Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Modern Art Is Soooooo Subjective

If movies have taught me anything, it’s that the future is a world I never want to live in. No amount of Wild Stallions or Jetsons-like housekeeping could make me wish myself into a land rife with infertility, leather, nuclear fallout, totalitarianism, android bounty hunters, and more than one scenario wherein Kevin Costner is the messiah. Sure, it can be argued that the better time leaping movies are actually commenting on today’s society, but that still doesn’t mean I’m jumping on a hoverboard any time soon.
Richard Stanley’s 1990 dystopian techno thriller Hardware does little to change my views on the future....which I’m now apparently living in. This recently reissued film borrows a little inspiration from The Terminator, Soylent Green, Z.P.G., and a few other post apocalyptic films of the past, capturing a striking mix of 70s hard edged 70s cinema and 80s action to be its own interesting, if highly imperfect slice of metallic sci-fi.
Quick Plot: It’s the 21st century from a 20th century point of view, meaning the world is a sizzling desert filled with robot rubble, red skies, and intrepid little people. Iggy Pop’s DJ voice informs us that the government is set to pass a proposal to control the population by sterilizing anybody found reproducing, as resources are scarce and radiation is high. It’s an ugly world bathed entirely in an orange fuzz that burns straight through the camera lens.

A lonely and haunting opening follows a ragged gas-masked scavenger searching a wasteland for any goods to sell. He comes upon a few pieces of MARK 13, a failed cyborg experiment worth its weight in trading. Our nameless traveller brings his haul to a tech savvy junk trader named Alvy (Willow’s Mark Northover) and sells what looks like the head of C3P0's rebellious older brother to Mo, a roving soldier played by Dylan McDermott. Mo in turn presents it to his artist girlfriend Jill (Stacy Travis) for a Christmas/sorry-I’m-never-here gift. She’s elated because it’s just what she needs to complete her latest piece (after a hip dose of spray paint that would have gone perfectly with a kicking pair of American flag Converse, of course).

As you might imagine, MARK-13 ain’t WALL-E. Once Mo slips out of the room and Jill falls asleep (irresponsibly with a joint in hand, mind you) the wiry widget juices himself up with the apartment power grid and assembles himself into a homicidal little machine using other electronics in reach. As if that wasn’t enough to make for the worst yuletide ever, Jill’s foul-mouthed voyeur of a neighbor (who resembles what would happen if Jon Lovitz ate John Favreau and washed him down with popcorn butter) forces his way into her hallway with the automatic door sealing tightly behind him.

Hardware is an odd film, and not just because it is blatantly stylized with quick edits, robot vision, and a colored lens. Filmmaker Richard Stanley seemed to put a lot of thought and energy in establishing this post nuclear holocaust society, sprinkling in television commercials and window views that drop eerie hints about just devastated the world has become. Some of Mo’s conversations with Alvy and his friend Shades about how the radiation has affected them are truly haunting in a perfectly post apocalyptic way, and the background politics of sterilization, government assisted living, and drug use could easily have been the central device of their own feature length films. Great care was clearly taken with painting the sky such a rusted hue and yet, Hardware chooses a very different path for its 93 minute runtime.
What I didn’t like about Stanley’s film was, in a word, its plot. We’re presented with this dying society rife with political implications, but Hardware chooses instead to focus on the loud and clunky events of this one apartment. The bulk of the film features Jill’s struggle to evade MARK 13, who I like to think of as what would happen if Robocop’s son was a 15 year old punk hanging out with the wrong crowd. It’s action packed and has a few big payoff moments, but there’s something so limited about Hardware’s second half that can’t help but let down the sprawlingly dystopian setup. 

High Points
William Hootkins supporting role as a foul peeping tom adds a sick but highly engaging touch of oddness to the film

From the casual talk about cancer to the snippets of radio and television ads for radiation-free produce, the environmental and societal breakdown of Hardware is sufficiently disturbing

The wordless opening scene that follows a nomadic junk trader through a dusty red desert is breathtaking
Low Points
For a film with such a carefully envisioned dystopian scope, the limits of one evil robot encounter can’t help but feel like a letdown
It’s a style choice and for the most part, a very strong one but still: so much flashing lights can give even a healthy young woman one mean headache 
Things We Can Expect Sometime In the 21st Century
A completely sealed apartment with occasional bursts of open door radiation will do incredible things for your naturally curly hair

GWAR’s popularity will soar
Housing for those on welfare will be spacious, offer great views, and have a steady supply of running water
Newscasters will style themselves like 1970s era of anchormen
Thankfully, radiation-free reindeer steak will be available for the holiday season and advertised by the same commercial directors that filmed the final montage movie moments of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
Robots will be homicidal and prudish
After nearly 19 years, Hardware has finally received a deluxe DVD release in a 2 disc set loaded with extras. I, however, purchased my copy several months ago from Cinema De Bizarre , a fantastic service with great deals on hard-to-find flicks. On that hand, I can’t really tell you if the DVD is worth an investment but if it sounds interesting to you and you find it well priced, it’s a leap worth taking. I can imagine the extras being somehow more fascinating than the finished product simply because Stanley seems to be a unique artist with a whole lot of dramatic ideas that probably didn’t make the 90 minute cut. I didn’t love Hardware, but it’s a neat little picture stuffed with innovative ideas and a distinct visual style.


  1. Oh dear dear Emily. You are so wrong. In fact everyone that doesn't like this movie are wrong. There is no room for rational argument, this movie is simply awesome, and that is that.
    Also, my love for it is (semi)irrational.
    The set design and use of colour alone are enough to make this slab of steampunk goodnees something to watch over and over in my eyes. It's sort of what i imagine what a Susperia era Argento would make if he tried his hand at a post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror.
    I've had it on hand (in VHS or dodgy boots) for ages and i can say the new Severin bluray print is a wonder.
    I invite you around to mine to see that fantastic opening scene in high def.
    If you still don't like it, well i guess we can still be friends. Maybe.

  2. I think everything around the film is pretty fantastic. I just wish the 35 minute apartment attack had something bigger going for it.

    The visuals are amazing, I concur. I really do admire Stanley's work behind the camera in making the entire film feel like a portrait of a world rusting in its own pollutants. The opening scene pulled me in so deeply that once I was stuck in Jill's apartment, I couldn't help but be frustrated. There was this whole world of contamination, crime, deformities, and government militarism that I wanted more of. I'm fine with a film building an intriguing society but focusing on an individual story, but the angry robot chase just felt like a letdown.

    Also, I did have the kind of headache my noggin hasn't suffered through since I donned the 3D glasses to watch Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare on DVD.

    If and when I upgrade to a Blu Ray, this will indeed be on my purchase list. I really do want to learn more about its history and what could have been.

    Virtual handshake?

  3. Reaches out and shakes hand.
    This is one of those films i get defensive about. It was made for a pittance, the director was, i think, about 23 and the crew was mostly 18 -25 year olds. As some one that spent most of 18-25 watching movies and bitching about them, it's always a tad humbling to see something so rad made by those of that age.
    That said, yes, I'd love Stanley (or someone with a similar vision) to return to this universe.
    Regarding the opening scene and the (grubby) beauty of the exteriors, have you ever seen Stanley's other film, Dust Devil? Shot in Africa, it's a wonderfully open, vista- filled horror film.

  4. I read a lot more about Stanley a few days ago, and yeah...really interesting fella. I haven's yet seen Dust Devil, as I need to investigate which edition is available. Am I correct in believing there are a few studio versions floating out there?

    It is pretty mind blowing that a 23 year old made Hardware, and it really does deepen my appreciation for it. I won't say it's a shame that he didn't get more chances in Hollywood, because it seems like he's had an interesting career in his own right. How are his documentaries?

    And wow do I wonder what he could have done with Dr. Moreau.

  5. The version you want its the directors cut put out by Subversive a few years ago. If you can find it, the 5 disc version w/ his docs and the soundtrack is gold, though it's now OOP.