Circuitry Man (1990) Review by RevTerry

For a very long time I, ever begrudgingly, worked in the computer repair department of an “electronic” store. You know the one, the only “electronic” store left in most of the United States. Let's just say my uniform involved a clip on and white shirt, but I was surrounded by people in blue. As the corporate face of residential IT, technology and repair, you get use to a few endlessly repeated questions. “ Will this play World of Warcraft?” , “Can you make this faster?”, “How many ‘jigglebits’ should I have ?”, "What should I do to stop my son from visiting Russian cam sites?"…… etc. The worst of these questions are the ones you can never seem to answer right. In those situations where, because you're confined to this reality, you can't fulfill the customer's preconceived plan. I tried not to hold it against anyone-- experience comes with perspective. I understand that without some knowledge in specific areas, certain things can seem like they shouldn't be a problem, when they are. We all have our areas of expertise. Still, a person can only take so much, and it seemed like everyday I explained to what looked like the same lady, the reasoning behind why there isn't just a “regular” cord with USB A on both sides, or why a device to convert VGA to DVI costs a hundred and some dollars, while converting DVI to VGA could be done for little under twenty (at the time). It would get to me a little I'll admit, although I always did my best not to be one of the stereotypical asshole nerd-guys. I'm already skinny and unkempt, so  I definitely do not that need that added to my description. During my time in that vocation, more than a few customers had inquired (sometimes urgently) as to where they could locate some kind of universal connector unit, one that had all inputs and outputs for every (or almost every) device you might run into. Sometimes, even swearing up and down that they saw it on TV or their acquaintance had one. It's a semi-reasonable request, I guess, but one with a complex answer. I mean, technically what they were looking for was just called “a computer”, but they were thinking about something more portable (for lack of a better word), for maybe plugging their iPod into random holes they found around town. Like some kind of device protocol unifying Babel Fish. You should make one of those, they would say. I didn't know how to answer other than, “haha yea…”, trying to control any involuntary sarcasm, because like I said-- no one likes a jerk off geek. They wanted magic, and if I had powers at the time, I certainly wouldn't be making damn near minimum wage fixing computers, dressed as a Mormon missionary. Without recourse, usually I would stop listening and let my mind wander to a slightly related film. I was lucky enough to catch it a few times on tv as a child, during those HBO free previews they use to do. It was the first time I was posed with this universal connector idea. Except, this version was attached to the noggin of the aptly named villain Plughead from Circuitry Man (1990).
The planet is a wreck. The water supply has run dry, and the air has become unbreathable, so as a last-ditch effort by the government, mankind was shuffled underground where oxygen could be supplied artificially. Somewhere along the way, society collapsed as well, and all that is left is a subterranean wasteland of advanced technology, criminal enterprise, cops and soft jazz tunes. After quickly filling us in on the story's setting, the movie starts by introducing us to Lori (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), a bodyguard in underground Los Angeles who services are being sought by the local crime boss, Juice (Lu Leonard).  Lori has recently hung up her ass-kicking shoes and stopped providing protection to lowlifes to pursue a quiet life of dressmaking. Unfortunately, after her boyfriend sets her up, she is left with no other choice but to take up the shady former employer on a job. Forcefully brought in by Juices right-hand flunky Yoyo (Barbara Alyn Woods), she is taken along to a back alley exchange. Juice has a large microchip deal going down and feels the need for added protection, the kind only Lori can provide, I guess. The shady exchange is with criminal mastermind Plughead (Vernon Wells), a former physiotherapist with various implanted wire ports in his skull who uses the microchips to get off. The whole thing starts out at a table with a noisy audience, like they are going to arm wrestle before they break out the cliche, brown briefcases and get to dealing. During the meet up we are introduced to Danner (Jim Metzler), a “pleasure” robot who has been manipulated into retrieving the chips from New Yolk by Juice who implanted memories of a fictional captive lover. After he bursts in and unsuccessfully threatens to kill himself in exchange for information on his girlfriend ( that never existed), the whole deal goes south. Some of the crowd that is standing around while this techno-drug deal goes down, turn out to be cops, and everybody tries to make a break for it. Lori escapes with the chips, but in the madness, Plughead kills Juice and recruits Yoyo in his pursuit of the contraband. Lori decides to run away to New York with the chips but will need Danner’s experience if she is going to make it. Danner agrees but only after she lies and tells him she knows his imaginary lover's whereabouts. With the murderous Plughead on their tail and love on their side, the duo makes the sordid trek across the underground United States. Along the way, they will have to deal with bullshit cops, backstabbing wastelanders and the uninhabitable outside world, they may also fall in love--or at least the soundtrack is pretty sure they are going to.
Circuitry Man is a romantically charged, gauntlet style action film that takes place in a vault dwelling, dusty ass, post-apocalyptic world. While any combination of those words has a chance to be a pretty fun watch in movie form, the film stands out by borrowing the smoky, dreamlike feel of classic noir cinema. The result is something like an episode of the Red Shoe Diary's set after a mass extinction event, but in a good way. It wears its dry dime store, crime novel persona like a disguise, hiding cyberpunk concepts and violent slapstick behind soft jazz segways. The physical setting is similar to its higher budget, blood relative Cherry 2000 (1987), a used up wasteland, styled by unproportioned technology and poverty, only in this case, mostly taking place underground. Its opening crawl has a vibe that's reminiscent of a corny 80s romantic comedy or sappy TV show. The floating renegade tone never really leaves as the film continues on, instead it just evolves, lingers and blends with the goofy sci-fi or random sexual tension to create the film’s style. There is some Blade Runner (1982) in there of course, but it takes more from its source, having some of Philip K. Dick’s more pulpy and emotional tendencies. It also pulls a lot from William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy (or Sprawl trilogy), beating that universe's official adoption (Johnny Mnemonic 1995) to the cinematic punch by five years. The act of "plugging in", some of the artificial intelligence shit, and the fact that all the badasses are female, all harken back to Gibson’s work but with a lighter take. Strangely, the story is never really mean-spirited. it has a constant good-humored nature, despite tangled wires, gruff characters, and dark tunnels. At times, its attempts at an anti-hero come a little too close to a family film scoundrel instead, but it works.  It's consistently engaging throughout. I find myself caring more than the outside appearance and simple core story would initial indicate, but I have also always been a sucker for human-robot love affairs.
It is hard to really pin down all of its influences, and there are most likely a bunch more than I could mention. Some of the adventure aspects could, as far as I know, be torn from those romantic novels with the man-meat covers you see old ladies reading, only with a dirty cyberpunk paint job. It definitely has moments akin to something like Romancing the Stone (1984).  As I Mentioned before, the film only lightly touches on the few hard sci-fi elements that it borrows from its literary sources. It successfully brushes passed each as if they are universal constants, while still detailing enough to justify their use. The range of biohacking from utilitarian brain downloads to euphoric drug like sensations (mostly directly cribbed from Gibson and maybe a little Dick), could have seemed to be parodying more celebrated favorites like The Matrix (1999), had it been released almost ten years later. The AI is presented as a given in-universe, in this case, with a focus on manufactured companionship for humans. Where Cherry 2000 sexbots were lifeless mimics and more the sought after “object”, the android seen in this film is more than human enough to relate to. As if it was the flip side of Blade Runner's slave labor but for just loving instead. For all we know, there was a thriving synthetic human industry somewhere, at some point, we just happen to meet a sex robot--a sex robot with a heart of gold. Take away from that what you want. The heartbreaking fake memories of a partner (who never existed) used to control the synthetic Romeo is an interesting (although not super uncommon) plot point. Later, similar themes will be explored in depth in science fiction flicks like Moon (2009- dammit, now I'm bumming myself out). 
For it's modest budget it fills out well. The surroundings feel busy with lively embellishment that makes use of societies leftovers. It feels fittingly cramped and stale in the overcrowded vaults. Frequent washed out lighting and rooms filled with solid primary colors on the cheap get closer to those made for the Emmanuelle in Space (1994) series than the 80s sci-fi motif it seems to be going for, but it's a good middle ground for the rest of the film’s style. Despite being dripping with corny-ass romantic feels, and out of place sexiness, it has little nudity. I can't help but see this as a plus in this very specific case--hear me out bro--it all works out really fucking well in my opinion. It walks a very thin line with it's more shallow, sappy qualities. A little more nudity and a little less well-read sci-fi creativity, and you have something closer to a Shannon Tweed movie. Not that this is a bad thing, but in the case of Circuitry Man, we would miss out on some unique-ass shit, had it veered too far in any direction. Most of the more violent actions are done off screen, so there is not much in way of gore either. It makes up for the lack of sleaze with an assortment of practical effects. Some highlights include (of course ) Plughead’s prosthetic scalp and a shell-shocked mechanic with oversized robotic legs. The soundtrack is one of my favorite parts, it is smooth AM radio jazz throughout. Deborah Holland provides a soundtrack that can only be described by oxymorons, all the way up until the point it disappears explicitly. The film’s dramatic end scenes are suspiciously devoid of musical backing. Everything up to that point is bizarre and pretty fucking amazing. I don't think I would really enjoy whatever movie those songs actually belong in, but I dug the fuck out of them in this flick.
Jim Metzler plays Danner, the android that sees suicide as the only recourse for his lost love. If you watched tv in the late 80s/90s, you have most likely seen his face before. Half systematic repetition and half manic loneliness, Metzler does well as the lovelost robot. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson is the grumpy badass Lori. This is one of my favorite roles of hers, but she will forever be Agent White on the X-Files episode, Synergy (aka the mystery of the horny beast) in my eyes. Vernon fucking Wells plays Plughead. He always does the bad guys in entertaining ways, but the extra bit of ham is just right for the semi-titular character. The best of the film's moments involve his over the top (personal space invading) cyborg psychotherapist antagonist. The supporting characters seem extremely detailed with busy lives and motivations of their own. Of note, Barbara Alyn Woods as Yoyo, Plughead’s newest bloodthirsty lackey. She makes a good contrast to the (would be) retired bodyguard Lori. Everyone one seems to be having a blast making the film, especially Wells who would return with Metzler for the sequel.
Circuitry Man is a mix of interesting science fiction and out of time romance, that I would have never guessed I wanted. In many ways, it's a tribute to classic works that came before it, but it has a soul that is entirely its own. It has a simple story but packs it with a lot of odd styles, great characters and what should be clashing aesthetics. It goes well alongside other semi-sensual, post-apocalyptic road films like Cherry 2000 (1987) and Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988). Of course, it's not for everyone, but that shouldn't stop everyone from trying it, because it can't be judged by its name, cover art or opening crawl (or really my review for that matter). I really enjoy the shit out of this flick--plus it truly helped me meditate away, in those dark moments in my life where I was at risk of being an angry nerd guy that yelled at frantic soccer moms and lost his shitty job. It's actually one of my (million) favorites and I would say “highly recommended” like other movie reviewers--but then I run the chance of becoming that stereotypical asshole nerd-guy that tells folks to watch weird movies involving robot-fucking. I'm already skinny and unkempt--I definitely do not that need that added to my description.
1h 33min | 1990
 Director: Steven Lovy
Writers: Robert Lovy, Steven Lovy 

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Review by:
RevTerry


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