There's a germ of a good idea, straining to get out, but too many forces work against its attributes flowering fully. It's a fascinating picture insofar as an example of what a major Hollywood studio in 1981 imagined would be a commercial, even widely popular movie. Universal, the company behind it, spent upwards of $10 million on what was really a "little" movie with a slight story and a limited number of characters. Some big names were behind it, including producer Michael Phillips, fresh from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and John Williams, writing perhaps his least-known major film score.
Sometime in the future, Val Com 17485 (Kaufman) is a malfunctioning robot valet, put into storage at a huge warehouse by human workers Charlie (Randy Quaid) and Max (Kenneth McMillan). Placed next to hostess companion robot Aqua Com 89045 (Bernadette Peters), the two strike up a conversation, learning about one another, speculating and analyzing the mysteries of human behavior and the outside world. Eventually they decide to see the world outside for themselves, and simply wander off, joined by Catskill (voiced by Jack Carter), a mechanically less sophisticated robot stand-up comic, and later still Val and Aqua build a small robot they call Phil out of spare parts.
Meanwhile, Charlie and Max become aware of the missing robots and begin searching for them while, unbeknownst to them, a malfunctioning law enforcement robot, the Crimebuster Deluxe (voiced by Ron Gans), also sets out to find and perhaps destroy them.
Heartbeeps aims for a low-key, delicate whimsy, a whimsy virtually unknown at Universal in the early 1980s. Had, say, Jim Henson's company produced it, the basic concept might have worked. The story, by and large, is told from the point-of-view of the robots. The world is experienced through their eyes or, more precisely, their programming. Dialogue suggests their circuitry is so sophisticated, its human designers really don't understand the robots' full capabilities, and yet they never become "human", but rather stay within the confines of their sophisticated programming. From beginning to end, they always behave just like robots, if humanoid ones.
Heartbeeps has been described as cloying, but because these robots don't ache to become human themselves, or even to escape from the warehouse, it admirably avoids sentimentality. They talk in robot-speak, a kind of syntax full of computer jargon but with a human-like curiosity about the world. The more successful, similar character of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the later feature films and now Picard was conceived as a kind of 24th century Pinocchio, but throughout that character, like these here, is restricted by the limitations of its programming, while acknowledging unknowable AI-type self-evolution.
Stan Winston's special makeup effects were really striking back in 1981, and still impressive today. The subtle appliances allow Kaufman just enough room for expressiveness, though most of the acting he does is still mainly through his voice (reportedly modeled after both Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd) and eyes. But neither Winston's makeup for Bernadette Peters nor her performance are as successful. Her hair, like gold barbed wire, is unattractive, and the actress can't seem to get her character past all that makeup.
The big problem with Heartbeeps is what appears to be studio-imposed conventional conflict. The robots don't long for freedom nor do they escape so much as wander off, yet the film has two unrelated parties pursuing them, the Crimebuster robot being particularly superfluous. A pyramid-shaped, tank-like contraption, it's like an ungraded Gog (from the 1954 film of the same name)*, whose lines are spoken by Ron Gans, a deep-voiced specialist in such parts. Indeed, his dialogue and performance are at odds with the tone of the rest of the picture, like one of the myriad characters he voiced for Lost in Space.
The cutaways to the Quaid and McMillan characters go nowhere, and take the audience away from the gentler tone as the movie audience gets to know Val and Aqua. But these scenes at least are less bluntly comic, with some amusing glimpses into the near future. (Beer cans and soda bottles have been replaced, for example, with plastic pouches, for instance.) The often clever little touches throughout suggest an only slightly futuristic world, and the restraint here is appealing.
But, in the end, Heartbeeps just doesn't come off. That a good movie is trying to get out is apparent, and the production is in many respects handsome, but the final result is wearying and by the end the viewer has lost interest in the characters and the world they inhabit.
Video & Audio
Licensed from Universal, Kino's Heartbeeps is presented in its original 2.35:1 Panavision format. Many Universal titles from this period had appallingly ugly release prints but this 1080p transfer looks quite good, with Albert Whitlock's matte paintings/visual effects coming off particularly well. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is very strong for what it is, and accompanied by optional English subtitles. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include a new audio commentary by director Allan Arkush, moderated by film historian Daniel Kremer. Arkush looks at the picture from a critical perspective, in addition to the usual reminiscing and behind-the-scenes stories one associates with such tracks. It's well above average and worth a listen. A trailer rounds out the extras.
Interesting but not good, Heartbeeps is a real curio, of more interests for its parts than its whole. Rent It.