Short Circuit

September 30, 2011

Number Five, awful robot

The main character of Short Circuit is a robot named Number Five. It’s intended as a military death machine, armed with a laser-zapper on its left shoulder. But one day Number Five is itself zapped, by an errant bolt of lightning, effectively cleaning its clocks and turning it into an $11 million steel-plated tabula rasa.

The robot escapes its Army camp and wanders into the streets of Astoria, Oregon, where it is given shelter by a sympathetic animal lover (Ally Sheedy). Number Five then absorbs the encyclopedia and 12 hours of television. Understandably, this drives the robot quite insane, and it starts believing—and the movie starts insisting—that the robot is now alive.

Of course, we’re not supposed to think it is now insane. Number Five means to be cuddly and humanoid, dishing out advice as well as breakfast and making with the jive slang. See, he’s picked up little bits of information from everywhere and incorporated them into his button-pushing biorhythms. He’s likely to segue from a stalwart John Wayne imitation to a TV anchorman’s pomposity to a re-creation of the physical profundities of the Three Stooges.

Ahem. What we have here is a movie engaging in a little unwitting self-description. Like its metallic hero, Short Circuit incorporates (read: steals) ideas from a gaggle of recent sources, most glaringly E.T., and regurgitates them with breathless hipness. So what you get is something fast and occasionally funny, but not remotely new.

Short Circuit is from director John Badham, who has made strikingly similar berserk-hardware movies before (WarGames, Blue Thunder). There was a time when Badham seemed like a promising director, with his lively version of Dracula and Saturday Night Fever (the latter is cannibalized by Badham for input fodder for Number Five, who apes a John Travolta dance routine on his able treads).

But Badham’s technique here, so clearly inspired by what has worked before, is pretty empty. The stranger-in-a-strange land routine is reliable, but it’s time to give it a rest. In fact, this movie might kill it: Not only does Number Five spout his cute newly learned American slang (to an opponent robot: “Hey, laser lips, yo’ momma was a snow-blower!”), so does a scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India (to his partner: “Let us go pick up some female chicks”).

Badham’s cast doesn’t help. The robot has more depth than Sheedy or Steve Guttenberg, who plays the robot’s inventor (yeeh, suuuure); he tries to find Number Rive before a gung-ho Army commander (G.W. Bailey) gets his hands on the thing.

They’re secondary to the technology. Number Five is constructed with great ingenuity—his wide-set eyes inevitably recall E.T.’s—but for all his savvy talk, he is a uniquely charmless being. This was a minority opinion at the laughing full-house preview where I saw the film, but even the laugh-getting seemed like a mechanical process, just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Really bad movie, really a quintessential Eighties success story. I do recall being sort of fascinated by Fisher Stevens’ impeccably rendered Peter Sellers-like Indian character, because one had thought that such a stunt was long past doing. But there it is. (And he returned in the sequel, too.) This movie was a big hit.

Advertisements

Cyborg

July 28, 2011

JCVD, crossed up

The only interesting thing about Cyborg is that it represents another step in the career of one Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Van Damme is trying to make the leap from European body building champion to American movie star. It has been done before, and Arnold Schwarzengger’s lessons are there for all to study.

Van Damme has learned well. Like Schwarzenegger, he knows not to talk much (Belgian-born, his accent is about as thick as his biceps) and to do a lot of scenes with his shirt off. He has the body and he has the looks, although he doesn’t seem blessed with Schwarzenegger’s droll sense of humor. In fact, he doesn’t display much sense of anything, except how to move.

His martial-arts skills came in handy in his first starring vehicle, Bloodsport, a karate-chopping extravaganza that did strong business internationally. Now comes Cyborg, a trip into the science-fiction landscape of The Terminator and The Road Warrior.

The script (by Kitty Chalmers) is pretty much incoherent. The earth, some years in the future, has been devastated by a plague, but a cure is held in the brain circuits of a cyborg, a robot. This cyborg must reach, of all places, Atlanta, where a small group of scientists is waiting to secure the data. Times are tough for a traveling cyborg, because a group of marauders called the Flesh Pirates are roaming around asserting their nasty will.

So Van Damme, a sort of roving samurai, makes sure the cyborg reaches Atlanta. Director Albert Pyun obviously has been inspired by Kurosawa’s action movies, and there’s some decently mounted hand-to-hand fighting and a violent climactic battle in the rain. There’s also a wild and weird crucifixion scene in which Van Damme painfully knocks himself off the cross when the bad guys aren’t looking. Ouch.

Otherwise, Van Damme glowers, and manages lines like, “I deedn’t make thees world.” I have to admit that when he and the main villain (Vincent Klyn, a champion surfer) faced off, they reminded me of Hans and Franz, the Germanic body building brothers on “Saturday Night Live,” flexing and bellowing. But don’t tell Van Damme I said that; his muscles aren’t cotton stuffed in a sweat shirt, they’re real.

First published in the Herald, April 14, 1989

To be fair, maybe the cyborg is going to Atlanta because the Center for Disease Control is there. And they’d be smart enough to have built a secure plague-resistant HQ, for sure. So I take that comment back, and regret the umpteenth iteration of the “accent thick as muscles” line, too. Frankly this movie sounds like fun, especially the part about JCVD knocking himself off the cross in mid-crucifixion. For more on the cinema of Albert Pyun, check the review of Dangerously Close and the comments section.


Dune/Runaway

March 21, 2011

Freddie Jones and Sting, a la Dune

I had been warned that Dune was confusing, so I was set to pay close attention from the very beginning. Surprisingly enough, I found that, on the plot level, Dune was rather easy to follow. There is a lot of information discharged in the first half hour, but the main movement of the story, and the many characters, are pretty easily identifiable. Oh, there’s the occasional weirdness–the bit with the potion that makes the user’s lips turn red went by too quickly for me to catch, so that when Brad Dourif came on muttering an incantation and applying the nectar to his mouth, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. But any frustration I felt due to ignorance of that particular detail was overruled by my delight with Dourif’s wacked-out performance (which unfortunately ends much too early in the film).

No, those unexplained details didn’t bug me too much. The most confusing thing about Dune is: What does this movie think it’s doing? Dune may be the most bewildering movie of the year, and not because of its plot. What was David Lynch thinking about when he decided to have people provide voiceover explanations of events we’ve just seen? “The spice…the worms…is there a relationship?” Of course there is, you bonehead, how could there not be, based on the information already provided to us?

These voiceovers are just one symptom of what’s wrong with Dune; the main problem would seem to be that Lynch has tried to be overly faithful to Frank Herbert’s novel. But that’s conjecture, since a) I haven’t read Dune, and b) I can’t hear what’s going on in Lynch’s mind, thank heaven. But there are things in the film that cry out for capsulization. For instance, Lynch got Sting to play one of the bad guys; given that, why not combine his role with that of the other bad guy played by big Paul Smith? Any reason that couldn’t be just one character, who could do twice as many mean, nasty things, thus providing a strong opposite number for the hero? (To be crass about it, that would make commercial sense too, since Sting is a big rock star and a certain audience is going to come to this film just to see him.)

As it is, Der Stingle is barely in the film at all, and the climactic knife battle with hero Paul Atreides is ho-hum time. But more than that, Sting, who has proven himself a fairly dynamic performer elsewhere, is out-and-out bad in Dune—he glowers and rolls his eyes without a trace of subtlety (and thus without a trace of menace). Or take the case of the University of Washington’s own Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the main character. MacLachlan is physically right for the part; he’s all heroic chin and hair, and he looks as though he’d have the necessary stamina to housebreak a sandworm. But he’s a bit on the stolid side, and there’s no humor in his performance. That I blame on David Lynch, who doesn’t seem to have conceived of the tone that his performers—or that the film itself—should carry. That uncertainty combined with a lack of rhythm and forward motion doom this Dune to be scattered to the winds.

After I saw Dune and Peter Hyams’ ridiculous 2010, was I ever in the mood for Runaway, the Tom Selleck vehicle about murderous robots in the near future. It is, to be sure, substantially inane; but it also has a friendly, funky spirit. Besides, it’s basically a cop movie in sci-fi trappings, as Selleck is out to catch a madman (Gene Simmons of KISS) bent on ruling the world through robot domination. Doesn’t that sound great? I thought so too. Add to that some killer spider robots, who clatter noisily before they exterminate their prey, and add Selleck’s partner, Cynthia Rhodes, the blond dish from Staying Alive, who sweats very appealingly in the scene where Tom removes an explosive bullet from her shoulder. When you mix in Simmons’ performance, which consists entirely of curled lip and bug-out eyes, you step back in time about three decades or so, and settle comfortably into the realm of chewy B-cinema. As such, Runaway works just fine. Writer-director Michael Crichton has a few good uses for Vancouver, B.C., and he gives us a shot from the point of view of a heat-seeking bullet. He also stages a genuinely exciting top-of-a-skyscraper finale (compounded by Selleck’s vertigo—say, where have I seen this before?). What’s it all add up to? Not much, really, but when you’ve been assailed by hours of pretentious science fiction hoohah, this sort of thing is a tonic.

First published in The Informer, January/February 1985

Still haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t been tempted to follow up this original experience with seeking out any alternate cuts or anything like that. Well, maybe during that sabbatical year. Sorry to say that I didn’t review Crichton’s crazy Looker at the time it came out, and thus can’t reprint anything on this Eighties website, but I did write an editorial review for Amazon.com, which can be accessed here.