Android Review

While it’s true that many of the films produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures are cheap, exploitative trash, one of the joys of watching them is that every once in a while you find a genuine treasure. Android is one of those treasures, a film which is so charming and disarmingly intelligent that it makes up for all the hours you’ve spent sifting through the dross. If it’s not quite a science fiction classic then it’s certainly one of the most entertaining B-Movies of the 1980s and a good deal better than a lot of SF films which cost ten times as much.

Set in the year 2036, the film takes place on a space station inhabited solely by Dr Daniels (Kinski) and Max 404 (Opper), an android. Following an unfortunate incident in Munich, android research has been banned, but Daniels is a renegade who is obsessed with the idea of creating a perfect female android named Cassandra. Max 404 displays surprisingly human tendencies, being obsessed with the intricacies of human sexual interaction and fascinated by human culture – notably Jimmy Stewart and soul music. His increasing independence is begin to annoy Daniels, who intends to deactivate him as soon as Cassandra has been completed. However, the arrival on the station of three fugitives – Günter (Weissel), Medes (Hardester) and Maggie (Howard)- throws things seriously off-balance.

Android was released in the UK in 1982 shortly after Blade Runner, a film to which it bears some resemblance. Indeed, it got considerably better reviews from most critics. Both films are essentially about the basic differences between androids and humans and both deal with the extent to which an android is capable of having an awareness of self. But the tone of the films is very different. The sturm und drang of Blade Runner, all smoke and angst, is completely absent from Android. Max 404 knows that he’s an android and he’s not all that unhappy about it. But he wants to understand humans and the key factors which separate human beings from androids and his quest is essentially comic and ends with an upbeat finale which is deliciously inspiring. He has been compared to Candide and it’s an apt comparison. Like Candide, Max learns fast about human virtues and vices and he is utterly fascinated by what he discovers. But the difference is that Max is not really an innocent. He’s obsessed by sex, quite willing to lie and deceive and he’s already learning that blind faith in one’s creator is not a route to happiness. Don Opper’s quite wonderful – if deliberately uncredited - performance manages to evoke all this and he turns Max into a sympathetic and funny figure. He also manages a very tricky gear change in the third act of the film, when Max is, for reasons too complex to go into here, reprogrammed to become a killer. This is a clever moment which Opper makes strangely sinister.

Don Opper steals the film which is quite an achievement considering that he’s up against the divine Klaus Kinski. Actually, for a Kinski performance from the 1980s this is pretty restrained. He does quite a bit of wide-eyed ranting – how could he not and still remain Kinski – but he also manages some nice underplaying in the scene where he attempts to seduce Maggie into some ‘experimentation’; of a purely scientific nature you understand. The other actors do what’s required without disgracing themselves, although Crofton Hardester overdoes the tough guy bit, and I have to say that Kendra Kirchner – who plays the robotic beauty Cassandra – is an absolute knockout.

The incredibly low budget of the film is much in evidence, as you would expect. It was made on sets left over from Battle Beyond The Stars, Corman never being a man to waste good scenery, and has a generic look which suggests penny-pinching. Indeed, it’s symptomatic of Corman’s approach that at least six other films used various elements from Battle in a two year period. But to his credit, Lipstadt manages to stage the action with sufficient pace to ensure that this never really matters. That’s a greater achievement than it sounds. To make a simple comparison, you could take an expensive SF film like The Matrix Revolutions as the exact opposite – it looks like a few hundred million dollars but the pacing is dire and the film simply dies on the screen with nothing to support it but some pretty pictures. The second-hand nature of the visuals is rather charming, offering a nicely clunky look to a setting which is, after all, meant to be at the end of the road. The special effects aren’t exactly state of the art, and weren’t back in 1982, but they do what is needed and some of the them – notably some of the prosthetics towards the end – are quite ingenious. The film as a whole is a good example of what can be achieved with a bit of intelligence and imagination.

If I had to carp, I could mention that the cinematography lacks atmosphere in some of the scenes and the central romantic triangle between the three fugitives is hackneyed, to put it mildly. But nothing is lingered over too long and the central thrust of the plot is strong enough to overcome the flaws. I particularly like the way that Don Opper and his co-writer James Reigle manage to change tack towards the end, when things begin to get a little more serious, and still prove able to come up with a crowd-pleasing ending. There’s also a nice little surprise waiting for the first-time viewer which I won’t reveal.

Aaron Lipstadt made a great debut with this unassuming but hugely entertaining film and it’s a shame that he hasn’t fulfilled his promised. Following a truly appalling second movie, City Limits, the kind of film which makes you question the purpose of staying alive, he went into TV work where he has remained, with a couple of exceptions, ever since. What’s interesting about his work on Android is his obvious love of the SF genre. This is evident in the intelligent way he treats the concept of the android’s study of what is essential in humanity – a theme which Dick addressed on several occasions – and the attempts he makes, combating his budget, to create a convincing future environment. He also knows his genre history, something which is revealed in his use of Metropolis. Not only are some clips from the film included – making me keen to see it again – but Kinski is constantly posed and directed to resemble Rotwang, the scientist who creates the robot duplicate of Maria in Lang’s film. The scene where Cassandra is brought to life comments on Maria’s awakening scene to amusing effect. Lipstadt also knows the value of comic asides, such as the ironic use of “It’s a Man’s World” and the priceless moment when Maggie innocently says to Max, “You’re a doll”.

Without being a great film, Android is an utterly charming movie that deserves a much wider audience. Sadly, it’s too often dismissed by people who don’t know any better – see the review in the current issue of “DVD Review” for an example of someone who apparently doesn’t have a clue what they’re talking about. The failure of anyone involved – with the exception of Mr James Cameron who was working in a lowly capacity for Corman’s art department – to go on to bigger things is inexplicable and a sad waste of obvious talent. Still, they got together long enough to make Android which is something to be very pleased about.

The Disc

I saw Android in the cinema when it was released in the cinema over twenty years ago and spent the next few weeks exhorting everyone I met to go and see it. I then saw it on video and Channel 4 and thoroughly enjoyed each encounter. However, having not seen it for ten years or so, I was eager to see how it would look. Sadly, Anchor Bay’s new DVD release does not present the film to its best advantage.

The film is framed at 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The old fullscreen video release contained more picture information at top and bottom but, sadly, this included several encounters with the boom mike. There seems to be some misframing with the tops of heads chopped off but, to be honest, it could be framed perfectly and the disc would still be worthless because of the frankly appalling quality of the transfer. This is one of the worst transfers I have seen from a major DVD label. The image is flat and dull with a soft feel to it that is lacking in detail. Worse, there are scratches present throughout the film and the dreaded white popping keeps rearing its ugly head. Green noise makes an appearance during several scene transitions. Artifacts run rampant. The slightly grainy appearance isn’t surprising for a low budget film and is the least of the problems. All in all, this is an appalling effort.

The soundtrack isn’t much better. Anchor Bay’s love affair with remixing continues apace and three English tracks are offered. The only one worth considering is the original Mono mix, which is clean and reasonably crisp. It’s nothing special but it’s not a disgrace, which is more than can be said for the 5.1 and DTS tracks. As usual, these mess around with the sound elements to create a facade of surround which I find ugly and artificial. The only people who could possibly want to listen to this will be those yahoos who can’t cope with anything which doesn’t utilise every little bit of their DVD setup, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or necessary. Simply pretend that these remixes don’t exist and you’ll be quite happy.

Surprisingly, there are few extra features provided. We get the original trailer and a fairly short biography of Klaus Kinski. There are some production stills and some readable but not particularly enlightening film notes. Those of you with a DVD-ROM drive can also have a look at the original screenplay. That’s about it. It’s a shame that a commentary track wasn’t obtainable or even one of those brief featurettes which liven up discs like Hitch-Hike or Werewolf Shadow.

As usual, no subtitles are included – another reason for not getting the disc – and there are 18 chapter stops. The review copy I received managed to misspell Don Opper’s name and informed me that the film was directed by Don Preston – who wrote the music – but I assume this will be corrected by the time the disc is in the shops.

Android is a good film which I thoroughly recommend. I wish I could say that this Anchor Bay release is worth getting but, sadly, it’s a misfire. The picture quality really is bewilderingly bad and I can only assume that this was mastered from the only print available but I can’t believe that so little could be done to improve it. Anchor Bay UK have released some fantastic discs – and the upcoming Blood On Satan’s Claw is another corker – but this really isn’t one of them.

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