In Richard Stanley's post-apocalyptic techno-thriller Hardware (1990), Dylan McDermott plays Moses, an aptly named desert wanderer who scavenges the wasteland for salvage. On his way to visit his industrial artist girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), Moses and his sidekick Shades (John Lynch) purchase a mysterious robot head from zone tripper and Burning Man casualty Carl McCoy. Moses buys the head for Jill as a Christmas present because, as we all know, psychopathic robot heads are a girl's second best friend.
Jill, who lives in a high security automated apartment, is being stalked by her creepy peeping tom neighbor Lincoln Wineberg Jr. (William Hootkins). When Moses leaves Jill to meet a junk trader who has some information on the robot head, known as the "Mark 13," the head comes to life, assembles a combat chassis out of Jill's art supplies and proceeds to go all SkyNet on her.
Lincoln, frustrated that the robot has closed Jill's shades and put the kibosh on his nocturnal viewing habits, drops by Evil Newman style to help her escape and is promptly killed by the Mark 13. From there, a decreasingly useless series of men, consisting of Moses, Shades and a pair of building security guards, appear at Jill's apartment to save her from the marauding art installation until...well, that would be telling.
Based on a short story from 2000 AD, SHOK!, which takes place in the Judge Dreddverse, Hardware is a requiem for cold war cyberpunk. The film is a grungy pop salad of paranoid wishes and armageddon dreams reminiscent of Repo Man, Max Headroom, Blade Runner, and Neuromancer. It's a hazy glimpse into a future whose twenty minutes were all but up.
As in Judge Dredd, the overriding theme of Hardware is the endgame in the conflict between superpowers, when the defense industry is no longer a tool for preserving a way of life but a soulless machine dedicated to perpetuating a way of death. Humanity is reduced to a vestigial organ, barely holding out against our own obsolescence.
The fatalistic cynicism of the film will be familiar to anyone who lived through the 80s. Nuclear war was to be the logical culmination of the industrial bloodbaths of the 20th century. From the soundtrack by PIL to Motorhead's Lemmy as a complaining cab driver to Iggy Pop's "Stephen Colbert on Blue Meth" performance as unseen radio DJ and avant garde social commentator Angry Bob to Jill spray painting the American flag on the Mark 13's head while GWAR plays in the background, Hardware wears its post-punk bona fides on its sleeve.
It's a heavy thematic burden to lift and the film doesn't always pull it off gracefully. The titles are cheap, the optical apocalypse effects are unconvincing and there's a good deal of clunky expository dialogue where characters describe to each other what it's like to live "here...in the FUTURE!"
There are also a number of allegorical elements that are presented just a bit too much on the nose, as when Jill describes her artistic process as "fighting with the metal" and complains that "so far the metal is winning," or the opening title card that references a Biblical passage from Mark 13 (get it?) which reads "no flesh shall be spared," a passage which Moses later looks up and recites just in case we missed it.
The most glaring bad choice is Moses' allegedly "mechanical" hand which is clearly a neoprene glove with plastic toy model bits pasted on. It's the kind of cheap effect that could be forgiven if it was seen briefly, but not when it's literally glued to the main character's right arm.
But for all these flaws, Hardware ultimately bends without breaking. The design of the Mark 13 is gorgeous. The action scenes are gripping. The suspense is creepy and tense, especially the segments where it's less than clear whether Lincoln is there to save Jill from the Mark 13 or the Mark 13 to save Jill from him.
As the story unfolds, the setting shifts from the industrial post apocalypse, which is never very convincingly or consistently rendered, to the insular claustrophobia of Jill's apartment. Hardware does better when it's showing us the struggle of woman against machine than when it's telling us about the struggle of man against machine.
Hardware is available on Netflix streaming and on YouTube.
The original comic story, SHOK!, can be found here.
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Jason Shankel is a zone tripper from the future who drinks but does not care.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonShankel