Written by John Hill
Directed by Allan Arkush
In my Retro Review for R.U.R., I name-checked Heartbeeps as one of the many movies made about robots. It occurred to me later that probably a lot of our readers have never heard of that particular cinematic extravaganza, and no wonder. It’s an odd little film, a cinematic slip born of cargo-cult scriptwriting and bad judgement, and it began and ended Andy Kaufman’s movie career.
The year was 1980. Star Wars had kicked outer space and sci-fi (okay, space opera) into high gear. Suddenly, you couldn’t turn around for spaceships, blasters, robots, and all the other accoutrements of the typical space movie. At Universal Pictures, they were pondering the possibility of taking comedian and performance-artist-before-we-had-that-word Andy Kaufman and using him in movies. There was concern, however, over whether or not he could, in fact, carry a movie himself. And so, Heartbeeps was created.
Heartbeeps is the story of two robots, Val (Kaufman): a personal valet with a specialty in lumber commodities, and Aqua (Bernadette Peters): a hostess designed for entertaining at poolside parties, which is apparently enough of a specialty to warrant its own model. The two robots, having both been sent back to the factory for maintenance, watch a sunset together and somehow manage to fall in love. They decide to run away together into the woods out beyond the factory, accompanied by a comedian robot named Catskill (voiced by Jack Carter).
A quick side note for those of you who don’t get the “Catskill” reference: back in the not-so-good-old-days, Jewish people were routinely barred from social clubs, pools, vacation resorts, etc. A group of resorts in the Catskill mountains arose, catering particularly to Jewish guests, primarily from the New York City area. These “Borscht Belt” hotels, as they were called, served as early training ground for lots of comedians including Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, The 3 Stooges, Rodney Dangerfield, and Milton Berle, who is credited with “Catskill’s” jokes.
Anyway, the three of them take off in a stolen truck and drive off into the woods under cover of darkness, with Val doing the old I-can-drive-just-fine bit. You know the one: where a character brags about how good they are at driving, and then immediately crash into something. In this case, there is an offscreen screech of tires and stock crash sound effect (they couldn’t afford to show the wreck, apparently). We later see them with the van stuck in the middle of the woods, with no road in sight. So where did the screeching tires come from?
Meanwhile, back at the factory, the two employees who were meant to be keeping an eye on the robots (Max and Charlie, played by Kenneth McMillan and Randy Quaid(!)) have been charged with retrieving the runaways. Unknown to them, a faulty CrimeBuster™ Deluxe Model (voiced by Ron Gans), in the repair shop for being overly enthusiastic in the weaponry department, overhears them and concludes it has been selected to hunt them down. It tears off into the woods, narrating its way along. It does this through the entire picture, and gets old about as quickly as you’d think.
Val and Aqua scrap the van to assemble a little baby robot to carry the rest of the salvage for them. This little critter, named Phil, is obviously meant to be the “cute” one of the group. Someone was angling for action figures, here, but it never came to pass. One interesting note about Phil is that the voice is performed by none other than Jerry Garcia, “playing” the robot’s burbles and coos on his guitar. Garcia was a friend of the director Allan Arkush, with whom he’d worked before (on Deathsport, 1978).
Anyway. Charlie and Max manage to track down the van, and begin to comb the woods, searching for the robots. Phil gets lost, then found again. Val finds a cave with a bear in it, attempts to reason with it, and gets thrown out on his ear. Then, Charlie and Max (who have by now switched to a helicopter) scare the bear away, freeing the robots to use the cave. That night, they sneak into a nearby town and raid a hardware store, looking for backup energy packs. Unfortunately, there aren’t any in stock, which is bad news for them, because they’re getting close to needing a recharge. On the way out, they are accosted by CrimeBuster (never mind how he got there), but pull a Captain Kirk confuse-the-computer paradox on him, and escape while he’s flailing about in confusion.
Hey, kids! Do you recognize the significance of the license plate number? No peeking, now!
They sneak into a party, joining the robot servers and hiding out until CrimeBuster tracks them down again and trashes the place. Fleeing into the woods again, the robots stumble upon a junkyard. They immediately set to scavenging, looking for spare batteries. They are accosted by the owners, Susan and Calvin (played by Melanie Mayron and Christopher Guest, respectively, and named after the recurring Susan Calvin character in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot books), who decide that the robots are welcome to stick around and see if they can find anything of use.
Unfortunately, CrimeBuster shows up yet again, and goes into full-on attack mode, bullets and flamethrower blasting away but still not managing to hit the robots as they shuffle around like retirees at a Wal-Mart. Susan and Calvin jump him from behind, and shut him down. After discussing Phil’s future with the junkyard duo, the robots decide to head back to the factory so they can upgrade Phil with a purpose.
Unfortunately, everyone’s energy packs are running down fast. Catskill winds up swapping his power cell with Phil’s, which is nearly empty. This would be a very touching and moving scene, if it wasn’t for the fact that powering down is clearly a temporary measure, and all it will take is a battery charge to have him good as new. Still, you take your moments where you can get them.
Aqua and Val get within sight of the factory before their batteries, too, finally give out. Charlie and Max managed to track the depowered robots down, and haul them back to the factory as Phil watches from its hiding place.
Some weeks later, we are back at the factory. Charlie and Max talk about how they tried to get the robots working properly after their little escapade, but they kept malfunctioning and getting sent back. Eventually, we hear, they got scrapped. Sure enough, back at the junkyard, Val and Aqua have been reassembled by Susan & Calvin, and are in full Ozzie and Harriet mode, complete with a new “girl” robot under construction. Ah, but all is not well! CrimeBuster, having survived his memory wash, strikes out once again to track them down.
Probably the worst thing about this movie, aside from its many, many failures, is the effect it had on Kaufman’s career. He and collaborator Bob Zmuda had been pitching studios with The Tony Clifton Story, a biopic of Kaufman’s abrasive alter-ego. The failure of Heartbeeps, which made back less than a quarter of its roughly $10 million price tag, pretty much put that project to bed for good. This is particularly a shame, as Kaufman cannot really be blamed for the majority of the film’s shortcomings.
First, there’s the dialog. Computer-savvy people will be familiar with that wince-inducing moment when someone uses a bit of technical jargon that they A) clearly have no idea what it means, and/or B) are desperately using to sound “high tech”. Sadly, John Hill’s script has a lot of this. Early on, we get stunning bits of dialogue like:
“We would be mechanically compatible for many similar functions.”
“The same thought has crossed my grid.”
Somehow the dialogue manages to sound extremely artificial and stilted even taking into account that it is written for mechanical people.
Sadly, the humans’ dialogue isn’t always a lot better. Most the the humans at least sound like humans most of the time, but Susan & Calvin fall into the same jargon-y trap. When they discover the robots in their junkyard, Susan says, “These friendly robots are obviously not mischievous trespassers.” This awkward line is delivered in the most awkward way possible. I have to say Ms. Mayron delivers most of her dialogue this way. I suspect this is more down to direction than lack of ability, as Mr. Guest is darned near as bad, and I know he can do better.
Then there’s the general tone of the thing. It tries to be a comedy, a romance, an adventure, and sci-fi all rolled into one, but never can get the tone correct. CrimeBuster is a “wacky” malfunctioning robot, but heavily armed and dangerous in a very real way. Humorous (you should pardon the expression) moments are punctuated with sound effects (boings, rimshots, etc) on the off-chance you didn’t realize something was meant to be funny (admittedly a very real danger with this film). Then there’s the carelessness with which the film is put together: the majority of it consists of the actors wandering aimlessly through the woods and back again, with entire sequences that really bring nothing to the story but running time.
Then there are moments like when the two robots check their battery power levels: we get a shot of Val’s battery charger clearly showing 9% charge followed immediately by him saying he’s at 34% capacity. Aqua’s response is similarly off-the-mark. It makes one wonder if anyone was paying attention during the editing process (the movie was cut down to a mere 79 minutes after Universal was appalled by the initial cut).
Not to say there aren’t a couple of interesting bits here and there. The banter of the humans at the factory (a division of General Motors Robotics, we find out, complete with 80’s style jumpsuits) is not too bad. John Williams’ soundtrack is not at all bad, and Stan Winston’s makeup for the robot characters was one of the few aspects of the film that were generally acclaimed. There are also a few scenes that hint at what the film might have been: this reviewer’s personal favorite, in which CrimeBuster barrels through the woods, blasting things at random while singing “America the Beautiful”, brings a brief moment of black humor and an altogether more intriguing tone. Sadly, it doesn’t last.
It’s interesting to go back and watch this again (yours truly having seen it as a child) and note how much of it was done around appealing to children. The characters were clearly designed with toys in mind, and the end of the movie–with the new arrival in the robot “family” and CrimeBuster heading out to track them down once again–is so obviously setting itself up for a sequel that will never come. It’s almost kind of endearing, really. Like a one-legged puppy growling at a mountain lion: you have to admire its spirit, but it hasn’t got a chance in hell.
The fallout has been fairly mixed: the film is a lifetime member of the Rotten Tomatoes 0% club, joining such cinematic luminaries as Mars Needs Women, The Dorm That Dripped Blood, Leprechaun 2, and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Kaufman and Peters carried on with their television work, screenwriter Hill went on to write for Quantum Leap, and director Arkush has kept busy, again mainly with TV projects. The Tony Clifton Story never happened, of course, but Andy carried on with his role in Taxi and his standup and his wrestling career and everything else until cancer took him in 1984.
Heartbeeps was a brief blip in the careers of most who were involved with it. It serves as an example of the dangers of poor planning, scripting to demographics, and poor vehicle selection for up-and-coming talent. It involved a lot of very talented people coming together in what is, essentially, an absolute mess. It just goes to show you that there are no guarantees in Hollywood, no matter how much talent you bring to the table.
Heartbeeps takes R.U.R.‘s idea of humanoid robots falling in love, and runs with it. Sadly, it runs it straight into a wall, but the idea itself doesn’t suffer; it’s strong enough to survive, and find its way to other, better iterations.
(Kelly Luck still can’t believe she remembered the weasel joke after all these years. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)