Hardware (1990): Blu-ray

2009-10-13

Sometimes, technology can be a cinematic godsend. It can salvage an entity long missing from the medium, or reinvent a title that has been unfairly dismissed thanks to poor transfers, unnecessary editing, or a general lack of availability. Add in DVD’s (and now Blu-ray’s) ability to amplify the experience with all manner of contextual bells and whistles and it’s a shame that more movies aren’t given the updated format red carpet treatment. Luckily, Richard Stanley and Severin Films got together to give his rarified masterpiece Hardware a high definition revamp. The results are so revelatory, so outside one’s original perception and opinion of the film that it’s like the commercial cliché states – you re-experience this fascinating future shock sensation for the first time.

The dystopian storyline finds former military grunt turned wasteland scavenger Moses Baxter returning from a trip into the irradiated landscape surrounding one of the last major cities on the planet. Along with buddy Shades, he arrives at a trading post, hoping to get something special for his girlfriend Jill – it’s Christmas after all. She’s an artist and spends almost all her time cooped up in her heavily guarded apartment. With the influx of refugees squatting in the building and a perverted stalker across the way, she’s overly cautious and more than a little concerned.

When Moses brings her the skull piece from a weapon known as M.A.C.H. 13, neither one knows what they have. She adds it to a commission she is constructing. He’s glad he’s made his girl happy for once. They are not prepared for a resulting power surge, the mechanical brain’s ability to regenerate itself and its weaponry, or the killer robot it constructs. It’s not long before both Moses and Jill are fighting for their life, desperate to destroy this murderous piece of hardware before it destroys them.

For many, their first (and only) experience with Richard Stanley’s carefully configured social commentary was a sloppy VHS version that was underlit, poorly cropped, and edited to remove material deemed unseemly by the MPAA – and even then, it was an astonishing work of visionary genius. Taking the tired Terminator conceit and twisting it into something far more deadly and dynamic, the South African auteur mixed a little of his haunted homeland into the narrative, giving us sly inferences on segregation, class warfare, and a person’s inability to avoid the consequences of both. There are also references to Mad Max, untold ’50s sci-fi schlock, and the advent of computer porn. The results continue to astound to this very day, a movie so dense with visual and psychological meaning that you need multiple viewings to catch everything the then 24 year old (!) was working through.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener with this new Blu-ray release is how opulent and ornate Stanley’s production design is. We get loads of details in the corners of the compositions, overheard asides that make the narrative all the more multi-dimensional. In essence, this is a battle between war and peace, a private insular world where love and companionship are infiltrated by the military and its ever-present desire to annihilate. The repugnant aspects of the real world (represented by peeping pervert Lincoln) also creep into the calm Jill is trying to manufacture for herself. She wants Moses to settle in, to stop heading out into the dusty orange nightmare than is what’s left of nature and simply share her bed. It’s interesting then that, after the M.A.C.H. 13’s restart, our heroine becomes its most important target. It’s as if the machine can actually sense her anti-establishment view of the world and wants to destroy it once and for all.

There are lots of other interesting themes at work in Hardware, material that makes this more than some sly subgenre workout. Stanley offers up radio shock jock Angry Bob (voiced by Iggy Pop) as an obvious Greek chorus. But instead of simply mocking the means of everyday survival, this mouthpiece has some salient philosophies to push. Lemmy of Motorhead fame also turns up as a cabbie with his own take on things. Together, they form a front that more thoughtful people like Moses and Jill have to conquer and overcome. In Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis, Stanley finds an unlikely duo. The pretty boy actor thrust upon him by a wary studio (including then executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein) just can’t compete with his costar’s ethereal femininity. The final confrontation, which pits beauty against scary scarp iron beast remains the movie’s ultimate statement, a clash for the very soul of humanity heightened by the knowledge that there may be no actual winning strategy.

Stanley is lucky to see his masterwork land at Severin, a company that shows an intense amount of care and consideration for how they manufacture and supplement important outsider titles. We are treated to several short films from the director (including the brilliant “Incidents in an Expanding Universe” which formed the basis for Hardware), a discussion over the sequel which never came to be, a collection of deleted and alternative scenes, and a wonderful, all-new Making of labeled “No Flesh Shall Be Spared”. Featuring many in the cast and crew in updated interviews, we get a marvelous overview of the production and its many problems. Stanley is also on hand to deliver a full length audio commentary that completes the package, highlighting various facets of the filmmaking, including a marvelous robotic villain that more or less fell apart after every take.

The biggest bonus here, however, is the transfer. Argue all you want to about 1080p and its variations or the levels of grain and the use of edge enhancement, but when the results are as amazing as the Hardware image, you have a hard time arguing format. The Blu-ray is indeed a shock, a testament to the time taken to remaster the movie, as well as Stanley’s imagination and cinematic creativity. This is a small movie that’s massive in scope, sets and backdrops suggesting vast post-apocalyptic locales and endless miles of sand strewn nothingness. Compositions create concepts of free association, Stanley suggesting things that you must then decipher and determine. Even better, the action and random splatter are handled in an artistic and stylized manner. This is not just a gonzo gorefest. As a director, Stanley uses blood as a means of amplifying his ideas, not drawing your attention away from them.

This makes Hardware all the more appealing, a movie that clearly needed the 19 years of technical advances in digital reproduction to fully realize its audio/visual aims. It also argues for Richard Stanley’s unlikely status as auteur in waiting. After his equally electrifying Dust Devil, and the little seen Brave, he was given the chance to direct the big budget Hollywood update of The Island of Dr. Moreau, featuring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. After four days of irrefutable personality clashes, he was fired, replaced by John Frankenheimer. Since then, Stanley has made minor documentaries and a few short films, but nothing to compare to this amazing first shot at fame. Hardware didn’t deserve to be dumped onto home video during the heyday of the VHS. Here’s hoping that two decades later, a new type of technology will broaden its appreciation. As seen here, it definitely deserves it.

RATING 9 / 10
PopMatters