Low budget, low tech, and perhaps low IQ,
this post-apocalypse still packs a wallop
by Brooks Landon
(Originally appeared in Cinefantastique, 1991)
As described in REsearch Industrial Culture Handbook, San Francisco performance artist, metal sculptor, and mechanical wizard Mark Pauline "manufactures maniac machines with personalities... then turns them loose on people in parking lots and other public sites amidst dynamite detonations, spurting blood, rockets on cables, dead animal-robot mutations," and so on. Pauline's fearsome robot creations fight and destroy one another in a nihilistic and morbid demolition derby, more than justifying the claim that Pauline is "Hieronymus Bosch come to life in the graveyard of the Industrial Revolution."
Hardware, a movie deeply inscribed with Pauline's techo-punk sensibility, pays homage to Pauline's inspiration by running clips on the TV monitor usually playing in the background of the film's high-security apartment central set. But even if audiences miss those fleeting visual footnotes - videos with titles such as Menacing Machine Mayhem, A Scenic Harvest from the Kingdom of Pain, or A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief - their loss will be small, since Hardware does nothing less than to expand the threatening Pauline aestethic into a feature film, substituting a woman artist for one of Pauline's berserker machines.
Low-budget, low-tech, and - if you make much of a point of listening to the dialogue - low IQ, Hardware nevertheless manages to pack a high-intensity, high-aggro wallop, cyborging together ultraviolence, a tightly framed, compellingly wasted post-apocalyptic future, uniformly twisted characters, and an all-pervasive bad attitude.
From its opening voiceover by Iggy Pop, playing a nihilistic "War Radio" deejay ("Angry Bob, the man with the industrial dick"), to its insistently staccato closing theme by Public Image ("This is what you want, this is what you get," repeated endlessly), Hardware throbs with the hostility of Industrial music, and while its makers may cite cyberpunk influences and invoke the cyberpunk semblance, they do so not so much in terms of the cyberpunk science fiction writing of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and John Shirley as they do in the sense that Gibson featured a Pauline machine in his third novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, and in the sense that Industrial music groups such as Ministry, Motorhead, Public Image, Meat Beat Manifesto, KMFDM, Ajax and Revolting Cocks - successors to Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and SPK - are now often found in music stores in sections labeled "Cyberpunk".
Indeed, notwithstanding its conceptual ties to Pauline, Hardware looks and sounds nothing quite so much as an eyeball-kicking, eardrum-assaulting feature-length Industrial music video, which is hardly surprising since writer/director Richard Stanley has made videos for Public Image and other Industrial groups. These are the videos you probably won't see on MTV, as they make run-of-the-mill heavy metal stuff by Poison and Whitesnake seem almost sweetly sentimental in comparison. And yet, it must be noted that apart from its mainlined Industrial sound, Hardware also features acoustical guitar picking of the sort we associate with westerns, and sacred pieces from Rossini, the magpie eclecticism of the soundtrack literally setting the tone for all other aspects of the film's collaged composition.
The final credit for Hardware, clearly a last-minute addition, grudginly states that it was "based on" a Judge Dredd story in 2000 A.D., and, apparently, its action does closely parallel that of the 1980 comic story, "SHOK!," by Steve MacManus and Kevin O'Neill. In both, an adventurer brings home to his metal-sculptress lover the head of a shattered and seemingly lifeless robot which turns out to be just waiting for the right moment to rebuild itself and continue its mission of killing humans. The artist is trapped in her apartment with the deadly robot and the battle is on. Critical observers might note that any concious or unconcious borrowing did not go far enough, as the Judge Dredd comic world is considerably more consistent and better motivated than that of the film. Indeed, so familiar are so many ideas in this film that it's hard to imagine that lawyers for the comic didn't have to stand in line awaiting their turn to make a claim. But for all of its deja vu moments, this is a movie that sets itself apart from any conceivable antecedents.
As has been true of so many science fiction films, post-Blade Runner, Hardware is all about atmosphere and no brain, focusing on what the future looks like more than what it means, but its atmosphere is riveting, delivering a degree of grimy realism on a shoestring budget, so well that it can only make you wonder where the millions went on Total Recall. Uniformly dark or red and almost claustrophobically framed with each shot overloaded with busy details, Hardware challenges the eye with Blade Runner-ish textures without the sweep of its panoramas, effectively distracting us from thinking much about the fact that this "world" consists almost entirely of a single set.
Director Stanley's efficiency in milking his cast, setting, and special effects resources for all they could provide is matched only by his efficiency in milking other sources for their look, scenes, shots, and stories. Which is to say that whatever is original in Hardware seems almost accidental, as if the film's manic borrowings from Blade Runner, the Mad Max movies, Max Headroom, Saturn 3, Robocop, Alien, The Terminator, and many lesser films and music videos somehow grafted together to make a creature that is more than just the sum of its parts.
Or, to put it another way, Hardware is so manically derivative that it finally achieves a kind of goofy integrity. If nothing else, this is one of the most relentlessly unsentimental science fiction films ever made. In fact, viewed from the angle that all of its action ironically occurs on Christmas Eve, starts with the gift of an interesting looking robot head, and features a Santa Claus-girthed, roly-poly and jolly sleazeball voyeur who, courtesy of his state-of-the-art peeping Tom gear, actually does know whether the female protagonist has been naughty or nice, Hardware might be thought of as an impressively original - if truly demented - Christmas pic.
That deliciously slimy voyeur, Lincoln "just call me Link" Weinberg, Jr., delightfully played by Batman's William Hootkins, almost steals the film on the way to becoming the robot's first victim, and therein lies one of Hardware's weaknesses: not only will its Mark 13 robot never make the Robot Hall of Fame (it looks good enough, but has the personality of a vacuum cleaner), its primary characters (and the cast is so small that there aren't really any secondary characters) are essentially one-dimensional. Robot and humans exists only to fight each other, and while Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, and Jon Lynch all deliver more than creditable performances, we learn so little about them that Hootkins' voyeur seems infinetly more interesting than anyone or anything else in the film. And the scene in which we first become aware of Link's sicko surveillance is marvellous, as we think we are watching Mo and Jill's lovemaking through the awakening, infrared sensing "eyes" of the Mark 13 robot, only to discover that we are in fact looking through Link's high-tech telescope. Hardware is hardly the first film to stress the viewer's complicity in an essentially voyeuristic act, but it does so with perverse panache.
The dialogue between Mo and Jill that should give us some feel for them and their relationship wanders between unconvincing concern for the state of the world and banalities about Jill's art, abdicating their characterization to one shower scene, one sex scene, and their individual approaches to robot bashing. For all their rambling comments about whether the "stupid, sadistic and suicidal" world is a good enough place to have children and their realization that the Mark 13 may be the goverment's final solution to enforce a new Population Control Bill ("It's time to make a clean break with procreation"), Mo and Jill never mouth more than tired cliches, as when Jill complains of her art, "It's like I'm fighting with the metal and so far the metal's winning."
While that line might be taken as an ironic foreshadowing of the real fight with metal Jill is soon to face, it's lost in the rest of the artistic "happy talk" that constitutes most of the dialogue between Jill and Mo. After a somewhat ponderous opening hour of such banter, the robot's body splattering rampage comes as a relief.
All it seems we really need to know about Jill is that she's a dope-smoking artist; all we need to know about Mo is his vaguely military soldier of fortune occupation, that he has a nifty mechanical right hand (something Mark Pauline could use, since he blew up his own hand working on one of his projects), and that he screws up a lot; all we need to know about his friend Shades is that he's a space pilot who wears dark glasses and does acid. Add in the oddly unlikely detail that one of the forty dozen ways the Mark 13 robot has for killing humans is to inject them with a hallucinogenic toxin, and you get the feeling that this film wanted to have something to do with drugs, no matter how gratuitous the connection. For instance, we never really learn what Mo thinks about anything, but in an incongrously stunning display of fractal imagery we get to see his dying brainflashes - at which point we can retroactively recognize, but hardly make sense of the previously unexplained flashes that open the film.
However, if the individual characterizations remain unsatisfying in Hardware, there are some interesting compensations: Jill is a really tough robot basher, Shades is a hoot as he's forced to do his robot fighting while on a heavy-duty acid trip, and Mo endears himself to us with the film's most self-conscious touch as he warns his friend Shades, "Don't call me Max." Moreover, Hardware's sexual politics are rare, if not unique, in science fiction films: tough paramilitary Mo does not, in fact, save Jill from the Mark 13 - to which he stupidly exposes her in the first place, while tough artist Jill proves as determined and deadly as her mechanical adversary. And when was the last time you saw a movie in which the male protagonist dies while his faithful acid-tripping sidekick, who had revealed more than a passing interest in his male lead's girlfriend, lives?
Hardware is simply one of those films that are fun to watch but painful to think about. Filled with nice touches, body slams, and ultimately pointless symmetries, it really isn't "about" anything, offering in the best postmodern tradition, miles of surface without an inch of depth. Neuromancer author and proto-cyberpunk William Gibson has said that what interests him most in writing are the "gratuitous moves," the details that lead nowhere, the subtleties that call attention only to themselves. In this sense, Hardware is nothing but "gratuitous moves," adroitly executed to indeterminate - almost random - effect.
One example stays with me. In one brief scene, two street-wise and scruffy, football-pad-armored black security guards are shown playing... chess. The older guard checkmates his incredulous younger opponent, triumphantly identifying his move as the Sicilian Maneuver and explaining: "That's how you beat computers. Machines don't understand sacrifice; neither do morons." It's a wonderfully surprising scene with a great line that leads absolutely nowhere. Within moments, these chessplayers are spectacularly bloody corpses, and the idea of sacrifice as a way to outwit machines dribbles away with their blood. At its best, Hardware delivers a lot of little surprises like this; at its worst, they all dribble away.
Filming high concept on low budget
by Alan Jones
Hardware is a $1 million slice of science fiction slickness produced by Britain's Palace Pictures, the company that made The Company of Wolves (1984) and High Spirits (1988). The film marks the directorial debut of 24 year-old rock video stylist Richard Stanley, based on his own script. Stanley's work for underground bands included music clips for Public Image, Ltd., Fields of the Nephilim and Renegade Soundwave.
Stanley's script, written for Wicked Films and TV, Ltd., was considered a hot property by Palace. "It's heavy stuff," said Palace co-producer Joanne Sellar, the 26 year-old ex-girlfriend of Stephen Wolley. "It's nihilistic and very bleak, with much of the plot revolving around sado-masochism and drug abuse. It appealed to Palace because it was so on the edge. Nothing like it has come out of Britain for decades."
Palace released Sam Raimi's Evil Dead in Britain, and have wanted to match its shock value and box office receipts ever since. "I was told to go for it without apology," said Sellar, "and worry about the ratings board later." Stanley's shock footage was trimmed by U.S. distributor Miramax Films to win an R-rating for its U.S. release last September.
Backed by the financial cartel of Palace, British Screen, British Satellite Broadcasting and Miramax, Hardware was the first movie to be filmed at the Roundhouse in London's Chalk Farm area. Once a hippy concert venue - Jimi Hendrix played there - the Roundhouse became a movie museum and a fringe theatre before its studio potential was discovered by the Hardware company. It's only drawback was a lack of soundproofing. Its circular audiotorium housed the film's one set - Jill's apartment, complete with futuristic city backdrop. The restaurant area was used by the crew to break for meals. The dressing rooms were equipped with the needs of the cast. And Image Animation's five-man special effects team found room left over for their in-house workshop.
Much of the auditorium's stockpiled trash from long-gone theatrical productions found its way into Hardware. Costume designer Michael Baldwin managed to clothe the entire cast plus extras for an amazing $6,000 thanks to the debris he found lying around. "Everybody did this picture for next to nothing," said Sellar, who co-produced with Wicked's Paul Trybits. "The crew were mainly rock video people who saw Hardware as a showcase - a way to break out of promotional work into features. Initially the schedule was for seven weeks, but Miramax thought an extra week would make a difference in quality." The unit ended up toiling for nine weeks, working tiring twelve-hour days, six days a week. "The boundless enthusiasm we had for the project kept us going," said Sellar.
Stanley is a rather oddball character. Dressed for filming in self-styled "Man With No Name" chic, he has an anti-establishment image and manifesto he was determined the film would live up to. He bristled at the suggestion that Hardware might have been influenced by either Robocop or The Terminator.
"That's bullshit!" screamed Stanley. "It's cyberpunk combined with an Italian sensibility and my personal obsessions. All Robocop did was make it for Hardware to attract financing. I've failed miserably if it ends up looking like either one of those films. My script was considered so tasty, the initial deal was struck on the fact it could be done dirt cheap. I think they wanted Alien for $1.98." What's gone wrong is they aren't getting Alien, nor is it quite as cheap as they expected. It's a serious statement about chaos with a bad attitude, one I wanted to play like the worst possible acid trip or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Just Imagine rolled into one!
"It was always my intention to make Short Circuit 3 anyway," joked Stanley who has no formal training, "apart from a very dodgy film course." Before establishing himself as an innovative independent filmmaker with award-winning shorts like Rites of Passage and Incidents in an Expanding Universe, Stanley's rock video work regularly featured violence and prostethic makeups. He originally envisioned filming Hardware in Super 16mm over a longer period of time.
"That's why I wrote it with no budget in mind," said Stanley. "An organic creature would have been impossible to pull off. But a mechanical, malfunctioning robot meant I could get away with a lot of stiffness and the multitude of problems you can disguise with sound effects. A control cable in a shot would be part of the decor. Everything electrical continously fusing allowed me to experiment with different lighting effects. I thought of every infinite way I could cover up a low budget."
Going the mainstream route for filming Stanley admitted he alienated more people on the Hardware shoot than he has in years. "Mainly because I have no idea what I'm doing," says Stanley. "I want to inflict serious damage on the audience, I know that much. So I'm sticking my finger up at everything. I purposely wrote the dialogue to be vitriolic and disgusting. I've included Auschwitz references, genocide and other nastiness to underline how these things won't mean anything to 21st Century people. I'm moving punk from vinyl to film."
With the film's post-holocaust zone as a direct reference to Tarkovsky's Stalker, its primary red color was a delibarate lift from Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime, its Rear Window sub-plot and all manner of Sergio Leone spaghetti western motifs, Hardware is an eclectic mix of homages Stanley hoped he could succesfully fashion into what he termed "a psychedelic neo-fascist entertainment spiked for the '90s but played dead pan."
Stanley freely admitted to stealing ideas for the film from two Italian directors he admires, Dario Argento and Michele Soavi. "Soavi's Stagefright showed me how effective one-set film could be. Soavi made a great deal out of nothing and his style has been a huge inspiration. Argento and Soavi aren't genre directors, they're artists who create genuine poetry. I'm not ashamed to say I've gratuitously stolen from their great Italian horror tradition."
Hardware stars Steel Magnolias' Dylan McDermott as Mo, Stacey Travis as Jill, and Cal's Jon Lynch. Stanley explained the film's casting like this. "Mo had to be an American actor to satisfy the backers. I wanted Near Dark's Bill Paxton, but Slipstream ended that idea. Jon Lynch is Shades, Mo's partner, and we chose him because he played the acid trip scene very well as a screen test. I chose Stacey because she was the only actress in Los Angeles who didn't want to sleep with me to get the part!"
Travis noted that Stanley's filming of the script in sequence aided her in fashioning a performance. She said that during filming the set of her apartment became more familiar than her own apartment in Los Angeles. "I don't see gore movies," said Travis. "They are easier to be in because you can see how fake they really are. What I didn't see for the first two weeks was Mark 13 himself. And then I did, Peter Stone, who wears the suit, was so nice to me he killed hatred for it stone dead!"
Stanley called the film's Mark 13 robot, "a genuinely evil and scary critter. It's a cross between a Nazi stormtrooper, a spider and a motorbike. We've got the greatest droid on the block - one I had to believe in myself. That's why I got so behind schedule - if I can buy it, the audience will too."
Mark 13 was the responsibility of 25 year-old Paul Caitlin working under the Image Animation umbrella. Caitlin worked on Rawhead Rex and Living Doll, both for Peter Litten's Coast to Coast effects company where Caitlin spent two years working on the still-stalled Doctor Who - The Movie. The freelance designer said he jumped at the chance to work on Hardware because of his love for robotics. "Richard's first designs were too much like Robocop's ED 209," noted Caitlin. "Mark 13 had to fit in a rucksack and the challenge was to create something entirely different. It also had to be filmed undercranked to give it a more insect-like quality."
Six models of Mark 13 were used for the filming, according to Caitlin. "A modified battery remote-control one costing $80,000, a full costume, a foam one for stunt work, a fire resistant one, a pair of walking legs, and a bag of bits. One head fit all with a gooseneck. We had three months to get everything ready, but it was still a rush, and we sculpted straight into fiberglass with no time for sanding down. As Hardware is a dark movie, we could get away with some rough edges due to lighting. I wanted to use a slave system for the remote robot, but we didn't have the time. We didn't need more money, the challenge was getting it finished on time."
Vendetta supplied the visual effects for Hardware, though it's hard to take Stanley's word for the way they achieved one particular illusion. "There's a shot from the high rise apartment's balcony looking down on the vertically distant road," said Stanley. "They're spraying maggots with fluorescent paint and letting them crawl across the floor to simulate traffic. Honestly!"
Though Stanley cost Palace more than they bargained for with Hardware, the company is still more than willing to produce his next film. To be filmed on location in Namibia in April, the already-controversial Dust Devil is described by South African-born Stanleyas "A Dry White Season meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Noted Sellar, returning as producer, "It's a politico, psycho, western road movie thriller about a white guy who kills other whites in the desert. The three main leads are the psycho, a white woman and a black cop. It's based on a twenty-minute short Richard made when he was fourteen and confronts all issues you would expect."
Comic strip robot sues
by Alan Jones
With Hardware in the can and accruing high volume world sales, British producer Palace Pictures had a real shock, thanks to "SHOK!" That's the title of a seven-page comic strip first published in England in the 1981 Judge Dredd Annual, distributed in August 1980 by Fleetway publications, owners of the comic 2000 A.D., which reprinted the strip in its February 4, 1989 issue (#612). Fleetway filled a lawsuit against Palace and Richard Stanley accusing the writer/director of plagiarism.
The similarities between the strip, written by Ian Rogan and drawn by Kevin O'Neill, and Hardware are indeed startling. "SHOK!" concerns a space pilot who brings home pieces of a robotic Trooper to his sculptress wife living on the top floor of a high-rise block. The robot, programmed to kill, rebuilds its head and torso, seals the automatic doors, and proceeds stalk her around the apartment with infra-red heat sensors - at one stage confused by an open refridgerator door.
But Stanley said he didn't plagiarize "SHOK!" Stanley maintains the plot of the film came to him in a dream, when he was just seventeen years old. Stanley's defense is that never, ever reads comics. Stanley said his major source of inspiration to write Hardware was derived from the robot menace of Stanley Donen's 1980 science fiction epic Saturn 3. And Stanley is convinced Rogan and O'Neill used the same movie as an artistic springboard.
Nevertheless, Palace decided to make an out of court settlement with Fleetway for an undisclosed five figure sum. A percentage was given to Rogan (a pseudonym for writer Steve MacManus), and O'Neill. A hastilly added screen credit acknowledging the comic book connection was tacked on to the end of the film so the worldwide release of Hardware would not be held up.