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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Who? (aka RoboMan)

This British production was released in the UK in late 1973 with the title, Who?. The German release has the title Der Mann Aus Metall. It was released in the US in August of 1975 with the title Roboman. The story is nominally a sci-fi, but largely a Cold War spy drama. Elliot Gould stars as the skeptical FBI man. Joseph Bova stars as the metal man who may or may not be the brilliant scientist. Trevor Howard stars as the devious soviet spy-master. The screenplay is based on the 1958 novel “Who?” by Algis Budrys, following it fairly closely. Roboman is sometimes compared to RoboCop, but it predates the more familiar RoboCop by over ten years. There are affinities to the more familiar Six Million Dollar Man, though both were made in the same year, (’73) so Roboman is not a plagiarism of 6M$M either. Besides,  the source novel was 1958.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Along the border West German border with East Germany, there is a fiery car crash. Soviet doctors saved Martino’s life, but to do so had to replace much of his body with robotic substitutes. After several months, the soviets send Martino back. He is picked up by American agents. Shawn Rogers of the FBI does not believe Martino’s story, suspecting he is a soviet spy pretending to be Martino. With the cloud of suspicion, Martino is not allowed to return to his super-secret work on Project Neptune. Instead, he goes through much interrogation. Flashbacks show how Martino underwent similar interrogation by soviet colonel Azarin — who wanted to break Martino (Manchuran Candidate style) and make him a spy so the soviets could learn about Neptune. Other flashbacks show Martino’s early career as a work-obsessed young man (squandering potential romances). These old flames become potential corroboration that Martion says who he says he is, though this proves to be unconvincing. A pair of gunmen try to shoot Martino while he’s boarding a plane. Even this proves nothing. Azarin could have staged a fake assassination attempt. The only other person who might know if he is the real Martino, was his Neptune colleague, Frank. But, he died in a crash a few months ago. Via flashback, we learn that Frank’s death was staged, that he is really in the Soviet Union. Azarin wants Frank to undergo the Robo-man implants/substitutions, and pretend to be Martino. Frank agrees. Back in the USA, Martino has given up trying to get his former life (and work) back. He takes up farming on the abandoned family farm. Flashback to Russia, reveals that Frank died. He was not mentally strong enough to accept his cyborg-ness. Since the time is up, the soviets must release the real Martino. Back in the USA, Rogers visits Martino on his farm. Rogers is convinced that Martino is the real Martino and he can have his Neptune job back. Martino declines. His post-release experiences have proven that he cannot resume that part of his life either. Instead, he will contribute to mankind by tilling the earth. Long zoom out. Cut to credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is the more cerebral aspect: questions about identity and just what, actually, defines who someone is. Lucas amounts to a cyborg — part human, part machine — though not much is made of this.

Cultural Connection
Durable Cold War — Budrys’ novel was written during the height of the Cold War. His novel predicted that the two supra-national sides would still be locked in Cold War games of cat and mouse into the mid 70s — the timeframe the novel is set in. Budrys was right. However, by the mid 70s, the Cold War had subsumed into more of a background constant than the anxious twitch that it was in the late 50s. The culture in general had become acculturated to the East vs. West status quo and begun to find new reasons for anxious twitches — environmentalism, pollution, overpopulation, etc. Yet, the old bogey man still had some life in him. The stalemate had become the status quo.

Dumas Meets the Manchurian — The fact that the lead character, Lucas, is always behind a metal mask, Roboman invites comparison to Alexandre Dumas’ “Man in the Iron Mask”. Where Dumas’ masked man was a twin of the king, Roboman could be Lucas, or his professional “twin” Frank. Mix into that a strong dash of The Manchurian Candidate — a westerner brainwashed and trained by the commies to infiltrate -- and you’ve got the gist of Roboman. The puzzle is to discover if he is a communist spy.

Who Is The REAL Mechanical Man? — An artful theme beneath the slow and talky story is one of humanity (freedom, etc.) vs.mechanical men. Yes, Lucas is the obvious mechanical man with his nuclear-powered heart pump and metal parts, but note how rather “mechanical” Lucas was before the accident. He was too obsessed with his work to have a real relationship with either of the pretty women who liked him (but sakes only knows what they saw in him). He was too work-obsessed to have any friends. Note, too, how rather mechanical Gould is as Rogers, the FBI man. He relentlessly refuses to accept that Lucas might be who he says he is. Rogers is equally obsessed with HIS job, and proving that Lucas is a spy. Ironically, it is Lucas as the metal man, who softens into a human. He resigns to his fate and solemnly embraces his new life as a bachelor farmer. Getting “back to the land” was a very noble thing in the mid 70s.

What’s In A Brain? — Like several prior sci-fi films, Roboman explores the line between natural humanity and artificial being. This goes back to Frankenstein, of course, and Lucas is a sort of cyborg Franken-thing. The film is also similar to 1959’s Colossus of New York in which a brilliant scientist is fatally injured in a car accident and his brain put into a robot body. This trope survives today too, showing up rather obviously in the sub-plot in “Star Trek, the Next Generation,” and Data’s regular quest of “be” human.

Bad Russian — While most of the film is marked with television-grade acting, a real stand out (and not in a good way) is Trevor Howard as the Russian Colonel Azarin. Howard was thoroughly British. Born in England, and almost always playing a stereotypic Englishman: Sir This, Lord That, or Colonel Something. For all his abilities as an actor, however, Howard could not produce a Russian accent. At times, he sounded somewhat less British (though clearly not Russian), but at other times, his native accent was quite obvious. This undercut the intended sinister angle, as a British accent just carries little malice in it.

Weak Directing? — A criticism Roboman gets as a film, is that it was poorly directed. Granted, Jack Gold’s directing was often tame — many times relying on a single-point fixed camera. This gives the film more of a made-for-TV feel. Gold had done quite a bit of directing for TV productions prior to this, so this look-and-feel may be understandable. TV producers have little interest in artistic views. Just get the thing shot and in the can. Yet, Gold went to some directorial lengths in Roboman. Note how in the flashbacks of Lucas’ life, he only shown in a first-person POV. The camera IS Lucas. We never see his pre-Roboman face. There are some other near-far depth shots which read well.

Fingerprints? — Some wonder why the FBI doesn’t just check Lucas’s fingerprints instead of all the machinations and guessing. Lucas himself offers this. Rogers said they already did. “The Arm is Lucas Martino’s. The arm can go anywhere it wants. It’s the rest of you we’re not sure about.”

Bottom line? Roboman is more of a thinking film. It is not an action film in any real way. A couple of lame car chases and crashes are about it, and they’re mild. The acting is flat and the cinematography somewhat flat too. This won’t be a film that gets recommended to friends: “Oh, you gotta see this movie…” But, for people who like to explore the more philosophical threads, there are a few for the musing.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Excellent review. Adding this one to the must-see list.