TIFF 2023 | Robot Dreams (Pablo Berger, Spain / France) — Centrepiece 

By Gabrielle Marceau

At a time of renewed anxiety over A.I. encroaching on our lives (usurping artists, stealing screenwriting jobs, replacing lovers) and making them increasingly atomized, Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams weaves a tale about the way humans (or here, a menagerie of anthropomorphized animals) will callously exploit and discard robots, even the very friendly ones. The dreaming robot here is the friendliest, a perfectly innocent and loyal being delivered to a lonely dog’s door. After some assembly, the two instantly bond over their shared love of snack foods, watching VHS tapes, and bopping around town to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September.” But it isn’t long until their idyll is cut short when the robot swims in the ocean and malfunctions. Unable to move, and too heavy to be transported by the dog, the robot is abandoned on the beach where he slips into fantastical dreams, waiting to be reunited with his friend. (If this reminds you of A.I. Artificial Intelligence [2001], the robot makes for a much less complex object of sympathy than the humanoid David; he’s closer to the robotic toy bear, Teddy.) When the robot wakes it encounters either the world’s cruelty (his leg is unceremoniously lopped off by a trio of rabbits) or its beauty (a family of birds makes a home between his stiff limbs). But for a film whose premise promises to wrench tears from even the most unfeeling automaton, I found myself a little unmoved. We’re never allowed to linger very long on the robot’s (or the dog’s) forlorn situation before the jaunty, reassuring soundtrack fades back in and the plot moves on. But as a heartwarming film about friendship and the resilience of any sentient being, Robot Dreams is nearly irreproachable—although I’d still take umbrage with Baker’s hopelessly cliched portrait of New York City—and any gripes may simply be this critic’s malfunction.