Lady Anachronism’s Fallout Shelter Makes Room for WHO? (1973)
Lady Anachronism’s Fallout Shelter Presents:
Movie Review by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
Pull up a chair, pass around some rations, and get comfortable. Here at Lady Anachronism’s Fallout Shelter, I’ll take you back into time, when Atomic Age cats and dolls fretted over the bomb and visions of alien invaders flickered on the big screen at the local drive-in. Technological or political developments may have made these films obsolete, but I hope you’ll join me in rediscovering forgotten Cold War-era cinema.
It’s a scorching-hot summer, so it’s the perfect time to chill out with some Cold War concoctions.
Unless you’re a young whippersnapper, you probably remember a time when Americans feared nuclear attack from our most dreaded enemy, the Soviet Union. Communism was a threat that led to the construction of bomb shelters. Most schoolchildren participated in bomb drills that involved ducking and covering under their desks. Even into the 1980s, when I was in elementary school, there was a sense of dread that the Russians could attack at any time. Would we be able to retaliate? How much time did we have? Should we make the first strike? Espionage, intrigue, and fear made this a great time to make films or write books.
WHO? (1973)—which was also called ROBO MAN—is based on the phenomenal 1958 Algis Budrys novel “Who?” The film opens with two cars driving along, one of which seems to be pushing the other off the road. There’s a horrific crash. We discover that the lone survivor of this crash was an American scientist named Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova), who has sustained severe injuries. The Soviets save his life. His skull was crushed, necessitating a metal helmet-type apparatus over his cranium and face. A chest plate keeps his heart beating, and a metallic arm was used to replace the missing limb.
A group of American government agents are then seen waiting outside of a gated area, discussing Dr. Martino’s return to America. As Martino is led to the Allied outpost, the men discover, to their horror, that Martino is now a metallic man. His facial features are obscured by this mask. FBI agent Sean Rogers (Elliott Gould) is unconvinced that the metal man is really Martino. He believes his archenemy, Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard), is handing over a Russian spy instead.
Unless you’ve read the novel (and maybe even if you have), the opening sequences of this film are confusing. The film deviates from the book substantially in that Martino is disfigured in an explosion while working on his secret K-88 project in the novel. This gives the Soviets a more plausible motive for wanting to keep Martino alive. The film version of Martino is also working on a secret project called Project Neptune, but there seems to be no connection between the automobile accident that nearly killed him and that project. There’s no solid explanation given for why Martino’s car was pushed off the road.
Martino is not immediately returned to the United States. Instead, he (and the audience) endures endless interrogation. Rogers keeps him in a small room in an Allied facility to learn his true identity. He’s convinced that Azarin either sent a Russian spy in Martino’s place or brainwashed the real Martino into spying for the Russians. This film (and the book, for that matter), would have been extremely short and pointless today. Even if the Soviet Union still existed, DNA testing would solve this matter quickly. Fingerprinting was certainly a widely used identification method even in the 1950s, but this is dismissed by Rogers. He’s so skeptical that he believes Martino’s one natural arm might be someone else’s.
In flashbacks, we get glimpses of Martino’s interrogation by the Soviets. We also learn about his early life, his loves, and his brilliant mind. Bova does the best he can with the material he’s given. He manages to give emotion to Martino, a man whose own expressions are veiled in mystery. Being able to emote under a ridiculous metal mask is a remarkable feat, but sadly one that couldn’t save WHO? from being a snooze-fest.
Even so, WHO? could have been an amazing film. Budrys’s novel is a thrilling, fast-paced mystery, despite the obsolete circumstances. Even though we know that the Soviet Union no longer exists and DNA testing would clear up any doubts about Dr. Martino’s identity, Budrys was such an amazing storyteller that even a modern reader wonders right up until the end about the man beneath the metal helmet. After an hour of insisting that he’s really Martino, viewers of the film will probably stop caring. Too much time is given in the film to interrogation and Rogers’s own skepticism. The real suspense in the novel comes when Martino is finally released back into society. Had they released a spy? The FBI had to keep tabs on this man because they believed him to be a real threat. It’s to the film’s disadvantage that it focuses on questioning rather than exploring the real fear of unleashing a potential enemy upon the populace.
About an hour into the film, something interesting finally happens, something unintentionally hilarious. A car chase, complete with bass- and guitar-heavy 1970s-style car chase music, ensues just before Martino is put on a plane to return to the U.S. Some bad guys of unknown and unexplained origin start shooting at the plane. This chase feels tacked-on even by 1970s car chase standards. I won’t ruin the one interesting part of WHO? for you, but I will tell you that it really doesn’t advance the plot of the film.
Martino makes it back to America, Miami to be exact. In the novel, Martino lived in New York. New York seems more appropriate. The metal-headed man seems oddly out of place among the palm trees. If a cyborg could blend in anywhere, it would be New York City. He wants to go back to work on Project Neptune, but he’s being tailed by the FBI and isn’t cleared to go back to work.
One of the many problems I have with the film version of WHO? is the fact that several major plot points and the twist that Budrys spent a couple hundred pages setting up are kind of tossed together in the last 30 minutes. The first hour is boring and repetitive. The last 30 minutes feel as if the filmmakers remembered that they had to wrap this thing up, so they slapped some elements of the novel into the movie. Without the proper setup, however, it seems choppy, sloppy, and confusing.
If you’re looking for a refreshing taste of Cold War paranoia while relaxing on the beach this summer, pick up a copy of the book. It will make a lot more sense and keep you on the edge of your beach chair. The film is great if you’re ready for a nap.
© Copyright 2012 by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel