Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: "The Air Whales of Anchar" (November 14, 1981)

Blackstar’s star-sword is damaged beyond conventional repair during an attack by vampire men.

The only thing in the universe that can fix the damaged weapon is the song of an air-whale. 

Mara and Blackstar proceed to search out the air-whales of Anchar, only to learn that a villain called Neolis has captured a calf and is enslaving it.

Blackstar boards Neolis’s airship, but is captured and forced to work in the ship’s bowels. 

If he can only convince Neolis’s daughter, Lila, to help him, he has a chance of freeing the air whale and repairing his sword...

“The Air Whales of Anchar” is an amusing Blackstar story, and one that combines a lot of intriguing elements.  

We get some information about the nature of the star-sword, for instance, and meet a Captain Ahab of the air: Neolis. He is missing one hand, instead of a leg, but the comparison to Melville's antagonist is clear.

Also, viewers meet the air whales, inoffensive creatures who apparently inhabit the skies of Sagar.

The only disappointing aspect of the episode is its reliance on the love story subplot. This story was used a lot in Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1981) as well.  Basically, a hero from another planet gains the trust of a beautiful woman, and she helps him overthrow the villain. 

Here, Lila helps Blackstar engineer a slave rebellion on the air ship, in defiance of her father. The story relies on some pretty far-fetched ideas, like a woman falling so helplessly in love with a strange man that she would choose him over her ostensibly beloved family.  It’s 1970s (or 80s…) sexist, as Joss Whedon might aptly note at this juncture.

Still, it is nice that Blackstar goes a little off-formula in this episode. For a change, Blackstar isn’t battling an evil spell from the Overlord.  Instead, the quest is to repair his damaged star-sword.  Of course, even that plot element defies logic.

If Blackstar’s star-sword explodes, he will lose it; it’s true. 

But it will also be lost to the Overlord, and thus he will have no opportunity to become the all-powerful ruler of Sagar. So, from a certain viewpoint, it would make more sense for Blackstar to allow the sword to be destroyed.  It would put an end to all he Overlord’s plans…permanently.

Next week: “The Overlord’s Big Spell.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Beware of Gifts" / "The Memory Bank of Ming" (October 30, 1982)

In “Beware of Gifts,” Ming claims to have had a change of heart. He wants peace, and to prove it, he gives Arboria a present: a huge statue of a warrior from Mongo.  

Flash and the others allow the statue within the city walls, and the “stone avenger” promptly comes to life and embarks on a campaign of destruction. 

Flash uses electron torpedoes to attempt to destroy the destructive statue, to no effect.  He realizes he must destroy the statue’s controls, located in Ming’s lab.  He uses Zarkov’s experimental cloaking device to get there undetected in his rocket.

In “The Memory Bank of Ming,” Arboria activates a revolutionary new computer or A.I. system, named “Arnold,” to control the operation of the city.  

Things go awry, however, when Gremlin accidentally slips Arnold a memory tape containing the personality of Ming the Merciless.

This week, “Beware of Gifts” is a straight-up re-telling of the Trojan Horse myth. 

One would think Flash might specifically bring up this historical/literary parallel (especially since he’s been spending time in a library, if we are to believe “The Freedom Balloon”). The story also evokes memories of “The Seed,” another second season story in which Ming hatches a plan to get a monster inside of Arboria to destroy it.

“The Memory Bank of Ming” finds every device in Arboria “totally out of control” when a friendly A.I. gets reprogrammed with Ming’s personality, thanks to Gremlin.  

Here, Dale distracts Arnold in the final act by playing tic-tac-toe with him. It’s a rather underwhelming story, but I like the depiction of Arnold as a hovering, friendly drone.

Next week we come to the end of our Flash Gordon season two retrospective with “Survival Game” and “Gremlin’s Finest Hour.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Guest Post: The Shallows (2016)

Jaws Fought the Blake and The Blake Won

By Jonas Schwartz

The Shallows may not stand up to logic or anything resembling the natural order, but if one leaves their brains checked at the door, this adventure is quite thrilling. Blake Lively, who is a polarizing actress, turns in a believable performance as a medical student combating a monstrous shark dedicated to eating her alive.

Nancy (Lively) travels to a remote beach in Mexico where her late mother surfed 27 years earlier while pregnant with Nancy. Nancy has quit medical school and has lost her way after seeing her mother fight a losing battle to cancer.  She waxes her board and paddles out to the waves to cleanse her soul, but a shark that would make Bruce the Shark from Jaws feel incidental, attacks her with ferocity and won't let her go, even though he's been well fed and she has less meat on her than a squab. Bleeding from bitten limbs, Nancy isolates herself on a tiny rock and uses her medical skills to survive two days of trial by water.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the creepy Orphan and the Liam Neeson chase films Unknown and Non-Stop, is adept at turning a wide open space into a claustrophobic nightmare. The majority of the film takes place in bright daylight, but as Nancy's safe zone becomes smaller and more precarious, the camera and editing makes the audience feel like she's in a dark coffin.  Collet-Serra continuously reminds the audience of the time and how that time of day will affect the tides and visibility, which tightens the tension for Nancy's survival.

The film's star player is cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. The underwater sequences are awe-striking. Every bubble, electric jellyfish and stinging coral is vividly portrayed on the screen. The overhead shots of the ocean reveal mystery just below the surface. The surf scenes, with its crashing waves and surfboard maneuvers, are as tantalizing as those in Bruce Brown seminal surf documentary, Endless Summer.

The shark effects are realistic enough to suspend disbelief and the attack scenes are both shocking and gory to please horror fans while still not crossing beyond the PG-13 territory.

The script by Anthony Jaswinski is serviceable. It was admirable when he revealed Nancy's motivations clearly through visuals, but then undersold that by reinforcing it with clunky exposition.  The plot points steal from Jaws, 127 Hours and even Cast Away with a seagull substituting for Wilson the Volleyball.

Never treating Nancy like a victim or a ditz puts the audience in her corner. She treats this surf mission as a zen reckoning, not just as a way to blow off the day with some waves. Her medical training comes in handy when she must use jewelry to protect her damaged body. Finally, nobody saves Nancy but Nancy. She always has control over her situation and knows she can only count on herself.

Lively lives up to her name with an unmannered performance. The whole film rests on her shoulders and requires the audience to care about her well-being. It's a testament to her that for 90 minutes, they do.  Her calm resolve when sewing up her leg, speaking to herself as if she were a patient in an ER, her devastated reaction when others are harmed, as well as her kindness to other characters, builds a protagonist for whom audiences can root.

Intense and visually striking, The Shallows is the perfect summer popcorn fare, fast and furious with a protagonist determined to survive at any cost.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: The Shallows (2016)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Films of 1986: SpaceCamp

If ever a movie was the victim of unfortunate timing, it was SpaceCamp (1986), a summer genre film released thirty years ago this June. 

Specifically, the Harry Winer film premiered just five short months after the space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred.

As you may recall, Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986 because of a problem with a solid rocket booster. All seven of the crew members died, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Since SpaceCamp involves another space shuttle mission, and another accident at NASA to boot (also featuring a booster, strangely enough…), the movie highlighted unintended and unfortunate connections to the national tragedy.

Many film critics, including Roger Ebert, reviewed the film on the basis of the Challenger trauma.  In his review, Ebert wrote: The great looming presence all through this movie is the memory of the Challenger destroying itself in a clear, blue sky.”

The association with real-life horror pretty-much killed SpaceCamp in the crib.

It was intended as a light, bubbly, uplifting film of no more seriousness or gravitas than any other disposable, would-be summer blockbuster. And suddenly, it was saddled with comparisons to one of the worst days of the decade, and in space program history.

In concept and casting, SpaceCamp was a “teenager” movie in the age of such teenage science fiction films as Back to the Future (1985), My Science Project (1985), Explorers (1985) and Weird Science (1985). This was an era when Hollywood films were capitalizing on the youth market, and its interest in the genre.

But SpaceCamp wasn’t just a love letter to American youth, but to the space program itself, and even -- somewhat awkwardly -- Star Wars (1977).

A box office bomb in its day, SpaceCamp is remembered, if not wholly beloved, by a generation of fans who discovered it on VHS and found it, at least, inoffensive. There, on the secondary market, the film cemented a reputation as a cult film, if not, necessarily, a cult classic.

Today, SpaceCamp seems somewhat hokey and far-fetched. The constant references to Star Wars grow irritating quickly, and don’t naturally fit with the space program setting.

Actually, Star Trek jokes would have worked better. Star Trek is about building a better tomorrow, the study of science, and the conquest of space. Star Wars is more of a fairy tale (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The teen drama in SpaceCamp also seems forced at times, and even the technology seems unreal, since the film posits space stations and smart robots operating under NASA auspices in the mid-1980s.

In short, SpaceCamp shouldn’t shoulder the blame because real-life tragedy pre-empted it.

But outside its unfortunate context, the film still isn’t particularly well-made, or even all that memorable.

“With space, anything is possible.”

A group of teens at NASA’s space camp in Huntsville train for three weeks to become astronauts, under the tutelage of astronaut Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw) and ground control operator Zach Bergstrom (Tom Skerritt).

One student, Kathryn (Lea Thompson) dreams of being a shuttle commander, but is made the shuttle pilot instead, while the happy-go-lucky Kevin (Tate Donovan) takes the command post. 

Other students on the team include Tish (Kelly Preston), Rudy (Larry B. Scott), and Max (Joaquin Phoenix). Max befriends a robot named Jinx.

Jinx is responsible for the unusual set of circumstances which sees the teenagers, aboard the shuttle Atlantis, launched into space without preparation…or enough air.

Now the teens must work together to get home, and Andie must coordinate and aid their efforts, making her first voyage into space to do so.

“You’re all dead because you didn’t work together as a team.”

I’ve been to the location of Space Camp -- the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama -- on two unforgettable occasions.

I went as a twelve year-old in 1982, and I took my six year old son there for a return journey in 2012.
It’s a great place, and a destination I was so glad I shared with Joel. I hope I have opportunity to return with my granddaughter or grandson, many years from now.

The movie version of Space Camp is not such a wholly delightful experience. Variety’s reviewer opined that the movie never successfully integrates summer camp hijinks with outer space idealism to come up with a dramatically compelling story.”

I don’t know that I feel that way, exactly. Certainly, the story of argumentative teens launched into space and having to take part in their own survival can be described as compelling. 

My issue with the film is slightly different.

SpaceCamp takes too many liberties with the real life space program to really fulfill its premise that contemporary (and dedicated) 1980s teens could pilot a space shuttle, and get home safely.

In other words, the film suffers from a different form of schizophrenia than the one tagged by Variety

SpaceCamp aims to be contemporary and real, but then, willy-nilly, throws in technology and details that are, simply, pure fantasy.

To wit, the teens rendezvous with a space station under construction that, conveniently, already has the extra oxygen supplies Atlantis requires. 

Here the space station is called Daedalus, but no such space station existed in the mid-1980s. A much more primitive station, Skylab had re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 1979.  And the ISS (International Space Station) was still more than a decade off.  In fact, the only space station in Earth orbit in 1986 was the Russian Mir.

And secondly, and perhaps much more to its detriment, SpaceCamp gives us the comic-relief robot Jinx.

Simply put, there was no robot capable of such complex thought-processes, speech-patterns, and emotional reactions (“Friends Forever!”) in 1986. 

And if there were, its presence at Space Camp would have been a gross misuse of such advanced technology.   

I know that Jinx is cute, and I have nothing at all against cute robots in SF films.  He just seems oddly out-of-place in a film that is supposed to be about a real, not futuristic NASA.

Also, I’ll admit that I dislike then near-constant Star Wars references in SpaceCamp.What are you an Imperial Guard?” asks one camper. “I’m not Han Solo…there’s no Force…there’s no dark side,” Kevin notes at another point.  “I’ll arm the laser guns. May the Force be with You!" .

On and on it goes, but Star Wars isn’t really the right production to name-check in this particular context. All the talk of the George Lucas movie feels a little off.  Why? Well, Star Wars isn’t really about training to be an astronaut, or learning to drive a spaceship. It isn’t, even, really, about a team of diverse people learning to work together.

Indeed, one great thing about Star Wars was it took all those concepts for granted, and went off, lasers blazing, to tell a story in a “lived in” universe. That story had mythic underpinnings, and fairy tale qualities. It was a space fantasy, where there was no talk of how the hyper-drive, tractor beams or light sabers actually worked. 

SpaceCamp seems to owe much more to the concept of Star Trek; to the idea of becoming the best that you can be so you can conquer space; to the idea that by working side-by-side with someone of different qualities, you can grow to become more than the sum of your parts.

But, belying the film’s superficial writing, SpaceCamp loads up on the Star Wars call-outs, and they never quite feel right.

I know a lot of people boast nostalgia for SpaceCamp, and I understand and respect that. I remember watching the film on VHS in the mid-1980s, and being absolutely in love with Lea Thompson, and enjoying the (then) state-of-the-art special effects in the movie.

I am also in love with any movie that involves the space shuttle. I love that ship, and I love the films -- like Moonraker (1979), Hangar 18 (1980), and Lifeforce (1985) -- that feature it prominently.

On a re-watch, I found SpaceCamp occasionally diverting, but pretty inconsequential.  At one point, Kevin notes, cynically, that astronaut training isn’t valuable because “we’re all going to get nuked anyway.” 

SpaceCamp might have felt more real, and more uplifting, actually, if it had made a bigger deal of such Cold War frissons, and the way that the conquest of space can bring all the people of Earth together as one.

Movie Trailer: SpaceCamp (1986)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pop Art: Alien Resurrection Comic Books (Dark Horse Edition)

Alien Action Figures of the Week: Alien Resurrection Movie Edition Action Figures (Kenner; 1997)

No bones about it, Alien Resurrection is my least favorite "pure" Alien movie.  There's something vaguely cartoonish and campy about the affair that I find troublesome and irksome, though I readily admit there are moments and scenes I cherish.

But none of those moments feature Dan Hedaya, I assure you.

At the very least, the crew of the Betty gave us an early glimpse of Joss Whedon's Firefly concept. and as usual, Sigourney Weaver was terrific as Ripley.

Anyway, in the year of Alien Resurrection's release (also the year of Starship Troopers), Kenner -- a company that had already released some terrific Alien and Predator-styled toys in the early 1990s -- released a "movie edition" set of six action figures from the fourth Alien movie.  These were relatively large figures compared to the earlier editions, about six-inches in height.

The toy box described the film's milieu in rather verbose terms:

"The Future.  An old enemy.  The perfect predator.  A zealous assembly of scientists and officials conducting the experimental wedding of human and alien genes...A band of renegade space smugglers and the mysterious appearance of a woman linked to an alien species dangerous beyond calculation!  The result is a peril reborn and more shockingly monstrous than ever before!"

Kenner produced two protagonists for this variation on their Aliens line, the aforementioned Ripley, described as "warrant officer" and "alien behavioral expert," and Winona Ryder's android, Call, described plainly as the "mechanic of the Betty Ship."

The alien side was represented by the warrior ("drone to the Alien queen,") the battle-scarred alien ("combat ravaged warrior drone"), the Aqua Alien ("genetically enhanced aquatic alien") and finally, the Newborn ("genetic human/alien hybrid").

The likenesses on the human(oid) characters are pretty good, and alien drone, Newborn and battle scarred aliens all look pretty awesome, as you can hopefully see.

The aquatic alien was not featured in the film, though there was an underwater scene in the film designed and executed as an homage to The Poseidon Adventure.  I understand that the Newborn alien is pretty unpopular with Alien fans because, heck, why mess with perfection when it comes to these xenomorphs, but it's certainly a ghoulish-looking thing.

Another nice touch: many of the figures come complete with awesome miniature toys, including facehuggers, a small alien queen, and...a blood-spattered chestburster. 

Pop Art: Alien Resurrection Novelization (Warner Books Edition)

Video Game of the Week: Alien Resurrection (1997; Playstation)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Devil in the Dark" (March 9, 1967)

Stardate 3196.1

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at the Pergium Mining Colony on Janus VI. There, Chief Engineer Vanderberg (Ken Lynch) reports that fifty of his miners have been killed -- burned to death -- by some kind of “monster” in the subterranean tunnels.

Because many worlds depend on Pergium from the planet, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) must put an end to the killings immediately, and restore the normal mining process.  Unfortunately, the monster makes that mission difficult by damaging the atmospheric processor and stealing a key piece of equipment.

With only 48 hours remaining before the reactor will go super-critical, Kirk teams with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to hunt the monster.

Down in the mines, the duo discovers that the creature -- a horta -- is a silicon-based life-form, and that she is retaliating against the human miners because they have (unknowingly) been destroying her eggs.  She is the mother to an entire race of hortas, and Spock attempts a mind-fusion with her to forge a peace.

Except for one notable exception (“The Alternative Factor”) the back-half of Star Trek’s first season moves quite remarkably and assuredly from strength to strength, from legitimately great episode to legitimately great episode.  In short, “The Devil in the Dark” is another absolutely pitch-perfect episode, filled with humor, pathos, and great character touches.

One can gaze at an earlier show, “The Man Trap,” and catalog the ways that “The Devil in the Dark” is a major improvement, philosophically speaking.  There, Kirk, Spock and Bones end up hunting an intelligent creature that is the last of its breed.  

Here, by contrast, they live up to their stated ideals, make peace with a “monster” and forge a peace between the aliens and humanity.  

In “The Man Trap,” all these officers could do was express regret that they killed the salt vampire. 

Here, the Horta and humanity become friends, and actually work side-by-side, by episode’s conclusion.

In other words, the Starfleet characters don't just talk the talk in "The Devil in the Dark," they walk the walk too.

A number of prominent writers have described “The Devil in the Dark” as being a remarkable episode because the monster turns out to be sympathetic. Because the monster has a recognizable 'human' motive: she is a mother protecting her young.  

But let's put hat myth down once and for all.  This isn’t an original touch at all, nor the reason that "The Devil in the Dark" is so beautiful, so important a tale.  One can see that sympathetic monsters dot film history (King Kong, anyone?), and that  “mommy” monsters protecting their young are not that uncommon, either (see 1961’s Gorgo, for one example).

Instead, “The Devil in the Dark” is so remarkable because the “monster” and humanity choose to work together, even after blood has been spilled on both sides.  

Fifty human miners are dead.  

Thousands of Horta eggs have been destroyed.  

And yet neither side -- human nor alien -- decides to pursue the easiest path; the path of revenge, or bloodshed.  This expression of peace and forgiveness -- coming in the midst of the Vietnam War -- is actually a huge statement about man’s ability to overcome his violent nature.  

Although the series often voices a distaste for diplomacy and diplomats, there can be no mistake about what occurs here. Kirk and Spock engage the Horta in diplomacy, and are impartial arbiters in a struggle. They don’t take the side of the miners simply because they, also, happen to be carbon based life-forms.  

The idea of mother monster protecting her eggs isn’t new, but it certainly does make the story one that we can relate to on simple human terms.  We know, instinctively, the loss the Mother Horta has faced.  We understand her anger and rage.  Yet what seems more original, at least to me, is the nature of the Horta.  

Silicon life-forms were rare in TV history before Star Trek, but later appeared on Space: 1999 “All that Glisters,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Home Soil”) and even The X-Files “(Firewalker.”) The unique nature of the alien here makes it one of the most memorable in all of television history.

In terms of characterization, there’s a scene in “The Devil in the Dark” that speaks volumes about Kirk and Spock’s respective natures…and their mutual friendship.   Spock has suggested that the Horta be saved, for study, for the sake of science itself. Kirk insists it must die for it murderous actions.

They are at odds.

Yet when Kirk encounters the Horta, he doesn’t kill it when given a clear opportunity.  He is guarded, of course, but sees the Horta's wounds and realizes it may not pose the threat he feared.  

He takes a chance, in other words, on peace and understanding.  

This is not only a brave and heroic choice considering the personal danger, but one that suggests Kirk is a great leader, and a fair minded person.  

He will often plunge in, “where angels fear to tread,” to quote The Undiscovered Country (1991), but then, when he is calmer -- and has time to size up a situation, -- he proves judicious. The reboots have captured this quality, delightfully.  

In Into Darkness (2013), Kirk goes in, guns blazing, to kill Khan, over Spock’s legal and moral objections.  But when the time comes, Kirk decides to attempt to arrest Khan instead...and let the egal system work.  

Kirk -- in any universe -- may not always arrive at the best, or correct answer instantly, but he finds his way to it.  That’s what makes him a great captain. He is, in essence, fair minded. He can see beyond his own perspective.

And look at Spock in this episode: He argues to save the Horta, persuasively, and then -- upon learning that Kirk is in danger -- insists that the captain kill it.  

It’s not that he has reasoned his way to the wrong answer, it’s that Spock places a great value on his friendship with Kirk, and on Kirk’s survival. Logically, the Horta should be saved, but not at the cost of Kirk’s life.

So Kirk takes a chance that Spock may be right, and Spock puts aside his perspective, his viewpoint, for the (emotional...) sake of friendship.  It’s a beautiful, mirror dynamic, and it is explored so well in this episode.

These men see the world very differently, and yet they are friends, and able to see the other's perspective.

I also love McCoy’s role in this episode. He is ordered to heal a patient -- a silicon life form -- and by gosh, he does!  The look of delight on his face when he bandages up the Horta is amazing, and infectious.  

McCoy is a physician by character; by temperament.  He may grumble and complain a lot, but if there is someone -- even a Horta -- who is sick, he is there for them, ingeniously developing a treatment.

The Horta is visualized with a costume created by Janos Prohaska. A variation of the same costume appeared on TV previously, in The Outer Limits episode “The Probe.”  I know some people call the Horta a “pizza monster,” but I still find it convincing, in part because we can see a piece of it “breathing” in Spock’s hands, and in part because we see its infected wound after a phaser beam has injured it.  I think the suit is pretty good, especially considering that, in the end, the monster is supposed to be different, but not fearsome.

Basically, "The Devil in the Dark" fires on all thrusters.  It stands on a strong science fiction concept (the silicon-based life form), enhances our understanding of the primary characters (in Kirk and Spock’s mutual flip-flop about killing the Horta), and reminds us that peace between unlike people is always possible, even after blood has been spilled.

By any reckoning, “The Devil in the Dark” rates as one of the ten greatest Star Trek episodes of all time.

Next week is Tarzan Week, but I’ll be returning to Star Trek in two weeks for another classic tale:  “Errand of Mercy.”

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.