Robot Dreams

There is a beautiful simplicity in Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Sara Varon. The subtleties of glances, and its score elevate the story of Dog and Robot to perfection.

A Dog, and his constructed friend Robot learn separation, and companionship within a 1980s New York. Where they seek solace in each other, throughout Robot Dreams we as audience seek company with the film.

Robot Dreams was screened as part of the official selection of the BFI London Film Festival 2023.

To create animation is a masterful art. Understanding, defining and breathing life into drawings, injecting them with personality, vices and sorrows is a testament of creativity. To do all this, in a runtime aimed at family audiences and without a line of dialogue shared between any character is a feat that needs to be seen. Yet Berger weaves this tale of the two like an ode to silent cinema.

As the film opens, Dog sits alone at night, microwaved macaroni and cheese ready, their reflection projected into the apartment adjacent as the isolation hams home the severance of companionship. In New York, a city filled by anthropomorphic animals, Dog is without company, playing Pong with both controllers. Eventually switching the TV on, Dog gets bombarded by an advert almost immediately.

‘Are you alone?’ it strikes the screen in bolded text. The comedic delivery underpinning the often-found issue within cities of isolation, followed by a phone number to receive a buildable DIY companion, an android partner.

As Robot clanks and whirs, Dog thrusts the pair into the bustle of the city, Robot still finding his feet and his identity; mimicking to learn, as though a toddler imitating to communicate. The gentleness of the soft blue mechanoid reminds of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, where their misunderstandings of the world illustrate their naivete.

Except, after a blissful day at the beach, Dog awakens to find Robot powered down, paralyzed from the head down, and too weak to lift or carry him from the sand. Having no other option but to head home, Dog is fixated initially to retrieve his friend. However, as time passes, seasons change, and New York continues pulsating with life, Dog forgets about their buddy.

Robot and Dog are standing at the edge of the sea. Robot is smiling and wearing pink armbands. Dog is wearing blue and orange striped shorts and holding flip flops. To the left of the frame are three pigs running to the sea excitedly. In the background is a fairground on the pier.
Robot and Dog having a lovely day out at the beach. (Picture: Curzon Film)

All the while, Robot remains patient, occasionally dreaming of returning home to Dog with a bound in their step. At first the dreams seem diegetically matched with the story, but after a run in with training rowers, and the harsh winters New York brings, Robot’s dreams become further removed. In one instance, Robot entirely breaks the fabric of the film, burrowing out of the frame, rotating it, and re-entering. Though now the frame is from a story of Robot’s choosing: The Wizard of Oz.

Animated within an emerald city and a golden brick road, Robot becomes the tin man, longing for love, finding a short term company with tap-dancing sunflowers as the ensemble recreate a Busby Barkley choreography.

While it is then that Robot Dreams is a film about friendship and separation, as the months pass, Robot and Dog emerge from the chrysalis as newer versions. From this it explains its family appeal for younger audiences, a metaphor for growing old and becoming your own person, rather than a pre-packaged prescription. However, for adults there remains another layer to reveal.

Littered with an abundance of cinematic references, Robot Dreams develops a maturity as a commentary on how when challenged, we fall back to our cultural comforts. Robot knowingly changes the scene to The Wizard of Oz, but even through Dog’s perspective we are constantly indicated to the history of cinema.

During the winter Dog wistfully brings life to The Snowman; their bedside table littered with figurines from Star Wars. Through these, and the cinematic references including a dolly zoom at the beach, riffing Jaws, and visual gags such as a groundhog presenting the weather, or two girls trick-or-treating as the twins from The Shining, Pablo Berger’s adaption of Robot Dreams takes on a new context.

We seek comfort in this film, knowingly understanding its family audience, as the film knowingly finds peace in its references.

Further still, with the film being dialogue-free, it constructs a meta appreciation of cinema as reinforced by its references. Robot Dreams may be a love letter to growing old and changing, but it’s also an appreciation of our reliance to turn to cinema during those moments of change.

Robot Dreams is screening as part of the programme for the BFI London Film Festival and is expected to be released in 2024 by Curzon Film.

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By Conor Riley

Conor is the Founder and Editor for Cinamore, a publication focused on giving power back to journalists. As a portmanteau of the word 'Cinema' and the Italian word for love 'Amore', Cinamore aims to highlight the love that we all carry for the art of the moving image.


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