Nothing warms my heart finer than when a friend recommends a terrible movie knowing it was made for my questionable taste. Hence, today’s obscure 1995 Instant Watch treat comes courtesy of my pal James, aka Equal Opportunity Dork.
He is a real American hero.
Quick Plot: All the cool kids are really into this totally rad new thing called “virtual reality,” so much so that young Kyle Baxter (Ethan Randall, who would later rename himself Ethan Can’t Hardly Wait Embry) spends a whole lot of time trying to get the top score for an arcade game in order to win a major contest. And this being the movie you’re currently watching, he does!
Cue the not-that-exciting ceremony as a wealthy toy baron and his head developer crash the Baxter home with Evolver, a Johnny 5-ish little robot designed to play laser and ball tag around the home. Though he at first seems like a more advanced vacuum, Evolver is programmed to improve after every game, thereby becoming an unstoppable player who will dominate his top opponent. It’s perfect for the upcoming Christmas season!
Well of course, that’s what the toy developers hope and that’s why, despite receiving reports from Kyle that Evolver is getting a little too competitive, the experiment continues. See, the entire contest thing was simply one of corporate America’s more elaborate market research schemes and ending it prematurely will never prepare them for the inevitable January product recall.
As you can guess, Evolver EVOLVES a tad too aggressively for a nice broken suburban family to handle. Though Kyle and his pal try to corrupt the little robot by recording camera footage in the girls’ locker room, rascally Evolver would rather hunt down the dreaded half-shirt wearing bully and shoot his eye out or head to the arcade to electrocute a pair of stoners. It’s not until he launches an all-out attack on Kyle’s precocious sister Ali (or ‘Jerkbrain,’ as Evolver prefers to call her) that things get serious.
Evolver isn’t a very good movie by any means, mostly because it suffers from two serious but separate cases of identity crisis. One is its time period: released in 1995, the film feels far closer to the techno explosion of the late 1980s. This is best viewed with Chopping Mall or Deadly Friend, not Virtuosity or The Net. The odd anachronistic quality it seems to have, however, is more amusing than offensive.
The bigger problem is that Evolver was probably made with no real clue as to how much of a horror film it was allowed to be. The hero is a 15-year-old nerd whose biggest drama stems from being in the, as his crush says, Divorced Kids of America Club, which yields plenty of easily resolvable conflict with his never-home single mom. But it ain’t E.T. when there are boobs on display, eyeballs being shot out of heads, and cars dropped on adolescents. Except the adolescent miraculously survives, probably because at some point someone on the production team pointed out the fact that the subject matter and style was far more suited to teenage boys and maybe killing them was a mixed message? It’s quite confusing.
Until a slew of Hilary Duff collaborations, director Mark Rosman’s best-known credit was the fun if unexceptional House On Sorority Row, a more blatant slasher that knew its audience and gave them the goods. I imagine Evolver was originally intended for a PG-13 audience before failing the MPAA’s standards and reinserting some of the more violent action to justify the R. I have no evidence to back up such a theory, but it’s one way to explain the bipolar nature of Evolver.
Not that I’m necessarily complaining. The weird inconsistency of Evolver is part of its charm from a nostalgic standpoint. And hey, considering the lack of 1990s killer robot movies, I'll take what I can get.
Though the script doesn’t have nearly as much as it could have with the concept of a cute WALL-E slowly becoming self-aware, any moment were Evolver gets to freestyle is highly amusing
The entire production feels, how do I say, small. It’s obvious that Evolver didn’t have a large budget, but it still seems like the movie wasn’t ever trying to hide that. We have ONE evil robot, ONE human kinda villain, NO boxes of Evolvers-to-be waiting to take over the world, and so on. I’m not asking for SKYNET rallies, but showing us some blueprints or sales records or overseas factory mass labor or SOMETHING to give us some form of scale of what’s at stake other than one dull family
Prototype war robots can survive car flipovers that instantly kill seatbelt-wearing humans with nary a scratch
Similarly, doughy teenagers can survive automobiles being dropped on their faces with just a few days of hospital care
Half-shirts were apparently still in for bullies circa 1995
Evolver can’t lose!
The robotic voice of W.H. Macy, better known to most filmgoers as William H.
Token Broken Family Exchange
Mom: Even your dad says-
Bitter Child: Dad’s not around anymore, IS he?
The writing and delivery of this moment was simply too good not to mention
Any genre film fan with a soft spot for unremarkable and highly dated trash will get a mild enjoyment out of Evolver. The movie is rife with weird timely moments to bring you back to the early ‘90s, and the titular villain himself is fun when he gets the chance to be. Worth the energy of a Netflix stream and not much more, unless you just REALLY like robots, Ethan Embry, or W.H. Macy’s sexy robotic vocal chords.