HEARTBEEPS: The Little Robot Romantic Comedy That Couldn’t

As the 1970’s gave way to the 1980’s, a changeover was afoot in the American movie business.  The “New Hollywood” auteurist movement of the 1970’s and all the personal films that came with it were giving way to a professional, marketing-minded wave of blockbusters ushered in by the likes of Lucas and Spielberg.

A few last-gasp stabs at non-“event movie” self-expression limped out of the studios at the dawn of the 1980’s as the New Hollywood gave up the ghost.  Most were given cursory releases, abandoned by their studios to find followings on home video or cable.  A handful suffered the additional indignity of post-production tampering from their studios, who were starting to tailor all their fare for mass appeal, whether it was suited for such a treatment or not.

When Your Humble Reviewer thinks of films from this era that suffered the latter fate, Heartbeeps inevitably pops to mind.  This genre-bending sci-fi/romance/comedy was substantially re-edited at the eleventh hour by Universal, who cut ten minutes to make it faster and more “action-oriented.”  This made it the kind of cinematic curate’s egg that inspires vitriol from all corners of the movie-viewing community.  Even today, it gets withering reviews: check out this DVD review for proof.

It’s tough to say whether or not the missing ten minutes would have saved Heartbeeps because it’s a pretty tough sell, even with the commercial-minded reediting.  John Hill’s quirky yet heartfelt script chronicles the romance between two robots at a repair facility.  Val-Com 17485 (Andy Kaufman) is a finance expert ‘bot who takes notice of Aqua-Com 89045 (Bernadette Peters), a lovely “hostess” model who attempts to engage him with human-style warmth.

The two decide to escape and learn more about the countryside they see through the repair facility’s windows.  They take along CatSkil 5602 (Barry Diamond), a joke-telling entertainment ‘bot.  The trio begin to experience something approaching human emotions as they try to elude staffers from the repair place and Crime Buster, a malfunctioning droid with high-power artillery who has convinced himself that the robot escapees must be eliminated at all costs.

The finished product plays in a fast-paced but curious style, managing to deliver too much of some elements and not enough of others.  Crime Buster was bumped up to prominence in the re-editing, which unfortunately highlights that said character is little more than a plot device.  The frequent cutaways to his one-note antics are distracting.  Meanwhile, the major Val and Aqua storyline registers but feels like it has a few beats missing due to the streamlining the story was given.  This is a movie about characters, not action, and the reediting misses that point in a way that shortchanges the film on both the character and action forefronts.

The film has other problematic issues that weren’t caused by studio tampering.  John Hill’s script is suffused with a unusual brand of whimsy, a mixture of corny humor and unabashed emotionalism that is an acquired taste.  Also, Allan Arkush’s direction, while solid, is curiously bereft of the energy and personality that informed his work on Rock & Roll High School.  The end result feels like an extended length episode of Amazing Stories – and one of the more cutesy ones at that.

The aforementioned flaws make it easy to see why a lot of viewers are still driven to distraction by Heartbeeps.  However, it does have some worthy elements that its detractors often miss.  The relationship between Val and Aqua has a genuine, non-ironic  sweetness to it, mainly due to impressive performances by Kaufman and Peters.  They find the right blend of mannerisms and heart in their respective roles and share an offbeat chemistry that makes their love affair appealing in a very odd way.  As the end nears, the duo’s willingness to make sacrifices for each other is unexpectedly touching.

Heartbeeps offers some simpler pleasures for b-movie archaeologists.  For instance, there are a lot of impressive pre-CGI effects: Stan Winston’s character makeups for Val and Aqua look fantastic, the “baby robot” they have is done with impressive practical effects (plus the voice of Jerry Garcia, believe it or not) and Albert Whitlock supplies some lovely old-school matte effects.  There are also tons of familiar faces that will please Roger Corman fans: Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel all turn in fun cameos that give this feel of an overbudgeted New World Pictures release.

Ultimately, Heartbeeps is of limited interest because it’s too conceptually odd to have mass appeal and the post-production tweaking further dulls its charm.  It’s a misfire – but an interesting misfire if you have the patience for its distinctly twee brand of romanticism.  Whatever side of the equation you fall on, the film remains interesting as a conversation subject because of its New Hollywood-style blend of eccentricity and well-financed craftsmanship.

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