Do Androids Dream of Companionship? Heartbeeps Says Affirmative

Not every graduate of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking had a soft landing when they left the nest. For every Joe Dante, who followed his New World hit Piranha with the groundbreaking werewolf film The Howling, there’s a James Cameron, who went from working in the studio’s art department to being fired from directing Piranha II: The Spawning (weirdly, not for New World). Then there’s Allan Arkush, who was Dante’s co-director on Hollywood Boulevard and went solo on Rock ’n’ Roll High School. When he left New World, it was to make the sci-fi family film Heartbeeps for Universal, a tantalizing opportunity to step up to the big leagues.

For starters, producer Michael Phillips was an Academy Award winner (for The Sting) whose most recent credits included Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Taxi Driver. Arkush also secured the services of composer John Williams, editor Tina Hirsch (a fellow New World vet), and visual effects specialist Albert Whitlock, whose career stretched back five decades. The ace up his sleeve, however, was Stan Winston, whose special makeup effects earned Heartbeeps its only Oscar nomination. (That it lost the first Best Makeup award is nothing to be ashamed about, since the winner was Rick Baker for An American Werewolf in London.)

Winston’s brief was to transform stars Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters into “Com-series” units from General Motors Robotics Inc. (The year isn’t specified, but the setting is clearly the not-too-distant future, when product placement is possible because the brands are still the same.) Described by Vincent Canby in his New York Times review as looking “formidably uncomfortable,” Winston’s makeup has the effect of limiting the actors’ movements as well their expressiveness, but since the story is about two robots slowly revealing the depths of their feelings for each other, this actually works to a degree.

When he’s introduced, Kaufman’s ValCom 17485 is being placed in storage in a GM warehouse while awaiting minor repairs. Before the opening titles are over, he’s joined by Peters’s AquaCom 89045 and they watch the sunset together. She’s programmed for poolside chitchat, so her first attempt at small talk sails over Val’s head (he’s more versed in lumber and the stock market), but over time they figure out how to relate in a meaningful way. “We would be mechanically compatible for many similar functions,” Val observes, to which Aqua replies, “The same thought just crossed my grid.” Their dialogue continues in this mode for the balance of the film; they spend little time in the company of humans, so there’s no opportunity to learn how to speak in a less-stilted manner, as when John Connor gives the T-800 language lessons in Terminator 2. Their traveling companions provide some variety, though.

The first to join their unsanctioned field trip to the edge of woods (for the purpose of collecting data) is cigar-chomping comedian Catskil 55602, who rattles off a stream of corny jokes provided by Henny Youngman. Later, Val and Aqua create a robot to carry their spare parts and name it Phil, then argue about who should be responsible for looking after it. And in hot pursuit of the renegade robots is the trigger-happy, tank-like Crimebuster Deluxe 00719, the antics of which play less like satire and more like an accurate reflection of modern policing methods.

As characters, the humans in Heartbeeps seem like afterthoughts, revealing the limits of screenwriter John Hill’s world-building. Randy Quaid and Kenneth McMillan play GM employees tasked with finding the runways (with Dick Miller as the watchman who notices they’re missing and may, in fact, be another incarnation of Walter Paisley). Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel appear briefly as the host and one of the guests of a party Crimebuster crashes in its overzealous pursuit. And Christopher Guest and Melanie Mayron are a couple who run the junkyard where the robots wind up. That’s also where they have their big showdown with Crimebuster, which goes down in defeat, but Heartbeeps ends how it began, with the militaristic menace monologuing as it commits acts of wanton destruction – a sure sign of studio tinkering.

Hopes may still have been high for Heartbeeps in the halls of Universal since it was given a Christmas release, as referenced in the Catskil-narrated trailer. The film bombed at the box office, though, and was nominated in six categories by the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, which was in existence from 1978 to 2006, yet somehow this is the first I’ve heard of them. (Also up for six Stinker Awards that year: Michael Mann’s Thief.) Chastened by its reception, Arkush was determined to do something more personal, developing a film around his memories of working at the Fillmore East. What was intended as a straight period piece came out the other end of the process as the raucous rock ’n’ roll comedy Get Crazy – a spiritual sequel to Rock ’n’ Roll High School – but at least he could be proud of the result.

“Heartbeeps” is available to rent or stream from the usual places.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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