Ira Levin was born 90 years ago today (August 27, 1929). The author, perhaps best known for his 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby, was a master at turning dark scenes of horror and suspense into twisted satire so deep, it’s not uncommon for readers to miss the joke. Perhaps this is most evident in his novel The Stepford Wives, whose on-screen interpretations and sequels have wandered into straightforward science fiction (or in the case of the 2004 Frank Oz remake, outright comedy). Levin never really tells us what is happening to the wives of Stepford to make them docile, simply hinting it has something to do with some unholy alliance between Disney engineers, artists, and other scientists who may have discovered a way to create life-like robots. In honor of Levin’s birthday, let’s talk about my Five Favorite Freaky Fake people.
Inspector Gadget: I don’t know what happened to me, but something about cyborgs just freaks me out. I have vague memories of watching Hanna Barbara’s Dynomutt in the 1970s and having nightmares for weeks about detachable paws and reticulated radar ears. By the time this bumbling, animated Maxwell Smart Analog came along in the 80s, I had thought I was over my fear, but I confess, I found it hard to watch those extended arms and rocket powered roller skates without wondering what those physical adjustments could do to a man’s soul. Yeah, I guess you can say I thought too much as a kid.
Roy Batty: I was a late adopter to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner, missing it’s initial release by nearly a decade. When I finally filled this gap in my geek credentials in the 90s I – like most viewers – was entranced by Rutger Hauer’s philosophical replicant. With all due respect to Sylvia Hoeks’ cold, relentless Luv in the recent sequel, Hauer managed to concoct a witches brew of bitter anger, regret, and acceptance that resonated long after the credits rolled. Hauer’s semi-improvised ‘Tears in the Rain” monologue has been called “perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history.
T-800: Speaking of cold and relentless, there is no embodiment of those virtues greater than Arnold Schwarzenneger’s depiction of the original Terminator in James Cameron’s 1984 film. This kill-bot wrapped in human flesh simply will not stop until it’s target is dead, and we get to watch as the surface parts of its humanity gets stripped away revealing the cold alloy beneath (starting with an absolute gruesome scene where Arnold pulls out a damaged eyeball). The T-1000 may have been deadlier, “Salvation’s” Marcus Wright more soulful, and Genisys’ continuity-imploding John Connor much more ridiculous, but none can match Arnie’s menacing promise, “I’ll be back.”
Ash: Ridley Scott finds another place on this list with the original android from the Alien series. We don’t even know the science officer from the Nostromo is not human until he gets bashed over the head and explodes in all his milky glory. We got to meet several different versions of Hyperdyne Systems’ fake folks, from noble Bishop to scheming David to honorable Walter, but none could match the simple pragmatism of Ash.
The Westworld Gunslinger: The current HBO series of Westworld is a masterwork. A well written, well acted exploration as to what it means to be human, destiny vs. free will, and exactly how bad people can be, it’s a joy to watch every week. But in terms of pure terror, it can’t hold a candle to Yul Brynner’s silver eyes and knowing smirk as he murder-kills his way across the original theme park. The Gunslinger was the original Terminator, and his influence is seen today every time a plot calls for a good robot gone wrong.
There’s my five. Share your favorites in the comments below!