I adore genre movies that capture a very specific cultural mood and distill it in such a way that the film becomes more than just a story-telling device--it's an aesthetic artifact. Richard Stanley's "Hardware" is an offering that couldn't have been made in any year other than 1990. It crystallizes the Industrial/Cyberpunk aesthetic into a meticulously-realized and unique post-apocalyptic world. While Stanley's universe is clearly influenced by the lived-in space vehicles of "Alien" and the "Mad Max" wasteland, his vision is both more sexualized and tinted with personal tragedy. Of course, as in all things, I'm talking from a distinctly biased point of view--purchasing a copy of Ministry's "Psalm 69" shortly after its release in 1992 changed the whole musical-aesthetic ballgame for me (now THAT was heavy music), and since "Harware" has a similarly downbeat, violent view on humanity, this film felt downright nostalgic to me.
"Hardware's" story is deceptively simple--Moses (Dylan McDermott) returns from his travels in the nuclear wastelands of America, bringing his girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) some battered machine parts that he hopes she can use in a sculpture she is building. These seemingly inanimate parts are actually the remains of a deadly military robot, M.A.R.K. 13, which is accidentally restored to working condition as a result of Jill's tinkering. In a post-"Terminator" sci-fi landscape, a movie like "Hardware" had an uphill battle to win over audiences who were thirsty for action-packed killer robot flicks. It shares the plot elements of an unstoppable killer robot, a tough-but-vulnerable heroine, and a doomed romance, but this story doesn't try to be a slash-'em-up thrill-fest. Instead, it's an opportunity for the director to explore themes of love, death, war and religion that may leave some viewers wondering what on earth they just watched.
This low-budget science fiction film acknowledges its limitations and manages to work within them, never feeling incomplete or slapdash. While the movie has its flaws (I'll get round to that--this is the love-in part, people), there is a LOT here that works, and works well. The lead couple played by Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis (both of whom would go on to profitable television and big-screen acting careers) are exceptionally attractive and have a genuine chemistry. Their troubled relationship is sketched succinctly in meaningful glances and physical encounters, and never veers into the soapy-operatic.
Our Homicidal Robot, M.A.R.K. 13, is the star of the film and as such is a triumph of creepy puppetry. The robot is filmed almost-perfectly, rarely revealing the entire creature and making it more menacing as a result. These shots of M.A.R.K. 13 are reminiscent of the efforts made in the first "Alien" film to draw attention away from the fact that the monster is a rubber-suited man. We know from onscreen blueprints that the machine has multiple limbs outfitted with weapons, and we've seen its skull-like head, but its true shape remains somewhat mysterious.
The film's atmosphere is remarkably immersive and consistent, from the saturated red color palette to the strange television transmissions to the secondhand clothing worn by the players. I've got to tell you, if teevee in the future becomes *half* that weird--showing GWAR videos, playing Ministry songs, and splicing in clips from "Salo"--I am on fucking board for the apocalypse! The Earth has become toxic due to radioactive fallout and more and more children are being born with deformities. This isn't dictated through expository voice-over or the ever-eyeroll-worthy Pre Credits Words Scroll--these facts unfold naturally via dialogue. There's a feeling that one is placed into a story that is already in progress that adds to the engaging quality of the story.
All of the characters are marginalized or in some way messed up, from welfare recipient and expressionist sculptor Jill to the midget scrap metal seller Alvy to twitchy pill-popper Shades to the creepiest of all, peeping tom neighbor Lincoln Wineberg, Jr. The scenes in which the obese, sweating Lincoln peers through a telescope at Jill and Moe's lovemaking are genuinely disturbing. Actor William Hootkins sinks his teeth into this completely icky role and doesn't let up, embracing the Creep Quality and making Lincoln almost as threatening as M.A.R.K. 13.
The film's nihilistic, punk-rock aesthetic is underscored by the appearances of such Alt Rock luminaries as Iggy Pop, Lemmy and Carl McCoy of Fields of the Nephilim (proving *my* theory that his undead cowboy look is both chic *and* practical after the nuclear holocaust). Blackly comedic elements such as a poison developed by the American government that smells of apple pie in order to make death a pleasant experience for casualties and Angry Bob's (voiced by Iggy Pop) aggressively devil-may-care rock radio announcements bring some much-needed levity to an otherwise bleak landscape. Factor in a sometimes-overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, since more than half of the film takes place inside of Jill's grimy apartment, and all the elements are there for a unique slow-burn of a post-nuker.
This slow-burn pacing is both a positive and a negative factor in the film. Those expecting a heart-pounding shoot-em-up will be disappointed--instead, the story unfolds slowly, favoring character development over shocks. While it ultimately builds to a grisly and explosive climax, it takes its time in getting there, and the audience is not given a triumphant, feel-good ending when the action's over. This sense of despair infuses the entire film and, much like the pacing, this unrelentingly grim worldview can feel tedious at times. Director Stanley packs this movie full of sometimes-incongruous religious imagery, from the repeated motif of the crucifixion pose to showing his characters reading from the Bible. While I'm sure there was a personal meaning to these elements, it threatened to distract from the more universal themes of the film.
"Hardware" gives a glimpse into a well-crafted if hopeless future and is highly recommended to fans of post-apocalyptic stories. Taken on its own merits, it earns its place as a unique entry into the cycle with a deeply personal and tragically human perspective that probably wasn't intended to charm all audiences.