Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova), an American scientist who was previously captured by the Soviets in East Berlin and who was gravely injured in a terrible car crash, is finally returned to the Americans. But is it really Dr. Martino? Making identification difficult is that the Soviets had to totally rebuild Martino’s body after his car crash. He appears to still have one of his original arms but he’s otherwise a cyborg. He now has a metal head with an expressionless face. Is he really Lucas Martino or is he a spy? Even though his fingerprints check out, it’s possible that the real Martino’s arm could have been surgically grafted onto an imposter’s body.
It falls to agent Shawn Rogers (Elliot Gould) to determine whether or not this Martino is the real Martino. Rogers interrogates the man claiming to be Martino but struggles to determine whether or not the man is who he claims to be. Complicating matters is that, even if Martino is Martino, it’s possible that he could have possibly been brainwashed by Shawn’s Soviet counterpart, Col. Azarin (Trevor Howard). As Shawn interrogates Martino, the film frequently shows Azarin asking Martino the exact same questions. Is the film showing what Shawn thinks happened or is the film showing what actually happened?
Who? is based on a classic sci-fi novel by Algis Budrys. It’s pretty faithful to its source material but it doesn’t really work as a film. Some of that is because, despite the fact that Bova gives a good performance, the cyborg makeup is never really convincing. Many potentially dramatic scenes are ruined by how silly Bova looks. Trevor Howard is too British to be convincing as a sinister Russian and Elliott Gould is likewise miscast as Shawn Rogers. Gould was always at his best playing quirky, counter-cultural characters. Just think about his performance in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where Gould was such a strange P.I. that it allowed Altman to deconstruct the entire genre. In Who?, Gould is meant to be a much more conventional secret agent and he seems lost in the role.
Speaking of Robert Altman, he’s the type of director who probably could have worked wonders with Who? I think Michael Crichton probably could have pulled off the film. Maybe Mike Hodges, as well. But Jack Gold was a much less adventurous director than any of these filmmakers and his direction in Who? is often too low-key and conventional. I kept waiting for the film to really go for it and challenge my expectations and surprise me but it never did. Who? doesn’t seem to know what type of film it wants to be. Is it a spy thriller or a sci-fi film or an examination of what it means to be human? It tries to be all three but just doesn’t succeed.
The idea behind the movie is a good one and Budrys’s book remains intriguing. This is one that I wouldn’t mind seeing remade, perhaps by someone like Denis Villeneuve or Alex Garland.