In his intriguing take on the Frankenstein myth, first-time scripter/helmer James Bai establishes an entire alternate universe with consummate mastery only to fail to coax a convincing performance out of his lead actor. Since that actor plays both the inventor and his robot creation, the film's psychological mirror-image subtleties fall by the wayside.

In his intriguing take on the Frankenstein myth, first-time scripter/helmer James Bai establishes an entire alternate universe with consummate mastery only to fail to coax a convincing performance out of his lead actor. Since that actor plays both the inventor and his robot creation, the film’s psychological mirror-image subtleties fall by the wayside. Set in an unspecified time “after the decline,” “Puzzlehead” posits a synchronous blend of well-preserved 19th century Victoriana and genteelly shabby 20th century odds-and-ends that feels so compellingly authentic that it renders the predictable sci-fi plotline almost superfluous. Genuinely inventive pic could cultivate a cult following.

Having stockpiled scientific apparatus rare in an anti-technological age, Walter (Stephen Galaida) methodically sets about creating a robot in his own image. Narrated in first person by that robot, named Puzzlehead, pic traces an escalating power-play between the bearded, bespectacled and pipe-smoking Walter and his disconcertingly fast-evolving, clean-shaven clone. The relationship is soon triangulated when a woman named Julia (Robbie Shapiro) enters the picture.

Julia toils in a sadly under stocked, positively Balkanesque neighborhood store. She wears a vaguely 17th century Dutch head-covering (shades of Kaurismaki’s Match Girl). Despite her beaten-down demeanor, she has long been the object of Walter’s mute longings. But it is Puzzlehead, with his android imperviousness to bullets, who heroically saves this damsel in distress, thereby winning her favor.

Since Puzzlehead was fashioned from both Walter’s conscious and his unconscious mindsets, the darker forces behind Walter’s seemingly gentle, shy asocial behavior begin to surface. A series of bizarre schemes and underhanded impersonations surface as faces are shaved, inner workings reconfigured, and the threesome takes turns locking each other in the basement.

Puzzlehead’s weekly outings for provisions allow fragmentary glimpses of an overcast, largely deserted cityscape whose bleak calm is haunted by shadowy feral figures committing murder and mayhem in the background and sporadically erupting into foregrounded aggression for no apparent reason.

Plays with video format via implanted cameras and malfunctioning robot eyes don’t prove visually resonant in Jeffrey Lando’s journeyman Super-16 lensing. Pic has an unfortunate propensity to slow down to crawls that long outlast their supposed suspense value.

Yet, Jessica Shaw’s unique production design boasts a totally lived-in feel that appropriate artifacts from almost any era. While Walter’s cluttered Victorian surroundings and taste for harpsichord background music reflect his Shelley-appropriate 19th century zeitgeist, he is equally at home behind the wheel of a modern car — just before it’s hijacked by the first passerby.

Puzzlehead

Production

A Zero Sum production. Produced, directed, written, edited by James Bai.

Crew

Camera (color, Super-16mm-to-35mm), Jeffrey Lando; music, Max Lichtenstein; production designer, Jessica Shaw; art director, John Elmanahi; costume designer, Jaquiline Atkins; sound (Dolby), Matthew Polis, Michael Furjanic. Reviewed at Tribeca Cinemas, New York, April 12, 2005. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- NYNY Narrative Competition.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Stephen Galaida, Robbie Shapiro.

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