Effectively posing the question of whether people dream of android seals, intriguing docu “Mechanical Love” observes interactions between humans and the latest generation of robots (some made to look like seals) in various countries. Working with more budget coin than on her previous docu (“Gambler”), Danish helmer-lenser Phie Ambo has supplemented her usual stripped-down style with more bangs and whizzes by adding painterly establishing nature shots and a melancholy piano score that both feel affected. Meanwhile, story strands here are a little thin, but general subject is compelling enough to generate interest from further fests and upscale broadcasters.
Film places robot-engineer and college prof Hiroshi Ishiguro front and center as he tests his latest creation, a sophisticated silicone-and-metal-skeleton replica of himself. Ishiguro’s “Geminoid” (the name derives from Greek root word for “twin”) is in essence a highly realistic, remote-controlled puppet. It can blink and twitch autonomously, and has its mouth synched up to Ishiguro’s own kisser in order to “speak” the inventor’s own words while he’s in another room.
Pic offers a not entirely flattering portrait of the flesh-and-blood Ishiguro as a somewhat chilly, self-absorbed personality. He’s only half joking when he suggests he could have the Geminoid replace him at home.
A key sequence watches his 8- or 9-year-old daughter Lisa being brought to the lab and instructed to interact with the replica daddy. The poor kid proves unsurprisingly reluctant to touch the inexpressive creature, which, much to Ishiguro’s chagrin, still lacks “sonzai-kan” (a Japanese phrase expressing the ineffable presence of a real person).
Meanwhile, in a German retirement home, aged Frau Koerner finds it much easier to love a robot devised by Ishiguro’s colleagues. Shaped like a white baby seal, the Paro robot was specifically designed to stimulate subjects with dementia and autism by giving them something to cuddle, care for and love.
Frau Koerner’s model barks, responds to touch and sound, and gets its batteries recharged by sucking on a pacifier-like object. In one comic sequence, the little bundle of fake fur embarrasses its mistress by squealing repeatedly during a music lesson, but she still insists she loves it more than anything.
Further scenes showing other Paros being introduced in institutions in Denmark and Switzerland seem present solely to broaden out the implied theme of the title. Unfortunately, pic’s observational style (helmer is present only as an offscreen voice asking the occasional question) prevents it from developing any particular argument about robot-human interaction. On the other hand, the separate stories themselves never quite gel as mini-drama with satisfying outcomes of any kind.
Ponderous shots of trees and other flora, included presumably to contrast with the artificial beings on display, attenuate rather than enhance the proceedings, while the score of piano twinkling by Sanna Salmenkallio grows repetitious, making the pic feel longer than it is. At least, lensing by Ambo herself in consistently pro.