For reasons beyond my control, I am now one of the 50 million Americans who have seen "Rocky IV." It's not my fault; I was drafted.
Let me hasten to say that the movie lived down to my expectations. By this time, Stallone should just name all his movies, "Pectorals V," "VI" and "VII." This cinematic combat between Rocky and the Russkie was as offensively predictable, as jingoistically implausible as the 32 blows Stallone took in the first round.
But what interested me -- and I use the term "interest" loosely -- was not the utterly silly battle between good and evil empires. It was the battle between good and evil technologies.
The script sets Rocky, the product of the American streets, against Ivan Drago, the product of Soviet science. The sum total of technological wizardry in Rocky's corner is a robot that he buys as a toy to serve his friend drinks. The Drago camp, however, comes with a full supply of high-tech printouts, with steroids and electrodes dedicated to the creation of a human fighting machine.
The American trainer says of the champion, "You're all heart, Rocky." The surly Soviet trainer says of his blond contender, "It's a matter of science. Drago is a look at the future."
To be honest, only a producer who had never tried to make a telephone call from Leningrad to Moscow would dare to present the Soviets as technological whizzes. Having bought bread in a Moscow bakery -- first you stand in one line to make a selection, then in another to pay the cashier, and then back to the first to pick up the bread -- I have no fantasies about their efficiency.
But the movie is not really about the U.S. and U.S.S.R. It's about Us and Them mentalities. In this case, it's Us and Them technologies. The guy with the heart comes up against the creature of science.
The visual subplot (if a movie with hardly a plot has a subplot) is high tech. Among the good guys, technology is just a benign handmaiden, even a toy. Among the bad guys, it's a menace to the human spirit. Science is either something we can play with or something out to dehumanize us. Nothing in between.
It's not hard to find some real-life sources for the opposing views that make it to the center ring. We have all seen the friendly consumer products of progress in our homes: programmed coffee makers, VCRs, microwave ovens. At the same time, we know that the world out there is full of less-benign improvements in the workings of automation or surveillance.
Even our computer age comes in two distinct us-and-them modes. Computers are user-friendly or user-indifferent. "Our" computer, the one with a permanent place in our office or home, is programmed to, literally, obey our commands. We can play games with it, write on it, add on it, spread sheets on it.
But the other computers "out there" are different. To "them," we are just a number interred forever on a microchip. Those computers have the power to screw up our credit rating or give us money, to drop us uncaringly from the Social Security rolls or, in the ultimate dehumanizing act, reduce everything to ashes.
It's easy to project such schizoid attitudes about technology onto the split screen and onto politics. Americans become the people with the personable robots. Soviets, the enemy, become the persons turned into robots. Good guys train by chopping wood. Bad guys train by digital readouts. But science doesn't come as pristinely outfitted with white and black hats, or with Red Stars and American stripes.
I don't want to make a Grade B movie into a Class A question. Rocky's own introspection about life is limited to such poetic lines as, "I just gotta do what I gotta do." The images about men and machines get as muddled in this movie as any head that's been used as a punching bag.
What you get for the price of admission is 15 rounds of blood and parody, East versus West. But you also get a look at a dangerously false dichotomy about modern technology, one that pits a guy with a "heart" against the machine man.
I'm not sorry that Ivan "the future," Ivan "the machine" lost. But I have a tough time cheering for the victory of the Cro-Magnon man from Philly.