In some ambiguously deserted and depressingly grey future, (Is there any other kind?), Walter (Stephen Galaida) is a lonely scientist who has created an android version of himself he calls Puzzlehead (also played by Galaida). He teaches it chess, languages, mathematics, and music. For the first few months, Puzzlehead is not allowed to leave the house, but instead is made to endure hours of study to get his mind up to speed.
When he is finally allowed to go out into the world, he finds his daily tasks simple but the world itself to be a cold and harsh place populated by people who might shoot at you. Eventually, he discovers beauty and love in a young girl, Julia, (Robbie Shapiro), who works at a store across the street from their home. Not surprisingly, this is the same, quiet girl with whom Walter is also smitten. After all, like minds think alike.
But when Walter discovers that Puzzlehead has spent time with the girl and has feelings for her, he becomes enraged. In his jealous fury, Walter robs Puzzlehead of his human emotions and memories thus making him into nothing more than a slave-like robot. Walter continues the relationship with Julia himself by picking up where his machine double left off. Meanwhile, Puzzlehead slowly regains his humanity and memories and when his creator rapes the girl, he plots his revolt.
Of course he rebels and he should’ve done it much earlier since his creator, Walter, is a pathetic excuse for a human being. It’s no mistake that Walter is shown inflicting all kinds of brutalities upon his creation. He’s a scientist and he sees Puzzlehead as nothing more than some spare parts he threw together. He named it “Puzzlehead”, after all.
Writer-Director James Bai has made a very intriguing if ice cold film that, given its futuristic setting and premise, appears to be science fiction. But the sci-fi aspect is really just a cover. This is an out and out gothic story with its roots deep in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the themes of the double. Bai takes the part of Shelly’s novel that most adaptations toss out, the moral education of the monster, and puts it front and center.
Puzzlehead is narrated by the title character instead of by the scientist who created him in his own image. The switch casts Walter as “the Other” and it’s his actions that are initially seen in a critical light. But as the story progresses we realize that what we are actually watching is a very familiar “doppelganger” story in which the characters are really two sides of the same person, each at war with the other and at war with their own selves.
The prize is, of course, a woman. Even in this bleak future, there remains sexual desire and in the great tradition of movie mad scientists, Walter’s genius fails him in bed and reduces him to a caveman looking for a rock with which to knock his conquest unconscious while he unzips his trousers. It’s clear that Walter finds it easier to recreate life artificially than to pro-create naturally.
Puzzlehead is very well made for an indie film on a very tight budget. It’s actually shot on film, (Super-16mm), which is a rarity in these digital days. The cinematography by Jeffery Lando handles the warm interiors and cold exteriors like a late ‘70s Dean Cundey. The world of the future is achieved much like Godard’s Alphaville through the use of industrial landscapes devoid of people. Everything seems bleak and alienated.
Bai’s screenplay focuses on a very small cast of characters played by an even smaller pair of actors. But this is part of the film’s effectiveness. The story develops into a tense chess game between the trio of characters whose motivations; moves and countermoves create a psychological inner drama that builds tension right up to the final wink at the end.
In many ways, Puzzlehead resembles David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers with it’s creepy twin gynecologists played by Jeremy Irons sharing the same woman and falling prey to jealousy and suicidal co-dependency. “Puzzlehead” even seems to be taking place in Cronenberg’s dark Canada of the imagination.
The DVD comes with a theatrical trailer, deleted scenes and a very informative commentary. This is set up to examine themes of identity and at the very base level, humanity. What makes a being human? Eventually, these themes focus down on the most familiar element of robot stories: Love.
Since the days of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis whose Thea Von Harbou penned theme was, “Between the hands and the mind is the heart”, robot epics have focused on this one specific difference: the human capacity for Love. The recurring theme is that love is so mysterious and intangible that nothing created by man could ever understand it.