Review: Hardware (1990)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #638

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: September 14, 1990
Sub-Genre: Cyberpunk Sci-Fi/Horror
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, United States
Budget: $1,500,000
Box Office: $5,728,953 (US)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Director: Richard Stanley
Producers: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Trybits
Screenplay: Richard Stanley, Michael Fallon (additional dialogue)
Based on SHOK! by Steve MacManus & Kevin O’Neill
Special Effects: John Cormican
Cinematography: Steven Chivers
Score: Simon Boswell
Editing: Derek Trigg
Studios: British Satellite Broadcasting, British Screen, Unlimited Palace Productions
Distributors: Phaze UK, Miramax
Stars: Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, William Hootkins, Iggy Pop, Carl McCoy, Mark Northover, Paul McKenzie, Chris McHallem, Oscar James, Lemmy

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Public Image Ltd. “The Order of Death (M.A.R.K. 13. Remix)”
Public Image Ltd. “The Order of Death”

I often ponder what becomes of up-and-coming filmmakers who simply vaporize from plain sight after a strong early showing. One such AWOL talent is South African director Richard Stanley, who enjoyed an all too brief spell in the early nineties when he was considered hot property. He began shooting super-8 movies fresh out of film school, including one ambitious 45 minute 8mm short named Incidents in an Expanding Universe which laid the foundations for his first full-length feature Hardware in 1990. Inspired by Steve MacManus & Kevin O’Neill’s comic strip SHOK! from 2000 AD a decade prior, Stanley’s atmospheric cyberpunk number turned a tidy enough profit and, more critically, received plaudits for the gloomy dystopian future it presented. This guy was evidently one to watch very closely indeed.

Lightning then struck a second time as he repeated the feat with his follow-up project Dust Devil, adapted from another of his early shorts of the same name, further showcasing his unique visual style. However, after being relieved of his duties a few days into production for 1996 film, The Island of Dr. Moreau, he hasn’t returned to the director’s chair ever since, aside from his segment from better than average 2011 anthology, The Theatre Bizarre titled The Mother Of Toads. It’s not that he hasn’t been active, but his output has consisted only of music videos, short films and documentaries and I find that truly astonishing. You see, while some struggled to warm to Hardware initially, it has gone on to amass quite the following and deservedly too I might add. Initially Stanley fully intended to grace us with a sequel, but alas, his best intentions appear to have long since become lost in the sands of time.

It’s a crying shame as, while many would claim that Stanley’s debut falls some way short of being considered a bona fide sci-fi classic, I would absolutely beg to differ. Indeed, I would go as far as mentioning it in the same breath as a pair of motion pictures that defined an entire era. It would be incorrect to place Hardware on par with either Ridley Scott’s Alien or James Cameron’s The Terminator but one thing it did effortlessly was encourage a similar level of breathless consternation from its viewer by sealing off all available exits and penning us in with its nuts and bolts nasty, M.A.R.K. 13. Time has been decidedly kind on this occasion and it’s now high time the uninitiated get better familiarized with one of the true unsung heroes of modern-day sci-fi cinema.

We begin in the sun-bleached wastelands of the none too distant future known simply as “The Zone” and on salvo duties. Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott), or “Hard Mo” to his friends, is an ex-soldier who, along with his close pal Shades (John Lynch), earns his meager crust collecting whatever scraps of junk he happens across on his travels and selling them on to dealers for profit.

After purchasing the remnants of a battered android from a curious nomadic straggler, he decides to pay a rare visit to his estranged girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), and present the clutter to her as a peace-offering for his latest extended leave of absence. Jill wastes no time wedging it into her latest work of abstract alloy art, blissfully unaware of the terminal threat this particular hunk of hardware poses. Dick move Mo, dick fucking move.

“No flesh shall be spared” Mark 13:20

So here’s the thing. You see, the M.A.R.K. 13. to use its scientific title, was originally designed as a government-sponsored population control droid and has the ability to both repair and reassemble itself, using whatever twisted metal it can wire to its mainframe. Programming consists of two directives – observe and destroy – and it certainly isn’t here to assist in the preparation of her morning muesli. To further compound Jill’s misery, the M.A.R.K. 13. recharges any spent energy cells by draining her apartment’s entire power network, leaving Jill indefinitely cut off from the outside world and in a position nothing less than precarious.

Thank the heavens above then for nosy neighbors. The distinguished sounding Lincoln Wineberg Jr. (William Hootkins) is only too happy to lend his services and there’s no need to bring him up to speed on the evening’s events thus far as he’s been spying from the adjacent window (through a telescope and with one hand down his pants in case you were wondering). Worryingly, Lincoln appears far less fazed by the threat at hand than he is intrigued by what Jill’s cheek would taste like when slathered. On the upside, he is less likely to bore a hole through her skull-cap with a makeshift drill bit than his mechanized other, but that still doesn’t explain the constant whirring sound emanating from beneath his overhanging gut and no man who sweats so profusely should ever be trusted.

No pressure Mo but you may wish to pop your head in before the evening is out as your lady in waiting couldn’t shit a luck nugget right now and your sidekick Shades appears to have gotten rather high on his own supply. That leaves only you to save the day right?

Not so fast space truckers; I call to the stand both Alien and The Terminator as Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor taught us a valuable lesson about the fairer sex – sisters are quite capable of doing it for themselves. Jill is prepared to break the shrink-wrap on every last trade tool at her disposal if it means enduring this unrelenting nightmare and is resourceful enough by far to give the M.A.R.K. 13. the right royal runaround without the need for alpha intrusion.

Travis is superb as our feisty heroine and McDermott no less pitch-perfect as the man of few words determined to come good one time and fight for his fair maiden’s honor. Rock legend Iggy Pop’s gruff tones lend themselves well to “the man with the industrial dick”, maniacal disc jockey, Angry Bob, while Motörhead front man Lemmy also crops up in a fleeting cameo for that extra dash of cult coolness. Steven Chivers’ photography excels both out in the elements and up close and personal.

He introduces the audience to a grim futurescape where the skies are blood-red, drenching this humid hell hole in burnt orange hues, before bringing us all in for a number of uncomfortable hugs just as effectively. Simon Boswell’s synth-n-slide-guitar score is deliciously despondent and positively dripping with apocalyptic dread, while the inclusion of Public Image Ltd.’s The Order of Death into the audio fray is simply ingenious.

The fact that Hardware isn’t remembered more affectionately in horror circles fries my circuits as it possesses pretty much all the components a sci-fi movie needs to be considered unforgettable. Its burn is decidedly slow and deliberately so, but stick with it and you’ll be handsomely compensated as it shifts like a rattlesnake once Stanley lets his beast off the leash.

In addition, those who crave deeper meaning are more than catered for with social commentary touching on topics such as self-medication and surveillance, while the director gets a little biblical too for additional bonus credits. As a self-confessed scavenger of all things retrospective, I’ll take its bleak dystopian vision and raise it with my perpetual admiration. As for the irrepressible M.A.R.K. 13., well I think I may pass thanks.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Stanley isn’t as fixated on body count as he is on making sure that each body counts and the M.A.R.K. 13. is certainly well enough tooled up to deliver on this front. Boasting a wide array of poisonous needles, buzzing saws, blades and drills, not to mention the ability to regenerate using other proximate objects, this motorized menacer makes decidedly short and messy work of its victims. It’s also not without its perversions and the sight of our heroine mooching about in the altogether via thermal imaging should be every predator’s wet dream. 

Read The Terminator Appraisal
Read Alien Appraisal
Read Demon Seed Appraisal
Read Mad Max: Fury Road Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. Glad to have you back, Rich! This was a terrific appraisal. Around the time this came out, I was working at Blockbuster & Hardware was a favorite rental.
    I vaguely remember it & am certain that I did take it home. It sounds like way better fare than Terminator. Of course, I have tried my best to like that James Cameron classic but it leaves me flat.
    Hardware seems like a thinking person’s mechanized nightmare. I might have to revisit this one!

    1. Thanks Susan. You worked at Blockbuster? That’s so cool, I worked in a video store for seven years and they were my happiest days in employment. I still miss the smell of mahogany from the video store shelves all these years on.
      I love what you said – “Hardware seems like a thinking person’s mechanized nightmare” – it truly is and the years have been incredibly kind.

  2. I saw Hardware once, in a theater than was having technical difficulties (the second-reel projector failed to start, leaving a gap of about 10 minutes while the projectionist did some shuffling). I was aware of the hype, which left me underwhelmed. I suspect an HD rewatch might improve my opinion of it.

    1. Let me know what you think if you watch it again Alex. I watched the new Blu-Ray restoration and it really makes a difference. I remembered it being good but it it has matured beautifully over the years.

  3. I had free cinema tickets for a year back when this came out – so watched it a couple of times in the cinema.

    This is an excellent appraisal – I too am surprised it’s not more well-known as it is a second tier classic.

    Visually it is immaculate – every frame of the film could be turned into a poster. The low budget restrictions are entirely forgiveable – as are the few moments of am-dram acting – limited sets and scope just add to the claustrophobia at the end.

    But the Mk13 robot design is brilliant and the soundtrack album got me into Ministry and Gwar at the same time! (oh and Stabat Mater too.) Simon Boswell’s score still holds up – many low budget films have awful synth patch sounds on their soundtracks – (and I even include the original Terminator music in this respect as the original soundtrack is very squeaky, squelchy and tinny to my ears!) – but his themes still sound great – the slide guitar and carpenter-esque phases.

    In short – this movie needs an extras-laden Blu Ray release asap. I had Stanley penned in as a cult great – but it’s a pity that he was so burned by the Moreau debacle.

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