Drone technology is commonplace now but back in 1990 it was a novel concept and Hardware (1990) anticipated the use of remote controlled robots for warfare making it eerily relevant now more than ever before. This film marked an auspicious debut for filmmaker Richard Stanley as he successfully tapped into the emerging alternative rock music genre of the late 1980s with Cyberpunk culture to create a distinctive science fiction film with political undertones fused with thriller genre tropes. While it received negative reviews from critics back in the day, it was modestly successful commercially and has since gone on to become a cult film.
We are introduced to a post-apocalyptic futureworld where scavengers roam the wasteland known as the Zone looking for anything they can sell. Civilization exists in an industrial graveyard where radiation levels are still high, keeping people inside. Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) is a forager who buys the disembodied head of a robot from a fellow scavenger as a Christmas present for his beautiful girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), a multimedia artist that welds metal sculptures.
Early on, Jill says about her sculpture, “It’s like I’m fighting the metal and so far the metal is winning.” These words prove to prophetic as she takes the robot head and adds it to her massive sculpture. Unbeknownst to her and Mo the robot head is actually a highly advanced military drone known as the M.A.R.K. 13. It activates and begins to reassemble itself. It soon sees Mo and Jill as threats and thus begins a battle between humans and robot, flesh vs. metal, humanity vs. technology as the film hurtles towards a bloody, horror movie showdown.
I like that Stanley takes the time to develop the relationship between Mo and Jill. They love each other but there is a tension between them as they quarrel over having kids and population control. There is a believable intimacy between them and Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis have excellent chemistry together. Jill is no damsel in distress and is much more resourceful than her physically stronger boyfriend who tends to go charging into a dangerous situation. With the help of Mo’s best friend, Shades (John Lynch), also physically inferior, confronts the M.A.R.K. 13.
McDermott does a solid job of playing a flawed but ultimately stand-up guy that genuinely cares for Jill even if he’s not a 100% committed to their relationship. Character actor extraordinaire William Hootkins (Star Wars) shows up as Jill’s creepy neighbor who is obsessed with her and has been stalking her for some time. The actor is not afraid to go for it, playing a completely distasteful person whose comeuppance is well-deserved.
Stanley makes some unusual musical choices, like Simon Boswell’s spaghetti western-tinged score that kicks off the film with the scavenger with no name (played by Fields of the Nephilim frontman Carl McCoy) wandering the wasteland, or playing classical music over Mo’s hallucinogenic demise complete with fractal imagery no less – the M.A.R.K. 13 literally orchestrating it all. It really earns its Cyberpunk credentials by including choice cuts like “Stigmata” by Ministry and “The Order of Death” by Public Image Ltd., which enhance the futuristic feel of the world Stanley has created.
Stanley fleshes out his futureworld via radio broadcasts featuring Iggy Pop as an enthusiastic DJ known as Angry Bob, providing tantalizing details of just how bad things have gotten. Outside, everything takes on a hellish red haze. Mo and Shades take a cab driven by none other than legendary rock ‘n’ roller Lemmy who puts on “Ace of Spades” by his band Motorhead on the stereo. Much like Blade Runner (1982), the desired destination for those who can afford it is outer space but who can afford it? Certainly not Mo and Jill.
The original idea for Hardware came out of a dream Richard Stanley had when he was 13:
“I had a series of dreams about the guy in the hat, the character that turns up in Dust Devil and a bunch of other things. In one dream he was searching for something, and he digs up the metal skull with the camera lens eyes and hypodermic teeth.”
Aspects of those dreams surfaced in a Super-8 short film entitled, “Incidents in an Expanding Universe,” that Stanley made piecemeal while going to school in South Africa when he was a teenager. Most of the inspiration for what would become Hardware came from music videos, horror comic books like Creepy and Eerie, as well as spaghetti westerns and Italian horror movies. He wrote the screenplay in a week while listening to Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” repeatedly.
After finishing the script for Wicked Films and TV, Ltd., Stanley joined a guerrilla Muslim faction in Afghanistan. While there, he was nearly killed by a Russian missile and spent three days wandering with a wounded comrade strapped to his back until he found a Red Cross refugee camp. It was there that he learned, via telex that a deal had been made with Palace Pictures to turn his script for Hardware into a film. Stanley went straight from the battlefield and into pre-production on his film.
Originally, Hardware was set in England but when Miramax got involved, becoming co-financier and its distributor in the United States, they insisted that American actors play Jill and Mo. Stanley wanted to cast Bill Paxton as Mo and Jeffrey Combs as Shades but was only allowed to employ two Americans and had already cast Stacey Travis as Jill, which meant that Combs was out. Stanley met with Paxton, who really wanted to do it, but couldn’t get out of his commitment to making Navy SEALs (1990). The filmmaker originally envisioned Mo to be more like a Hell’s Angel but Dylan McDermott changed him to a career military soldier that believes in family and reads The Bible. As a result, Stanley didn’t like the character as much because he lacked the deeper flaws he had originally envisioned.
The taxi cab driver was originally to be played by Sinead O’Connor but she had to pull out due to a scheduling conflict and Stanley persuaded hard rocker Lemmy to do it at the last minute for a bottle of Jack Daniels. He was given a shoulder holster with a pistol during filming and proceeded to draw it and the weapon accidentally fell out of his hand and into the Thames River, lost forever.
Most of the film was shot in the Roundhouse, an empty building that had been derelict for years (it used to be a concert venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix), in Camden Town. The production built Jill’s apartment in the middle of the building and lived there for six weeks. Some city exteriors were filmed in Canning Town and Port Talbot in Wales, the latter of which had inspired the futureworlds of Blade Runner and Brazil (1984). The desert scenes were shot in Morocco. The production saved up enough money to take a crew of eight there and found it very challenging, encountering a “freak storm with flash floods and a lot of people drowned in a nearby town,” Stanley recalled.
The shooting schedule was originally set for seven weeks but stretched to nine with cast and crew working grueling 12-hour days, six days a week for little money. Six models of the M.A.R.K. 13 were used for filming with a modified battery remote-control one costing $80,000, a full costume, a foam one for stunt work, a fire resistant one, a pair of walking legs, and a bag of assorted parts.
Predictably, Hardware did not do well with critics at the time of its initial release. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Watching Hardware is like being trapped inside a video game that talks dirty.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “ It’s as if someone had remade Alien with the monster played by a rusty erector set.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “Hardware is an MTV movie, a mad rush of hyperkinetic style and futuristic imagery with little concern for plot (much less substance).” In her review for the Chicago Tribune, Johanna Steinmetz wrote, “Though it does know how to hammer home a point, Hardware doesn’t always have matching nuts and bolts.” Stanley said of his own film at the time: “I want to inflict serious damage on the audience…I’m sticking my finger up at everything. I purposely wrote the dialogue to be vitriolic and disgusting…I’m moving punk from vinyl to film.”
Society in Hardware is obsessed with population control and why not? Who would want to bring up children after World War III? Inhabitable space is of a premium after most of the world has been reduced to a derelict wasteland. For such a small budget, Stanley does an excellent job of creating a tangible world with its own distinctive lived-in look and feel.
Hardware warns of being over-reliant on technology as the M.A.R.K. 13 traps Jill in her apartment by taking control of the door locks, the phone and all of the electrical systems putting her at a severe disadvantage. Science fiction can often act as a warning – beware of what the future may bring or how the abuses of technology could be our undoing. We are supposed to heed the warnings of these fictional prophecies but we rarely do.
“Cult Director of Hardware Richard Stanley Interviewed.” The Quietus. June 24, 2009.
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Jones, Alan. “Hardware: Filming High Concept on Low Budget.” Cinefantastique. 1991.
McAllister, Matt. “Interview: Richard Stanley.” Sci-Fi Bulletin. 2009.
Nutman, Philip. “On Robots and Ratings.” Fangoria. 1990.
“Richard Stanley: Interview.” Time Out London.
Vijn, Aro. “Richard Stanley, I Presume? An Interview with the Director of Hardware.” Screen Anarchy. November 18, 2009.