During a trip to New York last week, filmmaker James Bai gave me a screener of his film Puzzlehead and asked me to give him some feedback.
After viewing it twice and discussing my thoughts with him, he requested that I post my initial interpretation of the story on IMDb.com, as well as on this site.
There are lots of people that need to see this film, and the way to do that is to get it out there beyond the film festivals. As the distribution deal is being cut, fans of this inevitable cult classic are already talking about online. The buzz is getting louder.
This post is my own contribution to the film, submitting my own thoughts to its layer of the blogosphere. Below is a Copy/Paste of some of the feedback I sent to James in an email.
*** WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW ***
In the spirit of Primer and Pi, Puzzlehead’s bound to be an instant classic with the audience that loves these types of movies. You know a movie’s exceptional when you get to the end and the first thing you want to do is see it again. I watched it yesterday. Twice.
So where do I start?
First, I want to say that I loved the choice of music. Within the first few minutes we had a chess scene with Bach on harpsichord, so I immediately knew I was in for something up my alley. I love Bach, and I’m addicted to chess.
One of the things I loved about Puzzlehead is that, in a similar vein as The Matrix, it invites the thinker to draw his own conclusions of its meaning on a figurative level, as well as its literal meaning within the world of the story. Both are equally cool.
Figuratively, I loved the metaphors that touched on topics of authority, control, identity, voyeurism, and relationships. Particularly the father/son theme, which reflected the familiar chores, homework, coming home hurt from a fight, getting caught looking through the desk in Dad’s office, and getting grounded for coming home late. Along with that comes the resentment young folks feel, leading to the rebellion so typical with teens. “…pretending he was my father when he was just my maker…” is a sentiment so many people have thought before.
Now for my literal interpretation, in the context of the world James Bai created. There were lots of thoughts provoked here, with a few twists that were super cool. I rewound the final fight scene and watched closely in hopes of clarifying which of the two guys fell to his doom. It’s kept it less than crystal clear, keeping us guessing until the very end. When our guy (Walter/Puzz) shows up in the delivery room with the glasses, we initially assume it’s Walter. We then reach the reveal with the mechanical iris, causing us to “realize” that it is actually Puzzlehead posing as Walter to effectively trick Julia.
My theory is that the guy in the delivery room is in fact Walter. The twist is that Walter too is a machine.
Love it! Here’s what I see:
1. THE CHILD AS THE ELIXIR
The baby is the whole goal of Walter, and was — in an indirect way — bred by Walter in order to ultimately provide the clean memory slate he needed to make him more like a human. The child is not Walter’s, for Walter is not human. The baby’s father is Julia’s asshole-of-a-boss. (Poor girl.)
2. PUZZLEHEAD AS THE ALTER-EGO
Puzz himself is something of a second-generation robot. (Perhaps more.) He has Walter’s memories placed in his brain “as if by accident”, and they’re somewhat scattered and unorganized. When Walter did the datadump from his own brain to his creation’s, he wasn’t able to selectively drag and drop the memories. He did it in bulk, which gave Puzzlehead more information than Walter probably would’ve wanted him to have.
3. PUZZLEHEAD AS WALTER’S TOOL
Walter, it seems on the first viewing, is a shy man who’s had a crush on the cute girl at the grocery store for years, but has never had the nerve to approach her. As the story unfolds, it seems as though Walter is using Puzzlehead as a device to “break the ice” with her in hopes of going in there afterwards and getting his own score on. This is what appears to happen, with him ultimately bedding the girl.
In hindsight, Walter’s agenda had nothing to do with romantic love. The girl, to Walter, was nothing more than a re-populating machine. A necessary womb to house a new mind, which he intended to use for himself. Julia was just a means to an end.
This story really provokes some pondering about Walter’s past, which is left appropriately to speculation. It’s fun to think about. I suppose it’s been about 20 years since the Decline. (i.e. Julia’s parent’s died when she was a child during the Decline, and she’s probably about 25 years old, so I did the math.) With the world’s population on the decline, the powers that be are using technological resources to focus on repopulating the planet.
So in my imagination, the world Bai created is a post-apocalyptic place that’s being co-inhabited by humans and machines. What I don’t necessarily know is what the ratio is. Reasoning that Walter himself is a machine, I can only speculate that there must be quite a few robots out there, far more advanced than the second-generation Puzzlehead. (Perhaps he has blood, can eat, and so forth.) This provokes thoughts about where Walter’s memories came from. I’d initially imagine they came from his creator, which opens a whole new can of worms with regards to who, and where, Walter’s creator is.
I’ll be thinking about this some more, and will spin it again. I’m sure I’ll pick up on new things in the film that inspire new thoughts.
But then again, just what exactly are thoughts anyway?