Monday, October 23, 2023

"Your Head's Off Screwing the I.500" - Crosstalk (1982)

Let us now voyage to the island/continent/country known as Australia to investigate 1982's Crosstalk, an early computer thriller warning us about the dangers of computerized apartments. Directed by Mark Egerton (assistant director on 12 Monkeys) and Keith Salvat (not assistant director on 12 Monkeys), Crosstalk is an update of Rear Window for the early 1980s, in which the rear window is not a window at all but a computer monitor.

Some of your universe's critics fail to appreciate the visionary Crosstalk. For example, reviewer Jacob Knight writes, "Sadly, this...just sort of put-puts [i.e., putt-putts] along until an ambiguous anticlimax that suddenly makes it’s barely 80-minute runtime seem like an interminable waste in hindsight." Reviewer unclenugget writes, "This was pretty dull." And reviewer ItsLV calls the film an "Ozploitation snoozefest."

Read on for the truth about Crosstalk...

Like all Australian films, I must assume, Crosstalk’s first line of dialogue is “G’day,” said in the middle of the night by a woman to her computer programmer boyfriend as he arrives home after unsuccessfully attempting to debug a computer program. “He wants the I.500 yesterday and I need another month,” the man explains about his boss, Mr. Whitehead. The couple shares a drink and goes to bed.

In the morning, the coffee maker in the kitchen blinks on and a radio turns on by itself, indicating the couple lives in what would be called a “smart home” in the twenty-first century.

After waking up, the programmer, Ed, goes for a jog in the forest, a stark contrast to the blue-tinged, high-tech equipment in the house. As his girlfriend Cindy makes breakfast using dozens of machines (some malfunctioning), Ed hooks himself up to a computer to measure his vital signs. 

Complaining about the malfunctions running breakfast, Cindy says over a video intercom, “God, I knew it was a mistake allowing this…thing…in here.”

“I didn’t notice you complaining when it was lightening the workload,” Ed responds smoothly.

Cindy explains the situation eloquently: “You have lived and breathed those machines of yours to the detriment of everything else, including me! Even when we make love, I feel like I’ve just got your body and that’s all. Your head’s off screwing the I.500!”

Later, Ed embraces Cindy as if nothing is wrong before he heads to work. Unfortunately, there appears to be some kind of malfunction in his computerized car—the brakes don’t work! Ed crashes into some trees.

The filmmakers cut to Ed’s hospital bed, where he is hooked up to beeping machines and watched over by a worried Cindy.

Elsewhere, Mr. Whitehead flies in a helicopter to his downtown office to complain to George Hollister, Ed’s elderly partner and financier, about how inconvenient Ed’s accident is. “If we can’t deliver the I.500 at the latest by the end of this month,” Whitehead says, “we’ll be in serious trouble. And you’ll be facing the end of a very long career in electronics with nothing to show for it. It’d be better off if he died.”

In a scene perhaps intended to be comedic, Whitehead meets Ed at the hospital’s therapeutic swimming pool. While Ed treads water, Whitehead maneuvers a new electronic wheelchair around the pool, explaining to Ed that they are putting Ed up in a high-tech, high-rise apartment to complete work on the I.500. (There is no mention of Ed’s cabin in the forest, and no indication of why they are moving him as well as the I.500, which appears to be the size of several rooms.)

In the massive apartment, George sets up the massive I.500 and its many, many video monitors.

Ed, now quite bitter, sends George away. He is alone with his new nurse, Jane, who asks if he would like a pain killer.

“No,” Ed says, presumably making a joke. “He’s just a bore, that’s all.” (If I might explain the joke, I believe Ed is implying that Jane’s term “pain killer” was referring not to an analgesic but to murdering George, whom Ed sees as not a pain but a bore.)

Later, Ed acts grumpily on the massive balcony of his high-tech apartment overlooking Sydney Harbor (a view shared by all Australian apartments, I must assume). 

In an interesting plot complication, on the elevator, Ed meets his upstairs neighbors Ann and David. Seconds after their meeting, David slams Ann’s hand in their car door while he threatens her and growls, “You’ve served your purpose. It’s time to move on. I want this mess that we mistakenly call marriage cleaned up now. I want you out of my business affairs. I want you out of my life!”

Later, as Ed undergoes physical therapy in the pool, an unseen person or thing attempts to murder him by lowering his paralyzed body under the water. Jane the nurse rescues him at the last second, and he ascribes it to a simple equipment malfunction. The camera, however, seems to have other ideas, as it pans over to the I.500’s tape drive spinning and holds on the shot for several seconds.

At night, the I.500 taps into the building’s security cameras and observes a fight between David and Ann where he slaps her. The computer also observes Cindy and Ed kissing, before which Ed tells Cindy colorfully he’s had “a prick of a day.” 

Suspensefully, we watch Ed and Cindy sleeping while a segment of the I.500 moves across the apartment as an independent robot.

The next morning, Ed wheels himself in front of the I.500 main console, where a pie chart (somehow) indicates a malfunction is occurring.

Ed punches keys furiously, attempting to figure out how to investigate this malfunction, but he has no success. He calls George on the phone and complains, “It’s not flashing now.” George says he will visit Ed after work to check on the machine. Minutes later, the malfunction appears to manifest in the kitchen as the garbage disposal in the sink squirts tomato paste into Jane’s face.

Meanwhile, George conspires with Whitehead over the phone, calling Ed disposable (perhaps a witty reference to the garbage disposal) and saying they will soon gain control of the I.500. Whitehead says eloquently, “I don’t like loose ends. They have a way of forming themselves into a noose.”

The film enters spicier territory when Ed and Jane watch the I.500’s monitor observing a woman in a nearby window undress and climb into bed carrying a whip. Neither the audience nor the artificial intelligence, however, observe what happens next.

In a suspenseful sequence, Ed wheels into the kitchen to investigate the garbage disposal incident. He reaches into the disposal…but nothing happens. He returns to the I.500 console in the next room, but then wheels back to the kitchen to stare at the garbage disposal…and nothing happens again.

When George arrives at the apartment, Ed tells him they need to pull the I.500 off the market until Ed can discover why it is malfunctioning. George refuses and offers to make them drinks. He uses an eye dropper to put something into Ed’s drink, but before Ed drinks it, he has a realization—some kind of malfunction about the garbage disposal is the result of the disposal being empty. He jams a lamb chop into the disposal.

“What are you doing?” George asks.

“Reenacting a murder,” Ed says. “I’ll explain in a minute, George.”

Ed returns to the I.500 console and explains that he has “witnessed” a murder through the audio the I.500 has recorded: the sound of music, then a body hitting the floor, then a saw, then a garbage disposal. Ed and Cindy usher George out of the apartment, though the glass of poisoned alcohol is still sitting in the apartment.

Ed tells Cindy, “Look, everybody keeps on telling me to relax. I think that man upstairs has murdered his wife, chopped her up, and put her down the garbage disposal.”

“That’s nonsense. I really think you’re being daft!”

Then Ed sees on the monitor his suspected murderer and murder victim in the parking garage getting into their car. 

The filmmakers follow George to a pay phone, where he wants more money for working on the I.500 because, apparently, of its deductive abilities. Shockingly, however, George is murdered in the phone booth—by the same couple that Ed suspected of murdering each other!

Back at the apartment, Ed explains to Cindy that he believes there really was a murder. The old man murdered his wife and is now “using his mistress as a double.” 

“Darling, that machine can’t think,” Cindy says. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you had Boffin’s Disease.” (I must confess I have no idea what Boffin’s Disease is.)

“Maybe. It’s just that all the pieces fit.”

“No, they don’t!” Cindy replies accurately.

At night, when Ed is sleeping, Cindy calls Ed’s doctor and tells him Ed is hallucinating. As she speaks on the phone, the I.500’s red light/eye glows, but Cindy does not notice. She returns to bed.

The next day, when Ed and his nurse are alone, he tells her he plans to go to the suspected murderer’s apartment. “Hang on, Ed,” she says. “I’ll go up. You’ll take forever in your Rolls Royce.”

Ed, perhaps unwisely, gives her a listening device to attach to the man’s phone and allows her to break into the man’s apartment—Ed is able to unlock the front door using the I.500. She investigates the apartment and bugs the phone, but shockingly Ed sees the old man’s car in the parking garage, watching the I.500 monitor. Startled by seeing the car (presumably), Ed slips out of his wheelchair, so he is unable to warn his nurse in time. She hides in the laundry room. In one of the film’s best shots, the lights come on suddenly, revealing to the audience but not the nurse that there is a head in the dryer!

Thus begins a game of cat and mouse in the man’s apartment, as the nurse hides and Ed attempts to crawl upstairs to rescue her, his electronic wheelchair unfortunately disabled.

Fortunately, everything ends without any real danger, as the nurse makes her way back to Ed’s apartment at the same time as Cindy. Cindy scolds the two of them: “Serves you both right for playing amateur detectives. I mean, what would have happened if you had found something? Bloody stupid thing to do. Imagine explaining to a murderer that you’re in his apartment looking for a body.” She adds, “Ed, don’t look so down. Tomorrow we can watch a thriller, and you can tell me who the murderer is in the first five minutes, okay?”

Cindy is ironically unaware that the killer is upstairs, depositing the severed head in a bag and fondling a hypodermic needle.

Unfortunately for the nurse as she exits Ed’s apartment, the murderer is in the elevator when she leaves the building. In another gruesome, even giallo-esque shot, she sees an eyeball in the killer’s paper bag.

The nurse screams in the elevator.

Later, Cindy sits alone in the living room when the I.500 plays a recording of the phone conversation in which Whitehead obliquely instructs George to get rid of Ed to stop development on the I.500. Suspicious, she wanders the apartment, where the I.500 shows her video of the murderer and his mistress. Unfortunately, she doesn’t put the pieces together, as the murderer is already in the apartment. He knocks her unconscious.

In the thrilling climax, the murderer approaches Ed’s bed while brandishing the hypodermic needle. However, the man is suddenly shot by Whitehead, who is suddenly in the apartment. “We don’t want anything to interfere with the I.600, do we, Ed?”

In a final, unexplained twist, the I.500 glares with its red eye at Whitehead, who falls down dead.

Also, for some reason, Cindy lies on the floor, sucking her finger.

Crosstalk is a clever integration of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) with the room-sized computer thriller typified by Donald Cammell's Demon Seed (1977) (not to be confused with Demon Seed) and Joseph Sargent's Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Much of the film is shot from the point of view of the I.500 as it pans across empty horizons and zooms in on nearby apartment balconies. As Ed becomes more and more paranoid, the soundtrack fills with machine clicks and blips. Perhaps the only negative aspect of the film is the fact that nothing much happens throughout its runtime until the end, when the hero with a disability is saved almost arbitrarily by the capitalist villain, who dies inexplicably seconds later. Of course, this is a bold move story-wise, but viewers not ready for such a complex, visionary ending might perceive incorrectly that the narrative and its ending are a bit slapdash. Those of us who are true cinephiles, however, will understand the true meaning of the ending...that even capitalism is no match for a computer the size of a room that can blink red lights at its victims. Such a lesson is even more timely in 2023 than it was in 1982...or is it? I can only assume the answer is yes..yes, it is.