Movies: I Love Maria

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-05-22 12:00:00 No comments

Most "science fiction movies" have historically been action films with some SF elements thrown in for spice. The exceptions stand out both for their de-emphasis on action and their uncommon intelligence generally: Arrival, Primer, Upstream Color, Stalker, Solaris, Pi. Sometimes you had fusions of science fiction and action that worked: The Terminator, Blade Runner (and 2049), the high parts of the Alien franchise. But for the most part SF in the movies exists as a leavener, not as a base.

I Love Maria hails from Hong Kong, whose film industry isn't known for having much SF at all in any form. In that sense it's more typical of a Western science-fiction movie; actually, it's closest in spirit to a mainstream Hollywood comedy with SF sprinkles. But it stands out from the few other Hong Kong SF productions for actually putting SF elements onscreen, even if on the cheap, instead of leaving it at the level of a modern-day technology-based thriller (Bitcoin Heist). It also uses the kind of shameless, slapstick humor I find myself laughing at even when I know it's Naked Gun dumb.

"True perfection can only be found in machines!"

In some indeterminate near-future Hong Kong, a criminal ring calling itself the "Savior Gang" uses a giant robot, a steam-snorting beast christened Pioneer 1, to commit crimes. Police weapons are useless against something that can walk right through the walls of a bank, drag out the safe, and blast off with the jets in its feet. Curly (John Sham), a bumbling tech geek working in the police's R&D department, has devised a supersonic cannot that could defeat Pioneer, but his boss doesn't want someone else hogging his glory. Dejected, Curly goes out drinking, and ends up saving "Whiskey" (Tsui Hark), a drunk at the bar, from a beating at the hands of some thugs.

Curly doesn't realize Whiskey is in fact a disgraced former member of the Saviors -- at least, not until members of the gang (including Whiskey's sympathetic boss) come calling at his house. And Whiskey himself ends up targeted by the Saviors' newest robot, Pioneer 2 -- one that looks exactly like the brassy second-in-command of the gang, Maria (Sally Yeh). Not that Whiskey can tell the difference between a robot and his former flame in a brightly lit room when he's got a BAC high enough to count as an SAT score. When Pioneer 2 ends up wrecked, Curly 'botnaps the corpse, reprograms her to follow his orders (her new password is "I love Curly"), and drafts her into helping save Whiskey from the real Maria, and save himself from the wrath of his own boss. Did I mention the dippy subplot about the intrepid reporter who manages to get the worst of it in every single scene, and when fired from his job, retaliates by starting his own one-man news agency?

"There's no way you can trust her, her missile is gigantic!"

Everything's delivered in the cheerfully silly way most HK movies operate, especially anything that could be tagged as a comedy. There's little attempt to be realistic about the technology -- heck, we have a scene where Whiskey and Curly mistakenly electrocute each other through their clothes. All that stuff, including Mariabot's growing independence and sentience after her memory is damaged, serve as springboards for visual gags and that wonderfully shameless variety of HK stuntwork. The point is not to be realistic, but to have fun with it, and some of the visuals are genuinely inspired for the budget: Pioneer 1 itself is obviously a man in a suit most of the time, except when its arms and legs break off and do their own thing, Voltron-style. (And the final form of the Mariabot is very clearly inspired by the Maschinenmensch of the same name from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.)

Not long ago I watched Chappie, a dismal SF movie from the creators of District 9, a genuinely good SF movie. Chappie had so many problems I didn't know where to begin tabulating them; for every one good idea four bad ones followed in quick succession. But the biggest problem was a general failure of tone. It couldn't decide if it was satirical or sincere, and that made all the SF material in it moot. I Love Maria is clearly a comedy first and everything else second, which is fine, but it's also clearly part of the HK tradition of movies as melting pots, where SF is just one of many things that can be thrown in and stewed, and where the sheer cheek of the whole thing is the real goal. If SF is only to be an ingredient, best to be honest about it, and enjoy playing with it as much as anything else in the recipe.

Reprogramming Maria for great justice.

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