I love exploring new worlds in movies, especially the ones that are both familiar enough to relate to and funky enough to be intriguing. The best ones are crammed full of little unexplained details. The expansive settings of STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS are great, but sometimes I prefer the more slanted remodeling of our own society, usually in the future, and mostly for the worst. I’m talking about the dystopia, a movie that is simultaneously a grim warning (stop fucking up the planet) and a reassurance (you think you got it bad?). Part of the fun is seeing how our regular human needs and desires, and particularly our weaknesses, are met and exploited in crazy new ways. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD has its twisted salvation-through-horsepower religion, STARSHIP TROOPERS has its smiley faced fascism, and HARDWARE (1990) has its self-sustaining/destructing world of garbage.
Sometime in the unspecified future, things are looking bright. Bright red, especially over the radioactive desert near Hardware City (real name and location also unspecified). A gas mask wearing scavenger digs up a robot skull in the sand and sells it to ex-military tough guy Moses (Dylan McDermott, before he was a lawyer in Boston). He gives the skull to his metal sculpting artist girlfriend, Jill, who uses it for the centerpiece of her latest piece of industrial pop art. Turns out that Moses has terrible taste in gifts, because the robot skull is part of the Mark 13, an advanced, self-repairing, people hating cyborg. The Mark 13 builds a new body out of scrap and power tools and looks to disassemble anyone it comes across, starting with Jill, some security guards, a creepy peeping tom, Moses, and his acid dropping pal, Shades. If they can’t stop this robot rampage, the world is slightly more screwed than it already was.
The crazy, used up world of HARDWARE is as much a character as Jill, Moses, or the Mark 13. It isn’t a straight up, after-the-bomb wasteland. It’s somewhere after the social decay of MAD MAX, but before the Lord Humongous anarchy of ROAD WARRIOR. Whatever nation it’s supposed to be in still has a government, just not a very good one. It offers free sterilization programs in order to promote population control, or as the politicians call it, “a clean break with procreation.” Instead of one devastating global war, the planet is being ruined by a bunch of little ones, rebellions, and general strife. The streets of Hardware City are filled with trashy open air bazaars, jury-rigged rickshaws, and huddled masses. One of the only forms of revenue for the people not lucky enough to be on welfare is to salvage junk from the desert and sell it to Alvy, a stingy, chubby faced scrap dealer. Hmm, I wonder if that idea will catch on.
In a cute twist, getting on government assistance automatically elevates people like Jill to what I guess is middle class. The lower class is so low they aren’t even recognized. As far as I could tell, HARDWARE doesn’t have an upper class, at least not one that lives planet side (there is some talk of off world colonies, I bet all the rich bastards live there). Being on welfare does allow Jill to live in a semi-secure apartment building, be free to weld, smoke lots of government sanctioned dope, and have a refrigerator full of Ultragator Synthmilk. It’s still a shitty building, though. As Moses and Shades go up the stairwell, they pass a toddler leashed to a dead person, sort of like a dog tied up outside a coffee shop. They barely notice. I’m sure the owner will be back soon.
The Mark 13 is a pretty unconventional killer robot. It was created by the government for warfare. The project was suspended, not because it’s partially organic brain was so kill-crazy, but because it susceptible to humidity. Since it had to rebuild its body from whatever scraps and wires it could find, it’s not sleek and efficient like a Terminator. More horror than sci-fi, it has stumpy little legs so it spends most of its time crawling. Kind of like a scorpion with buzzsaws instead of claws (note: it has claws too, and power drills and chainsaws). It seems very much like the world around it, a hodgepodge abomination pieced together from dangerous junk. Just looking at it is enough to give you tetanus.
There’s a nice slow build before the mayhem starts, allowing you to soak in the weird, depressing environment. Once the Mark 13 really gets going, though, the movie becomes a very tense, disorienting cat and mouse thriller. Most of the action is confined to Jill’s claustrophobic little apartment. It’s sort of like if the Nostromo from ALIEN had only three cramped rooms. The robot bides its time in the shadows a lot, toying with Jill before springing at her. The most horrifying scene in the movie, though, is when Jill opens the door to her apartment to this…
…her skeevy, tongue waggling peeping tom neighbor, Lincoln Wineberg, Jr. This is perhaps the most repulsive character I’ve ever seen, Troma movies and MEET THE FEEBLES included. He’s like one of those horrible KY coated animatronic creature from a sleazy, low budget ‘80’s monster movie, except that he’s a real person. They douse him in sweat and give him a few disgusting facial sores, but mostly it’s all in the performance, because the actor, William Hootkins, is primarily known for being an average looking human being. You might remember him from his “Top men” speech to Harrison Ford at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or as Red Six, the X-Wing pilot who did not stay on target in the Death Star attack from STAR WARS. He’s primarily not a freak. Not so in this movie. Lincoln (or Link to his friends, all of whom he has surely murdered) spends all day in his hellish apartment, making obscene phone calls and leering through a high tech telescope at Jill as she has sex. He has a carefully annotated display of girl’s sandals hanging from his wall, along with a plastic Santa head. He always wears surgical gloves. Seriously, in any other movie, this motherfucker would be the villain. When he slips through Jill’s door, ostensibly to help Jill with her malfunctioning apartment, it actually makes the rampaging robot she’s trapped with seem less menacing. It’s an incredibly tense scene in an already tense movie. For a moment, it seems like Link might just be a socially awkward weirdo when he starts talking like a regular IT nerd poking at her computer. Then he starts singing creepy made-up nursery rhymes to her, and he’s back to full-on serial killer vibe. When the Mark 13 suddenly and messily kills him (SPOILER), our sympathies momentarily realign. Maybe the robot isn’t so bad after all.
Stacey Travis, the actress playing Jill, has done about a million small parts in movies and TV since this, but has never had such a meaty leading role. It’s a pity, because her performance really stands out. Jill starts off as an emotionally distant shut-in, but considering the world around her, being shut in is the most reasonable option. Despite the amount of dope she smokes, she is very clever. Once she realizes the Mark 13 is tracking her with thermal sensors PREDATOR style, she lowers her temperature in the refrigerator. She lures the robot into traps, trying to determine its weakness. She also keeps her cool, not panicking when faced with both a killer robot and a sicko stalker neighbor. The movie has a nice feminist edge to it. Jill is the only woman (aside from the Chinese mother in the apartment below who bangs on the ceiling with a broom when the racket gets too loud), and she is by far the most competent character. She is surrounded by well-meaning but ineffectual men. Even tough guy Moses, who does get a few good shots in, ultimately fails to save her. She has to deal with the Mark 13 herself.
Director Richard Stanley had plans for a sequel, but he’s had shit luck as a director and never got as far as he should have. These days, the world-as-a-junkyard torch is held highest by Neill Blomkamp, with his grotty South African dystopias like DISTRICT 9 and ELYSIUM. He manages to mix amazing visuals, hard pounding action, and social commentary into a satisfyingly quirky stew. I’ll always have a soft spot for HARDWARE’s ambitious, rust covered coziness, though. It goes great with a few rad-free reindeer steaks and a tall glass of Lactoplasm.