A comic book adaptation with a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score offers a surprisingly tender depiction of loneliness

 Robot Dreams.
Robot Dreams.

Nominated for an Oscar earlier this year, Pablo Berger’s tender animation about the friendship between a robot and a dog is finally arriving on the big screen. And after its debut at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, critical acclaim has slowly mounted for Robot Dreams, a dialogue-free story set in a version of New York City populated by anthropomorphized animals.

Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Sara Varon, the film begins with New Yorker Dog ordering a robot friend to keep him company in his lonely big city life. Set to a soundtrack of ‘80s classics – most notably Earth, Wind & Fire's ‘September’ – the pair become inseparable: riding the subway, rollerskating around Central Park, and enjoying street food.

But it all comes crashing down when a Labor Day trip to the beach goes wrong. After enjoying the water, Robot rusts and is unable to move, setting Dog on a heartbreaking journey to try and get his friend back when the beach shuts for the season.

Berger’s film is at its heart a tender story about friendship, but it’s also a gut-punch depiction of loneliness in a big city that I was unprepared for. And while the grief and isolation lingering in its brightly colored frames isn’t what I expected from an animated robot and dog adventure, it's all the better for it.

Throw the dog a bone

Robot Dreams
Robot Dreams

The dread sets in when Dog and Robot wake up from their beach nap, and the latter is unable to move. Dog tries his best to drag his friend from the sand, but nothing works, leading to a stressful period where he tries and fails to rescue his companion. At a crossroads, he decides to wait for the beach to reopen as he settles back into his solitary life.

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The following scenes are so painful to watch as he looks at life outside his window going by. For me, the most heart-wrenching moment comes during a Halloween sequence, when Dog does his best to try and connect with the world outside, dressing up and offering candy to neighborhood kids, but ultimately is unable to follow this through. After being spooked by a bat, he slams his door shut, triple-locking it, and you can’t help but feel like he may be doomed to be forever on his own.

It’s something that felt particularly poignant to my own experience living in a big city, spending the majority of my time working at home alone. When you’re surrounded by so much life going on around you that you observe through your window, it’s often one of the most isolating places to be. As an adult, too, finding and forming new friendships and connections feels near impossible at times, and, just as Dog finds, one step forward often results in three steps back.

A lost city

Robot Dreams
Robot Dreams

The loneliness is exacerbated by the fact the New York City of Robot Dreams no longer exists. Set in the ‘80s, the city becomes a protagonist of its own: a vibrant town with music playing in the streets, snow covering its sidewalks, and the World Trade Center on the skyline.

Director Berger has spoken about wanting to make a love letter to this lost time, a place where he lived with his wife and Robot Dreams producer Yuko Harami for many years. "The New York that I lived in doesn’t exist anymore, there’s a nostalgia for me," he told the BFI recently. "I like the idea that when you go to the cinema, it’s like time travel. When people see this film, they will have a glimpse of the New York I lived in."

So Robot Dreams becomes a time capsule – but it’s no less universal for it. In fact, despite its setting being a lost location and its protagonists being a dog and a robot, what Robot Dreams nails is that the feeling of loneliness is ubiquitous.

The decision to eschew dialogue allows it to become a global film, offering a point of connection no matter what language you speak or what your experiences are. And by the time the credits roll, it offers a simple message: while feeling isolated may be an unavoidable part of humanity, never stop looking for connection – it may surprise you where it arrives from.

Robot Dreams is out now in cinemas. For more on what else you should be watching at the cinema, be sure to check out the rest of our Big Screen Spotlight series.