Monday, June 19, 2017


Welcome to another installment of the TRASH BIN, where we watch the worst movies Hollywood has to offer, according to the critics, and give you our thoughts, good or bad. This week we take a look at a romantic comedy about robots, starring comedians Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters: 1981's HEARTBEEPS.

Heartbeeps comes from a time when America was in the middle of the Golden Age of Star Wars, and the popularity of George Lucas' juggernaut inspired a ton of other projects, of which Heartbeeps may be the weirdest. In an attempt at originality, Director Allan Arkush spares us yet another retread story of spaceships, laser guns and robots robotting in the usual way, with a story of two Companion robots who wander away from their factory and, bizarrely, fall in love. Sometimes a movie dares to be different and magic happens: the heavens open, the gods smile down, and a new timeless classic is born, to be watched and treasured by generations of movie lovers. And other times you get something like Heartbeeps.

It's hard to overstate just how badly this movie fails. The first scene, in which boy robot Val (Andy Kaufman) meets girl robot Aqua (Bernadette Peters) is so clunky and poorly edited that it's almost like you're being warned off the rest of the picture. In that first scene, the following things happen:
  • Val speaks. For some reason, Kaufman chose a voice that sounds like a bad imitation of Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Meatwad, only more nasally. Aqua at least sounds like a woman.
  • The sun sets. Three times, in three different places on the horizon.
  • Val and Aqua have a long conversation in excruciating robot-speak.
AQUA: My observation concerning the beauty of the sunset is an example of human charm.

VAL: Charm computes as an irrelevant exchange of random data. Therefore, it cannot increase efficiency.

I mentioned before that this movie is supposed to be a comedy. Not only are all of Aqua and Val's lines written this way, that sample above was one of the jokes. At least we're spared the agony of having to hear lines like this delivered in a choppy "I-am-a-ro-bot" monotone, but that doesn't make up for much.

If you've never seen this movie before, you can be forgiven a certain naive optimism. Surely this movie picks up later, right? Sorry to say, it doesn't. The entire story of this movie revolves around Val and Aqua wandering away from the factory because Val wants to study trees. They wander in the woods, make a baby (literally: they build the kid out of electronic scrap and parts of the van they stole), and don't really do much of anything until they decide to head back to the factory, only to have their batteries die just as they get in sight of the place. Their end is supposed to be sad and poignant, but, y'know ... they're machines, and batteries can be replaced. They'll be okay, folks.

Also, about those batteries: Val and Aqua wander in the woods for two full days and nights before their batteries run down, and they're moving around almost the entire time. You may insert your favorite joke about cell phone batteries here.

To try to create a plot where none exists, the film throws a number of distractions at us. After Val and Aqua are discovered missing, two factory employees are dispatched to retrieve them. Even though the robots spend most of their first night on the lam driving fast and aimlessly in their stolen van, their two human trackers will find the van almost immediately after sunrise. They will then completely fail to find the robots themselves, even after combing the woods in a helicopter, until the end of the movie.

Not content to leave the robot-hunting to humans, the movie also sees the fugitives pursued by Crimebuster, a robot who's like a cross between Robocop's ED-209 and one of Doctor Who's Daleks, and spouts more jingoistic patriotism than the hero in a 1980s action movie. Unlike the two humans, Crimebuster actually apprehends the runaways, only to be thwarted by a simple logic paradox: Robots cannot be criminals, and criminals cannot be robots. I should take the time to read Asimov's I, Robot so I can reference it in times like this.

Just to remind us that this dull, aimless escapade was supposed to be funny, Val and Aqua are accompanied by a robot named Catskill, who has the voice of a low-budget Rodney Dangerfield, and only speaks in bad jokes. And none of that is even the worst of it. In a nod to the rapidly accelerating pace of technological development in the early 1980s, the movie has the expected "these robots are scary advanced" moment. "Don't you realize how fast [these robots] can process data?" asks a young Randy Quaid as he waits for his big "Cousin Eddie" break. "They can process information at incredible speeds!" But then it gets silly. "These new models," Quaid continues, "they have circuitry that we don't even know how to use, yet! We're not even sure what they can do!" And to distract us from that engineering impossibility, another character makes his bid for the Stupidest Thing Ever Said about a Computer: "Who needs a contraption that can do a million operations in a second?" To which the modern world responds, "Uh, we do."

Heartbeeps very nearly didn't make the cut for a Trash Bin review. The movie isn't listed on Metacritic or, though Ebert, along with Gene Siskel, gave the movie a sound panning on their TV show Sneak Previews when the movie was first released. But it does have the dubious distinction of having a zero on Rotten Tomatoes, and that rating is richly deserved. Heartbeeps has good ideas for its time, but then completely fails to execute any of them well, or even at all. When it isn't boring, it's stupid, and when it isn't stupid, it's over. See this if you're into obscure movie trivia, as this is only the third and last time Andy Kaufman appeard in a feature film. Otherwise, just watch Star Wars, or any other robot-based movie, for that matter. Leave this one on the junk heap.

Heartbeeps is rated PG.

Rotten Tomatoes: 0% 
IMDb: 4.2/10
iTunes: 2.9/5


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