Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Films of 1981: Heartbeeps

A science fiction film directed by Allan Arkush (Rock’n’Roll High School [1979]), starring Andy Kaufman (1949-1984) and Bernadette Peters, and featuring Academy Award-nominated special effects/make-up by the great Stan Winston doesn’t seem likely to be one that would fall into near-total obscurity.

But that’s pretty much what has happened to Heartbeeps (1981).

I remember reading about the film -- with great curiosity and anticipation -- in the pages of Starlog

The magazine even devoted a cover photo to the science fiction comedy in December of 1981, for its 53rd issue.

Btu then the movie pretty much disappeared from existence, though Kaufman memorably offered refunds to any viewers, during a famous appearance on David Letterman’s late night show at the time.

In terms of critical reviews, the film wasn’t exactly received positively, either.

Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, wrote that Heartbeeps was a three-minute television sketch stretched to last nearly 90 unbearable minutes.

His insult is actually a slight exaggeration. 

The movie barely runs 75 minutes.

In 2002, on the film’s re-issuing in the secondary market, The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin noted that Heartbeeps is an “overlooked, nearly forgotten” film that “deserves to stay that way.”

TV Guide’s review of the film tracks closer to what I deem a fair assessment, and aligns with my own response to the movie. The magazine terms Heartbeeps “likable and sentimental,” with some moments of “indisputable charm.”

This strikes me as an accurate sentiment. Because of Kaufman’s presence, I believe, critics were expecting some kind of anarchic, edgy, adult entertainment.  

Instead, Heartbeeps is a gentle, even sweet, science fiction movie aimed squarely at kids. That's the basis, it seems to me, upon which to review it, or assess its merits as a work of art.

On those grounds, the film is indeed occasionally charming, and at the very least, far less offensive than some of the poisonous reviews indicate. 


Well, Heartbeeps features a very human heart in terms of its central characters, and their quest to understand why they are “alive” is affecting on some level.  The purpose of science fiction, especially in terms of the cinema, is to somehow reflect or comment on human existence. 

Heartbeeps reaches that benchmark, though not always elegantly, and not always humorously.  The film’s make-up and robot designs, however, nicely gloss over many of the movie’s notable deficits.

“What is the definition of God?”

Three robots -- inexperienced in the nature of humanity -- escape from a repair factory and go on a “fact-finding mission.”

Pursued by a relentless robot called Crimebuster Deluxe, two of the escapees, Val Com (Andy Kaufman) and Aqua (Bernadette Peters,) fall in love and construct a robot, Philco (Jerry Garcia).  

They soon realize that Philco has no self-protection mechanism, and begin to develop “the concept of family.”  They realize they must care for him. They must act as his parents.

But Crimebuster, who is equipped with dangerous weapons, including a flame-thrower, is closing in on them.

“There’s so much information I want you to have.”

Andy Kaufman boasts such a powerful reputation as a comedic force of chaos and non-conventionality that to this day -- 30-some years after his demise -- some people insist his death was actually a joke, a con. 

These people believe Kaufman is actually still alive, and that -- at any moment -- he will re-appear to deliver the joke’s punch-line.  They see him as a figure of almost God-like comedic instincts, not to mention patience.

With that kind of reputation, it is easy indeed to understand why Kaufman fans -- and critics familiar with his work too -- feel absolutely underwhelmed by Heartbeeps. The film is not at all of this nature. 

It is neither anarchic, nor cynical.  It is not shocking, surprising, or all that sharp, either.

Heartbeeps is not unconventional at all in its approach, and quite conventionally uses the science fiction format to ask questions about human existence.  The film is sincere, in other words, not seeking to be taken as a “big joke.”  

Nor is it a set-up for edgy, envelope-pushing comedy.

Instead, Heartbeeps is plainly and simply about two machines who wake up one day to realize that they are alive, and that they want the freedom of self-determination.  These robots, Val and Aqua, question the nature of life, even asking questions about God. 

They construct a son, and soon -- despite their mechanical nature -- find themselves acting as protective parents. In becoming a family, they became more alive than before, and the film emotionally speaks about the sacrifices parents make for their children.  Val and Aqua do that too. 

The jokes here are not revolutionary, and not hard-edged, for certain. Instead, the filmmakers have the robots joke about the way that men and women relate…even though Val and Aqua are machines.  Aqua is unsatisfied with Val’s level of communication, for instance, reporting that she requires “maximum input” in terms of his output. In other words, he just doesn't relate enough.

These gentle, amusing, but not particularly funny or sly jibes, are aimed at making the audience understand humanity better.  

Consider: the robots desire the same things we all do. They wish to know why they are here, and what their purpose in life is. When they have that child, like so many of us, they feel that their sense of purpose is renewed.  Val seems to come to life, realizing that as a father, he has an obligation to show his son the world.  Aqua makes the sacrifices a mother would make her for baby, almost literally running out of power -- and dying -- to nourish him.

The Crimebuster-related material in the film is a bit more fun. 

This malevolent robot, which looks like a dalek-mounted on a tank (and is constructed, actually, from the Six Million Dollar Man’s “death probe”) goes all ED-209 on his prey, before ED-209 was a glimmer in RoboCop’s eye. 

Specifically, the pursuit robot goes on a relentless, destructive hunt in search of its quarry, the escaped robots. One moment sees the machine singing America the Beautiful while shooting at wild-life in a forest. 

Not all robots, we come to understand from his example, cherish life, or family.  Some robots -- like some people -- are committed not to love and family, but to a savage curtailment of the freedom of others.

Yes, Heartbeeps miraculously finds ways to waste Christopher Guest and Melanie Mayron. 

Yes, the film fails to really make the best or cleverest use of Andy Kaufman's comedic gifts, strait-jacketing him in a sincere, fish-out-of-water role.

And yes, the film’s pleasures are relatively minor, even modest. There are no tremendous threats in the film for the robots to face, and no scenes that really stand out in the memory, either. Heartbeeps is a simple journey about two robots that awaken to consciousness, but told in a distinctly minor key.

And yet I can’t really find it in my heart to “hate” the film as so many critics seem to do. 

I like the weird robot costumes/devices and performances, and figure that if a gentle kid’s comedy can find the time and energy to discuss the mysteries of human life and free will, as a reviewer I can at least give Heartbeeps credit for attempting to be about something more than dumb jokes. 

I would agree that earnestness, gentleness and sincerity may not be the best foundations upon which to build a rollicking comedy. 

Point ceded. 

Yet while this film’s funny bone may be broken -- or at least fractured -- Heartbeeps still has a pulse; a heartbeat.

Below, you can see Siskel and Ebert savaging Heartbeeps for its use of elements from other pictures (Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz, for example).  

In other words, they are actually criticizing the picture for being a pastiche.  Ironically, that's the very grounds by which they both, on other occasions, lauded Star Wars, Predator and other films.

1 comment:

  1. To this day, I still don't understand the drubbings that this film received (and Siskel and Ebert were total hacks). Yes, it's not the best, but far worse films seem to endure through the years, so why couldn't this one? I was really torn up when it seemed the robots were finished and their child trundled off into the woods. That really got me when I was little. I guess some films simply can't win no matter what. A real shame.