Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Android



Android (1982) Directed by: Aaron Lipstadt; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Don Opper, Brie Howard, Norbert Weisser, Crofton Hardester;
Available on DVD and Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

1982 was a landmark year for the sci-fi genre, including such notables as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner and Tron. One overlooked gem not likely to wind up on most lists is the low-budget Android, which was filmed in less than three weeks and released with little fanfare.  While volumes have been written about those other aforementioned films, Android has since faded into obscurity, and isn’t likely to be much more than a footnote in most examinations of 80s genre films.  Thanks to Netflix streaming, however, I had another chance to see a film that initially slipped through the cracks.

Android works, not because of an A-list cast, elaborate sets or heavy reliance on special effects, but primarily on the strength of its main character, Max 404, played with a wide-eyed, childlike zeal by Don Opper (who also co-wrote the screenplay).  Almost the entire movie takes place on a remote space station, and is confined to little more than a few constrictive sets.  We never get a real sense of how expansive the space station is but we see enough to establish a sense of time and place.  The other resident of the space station is Max’s creator Dr. Daniel played by Klaus Kinski.  Following his success with Max, Dr. Daniel strives to build the perfect android, indistinguishable from a human.  He’s on the verge of a breakthrough until the government pulls the plug on his experiments.  We soon learn that Max’s days are numbered, as Dr. Daniel works to build his successor. 


Max longs for companionship, isolated from Earth and cut off from human beings.  He’s especially fascinated by male/female relationships, and studies videos to learn about the intricacies of human courtship.  His hopes are answered one day when he responds to a distress call, surprised to hear a female voice on the other end -- the first woman he’s ever spoken to.  He provides clearance to dock with the station for repairs, unaware that she is one of three escaped fugitives.

With the exception of Crofton Hardester’s one-note performance as Mendes, there’s more complexity to the roles of the fugitives than what is normally expected.  Keller (Norbert Weisser) is relatively subtle as the man in the middle.  He’s clearly conflicted about taking advantage of Max’s hospitality.  Although he’s killed before, you can tell that it’s a distasteful thing for him, and you get a sense that he does only what he needs to do to survive.  This stands in sharp contrast to Mendes, who’s not averse to killing whoever happens to get in his way or using violence if it gets a point across.  It’s a credit to Weisser that he can convey this much information with little dialogue, in an essentially thankless, underwritten role.  The third fugitive, Maggie (Brie Howard), is perhaps the most conflicted of the three.  She’s in a relationship with Mendes that’s more physical than anything else.  Her motivations for being his girlfriend are apparently based in fear and supplication, rather than love.  She does not enjoy being used by the others for their own gain, and sees an innocence in Max that’s refreshing.  She actually seems to care about him, and wants to get out of this situation in one piece, but doesn’t want to use Max as a tool.

Dr. Daniel is probably the most under-utilized character in Android.  He only makes sporadic appearances throughout the film, leaving large gaps when he’s not present.  I suspect that this might be largely due to budgetary constraints rather than story limitations.  It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that they had to shoot Kinski’s scenes quickly, and they needed to stretch out what little they had along the film’s running time.  Thankfully, the scenes without Kinski are not mere filler.  He’s not really missed, because the central focus is on Max, as we get a chance to learn about his attempts to understand what it means to be human.  At the same time, Dr. Daniel seems to have lost his own humanity.  He becomes incensed when he discovers that Max took his own initiative to allow other humans to enter the space station.  His desire to get rid of the fugitives takes an abrupt about-face when he learns that one of the three is a woman, and realizes that Maggie can serve his own purposes.  She is a means to end.  He appears to have no use for anyone unless they can do something for him.  Certainly his intentions for his newest creation, Cassandra One, are less than noble or selfless.


Android takes familiar elements that are as old as the sci-fi genre itself, and makes them seem fresh.  Some themes, such as the creator and his responsibility to his creation, go back to Frankenstein.  Max’s quest to become more human has been explored through numerous angles, from Pinocchio to the various iterations of Star Trek, but it is Don Opper’s interpretation of Max that breathes new life into a tired idea.  In one brief scene, he watches a clip of the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, another creation that has taken on a life of its own.  Android was never intended to impress with loads of eye candy, revolutionary concepts, or Academy Award-caliber performances, but it succeeds in the quieter, reflective moments.


 

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