Richard Stanley Retrospective: Hardware

Dept. of Sexy Cyborgs


Hardware, the feature directorial debut of Richard Stanley, is one of those movies that I heard about at the time of release (1990! 30 years ago!) but never got around to watching. I have enough of these that I’ve started a list and you can vote on which back catalogue banger I should watch next. With Stanley’s only third major feature, Color out of Space, a promising H.P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, and Madeleine Arthur coming to VOD later this month, now seemed like the perfect time to finally watch his first film.

The IMDB synopsis for Hardware reads:

“The head of a cyborg reactivates, rebuilds itself, and goes on a violent rampage in a space marine’s girlfriend’s apartment.”

Such a summary does a huge disservice to this often dreamlike vision of a nightmare future dystopia. This Heavy-Metal-Blade-Runner-on-a-budget.

“This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get”

Despite its low budget roots, writer/director Stanley takes his time (and a trip to the desert of  Morocco) to flesh out his apocalyptic world. Snatches of seemingly irrelevant conversations between the characters, radio broadcasts (featuring an intensely annoying Iggy Pop as “Angry Bob, the man with the industrial dick”) and satirical TV ads and products paint a better picture of this future, than any title cards or expository voice-over ever could.

So much so that almost 40 minutes pass before the killer Hardware of the title pulls itself together and actually does anything. 

“I Was Dreaming I Could Hear the Rain on the Glass”

After “the big one”, an unexplained nuclear war, humanity faces a future of more constant war, ever present nuclear fallout and poverty. Despite opening in the desert, things haven’t quite devolved to the level of Mad Max: The Road Warrior or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome… yet.

Returning from a tour in “the zone”, marine “Mo” (Dylan McDermott from The Practice with a never explained ROBOT HAND!) swings by a scrap yard to sell off various bits and bobs he’s accumulated, before heading to meet his on-again-off-again girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis). While there, he buys a bunch of scrap from the wasteland wanderer Nomad (played by Carl McCoy of Gothic rock band Fields of the Nephilim), the perfect Christmas gift for a sculptor like Jill. Or it will be, if she decides to let him back into her fortress-like apartment. A necessity in this rapidly devolving world. Unfortunately for everyone involved, there’s a lot more to this scrap than meets the eye.

Zone Tripper

The journey to Jill’s, the conversations between Mo and his friend Shades (a beautifully whacked out John Lynch), and the people they meet along the way, really give the world a lived-in feeling, without lecturing. People just talk about their concerns, without explaining them. Just like in the real world.

Shades talks about going back to space, even though it’s never explained what they would do there, apart from die probably. He floats the idea of moving to New York as it’s a good place to look for scrap. IMDB describes Mo as a space marine (maybe because of the robot hand) but he only ever talks about working for The Corp. and fighting in “the zone”. Satirical brands like “lactoplasm”, “Unigator synthmilk” and “Major Good Vibes” marijuana cigarettes litter Jill’s apartment, reinforcing the state of the world. Lemmy from Motörhead even turns up driving a water taxi!  

No Flesh Shall Be Spared

Combined with an eye for lighting and composition and some trippy sequences, these small details make the film seem far expansive than it actually is. Stanley knows how to make two red brick walls, some wiring, and a back light look like “THE FUTURE”.

Simon Boswell’s score for the film is equally inventive, starting with a Firefly-esque slide guitar over synths, it soon moves through tense sections reminiscent of James Horner’s score for James Cameron’s Aliens, before switching gears completely with the dramatic orchestral climax of Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater. That’s a heady mix before you factor in all the spot music and background videos from Richard Stanley’s friends from his music video directing days (Ministry, Motörhead, Iggy Pop, GWAR) and the insanely catchy theme song, Order of Death, by Public Image Ltd.

Biomechanical Auto Independent Artificially Intelligent Life Form

It could be said that all of this is just camouflage for the MARK 13 Cyborg at the heart of the story itself, which, despite the cool design of its skull doesn’t quite inspire terror when it finally reassembles itself. Like the malfunctioning shark from Jaws, there’s plenty of diversions from the main event, but just like Spielberg’s classic, the supposed filler becomes the movie. How many creature features debate the morality of sterilisation as population control in an almost hopeless, irradiated world, or to protect from radiation induced birth defects, after sex scenes involving a robot hand?

McDermott turns in the standard gruff hero performance with some vulnerability thrown in but this really is Stacey Travis’ film, as she deals not only with rampaging robots, but also useless security guards, lecherous neighbours (an utterly gross performance by William Hootkins, Porkins from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) and the “help” of a completely tripped out Shades, who picked the wrong evening to take powerful recreational drugs.

“There’s A Droid Running Crazy In My Lounge”

Despite boasting more fake out endings than The Lord Of the Rings: Return of the King, each is a welcome surprise and I thoroughly enjoyed the film. For some reason the grittiness reminded me a lot of the original Hellraiser. It’s got that same cinematic dirt under it’s nails.

From the wildly different music choices, to its grungy, heavy metal future aesthetic, Hardware is still a hell of a good time that more than deserves its cult status. Watching the remastered version of the film reveals a wealth of background detail (although some of it hasn’t quite aged so well).

“Machines Don’t Understand Sacrifice – Neither Do Morons”

Hardware is a unique sci-fi/horror film, or it would be, if the filmmakers hadn’t been forced to add a credit to later versions of the film stating that it was “Based on an original story entitled SHOK! Appearing in Fleetway Comics 2000AD by Steve MacManus and Kevin O’Neil”. You can read the original “Shok!” online here and decide for yourself.

94 minutes
Director: Richard Stanley
Writer:  Richard Stanley, with additional dialogue by Michael Fallon
Story: Based on “SHOK!” by Steve MacManus and Kevin O’Neill
Cast: Stacey Travis, Dylan McDermott, John Lynch, Mark Northover Lemmy, Iggy Pop, and William Hootkins

Coming Real Soon: Iain takes a look at Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992)

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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