As July ends, the final, and usually hottest month of the Summertime dawns upon us (especially down here in Texas, phew!). Being the massive geek and film nerd that I am, with a penchant for the obscure and bizarre in cult classic delights, it’s only fitting that a film crosses my mind to draw comparison with the sizzling temps, in this case two, which are on the verge of both turning 30 this coming year. Today, I dabble in the post-apocalyptic treasure trove of cyberpunk horror…
Hardware (1990) – Written & Directed by Richard Stanley
It’s Christmas Eve sometime after the turn of the 21st Century, but you wouldn’t know it, not by looking outside anyway. The skies glow an unearthly orange-red, both day and night, the former being a brighter shade, but a monotony nonetheless, all the result of nuclear war having decimated key areas of human society, the survivors now barely holding on. As the afternoon comes to an end, a lone nomad (Carl McCoy) traverses the sand dunes that comprise the “June Sea”. After a seemingly endless search, the nomad comes across the barely visible remains of some automaton. A stretch of barbed wire separates the scavenger from his potential prize, but never fear, a pair of wire cutters will do the trick…
Elsewhere, former soldier turned scrapper Moses “Hard Mo” Baxter (Dylan McDermott), or Max, as his dope-fiend associate Shades (John Lynch) calls him, travels through what little passes for human settlement these days, heading to a radiation-stunted junk dealer named Alvy (Mark Northover) to see if he can find anything for his girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), a lovely redhead who works as an artist from her apartment elsewhere in the city. It just so happens to be Mo’s lucky day, as the nomad from the desert is dropping by at the same time, and happily sells the remains of what is assumed to be a maintenance droid to Mo for the right price, who in turn lets Alvy have everything but the head. Mo then delivers the head to Jill, she in turn using it to craft a scrap-sculpture. Later that night, Mo is called away by Alvy, insisting he has urgent info about the remains he purchased. You see, the apparent piece of scrap is actually the self-repairing military cyborg M.A.R.K. 13, and it’s hungry for blood. Now, Jill is trapped in her apartment, with no one to help her, except perhaps, the demented peeping tom who has set his sights on her. Will Jill make it through the night before Mo can reach her to assist?
While on the surface a more “punk” version of The Terminator (1984), Hardware is a grungy & sleazy little slice of B-Movie heaven, with some artsy-fartsy touches. Those range from a passionate love-scene reunion between Mo & Jill set to the tune of “The Order of Death” by Public Image Ltd. (“This is what you want, this is what you get…”), to Mo having an operatic hallucination caused by the neurotoxin that serves as one of M.A.R.K. 13’s weapons. Moreover, writer director Richard Stanley, inspired by the short story “Shok!” in the 2000 A.D. publication, wanted to have an underlying commentary on his experiences with apartheid.
The M.A.R.K. 13, who looks like a cross between the T-800 endoskeleton and a spider (the design of which is only fully glimpsed through computer schematics), is intended to have a connection to the Biblical scripture of Mark 13, “No flesh will be spared”. The connotations of this become clearer when, in this post-nuclear holocaust world where humanity is struggling to maintain civilization, the government entertains the idea of an “Emergency Population Control Bill”, used to encourage the ever promiscuous human race to not produce any more potentially irradiated offspring. One can guess what our cyborg menace is supposed to be intended for in light of these events…and Jill painting an American flag over the face of the killer droid only further drives the point home.
For a final note, the fact that Hardware is a Miramax distributed film takes on a new life in our post-#MeToo era, of which Harvey Weinstein was considered the most abhorrent offender. One can’t help but see a facsimile of Weinstein in the creepy Lincoln “Linc” Weinberg Jr. (William Hootkins), who lusts after Jill. This, however, is all an amusing coincidence, since the Weinsteins didn’t become involved with the film until it needed a distributor. Irony once again proves to be the spice of life…
Crash and Burn (1990) – Directed by Charles Band
Prior to the year 2030, computers had become so common place, and the investment in their commercial value so great, that the world economy took a nosedive from overly greedy business practices. Extending its hand forth to “amend” the chaos of financial collapse, the super corporation UNICOM entered the scene, and promptly made personal computers (and robots) illegal, in addition to some juicy laws violating free speech. In the present, UNICOM delivery man Tyson Keen (Paul Ganus) is traveling to the Southwest-based TV station of Lathan Hooks (Ralph Waite) to deliver some freon. Upon arriving, he sees unsavory TV personality Winston Wickett (Jack McGee) interviewing two hookers, Sandra (Elizabeth Maclellan) and Christie (Katherine Armstrong), under fire from callers to Winston’s show for being inferior and unsanitary compared to their synthetic counterparts.
Behind the camera is Lathan’s 16 year-old granddaughter, Arren (Megan Ward), who quickly becomes smitten with Tyson. This proves troublesome when Tyson becomes infatuated with schoolteacher Parice (Eva LaRue). Upon meeting Lathan, Tyson has to face the old timer’s scrutiny, as it is eventually revealed that Lathan is a member of the ILU (Independent Liberty Union), currently under fire, literally, by the oppressive UNICOM. As night settles in, the 8 current occupants of Lathan’s station, including handyman Quinn (Bill Moseley), are forced to wait out a thermal storm that could prove lethal without shelter. But the “thermal” isn’t the worst of the group’s worries, as during the night Lathan is murdered. Arren deduces that a “synthoid” has been placed among the group to kill her grandfather and any other members of the ILU, its “conscience chip” having been fried by a “Crash and Burn” virus sent in signal by UNICOM. As their situation becomes more dire by the minute, an old mining robot named DV-8 (stop-motion courtesy of David Allen) may be the key to finally defeating the psychotic cyborg among them…
Compared to the similar Hardware, Crash and Burn has less intent towards deeper themes, and is a more directly entertaining and simple mishmash of The Terminator (1984) & The Thing (1982), a scene being a direct homage to the latter. As a direct to video title, and one of the first of director Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions/Entertainment label, this fun little flick lacks the theatrical/indie finesse of Hardware, but is just as gritty and sleazy at times. Mis-marketed as a sequel to Band’s Robot Jox (1990), reviews seem to often reflect the disappointment of those expectations, without properly assessing the actual film at hand.
As opposed to nuclear holocaust, here we focus more on the collapse of the ozone layer, with the resulting exposure causing similar birth defects as those in Hardware. Truthfully, it’s not entirely unfeasible that nuclear & solar radiation were working in tandem during Hardware. Both films also suggest an oppressive/ineffective government attempting to over-control certain maladies at the expense of people’s lives and happiness. ‘Tis a common theme in films of this type, and sure to have resonance for some in our own present reality, killer robot carnage aside.
Final note: All the actors do their job and are never bad, but Moseley is definitely the standout.
All in all, Hardware & Crash and Burn have several ideas and themes shared between them that are solid food for thought as we edge closer to the year the latter film takes place in, as well as continue to navigate the continuously forming 21st Century. Besides, what’s better than putting on a couple of cult classic, “robots on the loose” movies when it’s in the triple digits outside?