Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hardware (1990)

After freebasing crappy genre films for long enough, it becomes pretty easy to predict what a new flick will provide. In fact, the vast majority of B-pictures are downright predictable to a fault. (Drinking Game Alert: rent the most obscure '80s slasher you can find, make predictions with your friends about the order of character deaths, then drink when you are proven correct. Drink more when you aren't.)

After tracking down a copy of the obscure, early '90s, post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk picture, Hardware, (also known as M.A.R.K. 13) I made a lot of assumptions about it during the first act. All I knew about it was that it is about a killer robot, and it was never given an official DVD release. That's a pre-qualification for Video Updates right there, so I never bothered to do any research. Turns out, nearly everything I assumed about the movie was completely bass-akwards. I don't know if that is the fault of the filmmakers' "world building" or my own close-mindedness, but it certainly lead to a motherload of the slack-jawed WTF moments that Video Updates is all about.

The film opens with a post apocalyptic desert and an intense blast of the color orange, who should probably get an associate producer credit. There is plenty of black, and some occasional browns and reds; once, near the end I spotted some blue, but for the most part all you'll see is orange. The sandy backdrop is disrupted by a nomad with a sweet gas mask and cowboy hat combo. He stumbles upon the scattered remains of some sort of robot and begins scavenging, unaware of the occasional twitch in the machine's hand.

Assumption #1: This will be a post-societal desert movie like The Road Warrior or Tank Girl.

Assumption wrong. A few scenes later and we're in a Blade Runner-esque, futuristic L.A. shithole, and far from roving bands of isolated survivors, there is a massive overpopulation problem. The desert is just a neighboring "forbidden zone," where our hero, played by a young Dylan McDermott, has been searching for old junk to give to his artist girlfriend. (Stacy Travis) Wait; not only has society not collapsed, it has a thriving art community? What kind of dystopia is this?

It's strange seeing McDermott in this sort of role. Actually it is strange seeing Dylan McDermott at all. Period. We don't normally run in the same moving picture circles, so I basically only know him from half remembered snippets of TV ads for The Practice. The guy is the most bland, generic "leading man" type I've ever seen; so much so that I'm fairly certain he was constructed (or grown) in a top secret lab of some sort.

Thought Experiment: write down words that physically describe McDermott, Jason Patric, and Keanu Reeves. (Example: beady, soulless eyes.) Now try to find something that couldn't apply to any of the three. Nothing? I thought so.

Okay, so he's no Bruce Campbell; let's not judge him too harshly. (Starting...... now) After buying the previously mentioned robo-wreakage from the wasteland scavenger, he gets a taxi-boat ride through (presumably) radioactive sewage care of an essential Lemmy cameo as the driver.

Rolling in with his wingman, Shades, (John Lynch, recently seen in Isolation) who is thus named because of his penchant for wearing... um... shades all the time, McDermott makes his way through the throngs of stairwell squatters to the blast doors of his lady's place. They arrive; there's tension in their relationship; he gives her the roboskull; blah blah blah.

Assumption #2: The robot will somehow reactivate and go kill crazy.

Assumption (eventually) correct! After, painting a gonzo American flag on it and welding it into a mural of cool looking metal shit, the machine promptly reactivates, steals electricity from nearby appliances, and starts reconstructing itself with various nearby artworks. Armed with various blugeons, buzzsaws, and a curiously dick-shaped drill, it is totally ready for the oncoming kill-craziness. Also, its glowing eyes and droopy, spiky lower-jaw give it more than a passing resemblance to your basic necromorph.

Assumption #3: (also #0) This will be a fairly straightforward killer robot movie.

Assumption so very naive and wrong. Why waste the budget on lots of sets and location shooting when you can confine the killbot to a large apartment for most of the movie? Okay, so it's an Alfred Hitchcock Presents style postapocalyptic dystopian killer robot movie, I can dig it. What I can't dig is the characters referring to the robot as a goddamn cyborg.

Attention early '90s sci-fi filmmakers: 'cyborg' is a portmanteau of 'cybernetic' and 'organism,' meaning a robot with people parts or a people with robot parts. It is not a synonym for robot. Every time you use the terms interchangeably, a nerd who might have gone on to cure cancer suffers a fatal aneurysm.

While his special someone plays cat and mouse with a disgruntled toaster, our hero discovers his dangerous junk from the wasteland dealer has been assassinated by the killbot's hand. Fortunately, the dude was recording his findings about the machine when it offed him, so everyone gets a convenient exposition dump. It turns out that the machine is a prototype model of the totalitarian state's upcoming population control program: killing people with badass robots. Programmed for maximum mean motherfuckery when subjects try to resist, the MARK 13 biblical-proportions killing unit is generally more humane in its work than other deathbots. It's ultimate weapon is an internal stockpile of potent neurotoxin that provides its victims with an intense feeling of euphoria and generally makes them trip balls for a bit before passing into the next world.

Back in the apartment, the damsel in distress has more to worry about than killer robots. It seems the massive perv spying on her from an adjacent building has picked this evening to make his big move. (Why he does this after clearly spying the killbot with his high-powered optics, or why he immediately forgets about it once he arrives will remain mysteries for the ages.) To make matters worse, the unit's huge blast door goes on the fritz, and only Creepy McPervyson knows how to get it open. Take a wild guess what happens to him.

Luckily, this particular killer robot has some obvious weaknesses. One that is unnecessarily telegraphed early on is water. (Dur. I saw Westworld, I know what happens when you splash water on your mechanical Roman concubine.) The other is that its vision is infrared, Predator style. As it closes in on our heroine, she uses this fact to her advantage by hiding in the fridge--with the door open. Neither her nor the filmmakers seem to be aware of how this would make her more visible rather than less, so it ends up working.

Much like The Rats will make your children too dumb to survive an outbreak of killer rats, Hardware should be avoided on the grounds of robotic uprising survival misinformation. We can't have our descendants responding to the activation of Skynet by suffocating themselves in refrigerators.

So while the guys are trying to force open her blast doors (hehe), the damsel decides to take matters into her own hands and, after a frantic struggle, cranks the gas on and blows up her entire kitchen.

Assumption #4: Having exploded its robot, the movie is over.

Assumption wrong. I know they mentioned Mark 13's aversion to moisture earlier, but there is something very climactic about destroying half your apartment in order to blow up the evil robot trying to saw you a new one. Not climactic enough, apparently; a quick check of the run time reveals that we're just starting act 3. What on earth could Hardware have in store for us in the next half hour?

Total batshit insanity, apparently. Dylan and the building's security guys go nuts with auto-shotguns, somebody gets chopped in half by the blast door, Mark 13 gets his chainsaw-wang wet, everybody falls out a window and pretends they're in Blade Runner, and our poor hero gets injected with happy-fun-time euthanasia serum, resulting in at least fifteen solid minutes of him tripping balls, and giving the filmmakers an excuse to completely stop making sense. For instance, the not tech-savvy whatsoever heroine suddenly gains the ability to hack into the robot's CPU remotely (dystopian WiFi perhaps?) from her giant door opening telephone console. Also, everyone constantly forgets about the robot when it isn't on screen. Poor thing probably just wants some attention.

The death trip warrants special attention for both its randomness and intensity. The flickering lights, woozy camera, and wide angle lenses are reminicent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only with more fractals.

Eventually they manage to take Mark 13 out once and for all by shooting it point blank in the face with a Desert Eagle while giving it a relaxing hot shower. Ah H20, the kryptonite of the destructo-bot world. Someone should have told Dave Bowman that all he had to do was spill his drink on HAL.

Hardware is a goofy little chunk of cinema, but like many films unavailable on DVD, it raises the question: "Why is this floating in the either of obscurity while so much blindingly awful drek manages to make the digital transition?" Especially considering this was an early Weinstein Bros. production with enough clout for Lemmy and Iggy Pop to make cameos. (Oh wait.) After doing a little research, I discovered that there is a pretty obvious reason that Hardware languishes in release limbo: Richard Stanley, the "writer" & director, ripped the whole thing off from a 2000 AD comic, which you can read in its entirety here. Needless to say, the comic's creators sued the pants off of someone (probably lots of someones), got themselves full writing credits, and probably created a massive legal clusterfuck around the film's ownership and distribution rights. It's likely that no one wants to (or will ever want to) do the necessary courtroom throwing down required to get this strange little slice of 1990 into your region 1 DVD player.

And what a slice it is. I will never tire of watching cyberpunk films that predate the rise of the internet. In the future, it seems everyone will communicate with giant consoles cobbled together from miscellaneous conduits and snowy, buzzing cathode ray tubes. Noirish blinds will be all the rage, and we will all make love in the shower to the soothing sounds of Public Image Ltd. without first removing our robo-hands. Oh yeah, and killer robots sporting American flag paintjobs will cull the population with neurotoxins that smell like apple pie and get you totally high... in addition to killing you.


  1. Oddly enough, the only cyborg in the movie is the protagonist with his robo-hand.

  2. I saw this movie when it came out and figured it would be a cult classic. It seems to have its following. Hmm. I'l have to try and find a copy and watch it again.