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1 review, 3 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"No-one ever makes a robot duplicate for a good reason."
4 stars

There are two ways to do science fiction on a budget: You can start from an effects-filled story and pare down until it's manageable, but nobody really likes that except as kitsch. The other route is to posit a future that doesn't look much different than now, focusing on the characters and their interactions ("because that's what's really important").

That's the route writer/director James Bai takes in Puzzlehead. It's some unspecified time in the future, perhaps the 2020s. The country is mired in an economic funk, and Walter (Stephen Galaida) has barely managed to get his work out of the lab before zealots destroyed it. He finishes his work at home, using himself as a template to build an android upon which he bestows the odd name of "Puzzlehead". Walter sends Puzzlehead out into the world to gain experience with human interaction, and one day he stops a robery at a local deli. Walter has long been smitten with Julia (Robbie Shapiro), who operates the store, and after viewing Puzzlehead's memory tapes opts to shave off the beard that visually differentiates him from his creation and use the opportunity to get closer to her.

Bai comes up with an enjoyably twisty plot, a devlish little thriller involving twins vying for the same woman. The science fiction elements are strong; that one of the twins is an android built by the other isn't just a detail thrown in to make things a little more interesting, but something which drives the plot from the get-go: It's why Walter can be certain of total obedience even when it's not in Puzzlehead's personal interest, it makes keeping secrets harder, and it's fun to play with the question of just who is replacing who at times. I was impressed with the skill Bai displayed in handling his "twin" characters - he rarely, if ever, tries to deceive the audience as to which character Galaida is playing at a given time. Rather than going for "what you just thought was wrong!" reveals, he makes who's who and what Julia knows clear at all times, drawing the audience into how things play out rather than relying on the gotcha moments.

The most interesting choice he makes, I think, is to have Puzzlehead be the narrator. Unlike a great number of other robot characters we've seen in the past eighty years or so, Puzzlehead has no Pinocchio-like desire to be a real boy. Frankenstein's monster is a better comparison - the literate, self-loathing monster of Mary Shelley's original novel. As dry and angsty as the narration is - Puzzlehead does tend to go on in the "if I had known about the recording device, I would have ripped my eyes out of my head" mode quite a bit toward the start of the film - it's pretty indispensable. We get the robot's perspective on having his free will neutered, or how even though he has Walter's memories, they're just information to him, not any sort of past. It's not really something that can be shown rather than told, and telling us in the form of expository dialogue would almost certainly have seemed forced.

Stephen Galaida's delivery as Puzzlehead helps to sell us on the character, a vital part of his dual role. Walter and Puzzlehead are, in many ways, the same - harsh, ruthless, quickly coming to resent the other, by the end maybe more obsessed with Julia than anything else. How they arrive at their similar traits is different, though, and it shows in Galaida's performances: Puzzlehead's posture is straight instead of slouched, and where Walter seldom says much because he is intimidated by people/women/Julia, and displays the expected nervousness, Puzzlehead's reticence and curt manner of speaking is the result of a robotic tendency to speak efficiently. Neither are really nice characters, and its interesting that Bai and Galaida make little effort to justify Puzzlehead's turn toward a darker nature. We see that he has to learn brutality, but he is a quick study. Walter's own madness is frightening, too, even if it doesn't have quite so clear a basis as Puzzlehead's.

Robbie Shapiro's performance as Julia is good, mostly in terms of making her uneasy. She doesn't say much; tending to shrink away from men in a lawless land. In fact, her voice is dubbed by another actress, but that's not a huge problem since we get most of what we need to know from her body language. She spends a fiar chunk of the movie as a prisoner, though that's true of all three characters: Control is one of the movie's major themes, and keeping each other locked up is one of the ways these characters assert it.

I don't know that "Puzzlehead" has any particularly novel insights on control and kidnapping, but it gets good use out of the ideas. It does do a nice job of getting us inside its android character's head without completely humanizing him, and that's pretty impressive on its own.

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originally posted: 03/21/07 01:24:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2006 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

User Comments

12/26/05 Rosalina Gonzalez This movie is fun to watch-gives a look at the classic battle of man versus machine. 4 stars
9/27/05 Terry Jon Avakian It was a well made film, odd but good. 4 stars
4/28/05 maria homage to frankenstein - fun to watch 4 stars
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  23-Mar-2006 (NR)
  DVD: 14-Aug-2007



Directed by
  James Bai

Written by
  James Bai

  Robbie Shapiro
  Elise Adams
  Chuck Ardezzone
  Jon Bavier
  Stephen Galaida

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