When “Hardware” slipped into theater in the autumn of 1990, I was much too young to see it, unable to properly grasp its European cinema homages and suffocating future shock textures. I simply hated the thing, tremendously disturbed by its brutal imagery and salacious appetite for perversity. Fortunately, I wasn’t unable to flush the feature out of my system. With time and maturity, I grew to value Richard Stanley’s feature as a fierce, enthralling depiction of utter ecological and social anguish. “Hardware” slowly became a personal favorite, and nearly 20 years later, it’s finally arrived on a format that permits clarity to the fine details and piercing discomfort Stanley busted his hump to produce.Returning from military duty in the irradiated wastelands, Mo (Dylan McDermott) has come to visit his estranged lover, Jill (Stacey Travis), in her apartment, smack dab in the middle of an overpopulated, diseased city. Bargaining with a whacked-out salvage hunter for a bag of robot fragments, Mo offers Jill the findings, which she uses for an elaborate abstract art project. Settling in and reconnecting after a long absence, the party for Jill and Mo is cut short when the robot awakens, reassembles itself with nearby parts, and resumes its original purpose as a government-sponsored population control droid. As the “M.A.R.K. 13” tears through the apartment exterminating anything in its path, Mo and Jill attempt to survive the night, searching for a weakness that could stop the metal predator.
"A wibberly-wobberly good time"
Stretching his limited budget to extraordinary lengths, “Hardware” is a miniature horror picture that dreams pretty big. Taking the viewer into a grim future world of blood-red skies, radiation poisoning, and population control efforts, Richard Stanley doesn’t spare a drop of discomfort, imagining a planet plummeting straight to Hell, with the survivors living in a humid, lawless world of perpetual self-medication and surveillance. It’s a frightful noose-around-the-neck premise, and in lesser hands the material would’ve surely crumbled into clumps of shock value and half-assed gloom. However, Stanley captures the catastrophe with youthful abandon, constructing an art-house, sci-fi gorefest that welcomes all this dystopian hopelessness with cigarette-stained jazz hands, stylishly making depravity his pet.
While the temptation to kitten the material must’ve been there for the taking, Stanley avoids a crude, B-movie routine for “Hardware.” It’s a glossy, moody picture, utilizing Simon Boswell’s wonderfully despondent synth-n-slide-guitar score to create an atmosphere of apocalyptic misery that delights the filmmaker, further accented by the ingenuous usage of the grinding song “The Order of Death,” Public Image Ltd.’s timeless valentine to the end of the world. Stanley creates the sensation of a plastic bag slowly pulled taught over the face, fashioning a disturbing world where a killer robot is perhaps the last thing to be feared. It’s an overpowering, toxic community of perverts (William Hootkins induces nightmares and post-screening showers as Jill’s greasy, voyeur neighbor), opportunists, media ubiquity, and cold-blooded murder.
The miracle here is how “Hardware” never buckles under the weight of its humorless, demented frame of mind. Stanley, only 23 years of age at the time of production, shows a sure directorial hand, merging the genre’s bottom-shelf requirements for vicious violence and terror with fascinating aspects of social commentary and biblical awakening that add layers to what normally would be a customary sci-fi shocker. Stanley’s thinking with “Hardware,” not just responding, and while the abrasive results don’t always penetrate like they should (Mo’s confrontation with the machine lacks the concise finality the rest of the feature enjoys), the hellacious strength of the picture is quite amazing at times.I wouldn’t brand “Hardware” a classic, but it burns with a caustic personality, elevating itself miles away from the robot rampage routine. Richard Stanley infuses the picture with stunning threat and a beguiling industrial personality, molding schlock into a potent futuristic warning shot. Nearly two decades later, “Hardware” retains its merciless poise, and while the filmmaker has slipped into obscurity, his finest work still lunges for the throat.
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originally posted: 10/31/09 01:31:51