Stars: Michael Rennie, Karen Steele, Wendell Corey, Warren Stevens and Eduard Franz
I've wanted to see Cyborg 2087 ever since I first heard about it, because it's basically Terminator 2: Judgment Day shot a quarter of a century earlier. Having finally seen it, I find myself intrigued by the similarities but laughing as I compare the two. After all, T2 is that rarest of pictures: one that's commercially successful, critically acclaimed and culturally important. It won four Oscars, ranks in the Top 40 at IMDb and appears on three AFI Top 100 lists. Its pioneering special effects are still mimicked today, its dynamic action shaped American cinema and its iconic performances entered the cultural fabric of the world. Cyborg 2087 is precisely none of those things, but it still tells a remarkably similar story. Given that James Cameron, while clearly the most successful film director of all time, is hardly known for his original ideas, evident most obviously through the lack of even one within the three hour running time of Avatar, I can't help but wonder if he saw this.
In T2, a T-800 cyborg is sent back in time from a future where the human race has been enslaved by cyborgs to stop a scientist, Dr Miles Dyson, from perfecting a microprocessor he's working on at Cyberdyne Systems that will allow that future to happen. Here, Garth A7 is a cyborg sent back in time from a future where the human race has been enslaved by cyborgs to stop a scientist, Prof Sigmund Marx, from demonstrating his invention of radio-telepathy at Future Industries Inc that will allow that future to happen. In T2, that 'good' cyborg is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, an imposing 6'2" actor who is ordered by John Connor not to kill anyone. Here, it's Michael Rennie, an imposing 6'4" actor whose raygun paralyses rather than kills. In T2, this hero is pursued by a T-1000 cyborg killing machine. Here, it's pursued by a pair of tracers, cyborg killing machines of course. And the similarities don't stop there.
There are differences too, most obviously with the production values. T2 cost an unprecedented $100m or so, took 171 days to film at 20 different sites with up to 1,000 crew members. Cameron also required special effects so advanced that they were still being invented as the picture was made. The groundbreaking CGI that takes up only five minutes of screen time took 25 man years to create. I haven't been able to track down equivalent numbers for Cyborg 2087, but it's pretty clear that they're low on every front, even for a mid sixties indie picture. The effects, especially, are unreedemably awful, courtesy of a man named Roger George. At this point, he was relatively new to the industry and was known mostly for beach movies, hardly effects heavy pictures. No doubt he was given little to work with here. Yet he would go on to much better things in a prolific career that lasted into the late eighties and included a stint on, drum roll please, The Terminator.
While the often eerie similarities to T2 are the primary reason to watch this, there is another: the star, Michael Rennie. Beyond being a watchable actor, whatever he's tasked to elevate, he made precisely two science fiction films: The Day the Earth Stood Still and this. That these movies sit at different ends of the quality scale isn't important, but it is notable that he was cast as an alien in that film primarily because American audiences wouldn't recognise him, but in this one primarily because they would. He isn't bad here, keeping some of the calm feel he exuded as Klaatu, while adding both toughness and a wooden demeanour to fit a cyborg nature with its lack of emotions. The catch is that we can't help but look at him and think terminator, that's how pervasive Arnie has become in popular culture. Rennie actually has two inches on Schwarzenegger and he'd put on a little weight since 1951, but he clearly isn't the 'human Panzer tank' that Arnie was.
However, he's clearly above the material and he just as clearly knows it, though he plays along professionally. He arrives in 1966 on schedule with instructions to proceed to Desert City, locate Future Industries Inc, find Marx and bring him back, alive if possible but dead if necessary. That's straight forward enough, but where the script doesn't have holes it has gaps, so for a while he's stuck in a ghost town hiding from Sam Gilmore and his uncle who are heading for an old casino. He's also hindered by his costume. Never mind 'your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle', Garth has a tight beige outfit that hints at a uniform with dinky silver boots, so he just borrows Sam's jeep while he isn't looking. None of this enforces Garth as tough or dangerous, though he does zap these locals with his raygun. Klaatu was polite for a lot of reasons; Garth has some edge but is still far too passive for someone tasked with saving the world from future enslavement.
It takes a while for us to warm up to Garth and I'm not quite sure when we get there. It might be when he starts to interact with characters that actually matter, such as Dr Sharon Mason, at the professor's lab. He hypnotises her, then uses radio-telepathy to convince her to help him, while clearing her mind of the reasons why. I think it's more likely to be when the tracers show up, the cyborg killing machines that follow him through time to destroy him before he can destroy them by destroying their future. They're unceasing because it's what they do it's all they do. It's no stretch for the inherently trustworthy Rennie to appear superior as these guys are morons, though it's hardly the fault of the stuntmen given the job of playing them. They run around like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in GI Joe outfits, tracking Garth with the sundials on their wrists. I wasn't expecting the carefully liquid movements of a T-1000, but this is as stupid as it sounds.
One bright moment in the script highlights that Garth realises that making the wrong change in the past could adversely affect the future and, by extension, his mission. If he kills someone, for instance, that could erase him from the future. Unfortunately this means that he can't go all hell for leather and so finds himself stuck avoiding the law and being nice to people. Without Rennie dominating the screen, we're forced to notice the rest of the cast, who are a varied but mostly inconsequential bunch. Karen Steele is most obvious as Dr Mason, as she's very pleasing to the eye. This was the same year that she appeared as Eve McHuron, the leader of Mudd's Women in that episode of Star Trek, and she didn't need Venus drug to land that role. However, while she does reasonably well early on, especially in scenes opposite Eduard Franz and Warren Stevens, she overdoes things later in the film, especially during the finalé.
Franz, perhaps best known for The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, is generic as Prof Marx, a pale shadow of the Sam Jaffe role from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Stevens is a decent love interest though he had much more to do in Forbidden Planet. I have no doubt that both of these actors would have done better with better material, but it just wasn't on offer. Surprisingly, it's Wendell Corey who emerges from the background as a sheriff who remains a day late and a dollar short throughout. Sure, he's as obviously drunk as he was in The Astro-Zombies, but he's a lively drunk this time out. He doesn't believe anyone and asks plenty of questions but never quite manages to put two and two together to make four. 'That's impossible,' he slurs. 'You're all imagining things.' Also recognisable are Harry Carey Jr, who offers a little comic relief as the town's journalist, and dancing John Beck in his screen debut, almost a decade before playing Moonpie on Rollerball.
In short, this isn't a good film, but it's probably fair to say that it was a better film in 1966 than it appears today. Compared to regular sixties sci-fi schlock, it's a relatively intelligent piece with a number of interesting ideas. Writer Arthur C Pierce wasn't known for quality material, his career full of pictures like Women of the Prehistoric Planet, The Navy vs the Night Monsters and The Las Vegas Hillbillys. For all its many plot holes, this and its companion piece, Dimension 5, are high points in his filmography. Director Franklin Adreon ended his career with these two movies, after a couple of decades working on movie serials and TV shows. As his directorial career began with the late Republic serial, Canadian Mounties vs Atomic Invaders, at least it ended well. The challenge today is to watch without thinking about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a challenge I failed utterly. Cameron made a worse Pocahontas with Avatar but he made a better Cyborg 2087 with T2.