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.