Sci-fi and indie films aren’t natural bedfellows – conventional Hollywood wisdom stipulates that the former must incorporate budget-intensive effects the latter can’t afford. Stripped of their bells and missiles, though, the best futurist fictions are parables and morality plays in what-if fantasy form. With the four short tales that make up Robot Stories, rookie writer-director Greg Pak goes nowhere Commander Data and Philip K. Dick haven’t boldly gone before: These are the same quandaries about the nature of being, of loving, of dying; where the uniqueness of human life is measured unsparingly against silicon simulacra. There’s an admirable, rock-garden symmetry to these portraits, a sparse, meditative grace that is at times indistinguishable from a student film’s more pragmatic minimalism. But Pak’s light touch with the script and enormous sympathy for his characters make that distinction largely irrelevant – genuine human longings always hang in the quiet interstices, and there are no truly empty spaces.
Of the four shorts, ”The Robot Fixer” is the least fantastical, and the most affecting, in its depiction of a stern, chronically disappointed mother who comes to terms with her comatose son by completing his collection of vintage toy robotica. ”Clay” presents a highly evocative if inchoate premise: A dying sculptor struggles to choose between eternal life in a nationally mandated consciousness database and the now-illegal natural death he feels he deserves. Unsurprisingly, Pak’s weakest attempt is his most literal: ”Machine Love,” about two ”iPersons” who find each other in a city of human drones, is sweetly creepy, but little lies beneath the sleek plasticine premise. The collection can be summed up in four words I never thought I’d see together: science-fiction chamber music.