*½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, Iggy Pop
written and directed by Richard Stanley
by Walter Chaw Hardware tries hard, it really does. Enfant terrible South African director Richard Stanley has built an entire cult of personality around how hard Hardware and its brother in theme and feel, Dust Devil, try--how, therefore, it's subsequently been impossible for him to get another project off the ground. But, a lot like Terry Gilliam, whose films Stanley's own resemble quite a bit, truth be told, at a certain point all that misdirected, aimless mess--all that excess and pretension, that empty production-design artiness--amounts to exactly what it should: frustration and failure and people figuring out this stuff is a bad investment. Hardware is a sometimes-eye-catching mess of derivative ideas and badly-executed dialogue, haloed 'round with this patina of high-falutin' ideas it's not fully capable of honouring--and hollow outrage it's not able to justify. Seems the pretext for the movie's atrocities has to do with Government's desire to thin its own herd because...because it's the post-apocalypse and, um, the government is evil, of course. Shut up. Try to pay attention.
Better, to honour Stanley's Gnostic spirituality, consider that the whole world is immersed in sin, meaning there's no clear division between good and evil and that everything's just survival or destruction, the eternal vs. the temporary, the spiritual vs. the material. It's no wonder that Stanley's pictures have come back into vogue somewhat. Consider, too, that Stanley was fresh from filming another war in Afghanistan as production began on Hardware, perhaps lending it some doomed aughty spice that strikes as savoury nowadays. It's no wonder, either, that Stanley--following his dismissal from The Island of Dr. Moreau just four days into principal photography--has attracted so fervent a Troll 2-like following on the basis of what can only be described as his adorable overreaching. Stanley makes bad movies, childish movies, with high-minded ideas put forth by someone who doesn't appear to have thought it all through very carefully but is really, really worked up about something. Stanley's lathered himself into a tizzy, it seems, over how in the midst of our sloppy technological tangles, we as humans have an insurmountable need to find order and, from that, develop faith. Big thoughts, yes, here squeezed into a shitty chamber drama about a killer cyborg that resurrects (deep!) itself because its disembodied head witnesses two meatbags having illegal nookie.
The meatbags in question are Moses (deep!), a Mad Max-ian wasteland wanderer-slash-loner who discovers an exploded robot in The Forbidden Zone and drags it home with a bunch of other shit to his girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), who's a sculptor or something. She's a loner, too, barricading herself in a tenement slum behind banks of video surveillance equipment, watching television and complaining about how nobody understands how fucking bad it is and stuff, fucking government, and how it's wrong to have babies in a world like this! It's true, Hardware is like that relationship you sort of fondly remember from high school with that girl who listened to Fields of the Nephilim, bought pewter shit at the Renaissance Fair, and dabbled in alternative lifestyles in college. Fun when you're 15--not fun when you're no longer deep-throating your own drama. When Moses (a doughy Dylan McDermott) and Jill have extended reunion sex (to the delight of the letch across the way (William "Porkins" Hootkins)), it awakens evil droid/Bible verse Mark 13, whose directive to kill fornicators isn't a value judgment but a matter of expediency. To grease the cult wheels, Mark 13 cobbles its Meccano self into the form of an arachnid to the tune of a classic Ministry song, the better to kill naked Jill.
If you're taking notes, Jill comments early on that a spider she's been using as a model has spun itself a web and then, later, the Mark 13 is referred to as having more legs than a "fucking spider," at which point this...simile? Allegory? Metaphor?...spirals out of control. There's also a Hopi Medicine Wheel in here, suggesting that it might have something to do with the Second Coming of the fifth age of man and stuff. It doesn't matter, see, because the pacing is off and the dialogue is bad and out of rhythm, too, and the editing sucks, and the special effects aren't anything to write home about, either. You can cry budget, but in truth Hardware is an Intro to Cosmology tract masquerading as a dirty little genre exercise that was made out of a kitchen sink, a bunch of strobe lights, and a smoke machine--and often looks it. It's kind of cute for trying on some big-boy ideas, though without the chops to bring off the rest of it, everything comes down to the fact that the kill-bot won't ever die, so stop turning your back on it! Its Deep Thoughts were better realized by a pair of year-2000 movies (Red Planet and Supernova), and while it can protest all it wants, it's just a cheap slasher flick gussied up to look like a J.G. Ballard. Which it ain't.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Hardware receives a proper release on home video from Severin after years in the limbo of degraded VHS copies, cheap-o DVD bootlegs of the same, and a low hue and cry from a small, vocal legion of fanboys who believe the only reason Hardware ever fell short was because you couldn't watch it in its intended glory. Severin's 1080p Blu-ray transfer marks the first time I've seen it in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio and, honestly, it looks great. It looks so great, actually, that it looks kinda stupid. The low budget of the thing was hidden a lot more effectively by Macrovision-hobbled dubs--handed back and forth by me and my high-school buddies like contraband for rumours of its "X" rating, its then-racy sex, and its couple of scenes of goopy gore--than by this bright, hyper-clear (if overly processed: the grain is so sharp as to be mildly electronic) presentation, which restores a few clarifying seconds of the old ultra-violence to the flick. Ironically, the attendant DD 5.1 remix doesn't take advantage of the hardware--having enjoyed lossless audio for over a year now, it more than disappointed me when the likes of Public Image Lt'd. failed to pound the plaster from the ceiling. Still, dialogue is impressively clear and seldom overwhelmed by the effects, and perhaps it's only fitting that the whole thing sounds tinny and metallic; this is just speculation, but I suspect Severin didn't have a lot to work with. (Barely differing from the 5.1 option, the original matrixed surround soundtrack is also on board in DD 2.0.)
A feature-length yakker from Stanley kicks off with him taking a moral stand around how he usually doesn't believe in commentaries, one of those things assholes say and to which other assholes respond, "No, take it from me, they're real." Norman Hill acts as moderator, cajoling the allegedly reluctant Stanley to unleash his usual collection of anecdotes: how it was McDermott who discovered the Mark 13 quote heard in the film; how much of the imagery came from a dream Stanley had as a 13-year-old; et cetera. Hill's a skilled interviewer, for what it's worth, and fans of the film should get a lot from the track. I didn't care for the part where the two discuss how no one from this film went on to have much of a career--I'd offer that both Travis and McDermott are not exactly unknown quantities. The, I'd say wilful, misinterpretation of their careers offers Stanley the opportunity to bemoan the fact that the crushing failure of everyone involved has a lot to do with the movie's suppression over these last twenty years. Why was Hardware his most successful film? Well, because it's his most accessible. Yes. Fuck you, too.
The disc's centrepiece extra is the 54-minute "No Flesh Will Be Spared". This retrospective making-of rehashes much of the commentary while spending time with Lemmy from Motorhead and various cast and crewmembers (minus McDermott) as they recount their brush with genius. A quick overview of the UK's Palace Pictures--which was born out of London's notorious The Scala Cinema--is welcome, however, and cues the thought that this little releasing company deserves a doc of its own. (Former Scala programmer Joanne Sellar, interviewed extensively, would go on to produce all but one of Paul Thomas Anderson's films.) Continuing on, "Incidents in an Expanding Universe" (45 mins.), a super8 short from Stanley that's essentially a dry run for Hardware, unwisely abandons the use of photo romain a few minutes in to show just how ugly and derivative the rest of it is. It's easy to blame the medium, but I've seen extremely accomplished 8mm films (days of Brakhage, for instance) that use the limitations of the format to good--instead of amateurish--ends. Moreover, it's absolutely interminable and looks, here at least, exactly as poor as those old VHS ports of Hardware did. Meanwhile, a ripper of Blade Runner is easy to detect in the design of a floating police car and video telecom. Another 8mm piece, "Rites of Passage" (10 mins.), is, from what I can tell, not unlike Jay Sherman's attempt at film-school profundity, where an immortal soul bitches about "life without end!" Yeah. "Oh proMOtheus."
"The Sea of Perdition (9 mins.) is a concept vid possibly made with Video Toaster that samples a little of Pink Floyd's "Time" during its opening credits before retreating into a genuinely stupid performance piece shot through red filters depicting a cosmonaut marooned on Mars. But there's tits, so it's not a total loss, am I right? "Stanley on Hardware 2" (8 mins.) is more pissing and moaning about legal in-fighting and whatnot conspiring against the cowboy hat-wearing Stanley (another echo of Mr. Gilliam, yes?) from bringing his vision of a sequel to fruition. At one point he asserts that every single major corporate entity in the world has tried to own Hardware, then reveals he's put the script for the sequel online to show how superior it is to the original Hardware. He says no one has ever done anything like Hardware 2 only to go into intimate detail about how it's nothing like The Terminator and how dare you think that. He does go on. It's more than a tad ridiculous, and there's a hint of the pathetic as well. Twenty-five bumfuddling minutes of deleted footage includes the long-lost sex scene that's intercut with Holocaust footage, plus an even longer version of Porkins getting his head squeezed. Nudity and gore: have at it, fanboys. A German trailer (3 mins.), remastered, reveals that Hardware would be better as a Rammstein video. A quick vintage promo reel for the flick (4 mins.) has the principals doing what principals in a flick do when they're trying to promote it. Originally published: January 20, 2010.