Do Robots Dream of Electric Dogs?

in Tromsø International Film Festival

by Fernando Salvà Grimalt

Adapted from a comic-book set in the 1980s, director Pablo Berger has created an alternate animated version of New York, a place where the inhabitants are animals who use robots as pets. Fernando Salvá praises its honest sentimentality and meticulous use of period details.    

It is no coincidence that the first words -“Do you remember?”- from Earth, Wind & Fire’s R&B anthem “September” are not just a significant element in the soundtrack of Pablo Berger’s new film but also its overall leitmotif. If author Sara Varon created her 2007 graphic novel “Robot Dreams” as a way to cope with the pain caused by the loss of her dog, now this wonderful film adaptation uses a different type of grief -which two friends are left feeling as they endure forced, sudden separation- to offer a different take on the joy and sadness of working through our memories of those we love.

To say Berger likes taking risks is a huge understatement. His body of work includes a tragi-comical portrait of the 1970s in Spain through amateur pornography, Torremolinos 73 (2003), a silent, black-and-white anachronistic adaptation of the classic children’s tale, Snow White (2012), a truly wild example of genre-hybridization, Abracadabra (2017), and, now, also an animated film that explores the emotional relationship between a dog and an android in 1980s New York City.

Although seemingly a departure from the Basque filmmaker’s previous works, Robot Dreams connects with them in different ways: just like Snow White it has no dialogue, and it is as soaked in melancholy as Torremolinos 73 was. Plus, it is not Berger’s first comic-book adaptation, since his short film Mama (1988) got its inspiration from the work of French cartoonist Philippe Vuillemin. Also, the desire to build ancient and strange worlds, far removed from what we call ‘Our Reality’, has always been a big creative impulse for him, although he never went this far in his effort to create an entire universe from scratch.

Let us imagine a version of the Big Apple, whose inhabitants are animals who use robots as pets. Feeling lonely in the city, a dog called Dog buys an android who actually has a heart to spare. They eat together, skate together and play together; and they realize they are made for each other. But, after a perfect day at the beach, the rusty robot gets stuck in the sand and their paths separate, the succession of emotions they are left to feel going from sadness, to longing, to oblivion, to remorse and to forgiveness. And in the process there’s love, of course, both robotic and animal and also very, very human.

Through their experience, director Berger speaks eloquently and movingly about both our need to find a soul mate and our ability to move forward when the world leaves us alone, while also musing on how the places we inhabit keep visible the traces of the people who made us happy there. And it does so by replacing words with great slapstick, a soundscape that captures precisely the chaotic energy of the city and a visual design that brings to mind the best of Japanese animation -particularly the work of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, both from their time at Nippon Animation and later as the heads at Studio Ghibli-, and whose relative simplicity gives space for emotions to arise with maximum expressiveness but in a natural way and without resorting to manipulation. This honest sentimentality is also helped by the meticulous use of period details – arcade video-games, telephone booths, break-dancing references to Michael Jackson’s video for his song “Thriller” (1983), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Shining (1980) – and Berger’s own cinephilia, here expressed through homages to Charlie Chaplin, The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Busby Berkeley’s style of kaleidoscopic choreography.

All of this helps explain why Robot Dreams is so unique at combining commercial potential with artistic risk or, in other words, at loving its audience as much as its characters. It is a movie for children in the way it speaks to the loss of innocence to come, and it is for adults because, by watching it, we all can fill the silences onscreen with our own experiences, our forgotten loves and our regrets. We can remember, even if it hurts: an old friendship, a tough city, an old world with an old way of facing loneliness, and as usual the right song as the perfect expression of it all.

Fernando Salvá
Edited by Steven Yates