Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Robot Dreams (2023) dir. Pablo Berger

Never was a cloudy day

by

In a recent Bloomberg article about Pixar’s hopeful anticipation of Inside Out 2’s success, Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter stated that the company aims to re-broaden the audience through showcasing a “commonality of experience.” If I’m reading between the lines, stories like Turning Red and Luca — a couple of the company’s latest reflections on the intersection of discovery and creative identity — will be cast aside for sequel spawns, spin-off variants, and ecological-warfare merch.

Financially, I could see why this would be favorable (albeit silly, since Disney showed their ass through their other formulaic messes). But in the name of cinema, it’s hard to say if Docter is coming from a good place. Sure, he didn’t go to the dollar-sign ignorance that investor Nelson Peltz shared when attempting to buy a couple of board seats (“Why do I have to have a Marvel [movie] that’s all women?”). Docter, who is behind some of Pixar’s biggest and mostimpactful movies, is familiar with the integration between creator and product and successfully reaching across the aisle. But it’s kinda damning to narrow a multibillion-dollar company’s vision by getting that plan in print. Is that really what you want to be remembered for?

I can’t wholly explain the cracks in Pixar’s latest failures, but in watching Robot Dreams, Pablo Berger’s adaptation of the 2007 graphic novel by Sara Varon, I can summarize the feeling of watching a bad Pixar movie as an attempt to attain the same satisfaction of rewatching a TV episode. There is a hypothesis that people prefer rewatching episodes over watching something new because there is comfort in knowing what happens next, and in taming our emotions as the story rides in the expected motions. Place the all-American-moral marketability filter and switch around the adorable-babble of a side character, and that is some essence of a Pixar movie.

Robot Dreams is the opposite of that. Beneath the guileful style of an all-ages adventure is a fable that breathes in life’s misfortunes and exhales a hopeful promise that there is a tomorrow. With wordless gusto, Robot Dreams introduce our main character Dog (a keen eye will see that its full name is Dog Varon, borrowing from the graphic novelist’s last name) ordering a robot companion out of loneliness. The also succinctly-named Robot is akin to a newborn puppy: gratification-chasing and loyal to Dog’s side. 

I’d eat my foot if you were able to guess how this story goes, and not for the obscenity and shock value (the all-ages category still applies here). Robot is a seemingly perfect buddy, which doesn’t seem to ease our stomachs when Dog is oblivious to Robot’s flashes of contemplation (one particular scene that lingers in my head: Robot witnessing a fellow tired robot enduring a child’s kicking). It’s forgivable to think that this might end up as another looming horror tale of AI replacement (which, truthfully, I have had enough of, thank you). The type of fear that you may be holding in comes to fruition when, after a fun day at the beach, Robot is unable to move from the sand. After genuine attempts of bringing Robot back home (the last attempt resulted in jail time, which is a classic NYPD move of Doing Too Much), Dog is then forced to wait until next year for the beach to open again.

Whether this has happened to us before or resembles our imagined experience in separating with someone, Robot Dreams is the vicarious phantasm of transient relationships. When Robot and Dog have their post-friendship separation (Robot lying on the beach for three seasons, Dog navigating loneliness again), it truly is depressing. It drags because, well, we need to see them rollerskate to “September” again! But in the subversion of the usual final destination of reconciled friendship, Robot and Dog re-learn their relationships with themselves and space when they are apart.

It’s understandable to not like Robot Dreams and its daunting premise of a dwindling friendship, but there is something about this portrayal that keeps you going with them. Berger, who had just directed complicated comedies prior to this, is able to invoke the familiarity of nostalgia. Even in the off-chance that you have not endured a heartbreaking loss, Robot Dreams still connects through the joyous vibrations of ’80s NYC, jiggling and dancing to cultural references and Easter eggs for the eternally-tubular souls. I don’t know if Berger was drawn to this story for personal reasons, but it’s safe to say that Berger remembers his 21st of Septembers.

To say the least, Robot Dreams is unexpected. There are incidents where we are caught up in the optimistic goodness of people, only to realize we were in one of Robot’s imaginative scenarios (a reasonable thing if you are conscious and immobile for almost a year). While Docter may be onto something about sharing a universal feeling, Robot Dreams is uncompromising in how we get to that feeling. The last scene nails the kind of fantasy that I’d like to think most people have thought about when we reminisce about others. It is so bittersweet and lovely that I would have rewatched the movie again for that specific feeling, even if it’s a short-lived episode.

Robot Dreams
2023
dir. Pablo Berger
102 mins

Now playing @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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