Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday 80s Flashback for August 3, 2012

Fist bump from the 1989 movie Robot Jox (which is not featured in today's Flashback)

[Robots!] -- In the 80s, we were all about the robots, right? We had robot toys. We had robots in our cartoons and comic books. We had robots in our books and movies. We might have even had robots in our breakfast cereals! 

Of course, the concept of a robot wasn't created in the 80s, we simply enjoyed a world in which technology seemed to have the potential to finally begin keeping pace with our entertainment and imaginations. And even though we may have felt that a robot was a perfectly natural application of microchips and computers, the term didn't even exist until the mid 1920s. A Czech playwright named Karel Capek (1890-1938) is credited with coining the word, and he did it in his 1921 play R.U.R. (which translates as Rossum's Universal Robots). In this play, the word robot comes from the Czech word for forced labor, robota. Having the notion of forced labor as part of robots' heritage makes sense because the largest practical application of robotics is still industrial (automating manufacturing tasks or performing tasks too dangerous for humans), while some of the more gripping stories about the future of robotics -- particularly sentient robots -- deal with the consideration of their place and role in society (i.e., are they people or appliances?). 

We still don't have robot butlers or protocol droids interacting with humans on a daily basis, but we children of the 80s thought, or hoped, they would be coming soon. At least, I know I felt that way. 

How we thought about robots in the 80s:
Yul Brenner's cowboy robot in Westworld (1973)
V.I.N.cent from Disney's The Black Hole (1979)
Band of Gundams (via Glordit)

The not necessarily sad, but definitely less impressive, 
reality of robots at the time:
ComRo (1981)
Auto body welders circa 1980s

So, what do robots have to do with the Flashback? Well, this week I'm taking a look at music from three different 80s movies featuring that holy grail of robotics: the sentient artificial humanoid. This is something of a sequel to my 6/29/2012 Flashback post on 80s movies about computers that gained sentience. Now, there are many fictional robots and androids that have appeared in film and television, particularly in the 80s. So what three films -- what three robots -- have I chosen to highlight? And what wonderful 80s tunes have I plucked from those films to present for your enjoyment? Read and hear more after the break.

Flashback #1"No control | Walk right in too close to feel the pain | I'm lost in you | Oh, now you strike the match and light the flame."

The first words we hear this robot utter are, "Your clothes. Give them to me. Now!" And, because this cybernetic organism is portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, everyone who has watched his first scene loves to imitate his Austrian accent. Yes! I'm talking about the ultimate bada$$ of bada$$ cyborgs, The Terminator! Directed and co-written by James "All I Dig Now Are Sunken Ships and CGI Aliens" Cameron, The Terminator (1984) introduced the world to the T-101, a relentless, unstoppable cyborg assassin known as a Terminator. This killing machine had only 18 lines and traveled back in time from 2029 to 1984 for one purpose: kill Sarah Connor before she has a son who will grow up to lead a resistance movement against the human race's machine overlords in the late 2020s. The T-101 is well-built for its purpose: it has a powerful, nearly indestructible endoskeleton which is covered in a layer of living tissue, thereby making it resemble a human being. Fortunately for the human race, this T-101 did not come back to '84 alone. Resistance leader John Conner sends his best friend, Kyle Reese, to protect his mother from the killing machine. Spoiler alert: Kyle succeeds, but dies in the process. Spoiler #2: Oh, but before he kicks it, Kyle falls in love with Sarah and ... ends up being John's father. Time travel is trippy, man. And it left a lasting impression, so much so, that The Terminator was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" (BBC News).

If you're a fan of the movie, you know it featured high tension, serious gunplay, cool "robotic" effects, and explosion after explosion. In the midst of all that cinematic damage, you might have forgotten that the original soundtrack featured several pop tracks that might seem out of place considering the atmosphere of the film, especially in the wake of the sequels. Perhaps that is why these tracks are now hard to find in album format. Three of those tracks were performed by a band called Tryanglz, and their performances ranged from straight 80s rock to new wavy goodness. For our first Flashback, I chose a toe-tappin', pop rock piece which was playing in the bar (TechNoir) where Sarah met Kyle ... and where the Terminator first catches up with her. Here is "Burnin' in the Third Degree" (which never burned up any charts). 

Flashback #2Instrumental

Our second Flashback features The Fix-Its, a group of flying, living machines that somewhat resemble tiny UFOs. In the film *batteries not included (1987), these little guys helped galvanize a group of neighbors to join together and save their apartment block from impending property development. No one knows where the Fix-Its come from, but at one point during a debate about the metal creatures' origins, the discussion is stopped by Frank, one half of the couple who run an apartment building and cafe, who says, "the quickest way to end a miracle is to ask it why it is". This movie started as a story idea for the TV series Amazing Stories, but producer Stephen Spielberg liked it so much that he wanted to give it a full theatrical release. There are so many wonderful qualities that I don't want to say too much if you haven't seen the film already. And if you haven't, why not? Don't worry about the 3/5 star rating you see on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes (by the way, Ebert gave it 3 out of 4). This is a fun little flick that originally debuted at #4 at the box office, winning two Saturn Awards and a Young Artist Award.  Check out the trailer.

Part of the film's appeal, in my opinion, comes from its score. Now, if you saw this flick, and you recall the music, you might have mistakenly assumed that the score was comprised of repurposed swing tunes from the 20s and 30s. If so, you were wrong! James Horner composed all the music for this film. So, although it mimics the style of an earlier decade, it qualifies as 80s music. Our second flashback of the day is "Cafe Swing," which is played when Frank and Faye's run-down cafe is back to full "swing" with the help of the Fix-Its. 

Flashback #3"I try to understand because I'm people too | And playing games is part of human nature."

The previous entries in today's Flashback featured robotic entities that were already "alive" or, at the very least, were seemingly able to make decisions and operate of their own volition right from the beginning of the story. Our final entry features a military robot in the 1986 comedy, Short Circuit. The robot in question was one of five prototype devices in the Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport -- or SAINT -- program. Initially, these five robots could only operate within the parameters of their impressive, although necessarily limited, programming. But when a lightning storm induces a power surge that causes a program-altering malfunction in one of them, it accidentally wanders off and eventually comes to realize it is alive. The brass at Nova Laboratories, where SAINT and other robotic initiatives are being conducted, are worried that this well-armed and wayward robot could go crazy and "go out and melt down a busload of nuns," and are therefore very anxious to either capture or destroy it. Unknown to them, our mechanical hero has gained a deep respect for life and has rejected its military background. Fortunately, our clever robot -- whose non-threatening demeanor is shown through his slapstick actions and his cartoony voice -- has an ally in Ally Sheedy (playing animal lover Stephanie Speck), and she helps him prove his sentience to his inventor, Newton Crosby (played by Steve Guttenberg).

Oh, and did you know there is a remake in the works? And it is going to feature a darker, more threatening main character? To that I say: "No! No remake Number 5!"

Anyway, our final flashback of the day is the song from which SAINT Number 5 (his official designation as the fifth SAINT unit) takes his new name. After hearing "Who's Johnny?" several times throughout the course of the film, Number 5 becomes ... Johnny 5! This song is first heard when Stephanie is teaching the escaped robot about all the things in her home ("need input!"). The song was written by Peter Wolf and recorded by El DeBarge, the lead singer of the family-based R&B group DeBarge (or, as I like to refer to them, "the 80s Jackson 5"). "Who's Johnny" reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart -- it's the only #1 hit El DeBarge had as a solo act. The music video features El DeBarge singing in a courtroom while Johnny 5 plays a few pranks. Ally Sheedy gets to reprise her role as Stephanie, but Steve Guttenberg is replaced by a cardboard standup. Oh, and you do get clips from the movie: Johnny plays a VHS tape labeled "Short Circuit." I guess it is Exhibit A or something ... you know, for the whole courtroom motif.

Once again, I remind you that the rule of three applies when doing Flashbacks. As I've made my three offerings, that's all till next week. Dedicated 80s-philes can find more flashbacks in the archives. As always, your comments are welcome on today's, or any other, flashback post. And if you like what I'm doing here, please share the link with your friends. If, however, you don't like the flashback, feel free to share it with your enemies.

And if you are on Twitter, and feel so inclined, please +K my influence in Music on @klout.

I'll see you in seven!

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