Studio: Severin Films
Film Length: 93 minutes (per IMDb)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DD 5.1; English DD 2.0
Disc Format: 1 50 GB
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 14, 1990
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 13, 2009
Unavailable in any form for years due to rights disputes, the cult classic Hardware is being released by specialty studio Severin Films on both Blu-ray and DVD. While any fan of obscure films should want to encourage the efforts of an outfit like Severin, it’s a favor to neither the studio nor the fans to let shoddy work slip by without comment. Thus, I am forced to report that the copy of the Hardware Blu-ray sent to me for review, while not a complete disaster, was noteworthy for being the single most problematic hi-def disc I have ever encountered. Some of the flaws were so glaring that I have added a separate section to address them (“The Disc”).
Nuclear devastation has rendered much of the planet uninhabitable. The voice of a DJ (Iggy Pop) broadcasting in one of the few cities that is still populated cheerfully announces that there is no good news, before going on to report on the impending population control measures being implemented by the current government. Somewhere a war is still being fought, presumably the same war that destroyed the planet.
In a red sandy wasteland, a lone figure scavenges for scrap. He comes upon the remains of a robot or droid, which he scoops up and takes with him.
In the city, a vast pile of rubble that makes Thunderdome look tidy by comparison, we catch up with Mo (a very young Dylan McDermott), who is on leave from some kind of military position, and his friend Shades (John Lynch), who has some sort of job in outer space. Mo’s ultimate destination is the home of his girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), but first he visits Alvy (Mark Northover), a kind of pawnbroker to whom Mo wants to sell various odds and ends “borrowed” from work.
While at Alvy’s, Mo encounters the wasteland scavenger and is intrigued by his find. He ends up buying the droid parts for Jill, whose passion is sculpting huge industrial creations out of the odds and ends of the society that is crumbling around them. It’s Christmas, you see, and Mo doesn’t want to arrive on Jill’s doorstep empty-handed.
The relationship between Mo and Jill is tense and tentative, a mixture of sexual passion and despair over the future. When Mo arrives at her heavily barricaded apartment (he is taken aback at how badly the neighborhood has deteriorated since his last visit – and they are truly nightmarish), Jill’s ambivalence is palpable. But she is fascinated by Mo’s “gift” and immediately begins integrating the scrap droid’s head into a central location in the huge sculpture on which she’s been working.
What Jill doesn’t realize, though, is that Mo isn’t the only man interested in her. She has a disturbing neighbor, Linc, whose camera is always trained on her window. Linc is played by the late character actor William Hootkins, best-known as the corrupt Lt. Eckhardt gunned down by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman. Hardware’s director Richard Stanley has admitted that the Linc subplot is essentially padding to get the film to feature length, but Hootkins makes the character so thoroughly disgusting that he adds an extra dimension to the film. His performance also puts a sign above Linc that flashes “victim” as surely as if this were a Star Trek episode and Linc was wearing a red uniform. When it arrives, Linc’s death scene is richly satisfying.
Back at Jill’s, Mo receives an urgent call from Alvy, who kept a piece of the droid that Mo bought from the scavenger. It seems the droid is a MARK 13, the government’s latest experimental combat model. Alvy tells Mo to meet him with the remaining pieces, because the proprietary technology would be worth a lot to the company developing the droid. Does anyone expect Alvy to make the meeting?
The second half of Hardware takes an abrupt turn from sci-fi to monster movie, because the MARK 13 has remarkable abilities of self-regeneration using whatever is available – for example, Jill’s workshop tools. While Mo is out trying to find Alvy, the droid finishes recreating itself and goes on a bloody rampage.
Hardware is not a perfect movie by any means, but its status is a cult classic is well-deserved for several reasons. First, its vision of a dystopian future is vivid and detailed, an achievement that’s all the more impressive when you consider that the budget was considerably smaller than that of films like Blade Runner or Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, films with which it can easily stand comparison. Second, it isn’t predictable, as, for example, when one of the major deaths near the end becomes the occasion, not for the expected blood bath, but for a mystical sequence that looks like a throwback to Sixties psychedelia (and is also quite beautiful). Third, the film was made just before digital effects took over; it relies entirely on physical and in-camera effects and, as a result, the performances achieve a realism that green screens have since drained from so many sci-fi and horror movies. And finally, Stacey Travis’ performance as Jill is a constant surprise. As director Stanley says, if the film hadn’t gone unseen for so many years, she might have had a major career. Long before ass-kicking female heroines became a mainstay of popular culture, Travis’ Jill transcended the traditional damsel-in-distress to create a tougher and more complex female heroine. (It doesn’t hurt that Travis did her own stunts, including catching on fire.)
Hardware ends where it began: in the desert. Once again a lone figure is scavenging for . . . scrap.
Severin’s disc appears to have been mastered using BD Java; a large “Hardware” logo appears on screen for about 10 seconds while the disc loads, followed by a Severin logo and then the disc’s menu. But it’s a mystery why anyone bothered with BD Java, since no use of its features is apparent. There is no BD Live function, no apparent use of internet access and, perhaps most importantly, no availability of the bookmark features that are such an essential workaround to the inability of Blu-ray players to resume playback at a specific point.
But this is a relatively minor point. On the copy provided to me by Severin, played on a Panasonic BD-50 with the most current firmware, there wasn’t a time code anywhere on this disc. When you’re playing the main feature, your player’s display simply said “PLAY”. There was no elapsed time, no total time, and no ability to search for a specific time. Nor was there be any display to indicate what chapter you’re in (although you could find out by bringing up the chapter selection menu and noting which chapter was illuminated – a cumbersome substitute at best).
The same lack of time codes affected every single special feature, which is why the times listed for them later in this review are approximate. I had to time them with a stop watch.
After the initial publication of this review, others users have reported different results with discs purchased at retail, and other reviews have appeared that do not mention this particular issue. Therefore, it appears that either (a) we are dealing with some sort of unusual replication error (in which case, buyer beware), or (b) the time code issue reflects some sort of hardware incompatibility with a player that is mainstream and has had no issues to date with a multitude of discs from a variety of sources. We have notified Severin of these issues but have so far received no response.
(EDIT on 10/17/09: I have since gained access to a Panasonic BD-10 -- admittedly the same manufacturer but a different model and profile -- and replicated the same issues with this disc. It is more than just an issue with one person's player.)
Further discussion of Blu-ray insufficiency is in the “Audio” section below.
The news on the video front is more encouraging. The film cannot escape its low-budget origins or the likelihood that elements have probably not been as well preserved as they should have. In the opening shots of the desert wasteland, there is some obvious damage consisting of a vertical “tear” in the upper left corner of the screen and a large dust speck (which displays as a white spot) in the upper left quarter. Fortunately these disappear after about a minute, and the remainder of the source material appears to be in remarkably good shape.
Much of Hardware occurs in darkened surroundings, and black levels are not always as deep as one would like. Still, an exceptional degree of detail is visible, even in darker scenes, and this allows one to appreciate the thoroughness with which the production design created the film’s crumbling world, even with no money and very few sets. Everywhere you look, there’s rubble, dust and grime. Colors are vivid, whether there are only a few in the frame or an entire spectrum (Stanley confirms in the commentary that this was carefully planned). There is a healthy dose of film grain throughout, indicating that, if DNR was applied, it was done sparingly.
For all my criticisms of this Blu-ray (and I’m not done with them), I consider the image on this disc to be worth having, particularly if (as is currently the case) the street price of the Blu-ray is less than that of the 2-disc DVD set. I might feel differently if we were dealing with the list price, which is higher for Blu-ray.
Memo to Severin: People who buy Blu-ray do not expect to get the same audio track as the DVD. Yes, Severin’s idea of a Blu-ray track is DD 5.1 at – try to contain your excitement here – 448kb/ps. Come on, guys. This is Blu-ray. Bandwidth isn’t the problem that it was. At the very least, bump up the bitrate to 640kb/ps, like the big guys do.
So how is the track? It’s pretty good for a DVD. Dialogue is reasonably intelligible, the surrounds provide a nice sense of ambiance, and the memorable musical selections fill the room. But the whole soundtrack has a harsh-sounding edge to it, and there’s no way to know whether that’s a product of the source materials or the sound-encoding, because, well, did I mention it’s DD 5.1 at 448kb/ps?
Except as otherwise noted, the video for all special features is standard definition. I have seen other reviews in which all of these features are listed as “HD” of “1080i” or “1080p”, which may accurately measure the signal being sent from the disc but misrepresents the nature of the source. I do not regard a 1080p signal as “HD” if it is conveying a 480i source, and I know one when I see one. My designations have been made accordingly.
Commentary with Director Richard Stanley. Interviewed by one Norman Hill, who does a fine job at prompting Stanley when he might otherwise fall silent, Stanley gives a detailed account of the shoot and other aspects of his career. Among the many useful items, he notes that the version of Hardware on this disc is the complete version before cuts were made to satisfy the MPAA for the U.S. theatrical release. However, it is not the longest version in existence. Over the years, Stanley has lost track of Hardware, as versions proliferated and an ever-expanding list of companies fought over the rights.
No Flesh Shall Be Spared - Documentary (app. 54:01; widescreen but SD resolution). This is a new documentary on both the history of the film and, indirectly, the history of a certain segment of the British film industry. Hardware began as a British production, but was ultimately funded by Miramax, which was just then getting into feature films. (This is why the setting is no longer London and the two leads are American.) It was one of various sci-fi scripts that Stanley wrote in an effort to move from music videos to feature films, and it was the most cynical of his efforts: the simplest and cheapest, with the fewest sets and including a list of elements that he thought would appeal to producers (e.g., a nude shower scene). Proving the validity of Stanley’s insight, Hardware was the only one that got made.
Stacey Travis participated extensively in the documentary, and she is still gorgeous. Trivia question for Angel fans: Can you place her? (No fair looking her up in advance.)
Incidents in an Expanding Universe - Early Super 8 Version of Hardware (app. 44:28). This very rough and badly out-of-synch Super 8 film provides some idea of how Stanley first envisioned Hardware before commercial considerations intervened. Think of it as a kind of “animatic” for a special effects sequence. In particular, the character of Mo is very different than what he became when Dylan McDermott signed on.
The Sea of Perdition - 2006 Richard Stanley Short Film (app. 8:33; HD). Framed at 2:35:1 and looking like hi-def video, this short film hints at the kind of work that Stanley might be producing today if anyone would fund him. Although the temp track used is clearly from Moonraker, I didn’t notice any credit or acknowledgment. Here’s hoping a clearance was obtained.
Rites of Passage - Early Richard Stanley Short Film (app. 9:53). This odd film is taken from a VHS source that exhibits serious combing problems. Even after re-watching it, I’m not sure what to make of it. Again, there is a recognizable temp track without credit or acknowledgment (David Bowie’s theme for Cat People).
Richard Stanley on Hardware 2 (app. 7:39). Stanley anticipated a sequel and has had the script on his shelf for years. There are seeds planted throughout the film. In this interview excerpt, he discusses the sequel’s story in broad outline.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (app. 25:05). These are from Stanley’s personal VHS copy, and the quality is very poor. The most important of them is an extended scene between Mo and Jill that Stanley discusses in the documentary and that he wishes he had left in the movie, because it revealed a different aspect of their relationship.
German Hardware Trailer (app. 2:03). An odd choice, because it’s in German with no subtitles. Was the U.S. trailer unavailable?
Vintage Hardware Promo Video (app. 3:31). A standard-issue EPK, sourced from an ancient videotape. The video has serious flaws.
With better mastering, this could have been one of the great cult Blu-rays of 2009. Certainly the collection of supplemental materials is impressive. But the folks at Severin need to learn that Blu-ray is more than just a different color case and a greater number of pixels. In the meantime, one can at least celebrate the return of a unique and long-lost entry in 20th century cinema’s canon of pessimistic looks forward.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub