beginning with an exceedingly nontraditional “birth” and closing with a triumphant death. “My Robot Baby” follows a yuppified couple keen on adopting a child as they take a test run with a mechanical, C-3PO-meets-Furby stand-in. After attempting a disastrous caregiving work-around, Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita), whose own tumultuous childhood is glimpsed in a brief prologue, discovers a nascent nurturing streak beneath her chilly exterior.
The most effective and least science-fictiony of the bunch, “The Robot Fixer,” is a poignant, minutely observed study of loss and acceptance. A mother (Wai Ching Ho) stands watch over her comatose son, and with the help of her daughter (Cindy Cheung) and the young man’s boyhood toy-robot collection (of which she has no recollection), discerns the scope of the emotional wedge she’s driven between herself and her children. The final installments, “Machine Love,” a Twilight Zone-esque lark concerning the dawning need for intimacy experienced by an android corporate lackey (played by Pak himself), and “Clay,” an edgier look at machine love that slyly asks whether eternal life via a vast computer-network “heaven” would be all that heavenly, are slighter but just as well crafted.
For all the melodrama lurking at the edges of Robot Stories, Pak never resorts to preachiness or pathos. He’s an uncannily assured visual storyteller, and his crew—particularly cinematographer Peter Olsen and editor Stephanie Sterner—matches his creative fervor. The result is a quietly impassioned, genuinely stirring indie rarity. As a character in “The Robot Fixer” puts it, “A little care goes a long way.”