Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Movie Review: Hardware (1990)

It’s been a busy couple of months at Fantasmo HQ, particularly with preparations for the unfortunately due to snow canceled Freeplay event (which will be rescheduled!), but I have managed to check out a few cool films . . . including the latest Steven Seagal epic The Keeper (expect a review soon). I thought I’d kick off the new year of reviews with a blast from the late 80’s/early 90’s called Hardware. This is a true cult classic, one of those movies that has an extremely loyal following yet only a handful know about. Well thanks to the folks at Severin, a pristine new DVD was put out last year that finally does the film justice. Over the holidays I had an opportunity to give it a spin, having not seen it since the original theatrical run, and I was pleased to find out it holds up pretty well. Even though it was released in 1990, it is in every way a child of the 80’s (although you can see the 90’s coming in some of its sensibilities), and I would call it the last great post-apocalyptic film of that era (and perhaps since). It treads a lot of familiar ground, but South African director Richard Stanley has a visual flair somewhere in between Ridley Scott and Russell Mulcahy, which elevates the film above its low-budget brethren. So it’s not quite Road Warrior, but neither is it a 1990: Bronx Warriors.

I always like to personalize the movie going experience when I can in these reviews, particularly when it comes to the 80’s. As I’ve mentioned in the past I was blessed with a local mall cinema that exclusively showed both the schlockiest B-movie fare of the era, or the artsiest stuff going. So one week I might be watching a Cannon film starring Chuck Norris, and the next might be David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. We’re talking a wide spectrum here. One of the coolest things about that weekly experience that is hard to appreciate nowadays, is that I would only find out what was showing when checking the newspaper on Fridays. There was no Internet so the unpredictability factor was off the charts. In many cases I hadn’t even seen previews for the movies being shown, particularly those that were foreign films. Such was the case with Hardware, which seemingly came out of nowhere. Although I knew nothing about it, it certainly had a cool poster (pictured above) – and that was enough for me! What I recall about the experience was being absolutely blown away by the style of the movie, which featured an orange-bathed landscape, a city that effectively combined elements of Blade Runner and Road Warrior, and the meanest cyborg since Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Although it resembled other films from its genre, it was fresh in the way it explored and interpreted the elements.

Another aspect of the film that is often remembered is the over-the-top violence, which was criticized by many at the time. Indeed I remembered that clearly. Now that wouldn’t be so unusual, save for the fact that there had been a lot of violent sci-fi films (not to mention horror) on display throughout that decade. Road Warrior, The Terminator, Predator, Robocop, and Aliens, to name but a few, didn’t pull any punches when it came to that sort of content. For something to come along and register as boundary pushing at that late stage was quite something. I recall coming out of the theater feeling a bit shell shocked by Hardware. Between the violence and its thumping music (particularly the theme song by Public Image Ltd.) it was overpowering. During that initial run it took a bit of a thrashing between being called too violent, or cited as a Terminator rip-off. Frankly I think it was that overpowering quality that led to the criticism. Folks walked into it and received a 90-minute assault on the senses, and it was more than most could handle. To a certain extent I understand the criticism in that Stanley does seem to be a style-over-substance sort of director. He is caught up with the look and feel of the film, and ignores to a large extent the details of the actual tale. Even so I am going to argue that he is one of the few guys out there for which this tendency is okay, largely because the result of his labors is so arresting.

Having established that my own personal experience was that of being blindsided and shellshocked when taking in Hardware, I’ll go ahead and get the basics of the plot out of the way. In the not too distant future, following some presumably nuclear catastrophe, junk peddlers haunt the wasteland looking for scrap to sell. Dylan McDermott (yes Dylan “The Practice” McDermott) is one such scrap hunter, and has returned to the city with his latest haul. When he visits the local merchant to unload his wares, he runs into a fellow scrap hunter who has landed a dangerous piece of merchandise called the M.A.R.K. 13. The M.A.R.K. 13 is a deadly robot produced the military, which is designed to paralyze its prey with injector arms, and then rip them apart with its saw attachments (cue some heavy foreshadowing there). All Dylan McDermott sees is the head, which he buys off the peddler as a Christmas present for his estranged girlfriend. That might seem like a weird gift, but she’s a metal sculptress (how convenient) so actually it’s not weird at all. In any case he takes it home to her, and she indeed likes it a lot, or at least enough to completely forgive Dylan McDermott for being away such a long time.

Of course the movie doesn’t end with their joyous reunion and a cool art creation. The merchant who bought the rest of the M.A.R.K. 13 starts doing some research and discovers its origin and purpose. He calls up McDermott to tell him the news, but the M.A.R.K. 13 (sans head) pulls itself together and kills him. As it turns out the M.A.R.K. 13 can reassemble itself from its constituent parts using scrap metal . . . which is pretty dangerous when you’re a metal sculptress who has a heap of scrap metal lying about. McDermott heads out to see what the merchant had to say before he was abruptly cut off, leaving his girlfriend alone in her apartment with the M.A.R.K. 13. You can see where this is going no doubt. The M.A.R.K. 13 comes alive like a malicious Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and wreaks deadly havoc. The only thing you probably couldn’t guess is that a deranged neighbor played by William Hootkins (Porkins from the original Star Wars) shows up to creep the audience out – and boy does he. It totally erases any sympathy you might have for his fate during the Death Star attack.

So that’s the plot in a nutshell. In some ways it’s easy to see why it gets called a Terminator clone. There’s a robot on the loose, bent on destroying a gutsy heroine, and it absolutely will not stop. The only thing standing in its way is a raggedy wasteland warrior (McDermott substituted for Michael Biehn), who will sacrifice all before the day is over. On the surface yes it does bear a passing resemblance. In implementation though this monster is nothing like the Cameron film, as Stanley is concerned about how the whole thing feels rather than spinning a sci-fi yarn. Say what you will about Cameron being obsessed with effects in this Avatar era, but if you look at his works on the whole they always have a strong focus on characters. He’s a true storyteller who knows how to combine impressive visuals with a compelling narrative. I would not accuse Stanley of this same ability, and I don’t mean that as a slight. It is clear from the word go that Stanley is attempting to provoke a reaction on the back of a stream of over-the-top images. From the opening shots in the wasteland and the blaring rock music, the audience is treated to a mostly continuous barrage. And make no mistake it is a barrage. You’ll feel like you’ve been through the ringer with the characters.

The problem, if there is one, is that it’s difficult to particularly care about anyone in the film. From McDermott on down the line no one registers as sympathetic. If you take Hardware as sort of a mood piece that’s forgivable, but if you want to invest emotionally prepare to be disappointed. I think that might have bothered me a little in my first viewing of the film, but now I can totally look past it with the understanding that Stanley likely didn’t intend to dwell on the traditional story elements. They are merely window-dressing and act as a vehicle for him to lay out the images. Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting character moments. The aforementioned Hootkins certainly makes an impression, and Iggy Pop as a ranting radio DJ is memorable, but that’s about it. The success of these peripheral characters suggests that Stanley is adept at coming up with larger-than-life bit players, but not with the folks we are nominally sharing the journey with . . . which fits perfectly with his artistic style. These individuals, in their over-the-top displays, are yet another part of his barrage. Once again you’ll either embrace this or you won’t, making Stanley somewhat of an acquired taste.

If I have any gripes with Stanley’s Hardware it’s that he tries to insert political and religious overtones. It’s not that I have a problem when directors try to make a statement on these fronts. Many genre films have done so quite successfully. In the case of Hardware the elements are just too obvious and heavy handed. For example our sculptress paints the robot head like the American flag, and Iggy Pop rants about government weaponry run amok. Perhaps this sort of message might have been novel in the early 80’s before it had been done 100 times, but on the eve of the 90’s it had lost a little of its luster. As such while it’s fine if Stanley wanted to carry that torch, he should have sought a more clever way of doing so. The whole thing feels like a bit of an afterthought, and an exercise in been there done that. Thankfully it’s not excessive enough to undermine the successful qualities of the film, yet it is regrettable in that it brings down the experience a notch. When caught up in the mood Stanley has managed to produce, it’s jarring when he throws in a political jab or Dylan McDermott spouting prophecy.

Hardware is without question a challenging film. Stanley sets out to assault viewers from the word go, seemingly caring little about the narrative and characters. Consequently it’s easy to lob accusations of style over substance at this visually stunning piece of work. I ask you though, is style over substance always a bad thing? I guess if you are a die hard substance seeker the answer is yes. In my mind though it’s perfectly okay for a movie to be strictly about creating a mood for 90+ minutes. It seems clear that is what Stanley was going for, and if you watch his other most noteworthy effort Dust Devil it only bolsters this argument. That film too favors style over substance (and is definitely worth checking out). The only time Stanley falters is when he deviates from this purpose with half-hearted attempts at character development, or at delivering some sort of message. This intrusion is minimal however, and certainly doesn't qualify as a deal breaker.

Not surprisingly between his avoidance of traditional narratives, use of graphic violence, and near constant unleashing of loud noise and mind bending imagery, Stanley never became a mainstream darling. The closest he made it to Hollywood was being replaced by John Frankenheimer as director on Island of Dr. Moreau after a short stint. That’s okay though. Moreau wasn’t very good, and I would think that the studio system would crush all that Stanley has to offer. He’s done some interesting sounding small projects I’m looking forward to seeing, and here’s hoping his signature style returns to the big screen in the near future . . . just not the near future predicted in Hardware!

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