Retrospective

40 years ago, one sci-fi thriller beat The Twilight Zone at its own game

This cheesy ‘80s movie defies expectations.

You tend to know what you’re getting with an early ‘80s sci-fi from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Recycled sets which look as if they’ve been, and sometimes were, assembled from discarded McDonald’s packaging. Shameless full-frontal nudity, always of the female kind, obviously. And a narrative that blatantly takes cues from recent genre hits (usually Star Wars).

Directed by Corman protégé Aaron Lipstadt, Android (celebrating its 40th anniversary on Oct 16) adheres to all these unwritten rules. Its space station setting borrowed from Forbidden World and Galaxy of Terror, pretty much giving James Cameron another early production designer credit as a result. Even with a family-friendly PG rating it still managed to sneak in a naked woman, while Don Keith Opper based his robot on C-3PO. Yet it also posed the type of existential questions more synonymous with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky than the masters of schlock. What exactly does it mean to be human, for example? And can artificial intelligence ever be truly capable of love?

Clocking in at an economical 80 minutes and with a daring last-minute twist that genuinely pulls the rug out from beneath the feet, Android essentially beat the following year’s The Twilight Zone: The Movie to the punch. Funnily enough, Norbert Weisser, one of only five cast members with a speaking part, showed up as a German soldier in John Landis’ ill-fated segment.

Weisser plays Keller, who alongside Brie Howard’s Maggie and Crofton Hardester’s Mendes, has escaped from a broken-down prison transport ship millions of miles away from Earth in the distant future of 2036, ruthlessly killing everyone else inside in the process. Posing as crew members, the fugitives then hitch a ride on a space station populated by just two individuals: Dr. Daniel (Klaus Kinski), a crazed scientist determined to create the ultimate robot, and Max 404 (Opper), his first prototype.

Dr. Daniel (Klaus Kinski) putting finishing touches to the ultimate A.I.New World Pictures

Max isn’t your typical android. He looks and talks like a human. He’s obsessed with 20th-century pop culture – one of the film’s most memorable scenes finds him drawing parallels with his own situation and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis while listening to James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World.” He also appears to be in a permanent state of horniness: we first see him watching an extremely primitive form of porn (computerized line drawings of a man and woman getting it on). He even manages to charm Maggie into bed without revealing his A.I. status.

Unfortunately, Max’s maker also thinks with his manhood. In fact, Daniel plans to dispose of his first creation once he’s activated Cassandra One (Kendra Kirchner). In another example of the film’s questionable sexual politics, he even asks Maggie to link herself up for stimulative purposes, an offer she understandably refuses (“That's the weirdest line for getting into my pants that I've ever heard.”)

Where all the madness happens.New World Pictures

Kinski, of course, could play the unhinged madman in his sleep. But like the rest of the movie, he’s unusually low-key here, only ever reaching his default wild-eyed mode when Max turns against the doctor in the final scene. Perhaps this was down to the rare lack of behind-the-scenes tensions. The German was renowned for his bust-ups with Werner Herzog, while the crew of 1986’s horror Crawlspace became so enraged with his antics that they allegedly plotted his murder. Surprisingly, he appeared to have actively enjoyed the Android experience.

“I thought it was a clever little movie,” the actor reportedly said. “It is the first movie I’ve done that children might like,” he added about a film that contains domestic violence, sex robots, and decapitated heads.

Whatever the reason, Kinski’s relatively restrained performance adds to Android’s slightly disorientating vibes. However, it’s undoubtedly Opper’s film. The man who’d become a staple of the Critters franchise forewent a credit – in a move later copied by 2002 Hollywood satire S1M0NE, Android pretends its A.I. lead is playing themselves – to maintain the illusion. And his character is an intriguing one to get a hold of.

Max 404 could hardly be described as cutesy comic relief. After all, he has no qualms about blowing up a visiting police cruiser to protect his guests in the full knowledge they’re all hardened criminals. However, there’s still a playfulness (see the mild pranks played on the doctor’s dinner with Maggie) and innocence (he has to research the meaning of a ‘date’) lurking within his programming which leaves you hoping he can escape the clutches of his evil master before it’s too late.

Keller and Mendes perhaps wondering if they should have stayed in prison.New World Pictures

Interestingly, two of the three prisoners possess a similar moral ambiguity. Keller may have just helped slaughter an entire crew in an unconvincing shoot-em-up, but as shown by his unwillingness to dispatch with Daniel and Max, he still has some form of conscience. Mendes, on the other hand, is a ridiculous brute who can’t take more than two steps around the creaky sets without attempting to smash someone’s face in.

Of course, all three get their fatal comeuppance. Keller is murdered by Mendes, proving mankind doesn’t need a robot uprising to destroy itself. Maggie is offed not by her odious other half as first suspected but by a spurned Daniel (toxic masculinity is well and truly alive in deep space). While Max is reprogrammed into killing machine mode to take care of Mendes.

Luckily, Max finds enough agency to thwart Daniel from molesting the now-activated yet resisting Cassandra. Then comes the twist Rod Serling would have been proud of. The two subservients rip the head off their creator, revealing he’s very much a cyborg, too. A quick-thinking change of clothes later and the two rebels head toward the planet Max 404 has obsessively watched on screen. “We are not meant to be governed by the whims of men,” declares Cassandra in a feminist zinger almost as unexpected as Daniel’s true identity.

No doubt some viewers were disappointed by the lack of a straight-forward goodies-versus-baddies narrative. No one puts on a Corman production to challenge their cerebral cortex. But while it still has its problems — and occasionally problematic moments — Android should be applauded for daring to enter “another dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”