Hardware (1990)

This is probably the blackest, ugliest, most pessimistic SF film ever made.

It is also the most punk cyberpunk film ever made.

It explodes onto the screen in a ferocious blaze of color as a lone, masked nomad wanders through orange-tinted wastes, then buries us in a despairing, crumbling city on the edge of the irradiated zone, where the survivors of the wars eke out a miserable existence on the scraps of what once was.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the government is trying its best to pass a population control measure which will get rid of most of the few survivors there already are.

One of these hapless scavengers buys a bag of Mark 13 robot parts from the Nomad to take home to his artist girlfriend, Jill.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that it is still alive and has been programmed to reassemble itself.

And when it comes back to life, it begins a rampage that assaults the viewer with a non-stop barrage of brutal and extremely graphic violence — so graphic that it earned it an “X” rating in the U.S., forcing a series of cuts.

It is hard to offer any kind of rational response to Hardware.  It is loud, ugly, ironic and in your face, and kills off a major character early on.  While critics have derided it as a mere Terminator rip-off, and it isn’t hard to see similarities to Aliens (and perhaps Alien, as well), it doesn’t look or feel like anything that had ever been seen before.  Its suicidal future is about as far removed from Blade Runner‘s futuristic Los Angeles as any Cyberpunk future could be, and I don’t think there have been any other punk films where punk rock is not merely a response to a decaying society, but is itself part of that decay.

Jill’s apartment seems almost a microcosm of the whole film: she lives in a security apartment that is more like a bunker, complete with massive steel doors and electronic locks, designed to keep all the horrors of this world safely locked outside: a sanctuary she rarely leaves, thanks to her unemployment checks and whatever she makes from her sculptures.  But none of her false security helps when the Mark 13 seizes control of her computer.

And somehow, it seems very appropriate that the robot is not some gleaming chrome fantasy as in so many of these killer robot films, but something battered, rusty and blackened, pieced together with whatever odds and ends it could find (a contrast Richard Stanley makes sure we notice in one of the final scenes where Jill fights it in a gleaming white shower cubicle), yet as lethal as any movie robot out there.

This is not a movie for the timid souls out there.  Like the Mark 13, it is black and savage and will shred anything in its path.  It may not be a classic, but it is clearly a cult classic, and its director Richard Stanley still enjoys a huge reputation based almost entirely on this film and his second movie, Dust Devil.  Right now he’s at work on his first film in ages, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space.  It sounds interesting — and if nothing else it should be better than the version starring Boris Karloff, Die Monster, Die.

But it still seems unlikely that we’ll ever see his proposed sequel to this film.

One curious connection is worth noting here: Stephen Norrington, who directed Death Machine (1994), an incredible killer robot movie almost as brutal as Hardware (and which used an equally unconventional design for its machine beast), served as a  “special robotics technician” on this one.

I guess he must have been paying attention.

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