In a previous entry I looked at two of cinema’s classics: Metropolis (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). This time however I’m going to look at pair of films less fondly remembered, though – to their credit – possessing their own unique brand of brilliance.
With cyberpunk sensibilities gradually finding a footing in cinema following pioneering efforts such as Blade Runner (1982) and with the mainstream appeal of the Terminator series, the way was paved for genre game changer The Matrix (1999) – It’s an unfortunate knock on effect of its success that some lesser, but none the less interesting cyberpunk efforts were virtually (no pun intended) eclipsed in its wake.
One such effort was Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). In spite of a strong critical reception the film recovered barely $8 million of its $42 million budget and remains largely forgotten today. A shame as it is to my mind one of cyberpunk’s most impressive forays into mainstream cinema, being entertaining but also intelligent and carefully considered. Typical of most sci-fi cinema the plot is built around a specific technological advancement, in this case the ‘SQUID’ (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) a black market headset and recording deck capable of capturing the experiences of the human brain for direct playback into the cerebral cortex of just about anyone else, so long as they can afford it.
The film is quick to establish itself with traditional hallmarks of a cyberpunk narrative, emphasising its high technology – low humanity basis from the start: corruption and murder feature prominently, the SQUID itself is frequently shown being used for twisted or unpleasant purposes, while our central character leaves much to be desired.
Which is where Lenny Nero fits into the story and consequentially most criteria of a cyberpunk anti-hero. A disgraced former policeman, our protagonist deals illicit SQUID clips to rich thrill seekers, a shifty character embodying much of the sleazy approach associated to a desperate salesman or con artist (the trailer captures this particularly well). What saves Lenny from being truly detestable is the way he’s shown to suffer equally from his own product, continually playing back old clips of long gone girlfriend Faith, constantly reopening old wounds being trapped by the same technology he makes a living off. It’s an idea equally exciting as it is disturbing that the next big thing in recordable media would be our own experiences and memories.
The standout stylistic highlight of the film has to be the first person sequences of SQUID playback – just as someone using the clips is thrown headfirst into someone else experiences, the same effect is approximated on the viewer, showing them the scene from the viewpoint of a character, creating a sense of direct involvement which is exhilarating, disorienting and disturbing all at the same time. On a technical level alone these sequences are remarkably well accomplished and impressive even by today’s standards, while it’s hard not to draw parallels with the recent surge of ‘found footage’ shaky-cam filmmaking we’ve been seeing in the likes of Cloverfield (2008) and District 9 (2009).
That said treated differently this could easily have become another detestable effort in the realms of Johnny Mnemonic, what’s most commendable about Strange Days isn’t so much its core concept or flamboyant execution as the sense of realism which runs throughout the film. Placing the ‘future date’ of 1999 aside almost everything feels believable thanks to the restraint used in the surrounding world: clubs, cars and most other aspects of society are unchanged, while the SQUID itself (an existing though far less developed technology) could almost be interchanged with any number of existing elicit trades such as underground videos, drugs or pornography – even the manner in which the clips are discussed has a sense of the everyday to its slang and terminology.
Some of most inventive moments in the film are perhaps intentionally some of its darkest. A turning point in the plot sees Lenny being mailed clips recorded by an unknown man, horrific rape murders further intensified by use of the SQUID to feed what’s being seen, heard and felt by the murderer back to the victim as it’s done. Another pair of scenes see witnesses silenced through forcible amplification of the systems feed burning out their frontal lobes – the sinister reasoning being that while it doesn’t kill them or count as murder it leaves them more or less lobotomised.
I recall this idea of neural feed being abused as a torture device or murder weapon was used quite frequently in the TV series of Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex (2002) suggesting likely influence from the film, however I have to wonder if Strange Days itself draws influence from the writing of William Gibson. Both Neuromancer and the short Burning Chrome (the only two of his works I’ve read thus far) used the idea of ‘Sim-Stim’ in the narrative – a technology near identical to SQUID in function although in Gibson’s future it is described as being a more commercial, legal enterprise, with talk of sim-stim stars being tuned into by their fans. This idea of living someone else’s experiences is certainly one of cyberpunk’s more pervasive, but it’s how Strange Days carefully integrates it with its narrative that sets the film apart for me – rather than being a high tech sideline it creates a driving force behind the story.
On the bright side, despite its original box office failure Strange Days does appear to be gradually garnering a cult following today, slowly accumulating the sort of credit it should have received on release. My second topic film on the other hand isn’t quite so lucky.
Originally dismissed as a UK Terminator rip-off by many thanks to its familiar killer robot premise, Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) has never been particularly well liked outside its niche fan base. All the same, evident Terminator influence aside the film has plenty of its own to offer.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic future in the wake of an unspecified nuclear war, a dystopia soaked in deep reds with toxic deserts surrounding overpopulated cities. Catastrophic pollution has resulted in a wave of birth deformities in ensuing generations while an unsustainable population has caused the US government to pass a bill limiting reproduction in its people, with radio announcements urging listeners to go visit “sterilization centres” and “make a clean break with procreation.” Jill, the heroine of the piece even goes so far as to say “It’s stupid, sadistic and suicidal to have children right now.” In line with this it’s themes of human reproduction that form the driving force behind much of the story.
The killer robot of the piece the ‘Mark – 13’ enters the lives of lovers Jill and Moses as a piece of what they take to be inanimate desert salvage: a seemingly harmless relic from the “zone” which proceeds to reassemble itself and begin a murderous rampage through their apartment. A generic approach to the scenario perhaps, however it’s the pessimistic ending which adds a more interesting spin on things with the revelation that the Mark 13 is about to be sent into mass production and rolled out worldwide funded by their own government. A cheery radio broadcast announces new factory jobs to the unemployed masses, humans eagerly helping to facilitate their own demise.
As ever the cyberpunk trend of technology being misappropriated saturates the film, though unlike the majority of genre examples it isn’t abused for strictly selfish purposes but rather to fulfil an ironically ruthless machine like logic to resolve the population crisis. It’s an image which brings very real examples of genocide such as the Jewish holocaust to mind, adding just enough chilling reality amongst the sci-fi to hit somewhere a little deeper. There’s a particularly telling moment before the Mark 13’s activation where Jill turns it into part of an art sculpture, spraying stars and stripes across its head – a feature perhaps to reflect its government endorsement. As a state sponsored killing machine the films tagline ‘you can’t stop progress’ takes on a new set of disturbing connotations.
As I previously mentioned themes of human reproduction run throughout the film, with an early sex scene between Jill and Moses placing key emphasis on the processes importance. As this happens they are watched by a pair of predators: the Mark 13 beginning to arise from dormancy and ‘Lincoln’ a stalker from across the street. It’s a particularly nice design touch that the thermal scope he uses (besides looking like a gun) is made to uncannily resemble the thermal viewfinder of the machine, drawing immediate comparisons between the two threats. Although Lincoln is attempting fulfil his own repressed sexual desires for reproduction while the Mark 13 contrastingly is programmed to forcibly prevent them being realised, there’s something bizarrely comparable between the two, as if both were vying for preservation of their kind. The idea is only given further credibility when the Mark 13 attacks Jill with a decidedly phallic drill appendage.
This is where the underlying concept connects with its more typical Terminator-esque ideas – the battle between man and machine – regardless it still manages to keep a unique spin on the old formula, represented in clever little details. Moses himself has a cyborg hand indicative of the machine being a part of him already, while the industrial soundtrack seems to emphasise the machine encroaching on human territory, the lyrics of a reoccurring track by Public Image Limited – Order of Death – appearing to echo the narratives sentiments: “This is what you want, this is what you get.” As usual with cyberpunk we’ve brought it on ourselves.
It’s unfortunate that some notable flaws detract from the film’s successes: The thought provoking ideas and carefully managed build up are undermined by a disorganised final act, while several moments of scientific illiteracy (such as the Mark 13’s mislabelling as a ‘cyborg’ and use of a freezer to evade thermal visioning) disrupt the settings credibility. They’re minor niggles admittedly but undeniably detract for those better versed in the genre and its science.
In an additional point of coincidental relevance to my own project, Richard Stanley suffered legal action over accusations he lifted the film’s story from one of the 2000 AD magazine’s shorts – Shok! Having read through it myself there is certainly a resemblance though there’s none of the genocide commentary or sexual undertones. Considered as a direct adaption it would make Hardware the first cinematic realisation of Judge Dredd’s Mega City One and between this and 1995’s Judge Dredd, I’d take Hardware as the truer representation every time.
Strange Days and Hardware are unlikely to be regarded as cinema masterpieces anytime soon, but I maintain that both are criminally overlooked and well worth a watch if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk. Both are rich in ideas and imagination even when their execution fails them, and for me at least that’s what’s important.