Artistic depictions of our future can be bleak. Stories of dystopia are so commonplace that we are now accustomed to images of our collective descent into a totalitarian society with limited natural resources. Seeing yet another film that depicts humanity as a wasteland has become familiar. HARDWARE (1990) takes place in a future version of the earth where the government has removed the citizen’s right to procreation as the cities are overcrowded. However, there are greater things to fear in the film.
The film is an evolutionary descendent of BLADE RUNNER, MAD MAX, and TERMINATOR. In the film, technology is as crude as it is ubiquitous. Jill (Stacey Travis) lives in a high rise apartment complex that is fully automated. There are rudimentary monitors all over that control her door, function as her telephone, and operate her kitchen. Despite this plethora of technology, her apartment is anything but pristine; it is crowded and disorganized. The atmosphere in her apartment is stifling, heavy. The outside world is cruel and Jill rarely leaves her home, which only adds to the claustrophobic feel. The environment is made all the more oppressive as Jill spend most of the film battling to escape her apartment.
HARDWARE is a film more concerned with creating a three dimensional world than with telling a story. This is not to say that there is a lack of action, as the third act gets busy and quite bloody, but the plot itself is slight. Jill’s boyfriend Moses (Dylan McDermott) is a scavenger. He roams the forsaken desert that surrounds the cities looking for junk he can sell back to tradesmen. When a fellow junker finds a strange looking helmet, assumed to be a government drone, Moses brings it back to Jill. Jill is a craftsman and artist, and Moses knows that she will be able to integrate the helmet into her latest sculpture. Moreover, their rocky relationship means he cannot return home on Christmas Eve empty-handed. The object turns out to not be a helmet but the dormant head of a killing machine that once awakened sets its sights on Jill. The helmet’s complete destruction mode instigates a mechanical cat-and-mouse chase throughout Jill’s confined home.
The desert wasteland outside of the city is equally beautiful as it is desolate. By contrast, the city where Jill lives is overcrowded and dirty. Each frame of the film is carefully constructed to give a feeling of isolation and powerlessness. Jill’s art is even crude in its assembly. She works with remaindered mechanical parts, welding them together to form massive but functionless sculptures. When the helmet arrives as a gift from Moses, Jill’s first impulse is to paint it. The hyper-visual nature of HARDWARE makes the fact that Jill is an artist that much more poignant.
As Jill’s artistic impulse first kicks in, she places the helmet into a vice grip and sets to painting it. As she unveils her final design, the representation of the helmet is biting: she has painted it with an American flag. Although she did not know it at the time, she was creating a powerful visual metaphor. Initially Jill created this American icon to be the centerpiece of her current work. It is a massive circular piece; a rusted non-functioning metal mandala. By placing the government created drone at the center, her piece becomes satirical, commenting on the frivolity of the government drones. With all of the technology and resources available to the United States, the government created theses now useless drones. The military chose to make ersatz humans rather than resolving the problems, which affect citizens.
When the machine awakens and determines to kill, the symbolism of the American patriotism paintjob demonstrates its violent underpinnings. Now the stand-in for official American engineering is no longer passive or useless, it is actively deadly. Chasing Jill through her apartment with sawblades destroying everything in sight is terrifying. Beyond the film’s diegesis, this helmet confronts the audience with a critique of our government. Here the stars and stripes are hunting and destroying the remaining artistic outlet in this uncreative and purely practical world. Jill is the purest depiction of the originality and resourcefulness that this world has abandoned. She takes junk and makes beauty. She looks at objects for their aesthetic value and not just their applied value. She is the only beacon of form over function and she is hunted down and tortured by the American-built killing machine.
Evidently, director Richard Stanley was not concerned with subtlety when he made HARDWARE. The film is gritty and aggressive in its message about the government’s treatment of its people and its attitude towards the arts. Like any good thriller, HARDWARE does leave the audience on a happy note. I hope for all of our sakes this optimism is not a false hope.