by A.J. Hakari
As a guy who spent much of the early 2000s frequenting horror message boards, believe me when I say that 1990’s Hardware had a downright messianic reputation. You could barely click on a thread without seeing this grungy slice of cyberpunk’s praises being sung, its visionary genius hailed and initial dismissal by critics and viewers alike condemned. Hardware was, by virtually all accounts, a mistreated masterpiece for the ages, so it’s little wonder that yours truly just had to seek it out and satisfy his angsty, teenaged curiosity. While the film didn’t do much for me when I finally secured a copy, the tenacity of its image in the horror community convinced me that perhaps my own heightened expectations were the problem. However, revisiting it again years later has made it able to determine that while Hardware is a picture committed one-hundred percent to its boldly bleak style, such doom and gloom is all it has going for it. Although made by a clever crew of talented folks who know better, the flick instead comes across as the product of its most impressionable demographic: angry young kids who mistake being oppressively dark for being deep.
Our story unfolds in a world that’s long since flipped its lid. From technology to social order, just about everything is stuck in a state of decay, with those not roaming the vast deserts where cities once stood crammed together in pathetic excuses for what’s left of civilization. This is what soldier and scavenger Mo (Dylan McDermott) reluctantly calls home, stopping by for the occasional hook-up with his sculptor girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis). For Christmas, Mo gifts his beloved a robotic head bought from a nomad, but little does he know of what horror this kind gesture will bring down upon them. What the lovers assume is a leftover part from a maintenance drone actually belongs to a military prototype, a machine with one objective: wipe out everything it sees. Once the bucket of bolts becomes activated, its programming kicks in, trapping Jill in her own apartment and engaging in a most deadly game of cat and mouse. But not only is this metal monster smart, it’s also incredibly resilient, using each time it’s supposedly dismantled to evolve into an even more blood-curdling form.
It’s easy to root for a movie like Hardware — or, more specifically, its director. The unfair shakes that filmmaker Richard Stanley’s been dealt are the stuff of legend, from the editing woes suffered by 1992’s Dust Devil to the avalanche of wrong that was his temporary time on the set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wanting to position Stanley as a hero whose vision seems to be under constant fire is only natural, especially given his debut feature’s very un-Hollywood tone. Hardware presents its dystopian society as a joke, with laughably little regard paid for what’s left of government, law, or basic human decency. Rules are scarcely-enforced, and the populace is doomed to perish from radiation poisoning at one point or another, so hope is simply something this tale does not trade in. This nihilistic attitude is further reflected in the picture’s junkyard chic production design and constantly-pulsing heavy metal soundtrack, but aside from being very good at feeling exceptionally grim, nothing else about it comes off as terribly gripping. In establishing a setting so devoid of reasons people should care about anything, Stanley eliminates the viewer’s motivation to become invested in the story, failing to grab us via compelling social commentary, protagonists with fascinating backgrounds, or what have you. Many have found this punk rock, “screw everything” philosophy utterly absorbing, but all this posturing can’t help but feel meant to cover the full shallowness of Stanley’s main narrative.
Plus, while unpleasant aesthetics are what Hardware is all about, it does backfire on the film from time to time. To simultaneously pinch pennies and ratchet up the intensity, Stanley confines most of the action to Jill’s apartment, where his staging is difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons. There’s keeping your big bad monster in the dark to build up suspense, and then there’s outright not making up your mind on what the thing looks like or what it can do, to the point of leaving the audience more confused than petrified. Hardware‘s chief threat is, at certain times, this unwieldy goliath of gears that stomps after Jill like a bull in a china shop, yet on other occasions, it can move about as stealthily as can be and even hide behind a set of window blinds completely undetected. You never grow to fear the robot or what it represents, because you’re too busy trying to figure out what the hell its deal is, and the more carnage Stanley has it perpetrate, the more viewers are enticed to call shenanigans on what would otherwise be waved away by the all-powerful hand of movie magic. There also isn’t much to say about the picture’s human element; William Hootkins is loving every perverse minute of his role as a peeping tom, but while McDermott and Travis themselves give fine performances, their wistful delivery of Stanley’s dismal dialogue doesn’t make it sound any more deep.
Hardware goes for broke and makes no compromises in its pessimistic view of things to come, and for that, it’s absolutely commendable. It’s hard for any flick to wholly adhere to a downer mindset, so for Stanley make nary a concession to mainstream moviegoing tastes is no small feat. Ugliness is necessary in cinema, but where Hardware stumbles is in being so depressing, it ends up with nothing interesting to say.