Death Machine (1994)

I’ve added a new film to my list of best Alien ripoffs.

But it isn’t a movie I’ve never seen before.  Instead, it’s a film I saw a few years ago and loved.

I just never thought of how much it owed to Alien before (and probably wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t seen this article).  After all, it is a very different film:  rather than an alien monster, we have a relentless killing machine, an unstoppable robot, the Warbeast, which is meant to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy.

In fact, you don’t have to squint too hard to recognize the similarities.  After all, we’ve got the usual small group of people trapped in a relatively small area — in this case, a modern office building — with a deadly monster hunting them.

However, Death Machine is also Brad Dourif‘s finest moment.  It’s hard to imagine what science fiction cinema would have done without him in the Nineties.  No one could play weird or oddball — or totally unhinged — characters quite as well as he could and he is definitely in his element here, playing a psychotic genius weapons designer who has set his latest project on their trail.

I’m amazed that this was one of those films dumped directly to video.  This is a brutal, non-stop film with nicely staged action and a beautifully realized “Monster.”  It’s generally considered one of the best Cyberpunk movies ever made (complete with the requisite corporate dominated future) and has often been compared to another, cultier cyberpunk effort with a murderous robot, Hardware.  However, I rate this one by far the better of the two, even if writer/director Stephen Norrington was also a “special robotics technician ” on Hardware.

In most of the close-in action, they appear to have used practical effects to create the beast, with rod puppets (and possibly some stop-motion) standing in for it in the long shots.  Although what really matters is that the Warbeast is entirely convincing and quite capable of interacting with the human cast — and its utterly unique design allows it to do things we just do not expect anything that big could do.  It is the real star of the show. — well, after Brad Dourif, at least — and it is impossible to imagine this film without it (or with a man in a robot suit instead!).

Several of the scenes — particularly the one where the machine attacks while they are escaping in an elevator —  are so well done that you wish that someone would force Ridley Scott to watch them a few dozen times before he tries to make another Alien film (plus, if we keep him busy long enough, maybe someone else will make it instead!…).  However, there are also several memorable moments that aren’t quite so frenetic, particularly the scene where the radicals trying to break into the corporate vault disarm Brad Dourif.

Sadly, Stephen Norrington, a former special effects technician, only directed four films, which include the well regarded Blade, and the much reviled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  He then virtually disappeared from film in 2004 (except for a brief return as an SFX sculpter on Harbinger Down).  

Sharp eyed viewers will note that the names in the film, except for Chaank Armaments, are all borrowed from horror film directors, including John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and Ridley Scott!  

I have found that the best Alien ripoffs were, in fact, the ones that least resembled it  — and particularly those that managed to find an identity of their own, like Predator, The Thing, and Pitch Black.  Death Machine is one of those rare films which stands on its own while still acknowledging the debt it owes to other films.

And we can always use more movies like that.

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