All Your Synthetic Charms Are Belong To Us: Making Mr. Right

“Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

– Paul M. Sammon, drawing the common philosophical questions presented in Blade Runner and its source novel, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Romantic science fiction comedies are rare, but it’s a genre that seemed to have found its niche in the 1980s. Blade Runner, released in 1982, approached the subject of relationships between human and non-humans in the story of an agent who, assigned to kill an illegal brand of synthetic human called replicants, instead falls in love with one. It was a story that paralleled much older fiction: Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein. They were Man’s creation and declared monsters by their creators. In the replicants case, they were designed to first fight in Man’s wars, then were resigned to be their slaves in the colonizing of conquered planets. Most all of the replicants were aware of their design and consequently, their fate.  The Nexus 6 replicants of this story don’t really seek baseless revenge – they desire to reverse their tragedy.

After Blade Runner, the anthropomorphic android was removed from the typically dark, technophobic context of contemporary science fiction, and was instead placed into causal, modern life. Adapting to the most abstract of human emotion (love), aliens (Starman, Earth Girls Are Easy), computers (Electric Dreams), and robots (Short Circuit, Heartbeeps) alike became the new source of competition for human affection. They made potential mates.

Director Susan Seidleman’s third feature film, Making Mr. Right, written by Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank and released in 1987, ventures into this fusion ofscience fiction/romantic comedy genre and borrows on that narrative of non-humans trying to understand core human emotion. But in this case, the lesson in love is imperfect – a curious android seeks his guidance from a woman who is just as confused (and cynical) about relationships. Hell, most of the characters are.

For this film, Seidelman places aaide her usual setting of kitschy New York City (Smithereens, Desperately Seeking Susan and returning to this in 1989 with her fourth film, Cookie) Making Mr. Right is set in Miami, a location that nonetheless allowed Seidleman access to her trademark fusion of art deco and 80s new wave (in both visuals and soundtrack). It also enabled her characteristic commentary on lavish consumerism.

Ann Manguson plays Frankie Stone — characteristically bold, fashionable, witty and… currently single. She exhibits that perfect pop feminine chic central to Seidleman’s leading women. Roger Ebert’s 1987 review highlight’s the director’s sensibilities of character perfectly: “…she hits her stride as a comedy director who would rather be clever than obvious, who allows good actors such as Malkovich to go for quiet effects rather than broad, dumb cliches).” There is often that risk of coming off as pitifully saccharine with a story like this,but, Seidleman’s work always managed to steer from being disastrously campy and in largely because her choice of leading women in particular were key in maintaining that momentum. And, Manguson was perfect for the part.

Bumped by her colleague as the public relations lead for the mayoral race, a move that coincided with her breaking up with the conceited candidate, frazzled career woman Frankie Stone is hired by NASA to work on their latest project: a human-looking robot named Ulysses (played by a young John Malkovich). Originally designed to explore space where physical, mental, and emotional limitations (think: isolated missions) could not allow humans to do so, the business-minded team of engineers want to expand the android’s uses, eying marketing potential for the robot as a domestic servant and emergency services assistant. Ulyesses, unlike predecessor robots, has the ability to learn and adapt, both mechanically and socially. Unfortunately, Jeff Peters (also Malkovich) the brilliant but incredibly arrogant scientist who invented the robot (and modeled its apearance on himself), is hopelessly incapable of “humanizing” Ulyessus; making him seem less robotic and more human. And that’s precisely what Frankie is hired to do.

In the isolation of the lab, Ulyessus’s lone source of knowledge about people, about human interaction, about the outside world, is all learned from Frankie, whom smitten Ulysses falls for. But, as Frankie tells her inquisitive, robotic pupil, the existence of true love is doubtful and the.perfect man is impossible.

But, the more interesting element, rare to narratives like this one (expanding beyond Blade Runner‘s meta-physical posturing), is that the android and the human (in this case, his inventor) increasingly become a mutual doppelganger. Ulyessus becomes more sociable, more curious about human interaction and the oustide world. And, for his innocence, he’s hypnotically charming. (This leads to two particulary great scenes – a shopping mall date with Laurie Metcalf’s character, who mistakes Ulyesses for her ideal love interest Jeff, and a scene in which Glenn Headly’s character think she’s accidentally decapitated Ulyesses when his head falls off during sex.) On the other hand, Jeff is increasingly defined more by limited social qualities of a pure robot – little else than mechanical, scientific genius (save one brief attempt to be personable). It is perhaps John Malkovich in one of his most versatile roles, simply because he had to exhibit such a wide range of personality (or lack thereof) for both parts. For once it was not merely the robot steadily transforming (as much as he could) to human, but his maker had increasingly taken the form of the robot (and happily so), indifferent to social connection and its consequential emotional attachment.

*Credit to AC for the title.


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