A beautiful movie that may be slightly too ambitious.
What They Say:
Kurumi’s heart was broken by the sudden death of her boyfriend in a tragic airplane accident. Forced to carry on without her beloved Hal, she fell into a reclusive and joyless existence. Kurumi had given up on the world, but a brilliant scientist devised a plan to win her back. By melding futuristic technology with the binary equivalent of human emotion, they created an ultra-lifelike robotic surrogate to take Hal’s place – and lure Kurumi from her shroud of solitude. Resistant at first, this shattered beauty slowly yielded to her feelings of longing – and took comfort in the company of a robot. Though their unique bond grew stronger with each passing day, Kurumi and Hal would soon discover that nothing about their artificial love story was quite as it seemed.
This review was done off of a screener disc and was not a final product release that contained only the original Japanese language track with English subtitles.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When Kurumi’s boyfriend Hal was killed in a plane wreck, she fell apart. She retreated from the world and locked herself in the closet of the home she once shared with him. Her grief threatens to consume her unless something shocks her out of it.
Enter Hal. Or rather a robot designed to look like Hal. Modified by a brilliant scientist, the robot looked and sounded just like Hal and was sent to take care of Kurumi and fulfill the last wishes of the real Hal.
I wasn’t quite on board with Hal in terms of its plot concept. After all, I would think that confronting a grief-stricken person with a doppelganger of her dead loved one would only hurt her, not help her. However, this movie is tricky and not only did it manage to win me over, it made the whole concept of robot therapy make sense.
One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is the use of the Rubiks Cube. It features prominently in the DVD menu and it serves as the vehicle by which the real Hal is able to communicate his wishes to his robot double. Not that that was its intended purpose—apparently, there is a myth that if you write down your wish on one side of a Rubiks Cube, it will come true if that side is completed. During the course of the movie, Robot Hal discovers Kurumi’s Rubiks Cube. He completes different sides of it and discovers more about the man whose image he has taken and the life he led with Kurumi. Some of the messages are innocuous and even sweet, such as “Own a pet giraffe.” Others, however, are darker, and Robot Hal learns that the wounds he has to heal run beyond just the death of a loved one.
The Rubiks Cube makes for a fascinating plot device. By its very nature, it’s difficult to unlock, which means that it’s natural for certain “wishes” and the information that they convey to be discovered at different points in the story. It also provides a way for Robot Hal to discover vital information about Real Hal’s life without having to stoop to nosing around in journals, emails, or simply asking Kurumi. I have no idea if the myth it plays off of is true or just invented for the movie (a simple web search turned up nothing), but it’s a very clever device.
In many ways this is a movie about layers and revelations. Like a Rubiks Cube, the more you think about it, the more you examine its structure, and the more you watch it, the more you’re going to uncover. It’s a subtle movie almost to a fault. It wasn’t until my second viewing that I realized that the man who had Robot Hal created was Kurumi’s grandfather. It was never explicitly told, and it only comes up in one particular scene, making it one of those “blink and you miss it” moments. I rather like that because it means that the movie trusts me to pay attention and make connections. It doesn’t try to hold my hand.
To go into more detail would spoil the movie, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t even want to hint at what those details are, as doing so would ruin the joy of watching it unfold, and this is such a good, thoughtful, well-crafted movie that I want everyone who watches it to do so with a clean slate, as I did. So if you do want to experience this with no foreknowledge, skip to the summary section. Otherwise, continue below.
The reason that Hal works so well is also its major problem. Near the end of the movie we discover that it wasn’t Hal who died in the plane accident, it was Kurumi, and Hal was so devastated that he fell into a catatonic state. The robot duplicate is actually Kurumi, and Hal just believes that he is a robot. It’s a brilliant plot turn and it bypasses my major issue with the movie; however, it brings with it a host of other issues.
In order for the audience to be taken by surprise by the plot turn, the characters had to talk and act in a way that could be construed in two different ways. In the beginning we assume that it’s Kurumi who is being referred to when the grandfather says, “We must save the child.” It’s not, obviously, and when we see the scene again after the big reveal, we know that he is referring to Hal. It’s in those moments when the movie actively tries to trick the audience, and it skirts the edge of being insulting. In order to pull off a proper twist, a story must make the events seem natural right up to the time of the twist’s reveal. Once we learn of the twist we can look back and see how some of the statements and actions could have a double meaning. There are times in Hal where it doesn’t pull that off, and more astute viewers will probably catch on earlier than I.
And yet there are so many places where the movie does it right. It’s subtle and it respects the audience for the most part—the blatant misleading in the coffin scene aside—and when re-watching it, one can see just how intelligent the writers were. Some of the simplest, most off-handed remarks take on greater significance when viewed for the second time, and it’s those moments that make the misleading bearable. It’s not perfectly done, but I love that movie tried it. The audacity and the skill with which they almost pull it off make it worthwhile in the end.
Many times it seems like the best, most intelligent stories appear deceptively simple. They’re like ducks on a pond—calm and collected on the surface, but churning their legs as fast as they can out of sight just to keep going. Hal is one of those stories. It’s rather straightforward in most respects, but the skill with which it tells its story is very impressive. I’ve watched it twice now and I saw a great deal more the second time around. I imagine that when I watch it for a third time that I will see even more that I missed. This is a movie that rewards you for paying attention, that (mostly) trusts its audience, and even though I had one or two issues with some of the plot points, I was very glad I got to review it. Highly recommended.
Content Grade: A-
Released By: Funimation
Release Date: September 2nd, 2014
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Panasonic Viera TH42PX50U 42” Plasma HDTV, Sony BPD-S3050 BluRay Player w/HDMI Connection