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Hardware – film review

March 13, 2020


Stanley’s Lurid Cyberpunk Nightmare Still Remains Unique.

Reviewed on Saturday 29th February 2020

Written & directed by Richard Stanley. Starring: Stacey Travis, Dylan McDermott, John Lynch and William Hootkins. Year of Release: 1990. Running time: 94 mins.

In a future metropolis ravaged by pollution, nuclear fallout and overpopulation, a young woman finds herself trapped in her high-rise apartment with a reactivated     killer cyborg.

With the recent release of his third feature Color Out Of Space, I thought it timely to revisit Richard Stanley’s feature debut Hardware – celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year. And remarkably – this cult fave still holds up amazingly well after all this time.

Allegedly inspired (albeit it loosely) by a seven page comic book story which appeared in the 1981 Judge Dredd Annual, Hardware is also a distillation of characters and themes Stanley had explored previously in his 1985 8mm dystopian kitchen sink drama Incidents In An Expanding Universe. The aggressive rantings of radio DJ Angry Bob which introduce us to this world – along with the characters of Mo, Shades and Jill – are virtually identical to what we saw in Stanley’s precursor to Hardware.

Reportedly made on a budget of 960,000 pounds – the film appears far more expensive than it is – thanks in part to Steven Chiver’s sumptuous cinematography (so as not to draw comparison to a certain killer cyborg film which came out six years earlier – Stanley eschewed the signature steely blues of James Cameron in favour of deep reds; giving the film a striking and unique look all its own). The high attention to detail given the carefully chosen locations and intricately dressed sets is also a contributing factor. The believable depiction of this broken-down dystopian setting being one of the most memorable things about the film. If the unfeeling indifference to human suffering in this hellish future society could be summed up in one image – it would be a throwaway shot in the stairwell of Jill’s apartment building; a toddler still attached by a leash to the corpse of its dead mother. Haunting to say the least.

Utilizing a surprisingly effective blend of Ry Cooder-style slide guitar and more traditionally expected 80s synth ambience, Simon Boswell’s eclectic score sets the tone perfectly during the opening scenes. Also featured on the soundtrack are appearances by industrial band Ministry (their video for ‘Stigmata’ featuring prominently) and the song ‘Order of Death’ by Public Image Limited (a track originally written for the movie of the same name – but repurposed to more evocative effect during the love scene between Mo and Jill). Indeed, so synonymous now is this song with Hardware that it’s virtually impossible to imagine it being associated with anything else. Also befitting Stanley’s music video background, the film features three cameo appearances by established rock icons – Fields of the Nephilim frontman Carl McCoy as the scavenging zone ranger who initially discovers the remains of the droid, Motorhead singer Lemmy as a griping water taxi driver (a role originally meant for Sinead O’Connor) and punk legend Iggy Pop as the voice of Angry Bob (“the man with the industrial dick”).

Stacey Travis as Jill makes for a plucky chain-smoking heroine, while Dylan McDermott is suitably stoic as her off-world soldier boyfriend Mo. And while John Lynch – as the drug-addled space pilot Shades comes close to stealing the show (particularly when he is amusingly forced to confront the droid while tripping on acid) – it is character actor Bill Hootkins who easily upstages everyone. As Jill’s intensely perverse and creepy neighbour Lincoln; grotesquely pleasuring himself while spying on Jill through a telescope – Hootkins is virtually unrecognizable as the sex-obsessed sweaty fetishist.

With his use of static shots and montage editing in Jill’s apartment – Stanley’s direction was unfairly dismissed at the time as him deliberately going for a music video sensibility (not that there is anything wrong with that). Whereas in reality this technique was actually born out of necessity – as any camera movement would immediately give away the illusion of the cityscape out the window (the cityscape being a forced perspective miniature). The resulting effect is that the film has a definite nightmarish fever dream quality to it. According to Stanley, the average age of the crew was twenty-five which (much like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead) – goes a long way to explaining the sense of youthful exuberance inherent in the film.

While the first third of the film might be considered somewhat slow by today’s standards (the droid itself not becoming a full-blown threat until well into the movie) – the deliberate pacing is indeed necessary in establishing the characters and the world they inhabit. If anything, the slow-burn first half of the film makes the escalation of events in the second half even more impact-full.

The practical effects depicting the Mark 13 cyborg are arguably rudimentary – but effective nonetheless; the robot’s jerky and erratic movements giving the impression this thing is seriously out of control and far more unpredictable and lethal than it would be – if it were functioning normally. We absolutely get a real sense this thing is simply too insane to be reasoned with. Indeed, in the decades since the film’s initial release, it’s fascinating to ponder (particularly with regard to recent advances in robotics) – just how close we are to Stanley’s vision of the future becoming – a terrifying reality.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

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