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Was it Called The Melancholic Android or Making Mr. Right?: The Deception of Film Memory

By Stephen Lee Naish.

 

 

Many years ago I chanced upon a science fiction film being shown on television. I was very young at the time, maybe ten or eleven years old. Most of the major plot details, the actors who starred in the film, any lines of dialogue spoken, even the title, since then had been erased from my mind, all of it except the film’s very last scene. The narrative details I could string together are as follows. A nerdy, socially awkward scientist creates an artificially intelligent android that resembles him. The android is designed with the intention of space exploration. The android turns into a national sensation and instantly becomes more popular than the scientist who had designed him. Instead of sending the android into space, the scientist switches places with him and blasts off on the mission to explore the cosmos. When asked by mission control if he is afraid to be alone in space he responds that he is not because, “you see, I’m not very good with people.” This final moment of the film shook me, and to this day, it still shakes me. It’s difficult to fully explain why, but the premise of a human being blasting off into space alone has haunted me for years and filled me with a deep unfathomable melancholia that is not just unique to this forgotten film, but to almost all films and television shows about human loneliness and the vastness of space.

This melancholic feeling probably inflicted my life during the more existential episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I also watched as a kid. I also felt it during the films Silent Running (1972), The Fountain (2006), and Gravity (2013). This sensation returned to me more recently whilst watching Christopher Nolan’s epic Interstellar (2014), particularly during the moment when it becomes clear that Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi) has been left alone on the spaceship Endurance for 23 years, whilst Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), have been exploring the life sustaining potential of Miller’s Planet, a world that is under the extreme influence of gravitational time dilation. Thus, when Cooper and Brand return to the Endurance from Miller’s Planet, only an hour or so had passed in their timeframe, whilst Romilly had been isolated for over two decades.

A few months ago I made the decision to exercise my internet research skills (i.e. search Google) and try and track down the film that has haunted me all these years. I had made an attempt a few years before, even going as far to query the film with a prominent professor who specialises in science fiction films and space literature; with my rather shaky description of the film he unsurprisingly drew a blank. I was hoping that at this point the internet had caught up on what I assumed was an obscure sci-fi curio. With the last line of dialogue still rattling around my head and, as detailed above, a loose description of the plot, I set about putting my mind to rest. It turned out the internet had caught up. I managed to find the film within about ten minutes of searching. The film in question was titled Making Mr. Right, a 1987 romantic comedy, with only a hint of science fiction involved. The film starred a young John Malkovich, who at this point had yet to become the household name in films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and In the Line of Fire (1993). Malkovich’s dual role as the awkward professor Dr. Jeff Peters and the child-like android Ulysses showed that he had great capacity. His physicality as ‘Ulysses’ is at times comedic, innocent and open, whilst the more subdued Dr. Peters is cynical, closed off, and stiff; they both however share a unique social awkwardness. It was no wonder the prominent film professor was unable to locate the movie within his library; Making Mr. Right was no sci-fi oddity and would have been well off his, and many other serious film scholars’, radar. The film is very much in the vein of late-Eighties/early-Nineties sci-fi/comedy gems such as My Science Project (1985), Weird Science (1985), Earth Girls are Easy (1988), and Encino Man (1992). Films that are bright and brash in design, incorporate pop music on the soundtracks, contain zany characters with a neat line in sarcastic quips and sexist comments, and have very limited understanding of actual science.

 

 

Making Mr. Right is only slightly more ‘mature’ than the films listed above. For a start it contains a sweet romance between the android Ulysses and Frankie Stone (Ann Magnuson), a brash young female public relations executive employed to humanize the android and to make the Ulysses space project palatable to the public, the U.S Congress, and potential private investors. However, the more time Frankie spends with Ulysses the more she becomes convinced he is the perfect man for her. Unlike the other men in her life, Ulysses is sweet natured, sensitive to her needs, and as she discovers, well-endowed and as such more than capable of a physical relationship. Meanwhile, Ulysses begins to develop intense feelings for her that are counter to his imposed programming and purpose of creation.

After a quick search I found a streaming version of the film online. To avoid copyright infringement the user (who I will not name, but thanks for uploading!) had chopped the film into ten minute sections. As I watched the shoddy narrative unfold I began to suspect that I must have originally only caught the last few moments of the film. Making Mr. Right seemed far removed from the narrative I had envisioned in my head. This suspicion was soon disproved as parts of the film became familiar. For example, an early scene in the film in which the Ulysses android is practicing walking within a padded room was recognizable for its Charlie Chaplin-like physicality. Ulysses charges around the room like a sugared up toddler, banging into the walls and trying again and again to comprehend the act of walking. Upon learning it was John Malkovich who was in the dual role it suddenly dawned on me that it had always been him in my memory who had spoken those haunting last lines of the film. For some inexplicable reason this had never ‘clicked into’ place, even after repeated viewings of Being John Malkovich (1999), Ripley’s Game (2002), and Red (2010).

As Making Mr. Right played out I wondered if even the last moments of the film were some kind of construct from fragments of other films and sparse memory. There seemed to be no build up towards what I recall as such an astonishing ending. The film continued to be goofy and almost impossible to comprehend in the way I thought I’d remembered it. Finally the ending approached. Ulysses confesses to Dr. Peters that he is in love with Frankie and has lost interest in space exploration. A press conference is arranged in which Ulysses is introduced to the world. He is asked numerous questions by the press who are all amazed by his superior intelligence. He becomes a worldwide phenomenon, adored by kids and adults, and the program becomes enormously funded by Congress. As previously discussed, by the end of the film Ulysses and Dr. Peters have switched places and this does occur as I had originally remembered. Ulysses visits Frankie’s house dressed up as Dr. Peters, and when she realizes it is him, they share a passionate reunion. Unbeknown to anyone else, Dr. Peters blasts off into space excited by the prospect of exploring the cosmos alone. It now becomes clear that Dr. Peters was playing the role of Ulysses during the press conference. His cold and calculating responses to the press were not those of an android, but his own callous contempt for other people.

What is interesting is that even at a young age my brain had somehow constructed an entirely different, perhaps even more exciting, narrative arc than the one played out in Making Mr. Right. Granted it has been many years since I originally saw the movie on television and in this format all kinds of factors, from advertisements spliced into the film at half hour intervals to getting up and going to the kitchen to grab a snack, can disrupt and change the narrative flow. However, the romantic comedy angle that is prominent in Making Mr. Right did not feature in my mind at all, possibly because my adolescent brain was simply not interested in such things yet. It came as something of a surprise that the film was a simplistic rom-com. In my head Making Mr. Right, or possibly The Melancholic Android, as I’m sure I had named the film in absence of an actual title, was a serious science fiction film in the mold of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972), or even Interstellar. As I got older I convinced myself that Making Mr. Right examined deep questions about human relationships with artificial life. Yet it turns out that the only exploration of any relationship in Making Mr. Right is a romantic imperative that leads to sexual gratification. In a way I tricked myself into thinking that Making Mr. Right was a more profound experience than it actually was. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it’s unlikely it will be the last. Films, books, television shows, comics, any media that has become a part of oneself is often interpreted differently at different times in life. As a kid I wanted to be Superman or Luke Skywalker, yet I now have more in common with the bumbling Clark Kent or the hapless C3PO. Perspectives change all the time. It is unlikely I’ll ever watch Making Mr. Right again, yet despite that I now know the narrative details that built up to it, that last moment when Dr. Peters is heading towards the unknown cosmos alone and content still feels the same and will still resonate with me for the rest of my life. It is a deception I am happy to believe in.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Stephen Lee Naish’s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including the arts and culture magazines GadflyThe QuietusEmpty Mirror, Everyday Analysis and Scholardarity. He is the author of the essay collection U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the recently published Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 4th, 2016.