Minding the Gaps: 'Cherry 2000' (1987)
What if Melanie Griffith starred in a satirical post-apocalyptic action film about a lonely man and a sexy robot and nobody noticed until years later?
Minding the Gaps is a recurring feature in which Keith Phipps watches and writes about a movie he’s never seen before as selected at random by the app he uses to catalog a DVD and Blu-ray collection accumulated over the course of the last 20+ years. It’s an attempt to fill in the gaps in his film knowledge while removing the horrifying burden of choice. This is the fourth entry.
Asked about Cherry 2000 in December of 1988 while making the rounds promoting Working Girl, Melanie Griffith couldn’t find much to say, and what she did manage wasn’t nice. “I hope it’s never released, that’s all,” she told a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, seemingly failing to realize that the modestly budgeted science fiction film she’d shot in 1985 had already been released. Sort of. Capsule reviews started turning up in newspapers’ home video round-ups in November of that year and, with little fanfare, the film aired on pay-per-view channels in December. If Griffith, exhausted from her junket duties, retired to her hotel room and turned on the right (or wrong) channel, she’d be confronted with the image of herself toting a gun around a post-apocalyptic Nevada landscape.
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If she looked at the TV listings, here’s how it would be described: “A lovesick businessman of the near future hires an attractive frontier scout to help him find a replacement for his damaged robotic playmate.” That may not sound like the plot of a hit movie, but it must have read like catnip for anyone looking for something unusual, and it picked up added appeal for a subset of those viewers thanks to a title that kind of sounded like it might combine sci-fi with teen sex comedies.
Rated PG-13 and relatively tame even by that standard, Cherry 2000 surely disappointed those looking for titillation. Those looking for a largely goofy adventure through the blasted near-future wasteland of, um, 2017 with a few ideas rattling around in its head, however, likely found plenty to enjoy. Or at least enough to enjoy for the film to pick up a small cult following over the years.
Without biting into my Reveal partner’s New Cult Canon turf, I can say it’s a largely deserved cult following, too, if more for its amiable spirit and low-effort vision of things to come than any kind of overlooked greatness. Written by a just-starting-out Michael Almereyda (who’d soon begin focusing on his own films), it’s directed by Steve De Jarnatt, a similarly just-starting-out filmmaker who’d picked up a next-big-thing reputation on the strength of his script for the last-night-on-earth love story Miracle Mile, a film he hoped to direct. He would, in time (and Miracle Mile would in turn pick up its own cult). But, as De Jarnatt recounts to film critic Walter Chaw on an audio commentary recorded for its 2015 Blu-ray release, when an attempt to film the project with Nicolas Cage fell through, De Jarnatt moved over to Cherry 2000, whose original director, Irwin Kershner, had dropped out.
Kershner seems to have left a bit of a mess behind. Science fiction and fantasy films shouldn’t feel obligated to explain every aspect of their worlds. In fact, it’s usually better when they don’t, offering hints and suggestions of a larger world without stopping cold to deliver endless exposition. But the world of Cherry 2000 never makes much sense. In 2017, disaster has swept the United States, except where it hasn’t. In fact, Anaheim yuppie Sam Treadwell (David Andrews) seems to be doing pretty well for himself in this post-cataclysmic world, making a look a bit like the world’s biggest problem might be the persistence of the 1980s’ materialism and wealth gap. He’s got a gadget-filled house and a beautiful wife named Cherry (Pamela Gidley). The only problem: Cherry’s a gadget, too, a lifelike android designed to meet his every need (until, that is, she short circuits).
So what’s gone wrong in 2017? The business world seems to belong exclusively to men but women haven’t been wiped from existence. They mostly seem to work as sex workers, but their services, as witnessed in a scene in which a nightclub flirtation quickly escalates into a complicated contract negotiation, are expensive and come with lots of strings attached. No wonder Sam’s desperate to put Cherry’s memories and personality into a working model. But, since she’s a relic of an earlier time — when, as a robot repairman says “Detroit still cared” — doing so means taking a trip to the desert and the place where law and order ends in order to retrieve one of the few surviving Cherry models. And doing that means hiring a tracker.
Enter E. Johnson, the tough scourer of the wasteland played by Griffith. On the borders of civilization, whatever has happened to divide men and women has broken down, and E. can be herself. And watching E. be herself stirs something in Sam. Eventually. For most of the film he still really wants Cherry back.
There’s a not-that-subtle but pretty effective critique of misogyny in that premise, and if Cherry 2000 gets too distracted by elements like a desert cult seemingly based around an idea of Americana frozen in 1963 and headed by a guy named Lester (a game Tim Thomerson), that critique still seems to be its main reason to exist. It’s certainly not an interest in imagining the world of the future (which is half-assed at best), or the Mad Max-inspired action (De Jarnatt describes the film as “Road Warrior lite”), which is executed with more enthusiasm than skill.
But it’s a weirdly endearing film, anyway, even if De Jarnatt didn’t always see it that way. “I’m proud to have directed it now,” he tells Chaw, while recalling a time when Harlan Ellison, whom he befriended and who liked the film, castigated him for being down on his own movie. And De Jarnatt is right to suggest it would make a good double feature with A Boy and His Dog, a similarly shaggy post-apocalyptic adaptation of an Ellison novella released in 1975 and starring Griffith’s sometime romantic partner Don Johnson, for reasons beyond those similarities. That film attracted little notice upon release but hung around anyway. However small its audience, Cherry 2000 also found its way to those most likely to embrace it despite Griffith’s hope it would disappear. The oddities have a way of sticking around.
Newspaper quotations via newspapers.com
A postscript: I think I picked up this disc during a Kino Lorber sale with an eye toward someday writing about it as part of my Dissolve column The Laser Age. Should I continue that project in some form here? I've thought about just picking up where I left off (a la Scott with New Cult Canon). I've also wondered if it would work if I restarted it as a podcast, though I'm not sure I have the skills or bandwidth for that. Hmm... Any input would be appreciated.
Watched this a lot on cable as a kid, and caught it again just before lockdown on a nice 35mm as part of the Brooklyn Nitehawk's Deuce series. The series usually features a film released at a 42nd St cinema. Since it didn't play theaters, they cheated a bit and counted its VHS release at a Times Square video store. Played great with a crowd!