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W.I.S.O.R.: THE ROBO-WELDER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Michel Negroponte
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama/New Video
Features:  See Review
Length:  75 Minutes
Release Date:  September 25, 2001

Film **

They say necessity is the mother of invention…they might also have said invention is the mother of necessity.  Take, for example, the complex grid of underground steam pipes that provides most of New York City with heat.  It has been in place for a century or better, and was quite a stroke of genius, seemingly only a little less so whenever a pipe cracks or ruptures.  Reparations are a nightmare, as streets have to be closed off and dug up, and there is always the danger of hot steam and leaking asbestos.

Enter the team of Honeybee Robotics, and their concept of W.I.S.O.R., a sophisticated robot with inchworm movements that could crawl through the pipelines, report its findings back via video camera, temporarily seal off hot steam, and even weld compromised pipes.  The logistics of such a contraption are mind-boggling.  Not only would it have to be able to perform the aforementioned duties, but withstand tremendous heat as well, as the steam pipe interiors averaged about 300 degrees, and it would be welding in tight corners without a lot of airspace to keep cool.

The story of W.I.S.O.R. is told in the documentary of the same name.  As constructed by filmmaker Michel Negroponte, it’s an interesting subject matter made frustratingly annoying by stylistic overkill.  One quote on the box cover calls it “the best science fiction documentary ever made”…an oxymoron that I don’t believe is going to catch on.

On the one hand, we’re looking at the engineers of Honeybee attacking their pet project with all the excitement and disappointment of kids working on a science fair entry.  They bicker and banter about everything from religion to Richard Nixon in the meantime.  Some of it was amusing, but it created an instant lack of focus…was the film about the men or the machine?  It could be about both, to be sure, but considering the amount of screen time given the makers, I don’t feel like I got to know anything about any of them.  I couldn’t even recall a name at movie’s end.

For reasons I can’t surmise, Negroponte decided to give the robot a voice and make him a character in his own story.  Dialogue by Gabriel Morgan gave the picture an unnecessary surreal quality, and the robotic voice itself is a rather terrible mimicry.  The whole idea stripped the documentary of its sense of truthfulness…one can’t get over the prominent sense of “meddling” with the subject matter instead of simply recording it.

Negroponte’s first film was the acclaimed Jupiter’s Wife, but W.I.S.O.R. is not a step forward for him, neither artistically nor integrally.  This film looks like an episode of “The Real World” on MTV, with constant cuts, mixed film stocks, and manipulation of the film’s speed and direction, with even sprinkled amounts of deliberate electronic interference mixed in for unwelcome effect.  The last ten minutes of the film, with that interference and the robotic voice seemingly going on and on in stream of consciousness style, is headache inducing and bordering on unwatchable.

W.I.S.O.R. the robot seems to have ended as a success for Honeybee Robotics…at least, as far as laboratory testing proved and inasmuch as I was able to tell from the film.  W.I.S.O.R. the movie is a stylistic hodgepodge that’s too gimmicky to be a documentary and more ambitious than its subject matter.  The interesting central machine is the only worthwhile matter here.

As an added note, I have to point out that the timing of this DVD release is most unfortunate with the country’s recent tragedies.  I’m not sure how many people are going to be comfortable with the picture’s many references to the World Trade Center (including footage from a steam pipe accident that shows dead bodies being carried out of it).  This did not affect my overall rating of the film, but I’m guessing the timing, which is no one’s fault, will make this a little harder to watch for the immediate future.

Video **

How do you judge the quality of a film whose director deliberately goes for distorted looks in some shots?  You cop out and give it a fair score.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing about the DVD transfer to fault, but the movie, with its constant mix of film stocks, occasional graininess, frequently extreme saturation of colors, is not meant to make for a reference quality disc.

Audio **1/2

The stereo soundtrack fares a little better…the picture boasts plenty of dynamic range and some decent panning effects on the front stage.  Dialogue is mostly clear, but occasionally, the men talk over each other in garage-type rooms, turning the spoken words into cacophony.

Features **

There is a 13 minute interview clip with MIT Professor Marvin Minsky, the “father of Artificial Intelligence”, which is short but rather interesting.  There are also detailed photos of the robot, plus a trailer for Jupiter’s Wife and a number of other promotional trailers for films from Docurama/New Video.

Summary:

W.I.S.O.R. would have worked much better had director Michel Negroponte had a little more faith in his interesting subject matter.  As it stands, the film suffers from a little too much tweaking in the editing room, reminding me of the serious documentary Winona Ryder’s character was trying to make in Reality Bites as opposed to the MTV styled mishmash it turned out to be.  Recommended only for the most curious or the most patient.