(1990) Written and Directed by Richard Stanley; Starring: Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, Iggy Pop (voice); Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray
The label “cult classic” gets thrown around a bit too liberally these days, often being applied to virtually every film from decades past with quirky content and a miniscule budget. Some films such as the Evil Dead 2, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or Night of the Creeps, have earned their cult status through memorable lines, iconic scenes, or sheer ingenuity. Despite the fact that Hardware doesn’t really possess any of these traits, it has managed to gain a loyal following over the years. I wasn’t terribly impressed during its initial release on video 20 years ago, but I decided to give it another look. After all, times and opinions change. Sadly, I was left with the same underwhelming feeling the second time around.
Hardware is set in a dystopian future America, sometime after a worldwide nuclear war. Everyone is concerned with how much radiation they’ve absorbed, the air and water are polluted, most seem to be subsisting off of some sort of government assistance, and the U.S. government is taking measures to limit the population. These themes are more window dressing than anything else, and never get fully explored.
Hardware opens promisingly enough, with a lone scavenger walking an arid, desolate landscape that could just as well be the surface of Mars instead of a scorched Earth. He picks through some scattered debris, looking for anything worth selling, and finds a robot head resembling a human skull. Mo, played by Dylan McDermott, purchases the head from the scavenger. Instead of re-selling the head to a local merchant, he decides to bring it back to his girlfriend Jill as a Christmas present, figuring she’s an artist and she’ll know what to do with it. Makes perfect sense, right? Apparently, the gambit paid off for Mo, judging by what follows in the next scene. I can only speculate that the robot head must possess some aphrodisiac properties. After their MTV-inspired lovemaking, she incorporates the head into her latest sculpture, along with a few Cajun blackened Barbie dolls for good measure. Voila! Instant pop art! Little did they know, however, that the robot could reconstruct itself from the odds and ends lying around Jill’s apartment, thus continuing its imperative to kill everything in its path.
Her voyeuristic neighbor, played by William Hootkins, is quite possibly one of the most repulsive characters in film history. To merely call him a pervert does not begin to describe how vile he truly is. In fact, I’d venture to guess that he’d probably disgust other perverts. It’s either brilliant casting or an attempt to distance the audience, but Hootkins just exudes creepiness from every pore -- you can even see it glistening on his face. He’s like a composite of every stereotypical sex offender that’s ever been depicted: chubby and balding with a greasy ponytail, and mascara-rimmed eyes. His favorite pastime appears to be incessantly watching Jill in various states of undress through the telescopic lens of his camera, and clicking away. When he’s not spying on her, he’s making obscene phone calls in his spare time. Oh, and did I mention that he sings, too? Although the lyrics are surprisingly bereft of vulgarity, they are mind numbingly stupid. What has been heard cannot be unheard. If you watch Hardware, be prepared to have this little ditty stuck in your brain for the next week. Consider yourself warned! His death at the hands of the rogue robot can only be described as a mercy killing.
We soon learn that the robot head belongs to an experimental government Mark 13 drone, the most efficient killing machine devised yet. Hardware’s version of not-so-subtle social commentary amounts to the killer robot’s head decorated with stars and stripes, but that’s about as deep as the commentary gets. The refusal to dig any deeper takes Hardware away from its art house sci-fi pretensions, and shows its true colors as a relatively pedestrian technology on the loose story with nothing really new to say. What we’re essentially left with in the second half of the movie is a story about an unstoppable machine that mercilessly kills its victims. Hmmm… Where have we seen that scenario before? We are also treated to scenes of view through the robot’s infrared eyes that seem suspiciously like the creature vision from Predator.
I can certainly appreciate what the filmmakers have done here with a low budget, creating a robot that looks deadly enough, although the Mark 13 seems incredibly lethargic for something that’s supposed to be the ultimate killing machine. Jill’s apartment does not appear to be the most spacious piece of real estate, yet it takes forever to chase her. It was obvious that the robot’s issues with mobility were largely due to the film’s budgetary restrictions, rather than a conscious effort of the filmmakers. Unfortunately, because of these limitations, the cat and mouse pursuit seems more implausible rather than tense. Action is sporadic, limited to a handful of sets. If it had been handled the right way, it might have added a claustrophobic feel, but even this seems a hit-and-miss affair. One particularly clumsy scene involves one of the characters making a perfectly timed jump through two malfunctioning hydraulic doors as if it were part of an 80s era video game.
There are a few bright spots, such as Iggy Pop’s voice work as the radio personality Angry Bob – what little there is of it. He manages to infuse some life into the proceedings, however briefly, with some welcome sardonic commentary on the current state of his society. Alas, if only there had been more of these moments, rather than the cameo we’re stuck with. You’re left thinking, “Hey, that was Iggy Pop!” His voice could have served as an integral presence in the movie (think Stephen Wright’s somnambulistic-sounding DJ from Reservoir Dogs, for instance), rather than an afterthought.
The look of Hardware reveals Stanley’s music video roots. Even if no one has anything worthwhile to say, he can construct a pretty scene. There’s also some good cinematography and moody atmospheric elements and artful use of color. All of this is backed by generous doses of industrial/synth music. The Apocalypse has a good beat, and you can dance to it. Who knew?
In the end, there are some good elements that do not add up to a satisfying whole. It’s a nice attempt that probably could have been a whole lot better if it didn’t try so hard to emulate other movies. Hardware is one of those films that I really wanted to like despite its many flaws, but it ultimately falls flat. I’m sure there are a lot of worse ways to spend 90 minutes than to watch Hardware, but that doesn’t exactly mean it’s a worthwhile viewing experience. If nothing else, Richard Stanley proves that you don’t need a lot of money to make a movie full of tired clichés or half-baked ideas.