An elderly man floats in a spaceship throughout the galaxy, with only a robot for a companion. The ship is arranged just like his favorite room on Earth, even down to the smallest dust particle, according to the robot. But the man is anxious to leave the ship for a bigger life. Together, they travel throughout the galaxy searching for a new habitable planet, since Earth has become uninhabitable.
The robot, however, is sworn to keep humans from coming to harm. Every alternative planet discovered is not good enough for the man to live, according to the robot. But the man is tired of being stuck on the ship, no matter how comfortable it is. Desperate to leave, he rebels against his robot — only to discover just how seriously the machine takes its charge to protect the man, even from himself.
This visionary short animation — written, directed and created by Turkish director Gokalp Gonen — opens with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Robots must not allow humans to come to harm, must protect their existence, and do not have to follow orders that would conflict with these directives. Asimov’s rules have been the springboard for many other sci-fi stories. But rarely have they been explored with such sumptuous sense of visuals or flair for evocative atmospherics that makes for a genuinely mesmerizing cinematic experience.
In a genre where either pristine minimalism or Victorian-influenced steampunk reign as the dominant visual style, the beautifully baroque and ornate art of “Avarya” stands out. The ship’s room has a rich, textured look reminiscent of Art Deco, with its books and antique furniture full of decorative flourishes. It could be any well-appointed library anywhere, but for the view of the space and planets outside the room.
But the film’s distinctive aesthetic is encapsulated in the singular look and feel of the robot, notable for its peacock-like “crown” or headdress, which flares in and out as it calculates and communicates with its charge. Combined with its cape-like torso, the robot evokes a courtier or seneschal in a foreign imperial court and all the obsequiousness and subterfuge it evokes.
The robot is the other half of what’s essentially a two-hander in the storytelling, and emerges as the primary obstacle for the man, who is beset with dreams and visions of the outside world. Though the pacing is meditative, enveloping viewers instead of pulling them along, the film never ceases to enchant the eye and evoke the sense of a darker mystery at work: the true nature of the robot and its mission, which has evolved from its original directive into something more sinister. In doing so, it has created a whole world — one that becomes almost claustrophobic in its opulence and inhumane in its self-contained isolation.
As a beautiful puzzle-box of a story, “Avarya” is so packed with symbolism and ideas, with a core of enigmatic thought and feeling that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate. Though its basic narrative through-line is simple enough to grasp when first watched, the storytelling works on a dreamlike, subconscious level — much like it does for the main character — with motifs and images that repeat with suggestive potential. And like a dream, the shape-shifting of visions can reassure or inspire us to keep striving for the larger impulses for home or truth. Or, if left unsatisfied, they can eventually turn terrifying in their ability to haunt us.