What is identity? Is it your face and how you look? Is it your mind and your memories? Is it the things that you have done or the people that you know? These key questions about identity are at the core of the movie Who?
I guess in this day and age, with technology being what it is, and identity theft and fraud being so prevalent, that identity is more important than ever before. But strangely even with all the great technological advances throughout the world, identity is just as hard to define today as it was in 1974, when this film was made (or in 1958 when Algis Budrys’ book was first published).
The film, Who?, starts in the Soviet Union, and with a car being run off the road and bursting into flames. Inside the car is an American scientist, Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova). Martino is seriously injured and rushed to the nearest hospital. About all that can be saved is his brain, his eyes and his right arm. The Soviet’s believe they would be on the negative end of a major diplomatic incident if Martino were to die, so they chose to rebuild him, ingeniously building a cyborg, humanoid body.
The film skips ahead six months, and the Soviets are returning Martino to the Americans. At the checkpoint to meet him is FBI agent Sean Rogers (Elliot Gould). As Martino crosses back to the west, Rogers does not know what to make of Martino. He certainly isn’t the man that was expected. When it is revealed that Martino had been in the care of one of the Soviet Union’s most devious spy masters, Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard), Rogers begins to believe that the metal man who has returned may not be Martino at all. And even if it is Martino, he may have been brainwashed into working for the Soviets.
As the story unfolds, Rogers – almost brutally – debriefs Martino trying to establish if it really is the scientist or not. All this is intercut with flashback footage of Azarin’s interrogation of Martino while being rehabilitated. Azarin and Roger’s method do not differ too much.
Who? Is a rather fascinating psychological drama, that does ask many interesting questions about identity. I wouldn’t call the film and action film, so if you are looking for car crashes and explosions, girls in bikinis and men with guns (all the things that the poster art promises) then you’d most likely be disappointed in this film. However if you are after thoughtful entertainment that is just as relevant today as is was back in ’74 then Who? may be the film for you.
The film is not without it’s flaws however – which are generally the clumsy injections of action into the story. And at the risk of sounding mean-spirited – because actor Joseph Bova does a remarkable job conveying the frustration and confusion that Martino feels upon his return to the west – is that the facial design for Martino’s cyborg-self does look rather silly. With the chubby rounded cheek pieces, the mask looks like a silver version of a laughing clown that you may find at a carnival. I realise it is not supposed to look robotic or even frightening, but it it shouldn’t look comic. It should look nondescript.
Maybe I am being harsh. It is not a film about aesthetics, or action. It is about identity, and what makes a man (or woman for that matter) who they are. It’s also a film that will stick with you after you have watched it, and that in itself may be its greatest achievement. It’s not a classic, but you’re likely to remember watching this, long after you’ve forgotten many of the so-called modern classics.