SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I know some folks who will dismiss "Hal" because it's animated (and from Japan - the characters even have big eyes!) but might otherwise seek out the humanistic flavor of science fiction it represents. It's a nifty little movie which switches up bits of one of the genre's more common stories without losing sight of why it might connect with its viewers.It's sometime in the future, enough so that old Mr. Tokio (voice of Tamio Oki) has a helper robot, Kyuchi, although he'll be giving it up for a bit - his granddaughter Kurumi (voice of Yoko Hikasa) has completely retreated from her life after her husband Hal's death. Tokio and specialist Dr. Aranami (voice of Shinpachi Tsuji) have the idea to give Kyuchi human form as a duplicate of Hal (voice of Yoshimasa Hosoya) in order to draw her out. A tricky, emotional job for a robot, even though Kurumi and the original Hal have unwittingly given him the direction he needs by writing their dreams on the sides of Rubik's Cubes.
Writer Izumi Kizara and director Ryotaro Makihara don't spend much time at all delving into the science-fictional details of their story; there is almost no discussion of the technical aspects of the change from Kyuchi to "Hal", for instance. It's apparently near enough in the future that the world is not terribly dissimilar to our own, although the hints of higher technology - Kyuchi's design, the holographic cameras Kurumi puts in buttons, increased use of smartphone apps - are nifty and feel like logical extrapolations; a subplot about how much some of this stuff costs and gets paid for shows that this is not the utopian future it might seem like to someone of Kurumi's middle-class background, although any histrionics about the world being built on a lie might be a bit misdirected.
The story of Hal and Kurumi is sweet and surprisingly nuanced for what it is; both are presented as imperfect and their relationship under enough real stress from their differing backgrounds for the situation to be more complicated than "I wish that wasn't our last conversation". The process of "Hal" learning about his predecessor's life through small tasks is nicely specific rather than another tired meditation on the nature of humanity, and the way Kizara and Makihara pay attention to the little details, from how Kurumi is hiding herself in tight, dark places to the way a number of hidden clues to a certain secret feel like they could handle a second examination, is fine storytelling.
The movie itself is generally well-constructed, although the visual style may often seem to be a bit stiff for some - the "big eyes" that are often a target of anime detractors feel less expressive than one might hope. As much as its 60-minute length feels just right - it would be rushed much shorter, but adding another twenty minutes or so to get it to "feature length" would bloat and complicate it - I do wonder about the balance between its self-contained pieces and the larger story under those constraints.There's more than one way to put a movie together, though, and this one impresses. It may take a little finding and a little convincing, but it's good science fiction and a fine human story, even if the robot is the hook.