Cult Cinema: Richard Stanley's Hardware (1990) - Reviewed

Acid trip dystopia by way of a cyberpunk chamber piece, Richard Stanley's debut film is a low fi nightmare from the depths of late '80s post-cold war paranoia.  Infusing images of radioactive hellscapes with an unrelenting sense of existential terror, Hardware is a film that was far beyond its time.  Featuring hypnotic sexual imagery, nonstop graphic violence, and a fatalistic ambiance, this is a one of kind cinematic experience.  

A post-apocalyptic soldier buys pieces of a defunct robot from a scavenger and gifts the head to his metallurgist girlfriend.  The robot reassembles itself and set about murdering the denizens of what may be the last apartment building in existence.  From the first frame, it is apparent that humanity has lost.  Be it a nuclear conflict with each other, dominance via technological reliance, or simply the apathy that dominates today's stay at home protests, Hardware is a disturbing reflection of humanity undone by its own essences.  The majority of society indulges in narcotics and pornography, creating a filthy, soulless backdrop that envelopes the horror story at the center.  Stanley's script (infamously stolen from a comic book story) builds upon its predecessors before evolving into something unthinkable.  Like the machinated monster at its heart, Hardware understands the various genres it is emulating and transcends them via a hyperspeed blender, both in presentation and in literal viscera.  

The film is routinely compared to The Terminator, however Alien is a more appropriate comparison, as the film takes blue collar, imperfect personalities and makes them real, living entities, so that when they're eviscerated, it actually has impact.  Additionally, the inclusion of female protagonist only enhances the similarities.  However, this is also where they end.  The sex sequences are sweaty and soiled, lurid forays while the world burns around the participants.  This is a used-up world, far beyond the lived-in charm of classic science fiction and even more desolate than the truckers in space vibe of Alien.  By the time the violence begins to unfold in the second act, any sense of pretense is lost.

Steven Chivers' intense cinematography is the lynchpin, holding everything together with a madcap sense of claustrophobia.  This is a film about big ideas being mashed together and it simply would not (and it might not) without Chivers' aggressive close ups and omniscient wide shots of humanity's inevitable end.  There is so much at play it is a miracle to behold, considering this was Stanley's first outing as a director.  While the films may come off as flawed or unpolished in certain areas due to budget, this is not only a reflection of the guerilla charm that pervades Hardware, it is a testament to Stanley's vision.  The imperfections are intentional, symbolic of the insanity that grips his version of where the human race is rapidly heading.

Dylan McDermott stars as Hard Mo, a soldier of fortune, but it is Stacey Travis's turn as Jill that steals the limelight.  While her sequences with McDermott ooze chemistry, particularly during their quasi-philosophical debates on procreation and government conspiracies, it is her physicality and preternatural instincts that showcase her talents.  Rock icons Iggy Pop and Lemmy have cameos while Willow's William Northover supports as a shady merchant.  Ireland's John Lynch is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Mo and Jill's drugged out third wheel, Shades.  However, it is William Hootkins (Porkins in Star Wars) who dominates the supporting cast as a sleazy peeping tom.

Ultimately, Hardware is a film that is most certainly not for everyone. Initially rated X for its scenes of extreme, gruesome murders and explicit sexual sequences, it debuted to lukewarm reviews and box office returns.  Initially hard to find on disc, the film developed a loyal fan base and transitioned to enigmatic cult film status.  Available on blu ray and dvd for a hefty sum, the film is currently available for rental on Youtube.  There are handful of films that are a true one of kind experience (either good or bad).  From the moment Hardware begins and the sepia tones; risen from the ashes of Von Triers' The Element of Crime, are mercilessly mainlined into the viewer's arteries, there is no going back.  "You can't stop progress" was the film's tagline upon release, and now, almost thirty years later, it is abundantly apparent (with Stanley finally returning to deliver Color Out of Space) that this is one of the most progressive directors in the history of cinema.  Here's hoping that like the M.A.R.K 13 at the center of Hardware's neon tinged nightmares, Stanley will simply refuse to stop.

--Kyle Jonathan