Sci-fi/Horror might just be the best man-made combination since the invention of the peanut-butter-jelly sandwich. From Frankenstein to Alien, this particular blend of genre mashup has presented us with countless memorable stories concerning the atrocities that the future might have in store for us. However, there is a certain early 90s classic that doesn’t get the love it deserves, and it just so happens to be one of my all-time favorite Sci-fi/Horror films. Of course, I’m talking about the criminally underrated cyberpunk slasher Hardware.
Based on a minor short story from the acclaimed comic series 2000 AD, Hardware was largely dismissed as a Terminator knock-off when it was first released back in 1990, but has since grown in popularity since rampaging onto home video (not to mention the internet). Much like 2000 AD itself, Richard Stanley‘s film masterfully disguises a poignant exploration of philosophical and social issues in a lovably schlocky and ultra-violent (not to mention ultra-entertaining) package, with a wicked sense of humor for good measure.
The original 7-page-long story, appropriately titled Shok!, was a simple tale of woman versus machine set against a familiar Mega-City backdrop. While Hardware is a somewhat faithful (though completely unauthorized) adaptation in that the main plot is still about a killer robot terrorizing an artist in her futuristic apartment, Stanley uses this as a jumping-off point to tell his own story about a dystopic future where life might not be worth living anymore.
The film expands on the characters and setup, giving us a better glimpse at this rundown, overpopulated world filled with radioactive deserts, terrifying scavengers and malicious government conspiracies as we follow Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) on his quest to find a suitable Christmas present for his metalworking artist girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis). Unfortunately, Mo’s idea of gifting a pile of dilapidated cybernetic parts has disastrous consequences when the pieces begin to reassemble themselves into a self-repairing murderous robot.
Though the film doesn’t stray far from Jill’s cruddy apartment, Hardware somehow manages to make the world of 2000 AD come alive in a way rivaled only by Pete Travis’s Dredd 22 years later. Featuring a kick-ass soundtrack and cameos from the late great Lemmy as a ferry driver and even Iggy Pop as the memorable voice of W.A.R. Radio, it’s amazing just how detailed this cyberpunk dystopia feels, despite the low budget.
Of course, the killer robot itself, here referred to as the M.A.R.K. 13, is also a huge part of why the film works. Every second it’s onscreen is a feast for the eyes, with wonderfully suspenseful chase sequences, top-notch effects and what is without a doubt one of the best killer robot designs I’ve ever seen. Incorporating nightmarish elements like spider-like venom injectors under the skullish head, not to mention its creepy multi-armed stance borrowed from the death goddess Kali, help to make this one hell of a memorable baddie. The creature’s horrific nature is only worsened once you realize that characters refer to it as a cyborg instead of android, hinting at an even more sinister backstory.
In a world filled with bland CG monsters and uninteresting backgrounds, it’s refreshing to see a film’s memorable set and character designs contribute to the story’s themes, especially considering the limited resources that the filmmakers had to work with here. The movie is peppered with haunting imagery, religious symbolism and even classical art references that make it stand out from your usual slasher flick. All this attention to detail only enhances the subtle social commentary that permeates the movie without making the script feel preachy, allowing it to focus on the more entertaining aspects of the story.
In another break from tradition, even the added robot fodder characters are interesting and well-developed, which makes their gruesome deaths all the more impactful. It’s truly amazing just how much tension the film manages to squeeze out of a single location without ever becoming boring, though by the end of the flick, Jill’s apartment looks more like a robotic abattoir than a futuristic home.
While I love Hardware to death, even I have to admit that it’s nowhere near a perfect movie. The awkward pacing definitely isn’t for everyone, and things get a little bit too psychedelic in a few sequences. Personally, I find the engrossing atmosphere and quirky characters interesting enough to be able to overlook these flaws, and the soundtrack is awesome enough to make even a paint-watching marathon seem entertaining, but I get that not everyone feels this way.
Even so, I can’t quite condone Stanley’s treatment of the source material in the making of this film. I may consider Hardware an improvement over the comic-book story that spawned it, but that doesn’t excuse swiping another writer’s story with no intent of crediting their work. Fortunately, this unlicensed adaptation became official after a lawsuit forced the filmmakers into crediting 2000 AD, though it’s still hard to imagine why Stanley thought that no one would notice the similarities just because of a few altered names.
Despite its initial reputation as a bootleg Terminator, I’m glad to see more and more fans popping up online to share their love for this amazing movie. I honestly can’t think of any other Sci-fi/Horror films so utterly devoted to telling a meaningful story without compromising the sleazy fun in the process, which is why I think it’s a shame that we haven’t seen many Hardware-inspired Cyber-Slashers since then.
In any case, M.A.R.K. 13 is sure to live on as one of the best slasher villains of all time, but also a haunting reminder of humanity’s tendency to put collective progress ahead of individual human lives. This may be a grim and brutally honest vision of the future, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and insightful ride through a disturbingly plausible dystopia.