Part 9: Flesh And Fantasy
From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, a number of films explored the borders between artificial intelligence and the human mind, and considered the implications of machines that could think, and even surpass the abilities of the humans that built them. But what of the body? Where Colossus, HAL, and others suggested that our brains might become outmoded instruments, the notion of machines able to imitate the human body lagged behind, at least for a while. Yet once androids found their way into movies, it became hard to shake the possibilities they raised, or their implications. This trope ranges from humor to horror across three of the era’s films, beginning with the campy AIP cheapie Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine.
Dr. Goldfoot wasn’t the first film to touch on a robot that’s so human, it can’t be distinguished from them. Like most cinematic tropes, this one has many sources, not the least of them Fritz Lang’s 1927 landmark Metropolis. There, the character Maria (Brigitte Helm) is supplanted by a robot double (or “maschinenmensch”) whose impersonation of her undermines her activities as a labor organizer. The pretense is only exposed in the climax, when fire burns away its flesh covering, revealing the metal beneath. Yet in the history of robots on film, Maria’s double remained an outlier for decades. The years that followed produced clanking metal movie men in abundance, but few that could walk among humanity unnoticed.
That wasn’t true elsewhere. In short stories and in his Robot and Foundation book series, Isaac Asimov kept working and reworking the theme with a good deal of sympathy toward the robots. Science and philosophy picked up the notion, too, inspired in part by Alan Turing’s 1950 paper “Computing Machinery And Intelligence,” which pushed forward the question of whether machines could think, in part through the first variation of the now-famous Turing Test. (Boiled down to its essence: If a conversation with a computer can not be distinguished from a conversation with a human, the answer is “yes.”) And in 1964, Abraham Lincoln walked among us again.
Walt Disney’s contribution to the 1964 World’s Fair was nothing less than the reincarnation of his hero, Abraham Lincoln, who, in the form of a robot, walked to a podium and delivered an address cobbled together from bits and pieces of the real Lincoln’s famous speeches. Lincoln wasn’t the only Disney robot in attendance. As Time noted in its cover story on the Fair, “Disney’s realistic robots, in fact, stalk the fair. Pepsi-Cola has about 350 of them, doll-size, flanking a boat ride that children seem to like more than anything else.” “The dolls,” the article continues, “sing an original tune about the cohesion of the peoples of the world.” That song, of course, is “It’s A Small World,” but the chirpy, multinational children united in singing it were closer to puppets than robots. Not so Mr. Lincoln, whose combination, per Time again, of “steel, aluminum, gold, brass, soft epidermal plastic, air tubes, fluid tubes, pneumatic and hydraulic valves” gave attendees the first glimpse at what an android might look like, albeit one whose ability to inspire didn’t come with an accompanying ability to think for itself. (RoboLincoln reprised the act at both Disneyland and Disney World in the years to come.) It was a modest imitation of life, but an inspiring one, the sort that got people thinking.
Released a year after Lincoln’s first appearance at the World’s Fair, Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine offered a different variation on the android, one far removed from Disney’s ennobling Lincoln. A product of the drive-in-fare specialists of American International Pictures, it was the company’s attempt to expand its teen-comedy empire into new territory. By then, AIP was six films deep into its Beach Party series; perhaps sensing it was wearing out the setting, if not the formula, the company started to expand. 1964’s Pajama Party moved the action, and the recurring characters, indoors. 1965’s Ski Party offered an entirely different set of characters, even though one of them was played by Beach Party regular Frankie Avalon, who co-starred in the film alongside sitcom star Dwayne Hickman. Avalon played Todd Armstrong. Hickman played Craig Gamble. A few months after Ski Party hit theaters, Hickman and Avalon co-starred in Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine. This time, Avalon played Craig Gamble, and Hickman played Todd Armstrong.
All of which suggests how quickly AIP turned out movies and how not-seriously the studio, and moviegoers, took those movies. Here’s another one, more or less like the last one, full of unashamedly corny gags, attractive stars and, if you’re lucky, a great song or two. Directed by Norman Taurog, who was near the end of his career (he was a Best Director Academy Award winner whose fascinating filmography stretches from the silent era through long stints working with Martin & Lewis and Elvis Presley), Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine is both weirder and lazier than the usual AIP fare. Weirder because it’s a hodgepodge parody of spy movies made at the height of James Bond’s first wave of big-screen popularity. Lazy because it simply slaps together a few ideas and executes them in the cheapest, least-imaginative ways imaginable.
Vincent Price plays Dr. Goldfoot, who might be considered a send-up of Goldfinger’s villain if he resembled him in any way but name. Mostly, Price sends up himself, playing a less-tortured, more cartoonish version of the sort of character he played in AIP’s great cycle of Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. There’s even a threatening pendulum, in case anyone missed the point. His lair looks like it was (and probably actually was) assembled from the leftover bits of past AIP horror movies set in dungeons. Avalon’s Craig is ostensibly a spy in training, albeit one working out of a cramped office better suited to an aspiring CPA. Hickman’s Todd is a millionaire playboy. Les Baxter provides the swinging music, Art Clokey the title sequence, and The Supremes somehow got drafted into supplying the title song. (“Beware the man / with the machine!”) It appears to have been churned out cheerily, but most definitely churned out.
Yet there are growing seeds in its central plot, which finds the nefarious Dr. Goldfoot attempting to take over the world (or something) by using beautiful androids to seduce the world’s richest men. These include Todd, who falls hard for “Diane,” an android played by Susan Hart (the wife of AIP co-founder James Nicholson). Programmed to speak in many different accents (though no one apparently gave Hart the same programming), she’s ostensibly a master of disguise and seduction. She marries Todd, then drives him mad by withholding sex while flouncing around in frilly night garments and asking him to sign away his fortune. She’s part of a small army of robot women to emerge from the titular bikini machine, which gives the movie many excuses to parade nubile young cast members in front of the camera, letting viewers puzzle over the mechanics of the machinery that makes them undulate. (Note 1: This robot army includes future Land Of The Giants star Deanna Lund. Note 2: The film was originally intended as a musical, and its songs later resurfaced as part of the 30-minute TV special` The Wild Weird World Of Dr. Goldfoot. Note 3: Though Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine didn’t do great business in the U.S., it took off in Italy, prompting a Rome-set sequel, Dr. Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs, directed by the overqualified Mario Bava and involving robotic seductresses with explosive devices in their navels. It is both livelier and worse than the original.)
Could Diane have followed through on her promise of sex? The film never answers the question, and eventually, the leads give up wondering too. “Let’s get out of here!” Todd shouts at Craig as they flee Goldfoot’s lair. “What about Diane?” Craig says. Todd answers, “Forget about Diane! Come on!” And yet the question lingered, and the next time androids enjoyed a high-profile showcase in Michael Crichton’s Westworld, it became part of the foreground. Part of the pleasure of Delos, the amusement park/pleasure palace that serves as Westworld’s setting, comes from having sex with robots. In these and other films, sex is at the center of the question of what divides humans from robots. And yet sex doesn’t provide the answer to that question. Westworld treats its robots as slaves, and in time, the slaves rebel. In the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, husbands blithely replace their wives with robots with healthy appetites for sex (and housework), and seem happier for the substitution.
Scripted by William Goldman from a bestselling novel by Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives is rather transparently an attempt to say something important about what it meant to be a woman in 1975. Katharine Ross stars as Joanna, who, as the movie opens, leaves New York for a life in the affluent Connecticut suburb of Stepford with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson). Having “messed a bit with Women’s Lib back in New York,” she grows bored of suburban life, but befriends Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), a fellow reluctant housewife who takes a similarly jaded view of their shared suburban paradise. Attempting to break the pattern of boredom, and maybe push the cause of womanhood further a bit, they arrange consciousness-raising sessions with their fellow wives, only to watch them devolve into shared cleaning tips. Then they grow suspicious that something sinister is happening.
That’s because something sinister is happening. Specifically, the men of Stepford, whose ranks include a Disneyland veteran, have had enough with the demands of flesh-and-blood wives, and have opted for robotic fantasy models to take their place. In time, the conspiracy becomes inescapable even for Joanna, who, in the film’s climax, encounters her doppelgänger, a not-quite-finished version of herself with black marbles where her eyes ought to be. It’s one of a handful of chilling moments in the film, directed with great solemnity by Bryan Forbes, who treats the cruelty of the Stepford men—who want to shut down any impulse toward independence in the cruelest, most self-serving way possible—as absolute and monolithic.
At the time, The Stepford Wives drew complaints that Forbes’ direction worked against the wit of Goldman’s script, and there’s some truth to that. But a funnier film might also have been less memorable. It also drew complaints from viewers it seemed designed to please. Under the headline “Feminists Recoil At Film Designed To Relate To Them,” a February 1975 article in The New York Times offered an account of a disastrous screening designed to spread word-of-mouth about the film among prominent feminists. Followed by an “awareness session,” the evening was hosted by Diary Of A Mad Housewife screenwriter Eleanor Perry, whose opening remarks, anticipating the Bechdel Test and other issues, included, “Finally, a movie that is not about two guys and their adventures. […] I wonder if filmmakers know they may be shutting off half their audience with that kind of film—women who may not want to go to ‘two guy’ pictures.” But Perry’s enthusiasm wasn’t infectious. Calling the movie a “rip-off of the women’s movement,” Betty Friedan walked out. This set the tone for an evening that found one participant despairing, “It confirms every fear we’ve ever had about the battle of the sexes, and it says there is no way for people to get together and lead human lives.”
Elsewhere, in The Village Voice, Molly Haskell echoed their complaints, seeing it as a square take on the issue. “But the vision of perfection in a wife, and therefore in marriage, is so cartoonish,” she wrote, “so determinedly middle-brow, that it comes out more parody than parable, a comical slander of men in general and of the Connecticut branch of the breed in particular—and by the way, as a sort of backhand commendation of the women’s movement.” Yet that same broadness has made the film age better than might be expected. It’s overcome the initial skepticism and it sticks in the collective memory, allowing the term “Stepford Wife” to live on decades later. (Little credit for that should be given to the fairly awful 2004 remake.) A sharper, subtler film with robot wives might not have worked. This one’s final image of identically clad, blissed-out, mechanical zombie wives makes its point bluntly, but unforgettably.
Also overlooked in the discussion of its attempts to impart a feminist message for an audience that might not otherwise have been receptive to such messages was the way The Stepford Wives continued to develop the idea of a future in which humanity itself might be obsolete. Its world is controlled by men who hate women—real women, anyway—and feel perfectly comfortable replacing them with machines. Its scenario of androids capable of performing even the most intimate functions and taking on human identities was crafted to deal with a particular issue—feminism circa 1975—but it could be expanded upon. And soon, it was.
Michael Crichton had nothing to do with the 1976 film Futureworld, a Westworld sequel helmed by journeyman Richard T. Heffron and starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner. The results suggest Crichton had the right idea. With a back half dominated by long fight scenes in the middle of a nondescript factory of the sort that turns up so often in uninspired movies, it’s a much duller film than its predecessor. But it has a number of fascinating elements. Fonda and Danner play Chuck Browning and Tracy Ballard, reporters (and former lovers) determined to investigate mysterious doings while attending a junket at Delos, which has reopened for business and embarked on a big PR push some time after the events of Westworld. (How an amusement park recovers from the ruinous legal and financial ramifications of its star attractions mass-murdering the paying guests isn’t given a lot of screen time.) As part of the PR campaign, junket guests include contest-winners, including one enthusiastic fellow who talks loudly and repeatedly about his desire to have sex with a robot.
He gets his wish offscreen, but the film has other ways of dealing with the growing intimacy between, and merging identities of, robots and humans. Chuck and Tracy talk to a whistleblowing Delos employee whose best friend is a robot, and in one especially odd sequence, Tracy has a long, erotic dream involving Westworld’s Gunslinger that finds Yul Brynner reprising his role and exploring a more sensual side of the killing machine from the first film. In time, Chuck and Tracy uncover that Delos isn’t just staffed by robots, it’s now run by robots, who have built android doubles of their important guests with plans to send them out in the world to advance the cause of robotdom. These include Chuck, and in the film’s climactic sequence, Chuck has to do battle with himself and convince Tracy of his identity while his double claims the same. Chuck and Tracy prevail and escape to expose Delos, something Futureworld treats as a victory where a smarter film might have recognized it was too late for them to make a difference. The robots of Delos are good at what they do, and they’ve completely erased any distinction between humanity and their simulations of the same. What if it’s too late to turn back their insidious infiltration of a world run by humans? And, most chillingly, there’s the question Futureworld leaves unasked, but other films later picked up in earnest: If they were in our midst, would we even know?
Next: The animal kingdom.