Cyberpunk Week: Hardware (1990) - Reviewed

Inspired by the short 2000 AD comic strip, South African writer-director Richard Stanley’s Hardware tells the post-apocalyptic futuristic tale of Moses “Hard Mo” Baxter (Dylan McDermott), a former soldier living with his unemployed girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in their squalid, claustrophobic apartment amid urban decay.  

One day, Hard Mo surprises Jill with a gift in the form of a broken robot head he purchased from a scavenger, a present she eagerly accepts before sculpting it into a piece of art.  Unbeknownst to either of them, the head of the robot belongs to M.A.R.K 13 unit which has the capacity to rebuild itself no matter how many times its destroyed or torn apart and before they know it, the machine wreaks bloody ultraviolent and increasingly hallucinatory havoc in their apartment.

In the pantheon of post-apocalyptic science fiction films such as Mad Max and deadly robot films such as The Terminator with low budget fare like Robot Jox coming to mind, Hardware manages to separate itself from the pack purely by Stanley’s approach to the material.  First off is the distinctive visual style, drenched in deep reds of desert terrain before withdrawing into the claustrophobic blue and neon-red hues of the heroes’ apartment.  Then there’s the narrative approach, which seems to be telling a conventional story but stylizes it with asides such as Iggy Pop’s cantankerous radio DJ lamenting the crumbling world around him intercut with surreal television programs resembling some of writer-director Richard Stanley’s earlier music video work. 

In a conscious break with reality, there’s a thread involving one of the characters being injected with M.A.R.K. 13 blood and the increasingly bizarre hallucinations which follow once it hits his bloodstream.    In keeping with the director’s music-video work is the gothic industrial soundtrack with music by Public Image Limited, Motorhead, Ministry and Iggy Pop, forming an anarchic soundscape that benefits the bleak and grungy feel of the film beautifully.  While ostensibly it’s a rock-em-sock-em man vs. machine thriller, it’s full of otherworldly anecdotes and a peculiar approach to storytelling which would make the likes of Terry Gilliam blush.

Hardware, as they say, isn’t for everyone.  Much like Robocop, the film was given the dreaded X rating by the MPAA for its extreme violence and graphic sexuality before ultimately being toned down to an R for theatrical exhibition.  Upon initial release, the mainstream critical establishment was less than kind to what they saw as an ‘unoriginal punk ripoff’ of James Cameron’s The Terminator.  Despite the negative reactions, the film grossed around $5.7 million against its $1.5 million production budget, making it a minor success.  As a piece of storytelling it’s a little disjointed and regular composer Simon Boswell’s synthetic score doesn’t do much to hide the budgetary limitations.  

Still, in the pantheon of dystopian cybernetic thrillers, Hardware leaves an indelible impression on all who see it with saturated images of deserted landscapes, rusting derelicts with few inhabitants surviving however they can and a truly disorienting approach to editing.  If only more directors like Neill Blomkamp knew how to make their science fiction robot thrillers this bizarre and affronting.


- Andrew Kotwicki