Sunday, April 15, 2012

Android Becomes Man

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

ANDROID (1982)
Running Time 1:20
Rated PG
Directed by Aaron Lipstadt
Stars Klaus Kinski, Don Opper, Brie Howard, Norbert Weisser, Crofton Hardester, Kendra Kirchner
First published August 18, 2006

1982 was perhaps the richest year for science fiction films in the history of cinema. Nearly every SF movie released that year has gone on to enjoy an enduring popularity among massive mainstream audiences and loyal cultists alike: E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, TRON, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Okay, so MEGAFORCE sucked (big time), but even a sleazy quickie like Roger Corman’s FORBIDDEN WORLD has plenty of fans.

New World Pictures, which made FORBIDDEN WORLD, also produced what may be the least-known of 1982’s stellar crop of SF favorites. ANDROID was filmed in twenty shooting days on a budget of just $500,000. It was not financially successful at the box office, undoubtedly because it lacks the exploitative elements with which Corman’s marketing team had grown adept at handling. Positive reviews and film festival playdates earned ANDROID a small cult audience, but serious SF fans, likely thinking it was another New World sex-and-gorefest like GALAXYOF TERROR, mostly stayed away from it.

ANDROID is a simple, yet not simplistic, story of surprising sensitivity and humanity. It mostly falls upon the capable shoulders of Don Opper, who co-wrote the screenplay and stars in it (uncredited) as Max 404, the titular droid who is shy, lacking in social skills, and deeply curious about Earth pop culture of the 20th century. Opper, whose previous job was hammering together flats as a carpenter on earlier New World movies, is perfect in his debut role, a graceful mixture of Charlie Chaplin and C-3PO who undergoes a tremendous upheaval in personality throughout the course of the film. Opper remains likable even as Max performs actions that appear morally repulsive to us.

It’s 2036, and Max is the lone assistant to Dr. Daniel (top-billed Klaus Kinski) on a space station far from Earth, a planet Max has never seen, but desperately wishes to visit. After five years of serving as cook, janitor, and butler to the only human he’s ever known, Max enthusiastically provides safe haven to three escaped convicts who hijacked a prison spaceship and guided the wounded vessel to Daniel’s landing bay for repairs. The mad doctor wants the intruders gone, until he notices that one of them is a woman, Maggie (Brie Howard).

Daniel is working to construct an android woman more advanced than Max, but needs to siphon the sexual energy from a human female to get his new ‘bot up and running. Meanwhile, the child-like Max, who has viewed primitive sexual instruction tapes in case he ever met a flesh-and-blood woman, falls in love with Maggie, and there are signs that perhaps she may be attracted to his innocent nature as well.

The other escapees—kindly Keller (Norbert Weisser) and bully Mendes (Crofton Hardester)—are important to ANDROID’s story too, but the Daniel/Maggie/Max triangle is its heart and soul. Daniel doesn’t love Maggie, of course; I doubt he’s capable of loving any human being. His sights rest solely on Cassandra (Kendra Kirchner), his beautiful blonde creation whose very existence endangers Max’s.

Director Aaron Lipstadt, who still works occasionally in episodic TV drama, amps up the third-act action and drama with infighting among the criminals and a tragedy that spurs Daniel to tinker with Max’s programming and transform the tender helper into a superhuman killing machine—a Terminator, if you will (James Cameron worked as a designer on ANDROID). Opper’s transition from wide-eyed virgin to soulless murderer flawlessly builds upon small pieces of business slyly revealed earlier that seemed superfluous. Lipstadt and Opper aren’t afraid to treat their audience with respect and not pound plot points into them. Granted, a couple of points could be clearer, but the witty dialogue by Opper and James Reigle and the good acting help the story eventually come together well enough. Even Kinski, whose eccentric tendencies on- and off-screen were always a threat to derail a production, is unusually understated.

With its meager budget, Android was no threat to derail the box office momentum of E.T. and STAR TREK II, even though its visual effects are imaginative and well-crafted and its set design colorful and functional. However, as wonderful as those films are, it isn’t an overstatement to place ANDROID in their company. Lipstadt’s film is intelligent, literate science fiction with a dash of justifiable violence and sex to keep the marketing folks happy.

1 comment:

Casual Debris said...

Good review. I thoroughly enjoyed this when I first watched it on a whim about a year ago. Not the best sci-fi of 1982, but certainly better than ET.