In 1982, cult film fave Tobe Hooper got his shot at the big time. He was already an infamous character and major figure in the horror film world thanks to his first film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He enjoyed some mainstream success as the director of the original made for television Salem’s Lot, a movie that made a whole generation of children afraid to look out a second story bedroom window. A year after Salem’s Lot, Hooper got a plum job directing a big-budget horror film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Fans were excited to see what the king of survival horror could do with a Spielberg size budget. Unfortunately, whatever it was he was going to do never came to be.
With it being October and all, I was in the mood for a decent horror video game that fulfills my basic requirements for a game — that it be old enough so everyone else has lost interest in it, thus driving the price down to an affordable ten bucks or so. Of the many recommendations I got, I decided to go with F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon, because I thought the blend of supernatural horror with a SWAT type first person shooter would be interesting. Plus, I’d been told the game was genuinely scary in many places. Seemed like the perfect late-night indulgence. And for portions of the game, it was. It’s a fast paced shooter that does indeed boast some incredibly effective spooky material. But it’s also too repetitive, and the horror often gets forgotten in favor of room after room of shooting it out with basically identical opponents gussied up in the same sort of assault team gear your own character is wearing.
Video game reviews for me, though still a new venture, often end up being very involved affairs, which I enjoy immensely. On the other hand, it means that they take a long time to complete, and so I don’t finish them at the ace I would like to maintain. Gears of War 2, luckily, affords very little in the way of diversionary analysis. It’s loud and stupid and full of violence. The plot is disposable and generic. The voice acting is shouty and stilted. The game play is pretty predictable and designed in a way that causes the entire game to hover somewhere between idiotically enjoyable and tedious. Basically, whenever people write about how crass and moronic video games are, they’re writing about Gears of War. Of course, as with an action movie that could have the same description applied to it, crass and moronic doesn’t mean the game is without its…not exactly “high” or “positive” points… let’s just say that there is some entertainment to be mined from this gibbering buffoon of a game, in much the same way as one can be entertained by an Antonio Margheriti war film.
“To build a city at the bottom of the sea…insanity! But where else could we be free from the clutching hands of the parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control? A society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea…it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” — Andrew Ryan
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
As the kind of pop culture savvy, switched-on individual who reads Teleport City, I assume you’re familiar with Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man. But in case you’re not or just need reminding, here’s a quick recap of the plot. Peter Parker sees the girl of his dreams being wooed by a wealthy jock with a flash car. Deciding what he needs is a cool set of wheels, he uses his recently acquired spider powers to enter a wrestling contest for money, only to see through his inaction, his beloved Uncle Ben shot and killed. The 2009 Russian film Black Lightning (produced as all Russian movies apparently are by Night Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov) uses the same plot, but asks the one important question Spider-Man left dangling; ‘what about the car? What about the car??’
Moscow, 2004. Greedy industrialist Victor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Night Watch) is drilling for the vast diamond deposits buried under the city. Despite warnings that this will undermine the foundations of Moscow and possibly kill millions through earthquakes, Kuptsov pushes ahead, but is thwarted when his giant Matrix-style tunneling machine isn’t powerful enough. The only thing with enough energy to complete the plan is the MacGuffin-O-Tron, also known as the Nanocatalyst. This device fashioned from magic moon rocks can increase the power of any normal fuel to over a million times the power of nuclear energy, or something. It was designed in the Soviet days but the project was abandoned.
In the present day, some workers employed by Kuptsov discover the lab where the Nanocatalyst was discovered. There are lots of blueprints and so forth, and also an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga automobile. Seeing the chance to make a profit, they decide to swipe the car and sell it. Which may have a certain significance to college student and our nominated Piotr Parkovich, a.k.a. Dmtry, Dima to his friends (Grigory Dobrygin). Dima is contentious, studies hard, and has serious hots for the new girl, Nastya (the extremely pretty Ekaterina Vilkova, Hipsters). Dima though is constantly upstaged by his rich buddy Maxim (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a sleek white Mercedes (one of the things that tickled me about this movie is how everyone evil drives a Merc. I’m half-expecting to find an interview where one of the writers reveals a Mercedes killed his father). Seeing his son is pretty bummed out, Dima’s Dad (Sergey Garmash, Space Dogs 3D), a poor but upstanding tram driver, buys his son… an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Dima is grateful but not exactly thrilled; this is hardly the car to impress Nastya. So he hides it and tries to get the bus to college, but misses it because of stopping to help an old drunk. And on this day of all days, when nasty Victor Kuptsov is giving a lecture at the college. Dima earns some cutting remarks from Kuptsov, who trots out the old bullshit that successful people help only themselves. But his words strike a chord in Dima, who wants to make enough money to impress the girl he loves. You can probably see where this is going…
Kuptsov meanwhile is annoyed that the Nanocatalyst is nowhere to be found, only a container of previously converted super-energized nanofuel (it’s blue and glowing so you know it’s crazy powerful). From the blueprints it’s apparent that the Nanocatalyst has been built into the missing Volga, so Kuptsov sends his army of heavies out into Moscow to find all the Volgas they can. Meanwhile all is not well in the Dima household. Dima’s new attitude of only looking out for himself and trying to make as much money as possible does not sit well with his poor-but-proud Dad. When Dima Sr. intervenes in a mugging, his son berates him for risking his life for someone else, causing a deep rift between them. Kuptsov’s men observe Dad getting angrily out of the Volga, but stick with pursuing the car. And then Dima makes a startling discovery: his car can fly. Aw, man. The Russians had flying cars back in the 1960s? Way to go, capitalism.
Through an old record he finds in the glove box, Dima tracks down a couple of the scientists who built the car. They are now married, Perepelkin (Valeriy Zolotukhin, Night Watch) and Romantseva (Ekaterina Vasileva). Perepelkin is suspicious, claiming they could never get the Nanocatalyst to work, the project was closed down and chief scientist Elizarov (Juozas Budraitis) was fired in disgrace. Romantseva is more sympathetic and gives Dima the manual for the car. Now that he can circumvent the horrendous Moscow traffic, Dima becomes the star of the flower delivery service he’s been working for. Finally he has some cash to splash around, and takes Nastya to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He discovers quickly that she’s not the rich sophisticate Max said she was, and if she fails the next college exam will have to go back to her family in the country.
Unfortunately with great wealth comes great assholery. Dima gets into a fight with Max, and says a few salacious (and untrue) things about Nastya, which she overhears. Even worse, when he goes to reconcile with his Dad, Kuptsov’s men get there first, and the mugger Dad thwarted earlier is in their employ. Dad ends up bleeding to death in a snowy side-street while Dima sits idly by, refusing to call an ambulance because it doesn’t fit with his new ‘looking out for number one’ philosophy. He realizes too late who the victim is, Dad having already passed away.
At home with his distraught Mum (Elena Valyushkina) and little sister Tanka (Katya Starshova), Dima has the revelation we’ve been waiting for since the opening credits, especially when Tanka tells him “you’ll have to be dad now.” Using the Volga’s super-radio which cleverly doubles as a police band scanner, Dima becomes a hoodie-wearing superhero. He saves a child from a burning apartment block, foils an armoured car robbery and saves a baby in one go, even catches the mugger who killed his Dad (the mugger’s fate is not revealed, but since I don’t think Dima ever knew it was him, this isn’t too much of an oversight – I quite liked the ambiguity, in fact). He also gives the Volga a spiffy new coat of paint, and soon the people and the press are going crazy over this hero they have dubbed ‘Black Lightning.’ My favourite scene in the film is a lovely little moment that pops up about now, when Tanka asks Dima if Black Lightning is real. He says yes, but nobody knows who he is. “I think it’s Dad,” she replies. Brought a little lump to my throat, I don’t mind telling you.
Kuptsov is getting extremely frustrated with his inability to capture the car and the Nanocatalyst. He recalls the three scientists from the original project and convinces them he’s building a new version of the car to help Black Lightning in his heroic work. It transpires that Romantseva and Elizarov were in love, but because Perepelkin wanted her for himself he faked the negative results, knowing Elizarov would be fired. Meanwhile Dima deliberately fails an exam, knowing his place will go to Nastya, who is genuinely struggling. She realizes he’s not the dickhead she thought he was, but in a romantic twist of fate that is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, ends up thinking Maxim is Black Lightning. Max being a genuine dickhead, plays along.
Back at Kuptsov’s facility, Perepelkin finds out about the plot to drill for diamonds and destroy Moscow. Now eager to redeem himself, he tries to escape and get help even though it means likely death. Kuptsov lets him go, betting that Black Lightning will show up to rescue him. Nastya meanwhile has switched her allegiance back to Maxim, admiring his apparent selflessness and heroism. Discovering this, Dima almost lets Perepelkin die just to prove Maxim isn’t the hero, but of course he can’t. “Black Lighting will be there. He has to be there,” he tells Nastya, even though he knows he’s playing into Maxim’s hands (Max is hiding in the toilet at this point). And somehow, Nastya realizes that even though Maxim is apparently the hero, she actually loves Dima.
Unfortunately Dima falls into Kuptsov’s trap, failing to save Perepelkin and losing the Nanocatalyst to the bad guy’s super, rocket-armed flying Mercedes. Kuptsov re-starts the drill with the three scientists tied to it, and Moscow seems doomed. With only his small reserve tank of nanofuel left, Dima is able to stop the drill and recover the Nanocatalyst. Kuptsov is furious and, having worked out who Black Lightning is, kidnaps Nastya, demanding the Nanocatalyst in exchange for her life. Can Dima save the woman he loves and Moscow and defeat the man ultimately responsible for his father’s death? Does a Russian bear shit in the woods?
Y’know, I could say a lot of negative things about Black Lightning. Sure, it’s massively derivative of American comic book movies; as well as the Spider-Man series, it borrows bits of Iron Man, Batman Begins (the score is identical in spots) and Universal’s legal team may have been rubbing their hands over the Delorean-like design of Kuptsov’s flying Mercedes (Universal put the film out internationally though so I assume it was OK). Dima even has a Facebook account where people can ask him for help, Kick Ass style, but I guess those movies were in production at the same time so we’ll let that one go.
On top of that, the plot is pretty thin, and several of the elements could have been fleshed out better. In particular I’d like to have seen the car given a bit more… personality I guess. I don’t mean have it talk or think for itself, but it doesn’t register on-screen the way I think it’s meant to. Partly this is down to Dima’s character never seeming to have much of a bond with it; it’s just a tool for getting the job done. I do wonder if part of this is because the special effects, while good, are used sparingly, so the flying sequences are quite brief. Hey, I doubt they had $150 million to spend so that’s understandable. I also think it’s because Grigory Dobrygin as Dima isn’t a very good actor. He’s a little too blank, is better at being a jerk than a hero, and a times is even a little creepy. The rest of the characters are pure ciphers, though thankfully filled by good actors who make them work for the most part.
And then there are those pesky action sequences. I know that in a movie about a magic flying car it’s probably silly to complain about how much of the action seems to defy physics, but there are moments where I did roll my eyes (like when Black Lightning is flying vertically upwards with another car balanced upright on the front fender – I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work). And a little more time spent on exactly what the car is capable of would have been nice. It seems like the only difference from a normal car is supposed to be the flying thing, and yet BL seems to be indestructible, can apparently go into space without ill effects despite earlier being shown not to be watertight, and a few other things. And honestly, when it comes to super-heroics a flying car is a lot less practical than a dude swinging from a web. Take the moment where a stolen armoured car is about to hit a woman and her baby. BL shunts it from the side, flipping it over. So now it’s still moving forward at speed towards the baby but completely unable to steer. Of course it stops in the nick of time but you get the idea.
And yet… for all its many faults, I found myself going along with Black Lightning, and getting genuinely invested in the outcome. There are some nice moments throughout, and so help me I wanted to see weird, creepy Dima get the girl. I mentioned the sweet little bit with him and his sister, and I all but cheered when Dima thinks he’s sacrificing his future with Nastya to do the right thing. I am something of a sucker for comic book movies, I guess. I even smiled a little at the joke stolen from the Moore-era Bond movies, when a guy about to knock back his fifth vodka sees the flying car and swears off booze forever. So while far from a classic, I’d give Black Lightning a pass, even though it has nothing to do with the DC comics character of the same name – a black guy who shoots lightning.
And so what if they never really address why a bunch of scientists, discovering a magic new power source, would turn it into a flying car? If I had the technology and the resources I’d build that shit yesterday!
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Russia | Starring: Grigory Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Ekaterina Vasileva, Juozas Budraitis, Ivan Zhidkov, Sergey Garmash, Ekaterina Starshova, Mikhail Efremov, Dato Bakhtadze, Igor Savochkin, Sergey Legostaev, Elena Valyushkina | Screenplay: Dmitriy Aleynikov, Aleksandr Talal, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Rostislav Krivitskiy, Vladimir Neklyudov | Director: Dmitriy Kiselev, Aleksandr Voytinskiy | Cinematography: Sergey Trofimov | Music: Yuriy Poteenko | Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Syuzanna Muazen, Pavel Ratner, Iva Stromilova, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel | Original title: Chernaya Molniya
Nostalgia. It’s a dangerous thing, especially when applied to something you haven’t encountered for over 30 years. Take, for example, my favourite TV show as a kid; I lived and breathed The Six Million Dollar Man. I had two different Steve Austin action figures (one with a grippy hand, one without), a rocket ship thing that folded out into a bionic surgery table, some sort of evil robot with a claw and interchangeable face masks*, and even a Jamie Sommers action figure (it was not a doll. Shut up. SHUT UP!). I would spend hours during school playtimes attempting to run in slow motion while making the nininininini…. noise. I’m sure I looked like a complete buffoon, but I didn’t care.
And oh man, what a show that was! I remember every episode being a breathtaking thrill ride, as The OSI battled to stop megalomaniacs trying to use atomic bombs to blow up space stations full of more atomic bombs, while Steve Austin wrestled a robot yeti with laser eyes that also contained an atomic bomb. And between being about six and thirty-six, I never saw The Six Million Dollar Man again. Imagine my disappointment, watching re-runs on SyFy, to discover that Steve spent most of his time helping pretty divorcees in lumberjack shirts fight off evil logging companies in bland-looking (and above all cheap) forests.
Because back in nineteen seventy whatever, my junior brain was incapable of differentiating between awesome and suck. I thought everything was as good as Star Wars (my yardstick for quality in those days). The Black Hole? Totally as good as Star Wars. The Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers movies? Every bit as good as Star Wars. If I’d seen The Humanoid back in the day, I’d probably have told you THAT was as good as Star Wars, and I dare say I also thought today’s review subject was the equal of Lucas’s epic adventure. In fact about the only post-Star Wars sci-fi movie I didn’t think was as good as Star Wars was Starcrash, which I thought was crap. But again that just shows you how badly formed my young synapses were, knowing as I do now that Starcrash is the greatest movie ever made.
The Amazing Captain Nemo was an attempt by Irwin Allen to graft some Star Wars-style laser and robot action onto an underwater adventure, and was originally made to serve double duty as both a movie and TV mini-series, the latter shown as The Return of Captain Nemo. This wasn’t uncommon in the late 70s; As I hinted above, my first exposure to both Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica was in the form of movies that were edited together from episodes of the show (in fact Galactica managed to knock out three of these, including one based on- the Lords of Kobol help us – Galactica 1980). I have a recollection so vague of seeing the TV version of Nemo that for a long time I assumed I must have dreamed the whole thing.
There’s this mad scientist called Professor Cunningham… Let’s just hold it there. Professor Cunningham? That’s what you call a guy whose name strikes terror into all those who hear it? Because that’s not even trying. I’m not suggesting going completely overboard and calling your antagonist Dr. Maim or Count Torture or something, but Professor Cunningham sounds like an avuncular college professor. And – unfortunately – he looks like one too, seeing as he’s played by Burgess Meredith in a costume of grey slacks, grey grandpa cardigan and loose black tie. He’s absolutely not the guy who you expect to be commanding a killer submarine full of robots, and ordering around a 7-foot tall gill man in space armour called Trog or Tor or something. But that’s exactly what he’s doing. The submarine is called The Raven, and looks like a kit bash of a couple of pipes with a Space: 1999 Eagle transporter. It has this really amazing weapon called a Delta Beam, which can apparently blow up whole islands, but for some reason Cunningham instead threatens to destroy Washington using an old-fashioned nuke.
Meanwhile, during some stock footage of naval manoeuvres, a couple of divers make a startling discovery. Commander Tom Franklin and Lt. Jim Porter happen across a mysterious submarine. When they investigate further, they discover it is the Nautilus, and the famous Captain Nemo (José Ferrer) is still aboard in suspended animation. There’s not a whole lot to say about Tom and Jim except that they helpfully wear different coloured wetsuits so you can tell them apart. They are played respectively by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, who look like they were created in a lab from the DNA of Tom Wopat and Larry Wilcox just to be on 1970s TV.
Tom, Jim and their boss Miller (Warren Stevens) convince Nemo to use his genius, and spiffy art-deco sub, to help them take down Cunningham before Washington is destroyed. While a little annoyed that this will divert him from his true goal – searching for the fabled Atlantis – Nemo agrees. It’s a bit of a coup for the good guys since the Nautilus has all kinds of amazing technology years ahead of its time. It has a laser cannon and a nuclear reactor, or at least that’s what Tom and Jim call them, setting up the old chestnut of Nemo snapping “that is only what you call them in your modern futuristic parlance you young whippersnappers you!” or words to that effect.
Nemo tracks down Cunningham fairly easily, and having temporarily neutralised the delta beam, swims out to say hi. No, he really does: he and Tom scuba over to the Raven so that Nemo can ‘look his opponent in the eye’ or some such guff. It’s mostly so Ferrer and Meredith can do a bit of scenery-chewing and we can have a brief underwater laser battle as the good guys escape. I have to say, I really love that someone looked at the exciting shootouts in Star Wars and thought, ‘I wish these were slower and more ponderous, like Thunderball.’ Anyway, the Nautilus uses its laser (or focussed light projecting fabtraption, according to Nemo) to shoot down the nuke, and that’s the end of episode 1.
In order to refuel, Cunningham drills holes in some barrels of nuclear waste that the US has dumped in the ocean. The release of radiation threatens to be catastrophic, so once again the Nautilus is pressed into action to save the day. First though they must take on board an expert in, um, leaking radioactive barrels, I guess. This is Dr. Cook (Mel Ferrer) and his pretty-ish assistant/girlfriend Kate (Lynda Day George). Dr. Cook doesn’t add much to the story, except that he’s actually a traitor in league with Cunningham. He sabotages the Nautilus, though Nemo figures out who the culprit was instantly. But Cook has another trick up his sleeve… a sword cane.
Yes, honestly, that’s his back-up plan. He attacks Nemo, who apparently forgets he has a whole crew of armed officers so that the two Ferrers can have an old-guy sword fight. Cook is killed, and Nemo tricks Cunningham into blowing up an undersea cliff to bury the nuclear waste and saving the day. Oh, and there’s some business with the Nautilus getting stuck in a minefield, but it’s dealt with rather quickly. And that’s the end of episode 2.
For the big finale, Nemo finally discovers Atlantis, which looks pretty much exactly like you’d expect it to: Greek columns and acropolises (acropoli?) and so forth. Then a guy in a toga swims aboard, and declares he is King Tibor (Horst Buchholz), the head honcho of Atlantis. He tells Nemo that having been betrayed by a previous visitor who claimed to have peaceful intentions, the crew of Nautilus will be tried and judged by the Atlantean council. Sort of makes you wonder, if your nation is attacked by a treacherous enemy and you get all suspicious of visitors, why you’d send the king out by himself to make contact. Never mind, he’s got a toga so he must know what he’s doing.
Anyway, Nemo is able to convince the council he’s an OK guy, and returns to the Nautilus with Tibor and a couple of others. But they find the crew frozen, Tom (or is it Jim?) missing, and the ship inoperable. It’s Cunningham again of course; he’s using a mind-control device to overpower Jim (or is it Tom?) and the Atlanteans, and now intends to drain all of the genius ideas from Nemo’s mind. And also use some ball bearings to destroy all the cities on Earth, or something. And naturally it was he who previously conned the Atlanteans. While strapped into Cunningham’s brain-draining machine, Nemo cleverly remembers some footage from earlier in the movie, allowing Tom (or possibly Jim) to break free of Cunningham’s control. They escape, treating us to a slightly more elaborate underwater laser fight, before the final battle between the Raven and The Nautilus. Which isn’t terribly exciting, to be honest, but does end with an explosion. And then Captain Nemo promises never to return to Atlantis. And that’s the end of episode 3.
The Amazing Captain Nemo is a frustrating experience. The episodic structure means that there’s no real through-line of plot to get resolved, and as soon as a problem presents itself, it’s fixed immediately. Plus the removal of a fair chunk of footage from the longer TV edit also causes a number of problems. Character development is non-existent, and presumably the lost scenes would also help fill in some troubling holes in the story. For example, what’s the deal with Cunningham’s weird mutant hench-thing? Was he supposed to be an Atlantean of some sort? Both he and and the toga-wearing Atlanteans refer to Nemo and his crew as ‘aliens,’ so I assumed a connection. There are also unfortunate continuity gaffes that presumably come out of the editing, such as when Nemo orders the Nautilus, last seen resting on the ocean floor, to “dive dive dive!” I’m guessing these gaffes are down to the editing anyway; the script might just suck. And don’t fall for anyone telling you Robert Bloch is responsible for the screenplay, as I assume his contributions were lost among those of the 6 other writers (not including Jules Verne).
So, The Amazing Captain Nemo is just-about-passable afternoon matinee entertainment, assuming you can roll with the ropey model FX (and honestly, how can these be so much worse than the ones in Allen’s earlier Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?). Having seen it again, I can now say with confidence I didn’t imagine it as a six year old child, so peace of mind of a sort has been achieved. And I also now know for certain that even the addition of sweet laser-equipped scuba thrusters isn’t enough to make diving sequences interesting.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and find this old TV show I remember from being a kid. It had a guy with a metal hand that had all these interchangeable gadgets on it, and I’m completely sure it’ll still be awesome…
* The villain turned out to be Maskatron, as described here. I also had the radio back pack, which kind of sucked. I really wanted those critical assignment arms, but it was not to be…
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, Mel Ferrer, Horst Buchholz, Tom Hallick, Burr DeBenning, Lynda Day George, Warren Stevens, Med Flory | Screenplay: Larry Alexander, Robert Bloch, Robert C. Dennis, Norman Katkov, William Keys, Mann Rubin, Preston Wood | Director: Alex March, Paul Stader | Cinematography: Lamar Boren | Music: Richard LaSalle | Producer: Arthur Weiss, Irwin Allen
Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date.
If Neon City is an example of American-made post-apocalyptic science fiction that strives for a more realistic, bleaker tone than is usually seen in Road Warrior rip-offs, then Cherry 2000 is a very interesting companion piece that comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It envisions a future not terribly different from the one in Neon City — in which some manner of apocalyptic disaster has left large swathes of the United States lawless and scoured, while pockets of urban civilization seem to chug along despite the blight surrounding them — but where Neon City is an exercise in bleakness and some cursory attempt at realism, Cherry 2000 gleefully embraces all the excess, quirks, and questionable art and design decisions that embodied the 1980s, resulting in a film that comes across sort of like a post-apocalypse film as imagined by Patrick Nagel.
The future of Cherry 2000 is the future that could only be imagined in the 1980s, when we were all pretty sure we were living in the future anyway. This means lots of neon, random tube lighting, exaggerated eye make-up, metallic spandex, guys in baggy suits with square-bottom ties and women in short skirts and long jackets with oversized shoulder pads. In other words, the future of Cherry 2000 is the 1980s, only with robots — but not just any robots. As we all know, the evolution of robots goes a little something like: car manufacturing robots, followed by robot dogs, followed by fully human looking sexbots, followed inevitably by murderous killbots determined to eradicate humanity until we defeat them with that “this statement is a lie” conundrum. With Cherry 2000, we’re in the sexbot phase of development, that glorious time when we could built robots that look, feel, and act almost entirely human, but we still have 8-bit graphic displays on all our other computers.
Diligent office worker Sam Treadwell (David Andrews, who went on to work with a robot policewoman in the very short-lived series Mann and Machine, then had a decidedly different experience with female robots in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) isn’t down with the bar scene of the future, where casual sexual encounters involve attendant lawyers and complex contracts negotiated by a still unestablished Lawrence Fishburne. Despite the ribbing Sam takes from his friends, he’s happy to go home every night to Cherry (Pamela Gidley, “hot” off her turn in another giant of the 80s cult movie scene, Thrashin’), his top-of-the-line fembot. Although she’d definitely there to satisfy his hankering for hanky panky, the relationship between Sam and Cherry seems substantially more committed than is usual, something as close to love as you can expect from a man and his robot girl — not unlike those crazy Japanese guys who fall in love with and marry their anime hug pillows or favorite video game characters. Hey, Teleport City says, “whatever makes you happy, man.” And while Sam’s friends may wonder what he has against relationships with real women or how he can find fulfillment in the companionship of a robot, the fact is that he does.
At the same time, however, his relationship can hardly be called “healthy” in that it is sort of one-sided, the embodiment of the 1980s “me generation” ethos. While Sam seems happy, and Cherry is a computer that feels however she’s programmed to feel, the fact is Sam’s happy largely because he has a pre-programmed partner who is going to be totally satisfied with him no matter what he does. Thus, the relationship is ultimately only about Sam making himself feel better. Unfortunately, Sam soon discovers that Cherry — built to look and act like a human, including partaking in sexual intercourse — has one fatal flaw: no one thought to make her waterproof. Or even water resistant. While the happy couple are writhing about a pool of overflowing sink water, in the throes of clothed ecstasy, Cherry suffers a fatal short circuit. Which, at least for me, begs the unsavory question — how has Sam been cleaning his Cherry 2000 if even the slightest puddle of water causes her to explode?
Distraught Sam takes Cherry in to the local fembot repair shop but discovers that the Cherry model is just too advanced. Since society has largely collapsed, there’s no way to get parts to repair her anymore. The shop owner tries to interest Sam in a new model — just as lifelike, but not quite so state of the art. But proving once again that his relationship with Cherry, though unorthodox, was something more than that between a man and his sex doll, Sam refuses. He loves Cherry, after all, and he’ll only be happy with a model that can accept her memory disc. When he hears there’s a place somewhere out in the wasteland that might still have a stock of new Cherry bodies, he packs up and heads out of the relative safety of future Anaheim and toward the rough and tumble frontier. He’s been told to seek out a tracker named E. Johnson — the proverbial “best in the business.”
E. turns out to be Edith (a young Melanie Griffith with awesome red hair), proving that decades after it should have died, someone still thought the “but…you’re a girl!” gag was hilarious. Sam doesn’t believe that a woman could be a competent tracker. Plus he seems slightly squirmy around non-robot women, so he decides to seek help elsewhere. He meets a couple of would be trackers (one of whom is Brion James) who agree to take the job, or take him to Six-Finger Jake, the most legendary tracker of all time. But it turns out they’re just a couple of scam artists. Sam ends up hiring E. after all, so the two load up in her cherry red Mustang and head for the economical desert wasteland where all low budget post-apocalyptic movies spend most of their running time.
It turns out the “robot graveyard” requires they cross the most dangerous part of America, an area controlled by a ruthless warlord named Lester. OK, so it’s no “Lord Humongous,” but since Lester is played by Tim Thomerson, there’s no worries. Lester and E. both suffer from the same basic problem — the “informed attribute.” That’s when a character in a movie is put forth as having some particular trait or skill — “he/she is the best of the best” — despite the fact that the movie never once shows us anything to justify the claim. The character is “the best” because other characters keep talking about how good he/she is at whatever. In the case of Edith, we’re constantly told that she’s the second best tracker to ever work the wasteland — second only to the mysterious Six Fingered Jake. However, no matter how many times we’re told how great a tracker she is, Edith never does anything to show that she’s anything other than largely incompetent or that she could have ever survived more than an hour on her own out in the wasteland. From the very start of the journey, when she and Sam have to run a barricade set up by wasteland brigands, she seems to have no idea how to do anything. I mean, the barricade is a pile of stuff blocking a two-lane highway, manned by maybe half a dozen guys. She could just turn the headlights off and drive around it. The terrain off-road is flat and easy to navigate. Instead, she has to ram it head on while everyone shoots at the car. Everything else she does is accompanied by dialog where she says “I’ve done this dozens of times” then when asked if she knows what she’s doing, says “I’m making it up as I go.”
Similarly, Lester supposedly rules the wasteland with an iron fist, commanding an army of murderous thugs who prowl the desert roads in search of unlucky travelers who thought they could make it across Lester’s domain. But when we meet Lester, he’s a big goofball in a Hawaiian shirt, with maybe twenty guys at his disposal. How the heck do a few guys with an RV and an ice cream truck rule the entire American Southwest? It doesn’t matter, I guess. Cherry 2000 never really puts any sort of thought at all into the structure of the society it proposes. It mostly just throws things up on screen that the writer and director thought would be quirky. Lester, for instance, is obsessed with recreating the mythological idyllic existence of 1950s suburbia in the desert. So he and his men dress like they’re on their way to a backyard BBQ — which they frequently are. The women in his tribe are done up in cocktail dresses and pearls. Tim Thomerson’s character may not make a lick of sense, but he’s totally awesome regardless. I love Thomerson, and this is a role that lets him really ham it up and go all out. But amid all that silliness, there really is something kind of creepy about him, like realizing your jovial, friendly suburban neighbor who, during some innocuous BBQ, leads you down into his basement, where he has a bunker full of weapons and is planning for the coming race war.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Melanie Griffith looks fantastic but is totally unconvincing as a tough as nails wasteland tracker. She turns in what might be the worst performance in a career that is pretty much defined by worst performances. David Andrews is bland but adequate. The chemistry that supposedly develops between him and Griffith is another of the film’s many “informed attributes,” because it’s certainly not communicated on screen. Robert Z’Dar shows up briefly wearing really disturbing booty shorts, and fans of direct to video action and sci-fi fare might be left wondering, as I was, why you’d bother to hire someone as distinctive as Robert Z’Dar then have him be little more than a background extra. Pam Gidley is supposed to be a vacant representation of a humanoid robot and, if nothing else, she does that well. In fact, outside of Griffith’s truly terrible (though still somehow endearing) performance, this movie is filled with seasoned vets and character actors who do a proper job of delivering a totally silly movie.
The direction by relative newcomer Steve De Jarnatt is solid enough. Unlike more recent directors who are new to the job, he doesn’t overcompensate for his inexperience by cramming the movie full of gratuitous, meaningless editing and camera tricks (and CGI, but that wouldn’t have been an option in 1986 regardless). Instead, he just points the camera in the right direction, keeps everything in focus, and lets the rest of the movie do its job. Screenwriter Michael Almereyda went on to a career that garnered him a few awards, mostly for his work on arthouse vampire film Nadja and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Cherry 2000 finds him on his first big gig, and his screenplay is full of offbeat, interesting idea that are never fully baked. If he can call me up and tell me some day what the hell was going on during the crane scene, I’d appreciate it.
Cherry 2000 is a sloppy movie with very little internal logic, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun time. Despite never really coming together into a cohesive whole, it still has a lot of fun ideas and tries, with varying success, to insert a few speculative thoughts and ideas about modern/future society and human relationships into the mix, and I admire its ambition. Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to roll with it. Once you get to the mildly infamous crane scene, the movie becomes so nonsensical, the actions on screen so impossible to decipher (just what the hell is going on in that scene anyway? Who controls the crane? Why is anyone …oh, to hell with it), that you realize you’re better off throwing up your hands and surrendering to the film’s goofball charms. At least, that’s what I did, and I was pretty happy with the results. And even if it’s impossible to figure out exactly what’s going on during that scene, the stunt work performed during it is utterly fantastic. Oh, for the days when you could pay an actual human to dangle from an actual car suspended from an actual crane over an actual ravine.