Suppose it were possible to transfer, from one mind to another, the experience of another person; Any person, any experience. (From the trailer.)
Overview. Released fourteen months after Tron, Brainstorm continues the theme of virtual reality’s effect on humanity. Ever since Tron there have been movies about virtual reality, even though it never really panned out the way many envisioned… with the head-mounted displays being the primary reason why. But that didn’t stop Hollywood from envisioning VR. Brainstorm does it a bit better than more recent efforts, even though Natalie Wood died while filming was on Thanksgiving break in 1981. Trumbull was able to complete the movie for 1983 by using body doubles and stand-ins, and offers a dedication “To Natalie” in the credits.
The Story. Doctors Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher) and estranged couple Michael and Karen (Walken and Woods) have created a helmet-like device called “the hat,” which can record the experiences… not just sight and sound, but smells, tastes, etc… of a person wearing it. The recording can then be played back on the hat by anyone else who gets to experience the same sensations the recorder experienced. Word of the hat’s breakthrough allows the group to have a larger budget and access to advanced technologies to make the hat more compact and easier to wear. It soon becomes something like a headband or Walkman-style headphones without the earpieces.
That looks like fun to wear… for a couple of hours.
Soon, the US Military wants access to the technology for yet-to-be-specified reasons (Missile guidance? Remote drone piloting?), but Reynolds refuses. She soon suffers a heart-attack while working alone and make a recording. Michael discovers the tape and replays the experience… and nearly dies from it. Despite that, he wants to see what the rest of the tape is about, but he is denied access to the tape and the labs.
Military using VR. What could possibly go wrong? Apart from the possible military applications of the hat, the obvious problem of addiction arises as a colleague has to retire when he experiences sensory overload on a “sex tape” another made and shared. Later on, Michael experiences a past argument with his estranged wife from her point of view. This shows that not only physical sensations can be recorded and transferred, but feelings as well.
This aspect seems to be what the military is most interested in, as Michael discovers the system has been hijacked for “Project Brainstorm” as a torture and brainwashing system. Unfortunately, his son tries the interface while the torture program is running and suffers a psychotic episode.
In theory, a person’s entire personality and psyche could be permanently altered by using the hat to expose them to another person’s past traumas and subconscious nightmares.
But Michael is more interested in finishing Lillian’s final tape to “have a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face.” This is where Brainstorm departs from sci-fi to metaphysics; Whether there is an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, and all that. That may not be the most cyberpunk thing to deal with, but then dealing with our mortality is part of our humanity whether it’s our own or someone we know.
Conclusion. Somehow, Brainstorm got lost in the shuffle of 80s cyberpunk movies, even though it could have stood up to much of today’s “cyberpunk” fare. The theme of life-after-death captured by technology is eerily in sync with Natalie Wood’s death during a break in shooting. While the visuals do seem dated, they are effective enough to carry us through Lillian Reynold’s final moments.
If you haven’t seen Brainstorm before, or haven’t seen it since it was first released, you should give it a(nother) view. You might be surprised by this little known classic.
Overview: Sometimes cheese can be enjoyable. Michael Crichton’s movie, Runaway, is filled with too many straight-up Hollywood clichés to be taken seriously, but it’s still fun. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Die-Hard Magnum PI fan, or perhaps I love to see Gene Simmons’ evil glare. Runaway has some fun ideas, but the movie’s not great. It’s one of those movies where the bad guy can magically get anywhere and automatically knows everything. It is more fun than it deserves to be though.
The Story: In near-future, society has taken full advantage of micro-electronics and robot technology. Many basic jobs, such as taking care of corn fields, are now carried out by robots. Robots even fulfill surrogate nanny roles for children stuck at home. In this world, Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) is a specialist on disabling malfunction robots. Ramsay and his new partner, Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) get enmeshed in a series of incidents where robots have gone wild, sometimes with deadly results.
In investigating the faulty robots, they find that they have been modified with a special “assassin” computer chip that turns normal robots into man-killing death machines. The trail leads to Dr. Charles Luther (enjoyably played by Kiss rock star, Gene Simmons), and over-the-top evil genius who will stop at nothing to develop and sell these chips to the highest bidder. Ramsay and Thompson stop Dr. Luther by intercepting a chip delivery from his girlfriend, played by Kirstie Alley, and capture Luther’s chip design template for making new copies.
As the plot thickens, Dr. Luther brings out his toys. The most impressive gadget which the movie is most known for are mini-spiders that can jump 6 feet in the air, and deliver shots of acid. Luther also has heat-seeking bullets that can be targeted to an individual body heat profile, and mini-homing bombs on wheels called “lock-ons.” Things get tense when Luther kidnaps Ramsay’s kid to exchange for the chip template.
The Acting: The acting is nothing special in Runaway, and certainly lacks originality in any of the assigned roles – virtually every character is cookie cutter Hollywood fare. Tom Selleck basically plays his Magnum PI character, so if you like that guy, you’ll probably like his performance here. Cynthia Rhodes plays a shallow but cute sidekick who wants nothing more than to get it on with Selleck. Kirstie Alley’s role consists mostly of looking hawt. With that said, Gene Simmons is the really fun one to watch. All he really does well is “look evil” but he does this so well! This coupled with the fact that Simmons’ character is almost magical – he always knows where everyone is, and can infiltrate any location including a busy police station to log on to Ramsay’s computer with virtually no disguise. Again, we’re not talking high quality here, but it is fun.
The FX: Runaway provides us with a number of low-budget cyberpunk toys, but probably the best effect employed was the use of the fish-eye lens to give us the perspective of the missile bullet. This simple camera effect makes the heat-seeking bullet far more believable than it should. But it’s the spiders which everyone recognizes. For some reason, these seemed far more believable to me when I watched this movie in the 80s. Now, they just sort of seem to sit there and wiggle. Still, when watching the ending sequence in Matrix Revolutions, where Neo walks through the tunnel with the high-quality CG spider-bots traveling everywhere, I was reminded of Runaway. So in that sense, Runaway’s toys have outlasted the movie itself.
Evil Chips: I’m not really sure what this even means, but Runaway is predicated on the idea that “assassin” chips can be made. These chips provide an alternate instruction set which appears generic enough to work on virtually any robot. In looking at this, the idea reeks of Hollywood cheese. Wouldn’t it be cool though if someone could design an instruction set that could self-organize its commands based on its environment? I suppose Java does this in some ways in that its platform independent, but robot independent seems a bit more complicated.
Dr. Luther is just another Dr. Evil: It’s amazing how a character can change the world of film. Ever since Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil character came onto the stage, it’s virtually impossible to take incoherent evil guys seriously. The moral of this story is had Dr. Charles Luther just paid off his henchmen, he would have escaped scott free. But since he had to come up with craaazy deaths for them, our hero had to come to the rescue.
Full and Free Access by the Newsies: In Runaway’s future, the news organizations have the right to wherever they want, whenever they want. So much so that they’re allowed access during a police operation to save an infant from a crazed robot. This comes off as being fairly silly in the movie, as its hard to imagine them ever getting this type of access. This is more an indication of the perception folks had of news organizations in the 80s. How time changes things. Now the perception is that news organizations pretty hang out to wait for their stories to be hand-fed. They still excitedly arrive at standoffs and the like, but outside of a few brave souls who prowl the streets outside the green zone in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine news organizations today even bothering to investigate the most obvious of events.
The Bottom Line: One has to wonder how a decent story teller like Crichton ends up taking some interesting ideas on technology and society and embedding them into a cookie-cutter Hollywood storyline. Things certainly happen in the production so who knows. Watching Runaway, you get the feeling that this should have been a better flick. But while the movie isn’t great, the spiders are fun, as is Gene Simmons’ glare. And if you’re a Magnum PI fan, chances are you’ll like it even better than one of the weekly episodes.
Uneven, satirical, and oddly prophetic in its own half-baked way, Michael Crichton’s 1981 film Looker takes place in a terrifying universe of glamour, dehumanization, corporate deception, and Susan Dey hooking up with Albert Finney.
SFAM NOTE: We welcome new reviewer Dan Swensen, who also runs a terrific Sci-Fi blog called the Dimfuture.net. If others are interested in joining the review team, please post a message in the review forum.
Overview: The year is 1981, and pudgy, befuddled plastic surgeon Larry Roberts (Finney) becomes involved in a mystery when one of his models, dissolved in tears, arrives in his office raving hysterically about mysterious people trying to kill her. Hours later, the model inexplicably falls from the window of her high-rise apartment, and evidence of foul play points to Roberts himself. Justifiably concerned, Roberts begins playing amateur detective, teaming up with his patient (the vapid and insecure Cindy Fairmont, played by Susan Dey) to find out what’s really happening to these models, who seem to be dying off in droves shortly after visiting Roberts’ office to be “perfected.”
Mostly relying on the incompetence of the antagonists and the near-complete apathy of the cops, Roberts eventually tracks the clues back to a company called Digital Matrix, a computer graphics and advertising firm that specializes in creating digital replicas of top commercial models. While these models are given lucrative contracts in exchange for their digital likenesses, they seem to mysteriously die shortly thereafter, their handsome royalties left unpaid. It doesn’t take long for Roberts to figure out that Digital Matrix is duplicating these models, then killing them off, as their “digital doubles” will do their job better — and for free.
Machines and Misogyny: In an age where digital replacement and enhancement of actors is now extremely commonplace, Looker seems both surprisingly relevant and woefully dated at the same time. Penned in by Hollywood’s desire for complete perfection, the models of Looker fret over millimeter-sized flaws, consumed with self-loathing over even the slightest imperfection. As the story progresses, the audience finds this to be more than mere vanity — in Crichton’s world, Digital Matrix has reduced human behavior to a set of algorithms, able to determine (and manipulate) the focus of a viewer’s attention with ultimate precision to maximize product exposure and desire.
Because these manipulations require inhuman accuracy, the models themselves soon become not only obsolete, but liabilities to the company. The theme of dehumanization — the models looked upon by the corporations, and themselves, not as human beings but commodities to be used up and thrown away — is very strong in the first half of the film, underlined by a casual misogyny that may or may not have been intentional (it was 1981, after all).
In addition to the prophetic “digital doubles” of the film, Looker’s most science-fiction invention is the L.O.O.K.E.R. device (short for Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses), a “light gun” that stuns and paralyzes the target using light. Anyone exposed to this weapon experiences a sort of “missing time” as they stand paralyzed, allowing the weapon’s user to move around, invisible and undetected, for short periods. Digital Matrix uses the device to cover their tracks, making the models’ deaths appear as suicides.
While Looker is more than a bit plodding at times, the film’s use of this device is undoubtedly the most clever effect in the film, as characters find themselves losing time without knowing how or why. (It’s also worth mentioning that the L.O.O.K.E.R. device is the movie’s only real special effect, and provides the film’s most interesting visuals.) The L.O.O.K.E.R. device is a neat little concept, one I wish could have gotten better treatment in a better film.
The Bottom Line: Unfortunately, Looker is a movie with a few good ideas that don’t quite survive the runtime. The last half-hour of the movie is an extended game of “humorous” cat-and-mouse in which the heroes and villains chase each other through a virtual landscape of digitized commercials — the best of which is a genuinely macabre moment featuring digitized kids complaining about their breakfast cereal as a real human lies dead on the prop kitchen table.
While these scenes are mildly funny on a multitude of levels (the style of commercials, for all their “digital” glory, are more akin to something out of the Fifties than anything out of science fiction), they’re out of tone with the rest of the film. Albert Finney is no action hero, and doesn’t even have the charisma necessary to be a good everyman. Susan Dey’s character is too insecure and flat to be anything but an object of pity, and James Coburn’s turn as the villain, while passable, is too brief to be interesting.
A mustachioed Eighties thug gets a taste of the L.O.O.K.E.R. device.
That’s not to say that the film can’t be enjoyed as good cheese, however — there are some amusingly inept moments (watch for the car “crashing” into the fountain), and the few special effects are decent enough. Overall, Looker is probably more interesting as a historical piece than as a thriller — though it’s dated badly on a number of levels, the ideas of dehumanization and artifice that it puts forth were, for 1981, surprisingly forward-thinking. It might also be interesting to note that Looker made the first real attempt at a realistic CGI character, as well as the first movie to used 3-D computer shading.
After its release in theaters, Looker haunted the bleak hinterlands of early Eighties cable television for awhile (probably sandwiched somewhere between showings of Krull and The Entity), and is out on DVD now. Oh, and if you care about that sort of thing, Susan Dey is naked in it.
Overview: Bubblegum Crisis (BGC) is one of the all-time classics of cyberpunk animation and anime in general. With a team of hawt chicks kicking butt in cute mecha outfits, while upbeat songs play in the background, Bubblegum Crisis has developed a franchise and staying power that few titles can match. Quite a number of sequels have been created as a testament to this. BGC is influential in a number of ways. Not only has its character animation been widely imitated, BGC was one of the first shows brought over in the US with subtitles. Overall, while there are some dark moments, the original BGC is an action-oriented, mostly light-hearted affair.
The Story: In 2025 an earthquake destroyed Tokyo. With the assistance of androids and robots created by the omnipresent and ever-powerful Genom corporation called boomers, Tokyo is rebuilt as Mega-Tokyo. Unfortunately, like Bladerunner, sometimes the boomers get out of line, often in fact. Boomers can appear human, but often this is just a fascade for a far more dangerous bio or mecha beast that can break-through the skin. In response to this danger, the authorities have created an under-funded agency called the AD Police, who’s primary mission is to handle boomer incidents. Unfortunately, often the boomers are too strong for the police to handle.
Enter the Knight Sabers. Headed up by Sylia Stingray, the billionaire daughter of the former Genom Corporation scientist who invented boomers, Sylia has advanced the research on her father’s mecha hard suits, and has recruited a team of three other hawt action chicks who, along with Sylia, comprise the Knight Sabers. All of them have secret identities. Priss is a pop singer, Nene is a hacker who works as a dispatcher at AD Police HQ, and Linna is an aerobics instructor. But all four of them have trained to become mercenaries extraordinaire in defense of boomer incidents.
Unlike most OAVs, BGC is designed with each episode being as self-contained story. While many of the stories string together, there are no cliffhangers here. Some of the episodes have at least a modicum of intrigue, but generally, when it gets right down to it, the goal is for the knight riders to kick some boomer ass. Action dominates, which works considering the relatively short time allotted to each story (up to 50 minutes). As the series continues, most of the storylines deal with the Kight Sabers foiling attempts by the Genom corporation to secure even more power. A few of the episodes have complex storylines, but the majority are straightforward, with evil genius types (boomer or human) directing boomer machines who create death and destruction.
For me, my favorite episode is Episode #5, where a two unique bio-based sexroid boomers who need blood for sustenance escape from escape Genaros, the SDPC’s orbital supply station for humanity’s moonbases, and make their way to Mega-Tokyo. The episode is far more complex than most, and touches on similar issues to Blade Runner, in that these Boomers just want to be free to live. Most of the boomers in BGC (other than the major villains) don’t really exhibit any form of sentience, but the ones in this episode (and the continuation in #6) are sentient and multidimensional.
Influential Visuals: Along with Akira, BGC animation has been very influential in transforming anime to the popular style we see today. Characters with overly large eyes and the familiar facial styles are on display in BGC, as are a bevy of experimental looks and styles. The look of anime changed dramatically from the late 80s to the early nineties – BGC will always hold a place in history due to its influence on this change.
Mega-Tokyo: BGC took the Blade Runner city visuals and applied them to anime, which was then imitated by most of the shows that followed. The cityscapes are modern looking with a blue background, with various green and red highlights. Grays and blues are shown in abundance, with occasional orange and red daytime scenes. Most of the shots are from above, focusing on the overall city-scape, but there are a number of ultra-modern buildings including the Genom’s Tower (which looks like the Blade Runner Terrel Corporation building) and the AD Police building – same as Blade Runner as well.
The Action: By far the best quality animation BGC brings is in their action sequences. While the rest of the series is really not very special, the action sequences are very well done. We get a variety of effects and perspectives that driving the relatively quick-pacing. In many of the scenes, the backgrounds show a variety of methods to enhance the speed and action. Often BGC engages in mecha-style battles (many of the bad-guy boomers are variations on mecha characters), but these are different from some in that the Kight Sabers are in nimble, tight-fitting suits, which increases the speed of the action.
The Music: Very few OVAs have music as recognizable as BCG. BGC is known for being one of the first (or at least one of the most recognized) to essentially embed music videos into their action sequences. The songs play a big part in Bubblegum Crises, with a large number of the action sequences and dramatic moments overlaid with song accompaniment. Almost twenty years later, this innovation has blossomed and morphed into what we see with FLCL for instance, where entire sequences are purely videos intertwined with the story.
The Bottom Line : While I’m generally not too excited about mecha anime (this is purely a preference on my part, and not a knock on mecha), I find BGC quite enjoyable. BGC is more like an earlier version of GITS SAC in that the focus is action first, and philosophy second. While a few episodes do explore what it means to be human, in all but a few cases, this is usually done in the context of a fairly light plot and intense action. Perhaps the philosophical aspects would have been highlighted had the series continued, but for legal reasons, BGC was cut short at only eight episodes. On pure enjoyment I’d probably rate the series a 7 out of 10, but due to its significant influence on anime and cyberpunk I’m giving it an extra star.
Overview: Lathe of Heaven is one of the classic SciFi books by Ursula K. Leguin. The 1980 adaptation (unlike the 2002 version) stays pretty faithful to the book, and is a very well done low-budget made-for-TV movie. Unfortunately, the original master was lost, so the DVD transfer was taken from a VCR recording of the 1980 TV broadcast. The quality isn’t great, but the story more than makes up for it. Lathe of Heaven is as symbolic as much as it is a narrative. Overall, the film provides an immersive experience with a truly interesting ending.
The Story: Thirty years into the future, the world has been decimated by a nuclear holocaust. George Orr (Bruce Davidson), having just been exposed to massive radiation lays dying. Somehow his body is changed, and he has the power to “dream” the world back into existence, just as it was, but without the nuclear holocaust. He forgets that this has occurred and tries to live his life normally, but is continually plagued by dreams that can effect changes in reality. In this dystopic, controlling future, he is forced to undergo psychiatric therapy, and is assigned to Dr. Haber, an expert in dream problems. George is looking for Dr. Haber to “cure” him, but Haber has other ideas.
Dr. Haber quickly realizes that George is not crazy, but in fact possesses the most powerful gift ever given to man. Haber sees this as an opportunity to reshape the humanity and the world itself to become the ideal place that Man has always intended. Haber, using his dream-enhancement technology, asks George to have an effective dream about removing pollution. George does, but ends up removing all clouds, leaving the earth ever increasingly hot and dry. Haber forces George to dream of a way to cure overpopulation – this results in a plague that kills of 75% of the world’s population. Haber forces George to dream of peace on earth which results in an alien invasion that unites humanity but which can lead to the destruction of the earth itself.
Even though Haber feigns ignorance of what’s really occurring, George quickly figures out that Haber is using him. Unfortunately, George doesn’t have the force of will to truly confront Haber. Instead, he enlists the services of a lawyer named Heather (Margaret Avery) to help get his psychiatrist changed to someone other than Haber. Unfortunately, when Heather goes to visit a session, it is already too late, as George’s effective dream has just killed off 75% of the world’s population.
This pattern of George leaving, and returning continues, finally resulting in Haber forcing George to dream of removing racism (which results in everyone becoming gray) – Haber’s real purpose is to capture and duplicate George’s powers through his dream machines. Haber decides that the maladies are caused by inadequacies in George, and that he, an enlightened scientist will be able to have pure dreams that will result in the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, when Haber dreams an effective dream, his results in a dream that will “unmake” reality. Only George can come and try to challenge Haber to a test of wills to bring a semblance of reality back.
Taosim versus Positivism: Lathe of Heaven sets up a dual between a Taoist philosophy of participation versus a positivistic one. George Orr, representing the Taoist philosophy, is perfectly willing to let the world take its own course. Even though he has the power to change the course of humanity, he prefers to go with the flow, and understands that overt and specific changes to a very complex and interdependent world will result in disaster. Dr. Haber represents the positivist view, and sees technological advancement as the primary means of improving the human condition – moreso, he believes his duty as a scientist is to utilize George’s gift to transform the world for the better. After experiencing a series of continually worse impacts to the world when forcing George to use his power, Haber finally decides the problem is with George’s unconsciousness. It never occurs to him that the real danger is in converting George’s power to a technology that can transform reality.
Le Guin’s message is clear: incredible power, especially augmented by technology, cannot be used in a simplistic way to transform a reality which is complex and intertwined. Instead, those interested in change must “go with the flow” of reality and change the human condition within the context of there normal interaction. The use of dominating power over nature will result and a dystopic future. This is in fact what Lathe of Heaven portrays.
Is Lathe of Heaven Cyberpunk? I do agree that Lathe of Heaven at best is a cyberpunk fantasy. I include it here primarily due to the use of technology, invented for the purpose of human betterment, that ends up instead almost destroying humanity. Haber’s dream enhancement technology results in increasing George’s capabilities, and ultimately leads a true cyberpunked future. Human diversity is quashed when everyone left alive (after the plague kills over 75% of the population) turns gray. Individuality is suppressed in an attempt to eliminate conflict. In the end, the message is a similar cyberpunk theme – the use of technology to remake the perfect society results in a dehumanized, sanitized dystopia.
The Bottom Line: Although low budget, the Lathe of Heaven is effective in transforming a very philosophical book to a motivating film. The dual of Taoism versus positivism is mirrored in the colors, where the Taoist earth tones dual the technological grays and whites. The three leads deliver quality performances, and the story itself is captivating. While some of the FX are suspect, and the quality of the DVD is poor (the original master was lost), Lathe of Heaven is well worth a watch.
Overview: Here I yet again delve into the world of the experimental extreme Japanese Cyberpunk – this time to watch Death Power (Desu pawuda in Japanese), a movie Glam Creature discovered for me. Death Powder is a very low budget, mostly incoherent extreme Japanese Cyberpunk film with some occaisionally very interesting visuals. I probably would have liked this movie more had I obtained either a decent transfer or full subtitles. Unfortunately, the only place I could find this at the time was on LostSilver.com, a site that presses public domain movies to DVD-R format. All the main characters had appropriate subtitles, but the vast amount of mumbling in this film (mumbling usually occurred ultra-bizarre situations) was only subtitled in Chinese. The transfer was so bad that in some scenes the screen appears pixilated.
The Story: In the very near future, a group of three researchers has captured a very special android named Guernica (Mari Natsuki), and have brought her to a deserted warehouse, and have tied her to cot, with a protective covering over her mouth. One researcher (Izumiya) is left to guard the Guernica, but appears to be slowly going crazy. Two of the researchers, a guy (Inukai) and a girl (Murakami) apparently have just escaped (presumably from some fallout after capturing Guernica) and are on their way back to the warehouse. Murakami tries calling Izumiya and discovers that something is wrong.
They proceed carefully into the warehouse where they discover that Izumiya has gone crazy and is now trying to kill them. Izumiya makes it to Guernica, who suddenly sits up and blows dust all over Izumiya. From there, the movie turns extremely surreal. Guernica’s body slowly disappears into dust, while Izumiya’s face starts to expand dramatically (in a very low-budget sort of way), while Izumiya rips his hand off and Inukai shoots Izumiya with a futuristic looking gun. Things settle down with Izumiya off hallucinating, while Izumiya has somehow captured and tied Inukai to Guernica’s metal cot. She gets free and beats Izumiya to a pulp.
Sometimes death is the ultimate statement.
Meanwhile, Inukai’s hallucinations have provided him omniscience. Inijai proclaims, “”I understand the secrets of the flesh.” He sees Guernica’s origins and the ongoing struggle with the scar people, who are people who’s flesh is slowly decaying on their bodies. Things get even weirder from there with visuals of massive globs of oozing puss creatures with eyes, an incoherent video montage, a fight with the scar people, and in the end, we find a very bizarre looking monster sitting in a vast setting of emptiness.
What The Fuck is This Film About??? I fully acknowledge that Death Powder is incoherent enough that attempting to interpret it will potentially lead to nonsensical ambiguity. Unlike others like Tetsuo, which CLEARLY has a point even though many claim are incoherent, this film may not simply hold together well enough to have a clear point. That being said, after two watches, it appears that the death powder is an allegory for technology’s insidious and pervasive destruction of mankind. That Android chick’s name, Guernica, after Picasso’s famous painting, gives us the clue. She is the embodiment of humanity’s destructive tendencies, and like the painting, her ultimate impact is seen with dead, injured, dismembered and torn bodies. That Geurnica is created by a rock star playing an electric guitar indicates that our technology enabled modern culture is ultimately to blame. A bastardized version Christian forbidden fruit analogy also is at play here in that a woman (android) possesses the forbidden knowledge, and humanity tries to access it by capturing her and covering her mouth. The implication is that they hope to possess the knowledge without suffering the consequences.
The other aspect that Izumiya seems to explore is the nexus between life and death. Death Powder explores competing ideologies in examining this question. Initially, we are told that “Life without flesh is death.” The researcher, now fully infected and potentially dead, but still thinking (meaning his flesh is dead), responds to this thought with the following:
There is no death without life. There is no Answer to this Madness.
Heaven exists within my body…dead. But Hell…Hell is everywhere!
To which, the Android, Guernica responds, “Is there life without death?” From an android’s perspective, this is probably a VERY interesting line of questioning. If you are able to think, does this not imply you are alive? But if you have no flesh – doesn’t this imply you cannot die? This is of course completely at odds with the original statement. When we include the scar people – a faceless gang of humans losing their flesh – as those espousing that life without flesh is death, we are left with a losing struggle where living humanity (flesh) is supplanted by our technological monstrosities our culture creates. In effect, Izumiya is espousing that humanity slowly dies as our culture is merged with technology. In the end, all that is left is this zombie-like monstrosity that is neither alive or dead, but definitely isn’t human.
Disconnected Bizarre Video Montage: At about three-fourths through the 62 minute movie, Death Powder breaks into a ten minute plus video montage segment. This occurs after the death powder-enabled android chick states something to the effect that there are far more people to infect, so she must hurry. I’m guessing this is supposed to be Guernica’s Destroy the World tour. This would work except that when its over, we are brought right back to the warehouse, this time to await some workers who are lured into the pit of horrors. In ending it as such, the purpose of the montage seems to disappear. In the end, we are left with the idea that director Shigeru Izumiya had also developed this cool video montage footage, and wanted to include it somewhere. It does look pretty cool though.
Life without flesh is death.
The Visuals: Like many experimental films, Izumiya literally throws in every kind of camera technique available. We get tons of perspective shots, multiple exposure shots, different overexposed lighting shots, completely strange camera angles (like a sideways up-above running shot), all wrapped up in a myriad of disturbing visuals. Whether we get coherency or not, Death Powder is certainly creative. I really wish I had been able to obtain a better copy of the film, as I’m afraid the color is washed out on Lostsilver’s public domain version (although I don’t know – perhaps this is intentional). This leaves the film with a very washed out, almost (but not quite) black and white look.
The Sound: Perhaps Death Powder’s best strength is in its sound effects. Izumiya continually barrages the audience with a cornucopia of industrial/techno cyberpunk sounds. We get various low-toned keyboard pieces combined with strange and eerie sounds of all types and textures. If I had to guess, I’d say the majority of the time spent on producing Death Powder was working with the sound track – it’s by far the most polished aspect of the movie. This may not be all that surprising considering Izumiya got his start composing for Japanese Cyberpunk director Sogo Ishii on Crazy Thunder Road.
The Bottom Line: I wonder if I’ve become jaded since watching a number of these extreme Japanese Cyberpunk flicks. Many comments about Death Powder indicate that people were blown away by the visuals and have never seen anything like this – some to the point of even having nightmares about it. If this is your first, or perhaps even second experience in delving into extreme Japanese Cyberpunk movies, than perhaps Death Powder comes off much better. However, as much as I love the experimental visuals, this movie clearly could have been put together better. There is a lack of crafting in Death Powder which negatively impacts the movie-watching experience. Still, Death Powder, while incoherent, is at least unique, creative and interesting, so there’s certainly something worth watching here. It’s for this reason that I’m giving it 5 stars instead of 4. I really wish I was able to get a better transfer of this, but even if I had it, I still doubt I’d be giving it more than 5 stars.
Overview: Terry Gilliam describes Brazil as “Franz Kafka meets Walter Middy” - this sort of fits. Using the name of Arry Barroso’s 1930s escapist song, Brazil is set in a nightmarish, fantasized dystopic future, Gilliam gives us a story about humanity attempting to escape reality by retreating into one’s own dreams. This is all the more interesting given the enormous fights Terry Gilliam had to engage in with Universal to even get the picture (in a non-bastardized form) released. Brazil is a visual and thematic tour-de-force which deserves a watch by all who are interested in having movies provoke deep thoughts, long after the film has concluded.
The Setting: Brazil takes place in a fantasized dystopic future where runaway, controlling, technocratic bureaucracy that has invaded all aspects of daily life. Arcane forms with incoherent instructions are required to do anything, but the goal is always completeness and finality over actual results. Appearances are everything in Brazil – actual human relationships are a luxury most do without. Humans survive in this world by keeping their “real” selves bottled up inside as a cocoon, while overtly they serve their role as a specific cog in the system. Keep the desk clean, the expensive suit pressed and your family looking perfect and you’ll be alright. Continually we see non-human responses to horrific disasters. In one restaurant scene, half the patrons have been blown up by a bomb, but the maître d’ is far more concerned with hiding the destruction from his elite patrons by erecting a pleasant backdrop than he is in helping those horribly injured.
The Story: Sam Lowry (played wonderfully by Jonathan Pryce), our hero, from the beginning adapts to the system, but separates his “true” self in his dreams. Sam works as a minor cog in a the massively large bureaucracy called the Ministry of Information. The Ministry of Information eats up 7% of the total GDP in its pursuit of society’s subversive elements, including the terrorists, who randomly bomb the rich and wealthy throughout the movie. Even though Sam comes from a prominent family with connections, he wants nothing to do with career advancement. Sam long ago gave up aspirations, and only wants to get through life unnoticed - until the love of his dream life appears in the real world. Sam throws everything else aside in order to meet up with this chick, but unfortunately, the “system” and even his own preconceptions continually get in the way. As the story unfolds, we see the bureaucracy in action in what becomes a struggle of freedom and individuality against the technological domination of humanity.
The Visuals: Brazil is a visually powerful movie. In its more sedate moments, Brazil starts off as a noir-ish style setting with 40s style suits and hats, tall squared buildings, computers driven by typewriters and dark lighting from above. But very quickly, Brazil changes to a surreal experience, which shoes converted to hats, ventilation pipes dominating every roomscape, and massive expansive buildings without ground floors. Ventilation pipes are Gilliam’s symbol for technology run rampant. Massively tall buildings are symbols for bureaucratic power. Throughout, dark gray is the dominating color. Visually, the world of Brazil is decidedly bleak – more bleak in fact than humanity can overcome.
The Sound: Brazil’s score fully encapsulates the ambiance that Gilliam is expressing. We have high flowing orchestral pieces, cheesy, squeaky monophone songs, marches that integrate type-writers as the rhythm section, and all sorts of diversity that captures the quirky, bittersweet feel that Brazil often conveys. The continually harsh, metallic sound FX also highten the ambiance. What we are left with is a wonderful meshing of visuals and sound as a backdrop for the wonderful performances throughout.
The Cast: One of Gilliam’s real skills in Brazil is taking an extremely large cast, filled with potentially interesting roles, and making them all meaningful. Continually, Brazil provides us a stream of totally interesting role players that add to the quirky universe that is this fantasized future. Robert De Niro is terrific as Harry Tuttle, a heat engineer-turned anarchist revolutionary. Michael Palin plays a terrific best friend and torturer, and Katherin Helmond plays a totally wierd, excentric but powerful mother. There are a number of other unique roles, including Ian Holm who plays a terrific cowardly, conniving boss, and Bob Hoskins as a slighted and crazed heat engineer. Jonathan Pryce is absolutely superb as the lead, and Kim Greist plays an interesting counter-point love interest. All in all, the roles come across as entirely memorable.
Dream Trapped Inside of a Nightmare: On the “Making of” segment of the Criterion Edition, Brazil is described as a dream trapped inside of a nightmare by star Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s character, Sam Lowry, dreams the ultimate dream of happiness. In his dream, he is a fantasy warrior with angel wings who fights the denizens of the deep to rescue his idealized damsel in distress. In reality though, every aspect of his life is a nightmare. The “system” that is the bureaucracy, in an attempt to root out the terrorists, has extended its omnipresent tentacles into every aspect of life. At best, Lowry’s idealized reality involves being un-noticed by anyone. Unfortunately, once he discovers his idealized mate in real life, he can no longer remain obscure. He risks everything in a failed attempt to transform his dream into reality. In the end, Brazil shows how the depths of humanity can be crushed in a dystopic future where individuality and human rights become completely subservient to societal “welfare.”
Use of Information: In Brazil, the collection and storage of information is paramount. While Brazil takes place in a dystopic future, computers have never advanced past arcane mainframes. The notion of usability, or people-centric computing is an anathema to the world of Brazil. The horror of horrors for the bureaucracy is finding a piece of paper without a home, or even worse, acknowledging that the “mistake” that caused this out of place paper belongs in your department! In Brazil, the fact that a person dies and a family is destroyed by this paperwork glitch is completely beside the point. In fact, the Samurai warrior character (see below) that Lowry fights in his dreams is fully comprised of computer parts – information and computers are indeed the ultimate evil for humanity.
Terror As a Means of Extracting Information: One of the really interesting notions in Brazil that resonates today is the idea that the government engages in torture as a means of extracting information about potential terrorists. The throwaway comments from Sam, who has bought into this world, indicates that the choice HAS to be between this invasive government and sheer anarchy. When brought to the level of the individual, one has the sense that little by little, the government in Brazil slowly invaded individual freedoms as a way of combating the terrorists. The clear impression though is one of ever escalating acts – as the government becomes more invasive, the anarchic responses become more extravagant. De Niro’s character, the heroic anarchist heating engineer, represents this history of society, and humanity’s ultimate response.
Is Brazil Cyberpunk? Due to the fantasy elements we see in Brazil, it’s hard to refer to it as a straight cyberpunk movie. While the dream sequences aren’t an issue, the dystopic future clearly isn’t supposed to represent an actual near-term future – it’s a fantasized version of issues currently playing out in society today. Still, the message of invasive technology and dominating totalitarian control destroying humanity is rarely done better than we see in Brazil. And while Brazil is wonderfully quirky, it’s the ending that truly feels like a cyberpunk film. Here we get both common cyberpunk visuals and philosophy in every sense of the word. The ending especially mimics many other cyberpunk films, where…
[SPOILERS – HIGHLIGHT THE TEXT TO SEE]
Throughout the last half of the film, Sam’s perception of reality becomes more and more governed by perceptions from his dream world. His actions leading to his final arrest are based on a perceptual mix of fantasy with reality. At the end, Sam is seems to make the conscious choice to disavow the real world in favor of his internally constructed fantasy. In this sense, Sam has finally attained the freedom he long sought after. Interestingly, a very similar approach is also used at the end of Save the Green Planet.
The Bottom Line: The world of Brazil is steeped in a runaway, controlling, technocratic bureaucracy that has its tentacles in every part of humanity. The ducts dominate every room, including the family household living room at the beginning. To humanity, the message is clear – “Your actual lives must be adapted to suit OUR needs, not yours; freedom now only exists in your own dreams.” In the end we are shown the myth of a free man in a tightly controlled society – the only freedom we ultimately possess is within our own perceptions – that is the only source where salvation can be found. Visually, Brazil is simply stunning. The story is incredibly creative, the acting is great (especially De Niro and Pryce) and the dialogue is terrific. Furthermore, your Gilliam’s wonderful sense of humor seeps out of every pore in this movie - such as the notion that the information retrieval department never retrieves any information. In short, Brazil is movie worthy of high praise.
Overview: Gunhed is a Japanese live-action Mecha-Transformers movie done up in low-budget, gritty cyberpunk style. Unfortunately, it gives us a set of almost irreconcilable issues. On the one hand, the low-budget robots are pretty cool, as are a number of other low-budget FX. Yet, these are packaged in a barrage of incoherent plot points and truly strange sound decisions (the Japanese actors speak Japanese while the American actors speak English). When you see “Adam Smithee” in the director’s spot, you know something has gone wrong – in this case, the answer is clearly the editing. Gunhed may qualify for the worst editing of all time.
The Story: A Robot War ensued an a small robot production island in the Pacific in the year 2025, where sentient supercomputer, Kyron 5, has decided that Mankind was irrelevant. A mecha battalion of Gunhed warriors – huge transformer style tanks – were dispatched to eliminate Kryon 5. They didn’t succeed, but Kyron 5 was essentially marginalized, so no more force was sent. Now, 13 years later, due to a depletion of world resources, the key component that creates supercomputers, Texmexium (I shit you not – this is the name!), is in short supply, as are spare microchips. A group of scavengers have decided to enter the “forbidden zone” and go to the Island in the hopes of collecting Gunhed chips, which are now worth more than gold.
When the get to the Island, they quickly learn that Kyron 5’s protections are degraded but still seem in place. At first Kyron 5 doesn’t recognize their presence (you’d think it would notice a plane landing, but I guess not – nor do we find out why they didn’t just bomb the Island from the air back in 2025). But quickly it’s defenses, headed up by a fly-eyed looking “bio-droid” come to challenge the scavengers. Along the way, the find the remnants of a Texas Air Ranger helicopter, which still has a passenger, Sergeant Nim (Brenda Bakke). As things progress, most of the scavengers die in gruesome ways, until only Sergeant Nim and a mechanic named Brooklyn (Masahiro Takashima) survive – but due to the Island’s defenses, they are stuck there unless they can destroy Kyron 5. Also, they have stolen the Kryon 5’s supply of Texmexium (perhaps this is constructed from stale tacos), and now the Biodroid wants them back.
But that’s not all! Apparently some kids live on this Island (where they came from, we have NO idea), and they’ve decided to help Brooklyn and Sergeant destroy Kyron 5. But wait – there’s more! It turns out that one of the Gunhead tanks from 2025 appears salvageable, so Brooklyn attempts to revive Gunhed while Sergeant Nim goes off to do something unspecified (but at least it looks important). An incoherent sequence of actions ensues, whereby Brooklyn tries to bring the Gunhed to destroy Kyron 5. As he gets close, their biggest challenge awaits – Kyron 5 has resurrected a Gunhed of his own!
The Editing: Gunhed could have potentially been a decent, low budget movie, but the editing kills it. Continually, we see random actors popping out in places that don’t make sense, and whole streams sequences are rendered incoherent based on completely haphazard editing choices. I’m going out on a limb and guessing that at some point, the script was relatively simple and straightforward, but due to the editing, Gunhed was transformed into an absolute mess. But perhaps this is just the English version - does anyone know if the Japanese version is different?
The FX: Yes, the effects are all low-budget, and yes, it appears as if the entire movie takes place in a small factory, where the same locations are used over and over again only with different camera angles, and no, the tanks really don’t have any flexible movement. Still, even with the problems and all Gunhed has some enjoyable shots. The biodroid is pretty low quality, but the factory looked realistic enough, and every now and then, you get some cool, low budget effects. The Mecha-transformer fight is especially fun. .
The Bottom Line: The fact that the actors speak different languages but apparently understand each other perfectly really describes the state of Gunhed – it’s interesting but never seems to hang together well. Most egregious is the Biodroid, which has swallowed one of the scavengers whole, and now has to deal with someone inside itself stopping it from killing the rest of the people (the hows and whys of this are never explained). The appearance of the kids pretty much destroy all possibility of a believable story. On the other hand, we get Brenda Bakke doing her best sultry Lauren Bacall impression, which works somewhat well. Unfortunately, her partner, Masahiro Takashima isn’t up to taking a leading role. Watch this for the Mecha fight if you like, but the movie as a whole just doesn’t work.
Overview: Bronx Executioner is yet another example of a movie where they spent more on the completely unrelated cover art than they did the entire production. Truly, looking at that, and in reading the cool description, you’d think this is might be a pretty decent low-budget cyberpunk flick. Here’s the description:
Android gangs battle humans and Robotic Replicants in the New York City of the near future. The sector sheriff must join forces with a gigantic, yet unpredictable Replicant in order to save the city…
Now, for what you actually get:
Absolutely NO replicant or robot visuals
NO dystopic New York. This was clearly filmed in the Italian equivalent of the outskirts of Los Angeles. The terrain is dry, and boring - no dystopic city here folks.
a truly horrid Master-student sheriff coming of age story, that in the end is completely pointless
Robots that supposedly have no emotion but still enjoy raping humans. I guess their parts work.
a low quality body builder who can’t act to save his life who tells us he’s a robot replicant (we have to believe him as NONE of the replicants look like anything but humans)
Lots and lots and lots of low quality gun fights between biker looking dudes (but we’re told half of them are robots). Road Warriors this isn’t!
The Bottom Line: The story pretty much sums this movie up: It’s about a body builder replicant who falls in love with a human (even though he doesn’t have the capability to fall in love) who gets raped by really mean replicants, so the body builder replicant asks the junior cop to help him get even with the meanie replicants. Sound stupid? Bingo! It’s pretty bad. And unfortunately, it’s not so bad that it’s good. The gratuitous breast shots just can’t save this turkey. It’s just bad, K?
Overview: Heavy Metal represents one of my great teenage film memories. Back in the day, before the porn repository known as the internet was formed, Heavy Metal was edgy stuff. As a young teen, Heavy Metal was everything a kid my age wanted to see – sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, violence, defiance of authority, and hot chicks! Add the most awesome hard rock soundtrack, and Heavy Metal became the drug of choice for young folk back then. That it was animated somehow made it alright with the parents. Make no mistake – Heavy Metal is not high brow fare, nor is it particularly well made. But it is definitely a very fun guilty pleasure.
The Story: Heavy Metal is a series of somewhat interrelated vignettes about the journey that ultimate evil makes, this time in form of an evil sentient green orb, called the Loch-Nar. The Loch-Nar captures a little girl in present times for reasons unknown till the end, and shows her a series of stories about how the Orb has corrupted people of all races in all times and places.
In each story segment, we get a strange, otherwordly setting in which the orb enters, corrupts and then leaves. Often a hero stops the orb from fully corrupting everything, but always the orb leaves a stain. The atmosphere is one of interrupting and ongoing scene with something truly unusual that occurs. But it’s the ending vignette, Taarna which is the best, and also the one that finally gives us insight into why the Loch-Nar has captured this little girl. Taarna isn’t really cyberpunk in any way but a few of the visuals, but it is a lot of fun.
Is it cyberpunk? Clearly, some of the vignettes, many in fact, are more fantasy than cyberpunk. So why do I have this movie listed? While some of the vignettes do have the cyberpunk feel, most clearly Harry Canyon, Heavy Metal absolutely belongs here due to its magazine roots. Both William Gibson and Ridley Scott credit visuals in the Heavy Metal Magazine is very influential for helping create their settings. Most cited is the Moebuis illustrated “The Long Tomorrow” comic. As you can see by the link, the Long tomorrow gives us a gritty neo-noir, near future comic that’s edgy, dangerous, and lots of fun. And more importantly, the atmosphere – the mood in Heavy Metal throughout seems pretty cyberpunk.
Heavy Metal is Male Fantasy Material: Heavy Metal is NOT sophisticated - far from it in fact. Heavy Metal caters to the sophomoric, prepubescent male, and emphasizes gratuitous nudity, hot chicks kicking butt, nerds who grow massive bodies and get laid, android-hot chick sex, etc. Heavy Metal falls right in line with the old “Gonad the Barbarian” style books, so in this way, it really isn’t cyberpunk. Cyberpunk as a sub-genre dramatically improved the quality and intelligence of what we found on the scifi-fantasy shelves. Heavy Metal the movie does not, although many of the stories do provoke an interesting thought or two.
The Animation: Each story segment is written and animated by completely different teams, although some of the voice actors such as John Candy appear in many episodes. Some of the segments seem pretty simple, whereas others have more than decent texture. All in all, Heavy Metal represents a mixed bag, but at the time, it truly was on the revolutionary side. While French director René Laloux’s most awesome animated movies were far better, outside of them, few things touched Heavy Metal. The fact that Heavy Metal included the themes and visuals teens were looking for back then transformed it into the ultimate cult rebellion flick.
The Sound Track: Heavy Metal still should be considered among the best sound tracks for a movie. It SOOO added to the atmosphere. We get a heaping dose of great hard rock from the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, and Don Felder’s most awesome rendition of Heavy Metal (Takin’ A Ride). In addition, we get great little 80s tunes like Devo’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” Journey’s “Open Arms,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Blue Lamp.” Truly, if you’re interested in experiencing 80s counter-culture at its fantasized finest, Heavy Metal is the movie to watch.
The Bottom Line: Heavy Metal is not a great movie, but it is a lot of fun. While it has a few vignettes that are clearly cyberpunk in nature, the majority of the movie is unsophisticated SciFi-Fantasy. Still, the visuals and atmosphere are more than interesting, as are the diversity of animation styles. Heavy Metal should be seen more for the vision this film represents from the Magazine. This, as much as anything is responsible for the genre we now call cyberpunk.