An indestructible cyborg assassin from a post-apocalyptic future is hellbent on killing an unlikely ball-busting heroine.
It’s not hard to see why the premise of Hardware immediately drew comparisons to the most quotable action film from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s golden age. Even the marketing spiel proudly boasted, “It’s the Terminator of the ‘90s.”
However, hitting cinemas just a year before the actual Terminator of the ‘90s, Richard Stanley’s first full-length feature pushed its familiar concept into far more grimy, trippy, and ultimately nightmare-inducing territory. That’s little surprise considering Stanley, then barely out of his teens, had just returned from Afghanistan following a stint in a fundamentalist guerrilla party; he later told Twitch that his PTSD helped give the film an “authentic stench of trauma.”
Reluctant heroine Jill (Stacey Travis) has to endure the majority of this trauma. Indeed, made on a shoestring budget of $1.5 million — less than a quarter of what James Cameron had at his disposal — Hardware spends most of its claustrophobic 94 minutes holed up in her bunker-style flat. It’s here where the reclusive metal sculptor is forced to deal with creepy voyeuristic neighbors, a constant state of anxiety, and possibly the most misjudged Christmas present in Hollywood history.
Yes, to make things even more disorienting, Stanley sets his unhinged gorefest on December 24th (Die Hard has nothing on Hardware when it comes to decidedly unfestive holiday movies). But although the world is now a red-misted hellscape decimated by nuclear war, Jill’s soldier boyfriend Mo (played by a then-unknown Dylan McDermott) still manages to return home from his latest mission with a gift in tow.
Jill is so enamored with this strange offering, a disembodied robot head Mo bought from a nomad scavenger (“It’s horrible. I love it.”), that she soon transforms it into a sculpture emblazoned with the American flag. Her enthusiasm wanes, however, when her artwork turns into a lean, mean, self-repairing machine determined to kill anyone in its path. Turns out the head is part of a government tool named M.A.R.K. 13 designed to murder what is considered to be the scourge of irradiated society: the unwashed masses.
Whereas The Terminator disguised itself in the form of a monosyllabic Austrian bodybuilder, Hardware’s assassin is 100% pure robot. Every mechanical limb is on full display, and there are no snappy one-liners or cool leather jackets to diffuse the threat. M.A.R.K. 13 is a bit of a clunker, though, and we later discover it has a disappointingly ordinary kryptonite. But its relentless reign of terror provides some genuinely shocking moments. The eye-gouging, limb-ripping mutilation of Lincoln (William Hootkins) is so brutal you almost feel sorry for the disgusting, foul-mouthed sleaze. Almost.
Lincoln, ironically reminiscent of the film’s now-disgraced bankroller, Harvey Weinstein, is just one of many weirdos that populate Stanley’s bleak, hallucinatory world. There’s Mo’s largely useless sidekick Shades (John Lynch) who spends most of the movie in a drug-fuelled haze, while Iggy Pop brings his usual sense of anarchy as taunting radio DJ Angry Bob.
The only blank canvas of a character happens to be its leading man. McDermott’s face might adorn the film’s poster, but Hardware definitely belongs to its only female presence. Indeed, in an impressively committed performance, Travis summons up the type of gutsiness and steely determination that positioned Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor as a feminist icon.
Along with McDermott, Travis was reportedly only cast on the insistence of Miramax. The studio believed that the British director’s vision needed an American flavor to attract audiences beyond the comic book crowd, then very much a niche concern (Hardware was heavily inspired by SHOK, a 2000 AD comic whose publishers, Fleetway Comics, later filed and won a plagiarism lawsuit).
Incredibly, this tactic appeared to work. Hardware grossed a respectable $2.38 million in its opening weekend to reach seventh place in the box office chart, just behind another cult favorite, Darkman. Not bad for such a strange and singular affair which throws in everything from penis-shaped drills and thrash metal giants GWAR to warped TV ads for “radiation-free reindeer steaks” into its fever dream.
The critical response to Hardware was decidedly mixed at the time. The Washington Post described it as “a mad rush of hyperkinetic style and futuristic imagery with little concern for plot (much less substance”). Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, positively hated it (“as if someone had remade Alien with the monster played by a rusty erector set”).
Yet over the years, Hardware has been reevaluated as a shining example of lo-fi genre filmmaking, becoming a midnight movie staple in the process. A contract dispute which delayed its DVD release until 2009 only helped to further its lost classic status.
Having been burned by the famously disastrous shoot of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Stanley only recently returned from a 23-year directing hiatus with Color Out of Space, an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Nicolas Cage at his most gonzo. But even this couldn’t outweird the deranged cyberpunk debut that took The Terminator’s premise and ran unapologetically amuck.