Monday, May 26, 2014

Cyber Monday: THE COMPANION (1994)

The early to mid '90s was a testing ground for modern television. The networks knew sci-fi and action could pull in a younger audience, but there was a lot of stumbling around trying to figure out how to do this. TV movies were a good way to test the popularity of certain subjects without committing to a full series. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987) was hugely successful by providing topical TV soap opera melodrama with some snappy sci-fi uniforms. The human-esque robot genre was hugely popular in the entire decade of the '80s, and in the early '90s the yuppie nightmare subgenre became a major trend with films like PACIFIC HEIGHTS (1990) and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992). Now if only there was a way to wrap that all up into one package and deliver this big, bankable boffo concept to the slavering masses. Armed with these influences writer Ian Seeberg (previously only credited with the 1975 nudist "documentary" THE NAKED PEACOCK), second-time TV director Gary Fleder and the USA network did exactly that. I'm sure it sounded good on paper.

Set in the future, a successful romance novelist, Gillian (Kathryn Harrold), finishes up her virtual book tour in which she promotes her latest novel (which are now on CDs that are read via a tablet PC) on a holographic talk show (hosted by Earl Boen). After arriving home to find her man Alan (an unfamous Bryan Cranston) in the sack with a girl half her age, she decides that a retro-retreat is in order at a 20th Century mountain cabin. Presumably this choice of location is all about the isolated atmosphere condusive to the plot and not at all related to the fact that this will save the production quite a bit of money that would have had to have been spent on more blue fluorescent lighting. Remember, this is the future! Blue fluorescent lights are the future.

Her publisher Charlene (Talia Balsam), is concerned about her isolation and emotional break-up and convinces her to buy a "companion" to take along for the ride. In the future, a "companion" is a common android assistant, popular for menial labor. However, the new models can do everything from sports to intellectual discussions to... taking care of other needs. As the slippery salesman (James Karen) tells her with a leer "they are fully functional". Though making pasta al dente is troublesome, it can detect speedtraps a mile off. What more could you want? Naturally Gillian doesn't want all that extra programming stuff, just a man-like object to be there for her when she needs him. Sort of like a life-sized emotional vibrator.

Once in the mountains, Gillian meets up with an artist couple, Ron and Stacey (Brion James and Joely Fisher), who have their own relationship issues expressed by Stacey's insecurity and Ron's alcoholism. Because it's the future, Ron is a sculptor who creates his statues out of huge blocks of stone with a VR headset linked to a futuristic shotgun. I don't know much about art, but I know what I like to blow up!

Soon the bloom is off the vine and Gillian becomes dissatisfied with the way her new companion, whom she has named Geoffrey (the prolific Bruce Greenwood). She has decided that he acts too robotic and subservient. After fumbling through the manual (in the future instruction books are still made of paper and women still can't understand them), Gillian manages to re-program the "personality" setting from zero to 100% and even splurges for the "slang" option. Instead of this, as you might suspect, turning him into a nasty stereotype, such as a womanizing lounge lizard or a white rapper, it turns him into a good stereotype. A yuppie. You know a "normal" man who all women would love. Soon Gillian is not content with just using him to blot her tears and save her from falling off cliffs and ups his "sexual" programming from zero to 30%. It appears that 30% is good for back rubs and kissing, which apparently is good enough to get Gillian to crank it up to 100%. Instead of turning him into a slim, hairless Ron Jeremy, it turns him into an emotional yuppie who delivers some very slow, gentle missionary position lovemaking accompanied by soft violins. I guess when you are stuck in a desert even tap-water tastes pretty good.

Soon she has him saying "I love you" and reading her romance novels to understand how "real" men behave when in love. Suddenly a crass, aggressive Alan (who somehow managed to find her in the mountains) jealous of Geoffrey, tries to take him down a notch, and that's when the cracks start to appear. Alan gets a broken nose but is stopped before he can really put the boots to the douchebag. As if that wasn't enough, Ron who gets all sleazy after a few drinks, wants to offer her "the real thing". Geoffrey, who presumably doesn't realize that he probably means a bottle of Coke, proceeds to kick his ass too. Of course, this is nothing to be concerned about and Gillian decides that not only is she going to mess with his programming even more, but that she needs to make him be "a fascinating and unpredictable man of mystery". Yeah, that sounds like a great idea. Take someone with a violent temper and make him unpredictable. What could go wrong? Instead of turning into Austin Powers, Geoffrey starts behaving erratically, by way of making breakfast by throwing eggs in a bowl and jabbering about going down to the lake for a picnic at ten o'clock at night.

Worst "morning after" ever.
Finally, a full hour into the film, Geoffrey loses his shit and smashes the vid-phone (the future!) and the programming glove (the future!) and becomes a cyborg Single White Male. There's a bit of conflict with a couple of cast members who are taken out by Geoffrey in very PG rated ways, but a Sam Firstenberg film this ain't. This is aimed squarely at the "Next Generation" crowd who wants more soap than science. To the filmmaker's credit, they don't get lazy and figure since they are in a (cheap) 20th century setting that they don't have to provide any futuristic details. There are plenty of amusing touches to convey the future in addition to the ones above. I enjoyed that fact that in the future, microwaves are even more noisy than they are now and because everyone loves the doors in "Star Trek", they should be automated here and talk to you as well. Didn't Douglas Adams satirize this in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" back in 1978? Also there are the cars of the future. Gillian drives what appears to be a Datsun that hums when it is moving and although you don't see all of Alan's car in one shot, it is a red sports car with the model name "The Patriot" in white. I'm honestly surprised that Ford hasn't stolen that idea for it's F-150 line yet.

Aside from the completely uninteresting Bruce Greenwood who appears to be trying to emulate Brent Spiner, the solid cast keeps the film from becoming too tedious, but is content to waste great actors such as Tracey Walter who shows up briefly as the owner of the local "retro" convenience store and doesn't have a single line. I couldn't help but imagine how inspired the movie would have been with someone like, say Wings Hauser in the role of Geoffrey. He could have carried the film to cult status, playing both sides of Geoffrey's personality with conviction and flair. Granted THE COMPANION is much more successful in creating a science-feeling movie than say, RUNNING DELILAH (1992), but that isn't really saying much and in the end it still feels like a schizophrenic hodge-podge that is trying to appeal to a bizarrely small demographic that loves Oprah, "Star Trek", BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR and is looking for a romantic drama with bits of thriller and cyborg thrown in. I guess you know who you are.

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