Looking back at D.A.R.Y.L.

A military cyborg boy goes on the run in the 80s family sci-fi, D.A.R.Y.L. Ryan takes a look back at a decent movie with a misleading poster...

Ah, D.A.R.Y.L. One of the less commonly discussed family movies of the 80s, but one firmly lodged in my mind, largely because of its poster and subsequent videotape cover. Depicting a small boy at the helm of an SR-71 Blackbird (inarguably the coolest aircraft ever designed), it immediately captured my youthful imagination.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered that D.A.R.Y.L. is not an all-action adventure about a kid hurtling about in a stolen aircraft, but a fairly low-key drama about a cyborg child slowly integrating into normal family life. The aircraft theft only occurs in the final reel, and is mere minutes long – if you thought the aerial action in Firefox came along disappointingly late in the show, as I did, you can imagine how crushed I was by the acres of talking and bonding in D.A.R.Y.L. Unfortunately, my local video shop refused to give in to my demands for a refund.

To more mature eyes, though, D.A.R.Y.L. isn’t a bad film, and like many family films of the 80s, contains some surprisingly adult moments that producers might balk at today.

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Barret Oliver, fresh from the lead in The NeverEnding Story, stars as Daryl. At the start of the movie, he’s an apparently normal young boy who seems to have been kidnapped by a deranged chap in a brown car. Chased by a helicopter, the kidnapper ushers Daryl away to the protection of a nearby forest, before driving his vehicle straight off the nearest cliff.

With no recollection about his past or his parents’ whereabouts, Daryl temporarily ends up in care, before he’s packed off to live with foster carers Andy and Joyce Richardson. Finding himself in an all-American middle-class neighbourhood, Daryl gradually adapts into their way of life, revealing glimpses of his uncanny intelligence and superhuman skills as he does so. He inspires awe in his new best friend Turtle (Danny Corkill) by setting a new high score in Pole Position, and transfixes his surrogate father with his supernatural ability to play baseball.

What the Richardsons don’t realise is that Daryl is a cyborg with the brain of a cutting-edge supercomputer – DARYL, we later learn, stands for Data-Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform. Created by a group of scientists and funded by the military, Daryl’s the first in an intended line of half-man, half-machine soldiers; the kidnapper chased off a cliff at the beginning of the movie was a guilt-wracked boffin who’d wiped Daryl’s memory and attempted to bust him out of his high-tech prison.

What’s interesting about D.A.R.Y.L. is that none of this information comes to light until the second half of the movie; most 80s family films may seem somewhat slow by modern standards, but they usually got the dramatic bits out of the way in the first act in order to get to the kid-friendly action sequences. Even Flight Of The Navigator, released a year after D.A.R.Y.L, gets to the exciting flying stuff billed on the poster by its mid-point.

By contrast, D.A.R.Y.L. is positively meditative, and certainly one of the more character-focused family SF movies of the decade. As in E.T., most of the adults in D.A.R.Y.L. are either well-meaning yet clueless or powerful and evil – apart from a pair of scientists, Dr Stewart (Josef Sommer) and Dr Lamb (Kathryn Walker), who eventually realise that Daryl is more human than machine, all the mature characters in the movie are of the evil military persuasion, and see the boy’s burgeoning love of ice-cream and videogames as the signs of an experiment gone expensively wrong.

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In the movie’s second half, where Daryl’s taken back to his research facility home by the two doctors mentioned earlier, we discover that the boy’s memory banks are powered by a big battery of computers, and can be addressed directly via a keyboard and monitor. There’s also an intriguing sequence in which Daryl, strapped to a kind of operating table suspended in mid-air, is examined from top to bottom by a high-tech looking electronic scanner. The lay-out of this contraption and the room overlooking it are uncannily similar to one that would later appear in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.

It’s here the movie begins to ask some quite mature moral questions that you might not expect from a family movie – namely, where can we draw the ethical line between human and machine? A line uttered by Doctor Lamb,“General, a machine becomes human when you can’t tell the difference anymore,” is a direct reference to mathematician Alan Turing’s famous artificial intelligence thought experiment, which suggested that a computer sophisticated to hold a conversation with a human could probably be classed as intelligent.

It’s also worth noting that D.A.R.Y.L. poses the same age-old (yet quite important) questions about artificial life as KARA, the tech demo that rolled out of videogame developer Quantic Dream in early March: like D.A.R.Y.L, that seven-minute long movie saw the construction of a humanoid robot which, due to some unforseen anomaly, begins to experience real human emotions such as confusion and, most poignantly, fear.

Admittedly, there’s much that is dated, quaint and rather silly about D.A.R.Y.L. It’s somewhat perplexing to see Michael McKean (Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins) playing a straight role as Daryl’s dad, and the happy ending, in which Daryl escapes from the military by effectively faking his own death, feels somewhat rushed. Nevertheless, there’s an occasionally spiky edge to the movie that’s quite interesting – Daryl’s last-act escape with Doctor Stewart ends with the latter killed with a shotgun blast through the chest, and the boy’s brief jaunt in a stolen plane ends with him lying face down in a lake.

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It’s moments like these, along with Barrett Oliver’s unstudied, quite effective performance, that make D.A.R.Y.L. something more than just another 80s family curio. It’s not in the rankings of the decade’s major league (the aforementioned E.T., for example), but it’s rare in that it strives for something a little more than pure entertainment, as say, The Goonies did, or Short Circuit, a later film which bears several plot and thematic similarities.

Now, if only D.A.R.Y.L. had featured some proper junior Firefox antics to keep my eight-year-old self happy, as well as my adult mind…