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Nothing feels quite like building a computer. It's just the right mix of control and random variables, where hard work comes out the other end as a tangible product for my sole consumption. It's the rush of designing and putting something together yourself blended with the satisfaction of purchasing a new powerful toy. I mean, I guess, technically I build computers all the time. But I'm not talking about work--where I tear down and build back up poor workhorse Dell PC's in an endless cycle. The physical actions are for the most part the same, but there is no real risk, reward or, most importantly, connection to the object when it lights up at the end. Those unloved machines are all the same, and if one is truly too toasty to repair, then there are hundreds just like it. Sad as it is, downtrodden work computers just don't have the same soul as personal computers. When it comes to your own PC, you can feel like an important part of its conception, an integral spark to its existence.  There is a connection built between you and the machine born out of the entire process involved. It's in the excitement and financial masochism that comes with making a decision for each piece based on your exact needs (and just maybe how it looks), or when all the parts finally arrive, each separate, neatly wrapped and awaiting your embrace to release them from their idle plastic and cardboard homes. There is indescribable joy in the moments spent taking stock of the (expensive) lifeless mess, as it lies in front of you, each piece destined for a crucial slot in the coming machine. Thick, long minutes are laced with anxiety as you place extremely small pins into plastic slots, without bending one of them, and try to line precise materials up just right to bring you that ensuring click. It all comes down to that first press on that power button, as there is never a guarantee. Each part may have its maker, but you are the final product’s manufacturer and that comes with unique complications. There are a million things that could go wrong.  Pieces are bunk right of the box, or you could get too crazy on one of those tiny ass pins--but when it works, it feels fucking amazing. The emotion cannot be bottled or described and only granted by spending more than you have and putting in a little work. What were once static parts of plastic and metal, now are together as a living whole, with incredible possibilities. In a sense, you picked out all the parts, each for a specific purpose and toiled in its manifestation, and so it adopts a part of your personality. That is, if it turns on. This kind of project is probably not universally enjoyable, but I assume everyone has their version of the new PC indulgence. It just feels good making something like that work from a perceived ground level. I guess it would be different--if it then got up and started killing people. Unless, that's just what you had mind when you put it together, like in Death Machine.
The film opens with a devastated backroads gas station, lined with flipped cars, fire, and bloodied corpses. A shaky sheriff stands alone with his gun drawn at nothing particular among the wreckage. He seems relieved when a black-clad military-like group in full protective gear arrives on the scene and informs him they will be taking over. After the armored assault team files into the gas station, they come upon a large cyborg (read a big guy in uncomfortably bulky armor) punching a wall repeatedly as a woman in the corner screams in fear. The leader of the (ultimately pointless) crack squad halts the group and mockingly recites what is presumably the commercial tagline for the defective robot-soldier.  There is some judgemental head shaking, then one of the group goes to engage the defective unit but gets told by his superior not to bother, that the man-borg will just burn itself out sooner or later, and  “ it happens every time”. Following the credits we see the sheriff from earlier being warned to keep his mouth shut regarding the incident, and that effectively it never happened. The choke order must not have been too successful however, because the next scenes are made up of the scathing media coverage regarding the event. Apparently, the company responsible for developing the cyborgs, Chaank Armaments, had been under fire for unsanctioned testing, and the recent event further fueled public outrage to problematic levels. At the center of the viral scandal is Hayden Cale (Ely Pouget), a chief executive charged with squashing the issue. New to the boardroom, Cale soon learns that the company's lead scientist, Jack Dante (Brad Dourif ), an eccentric recluse, has been conducting cruel experiments on the companies dime, including some shit involving infants. Figuring the best way to clean up the company’s act is to get rid of the resident mad scientist, she pursues firing Dante but gets pushback from the other uppity-ups. When she attempts to inspect his laboratory, she gets mostly insane back talk. She learns that he has been, basically, acting upon his own accord, diverting resources, hacking the company's system and working on a personal project. After a meeting with Jack himself, which doesn't go very well, she also receives a warning from a coworker informing her that questioning the crazed engineer might be dangerous. Yutani (Martin McDougall), another public face of the company, informs Cale that, at some point, a different CEO once looked into the matter and ran into some bad luck involving lab equipment. Cale seems to take the warning in advisement but remains vigilant. At the same time, as the company's image is being destroyed, a group of eco-terrorist led by Raimi (John Sharian) infiltrates the office building with plans to destroy some documents on a server (or just fuck shit up in general to raise awareness). When they let themselves be known and start making demands, Jack uses the ensuing chaos to let loose his pet project that he has been saving for a special occasion--the semi-sentient kaij┼ź monster made of metal, Frontline Morale Destroyer (aka The Warbeast). As his beloved metal baby goes around chomping douchey businessmen and radical environmentalists alike, Jack singles out a few people for taunting while doing an Elmer Fudd impression. He also develops a creepy-ass mommy crush on Cale, who is among those now locked in the building.  Trapped in a seemingly never ending research and development department, Cale teams up with the remaining activists to stop the battle-bot-raptor, save the day, and avoid having to play whatever fucked version of house Jack Dante has in mind.
Death Machine teeters between indulging its dark horror science fiction elements and it's blatant meta references. It’s made up of common genre pieces in tongue-in-cheek form, but almost all are followed through without winking. Hidden in the cracks are great moments of out-of-place intentional comedy that the film moves through with a straight face. Everyone (and thing) stays in character, and, even in the silliest moments, the movie goes for broke. It is an odd vibe but a healthy alternative to the near-parody style used in other heavily derivative films. The film takes place in the near future of 2003 (ten years from its release date of 1993), where humans have developed cool/fucked up cyborg tech (and various other shit), but everyone is still using CRT monitors on their supercomputers (not a bad trade actually). The little bits of its future we do get a taste of in the limited settings, hint at a dystopian culture made up of recycled trends and (verbal) callbacks to the 80s. It was probably less a prediction on culture to come and just more a side effect of its underlying humor. Though, what I can gather about the youth of the fictional 2000s ( from the eco-terrorists mostly) is that their culture mostly consists of retro styles, sensationalist media and bad pop association, which is kind of on the money in some regards. It's not really speculative science fiction, but it makes a few comments regarding types of progress and keeps the discussion open. While technology is the centerpiece of the plot, little time is spent on any real details or even surface-level jargon. Technology is the film’s monster, or a form of magic that can be used against someone. The film’s world feels alive with deep issues involving the repercussions of artificial intelligence and the ethics of human interfacing computer technology (with dead people and shit), but the story that unfolds only touches relatively lightly on each, keeping the viewer and most of the characters in the dark. It uses its higher concepts for dark satire, only tucked under several layers or just lying around as decoration. Classic, deep sci-fi ideas are in reach the whole time, as well as a few jabs at societies tendencies, but none are really ever explored to completion. Instead, they are just kind of brought along for the entertaining, violent ride. It never picks whether it's gritty or goofy and works best somewhere in between. The movie’s logic gets a little loose at times but seemingly only when it may get in the way of entertainment. It proudly refers back to several cerebral sci-fi works, but in the end, it is mostly the brainless kind of fun with bonus flesh-chomping.
The events of its story are isolated and general enough that they could easily fit into any similar film universe. It reminded me of Soldier (1998), in that it could have very well happened in the timeline of countless other sci fi films, only in this case, behind the doors of an office building. It's kind of got a Futurama thing going, because, I assume the experience depends on how many of the Easter eggs you can identify. The movie is a love letter to the genre above all else. It feels like the film manifestation of a long, drunken conversation between two horror nerds. The main characters have names referring to influential genre filmmakers, with little disguise--Jack Dante(Joe Dante), Scott Ridley (Ridley Scott), John Carpenter and Sam Raimi (...John Carpenter and Sam Raimi), and the rest of its writing is just as covert about its roots. It makes loud calls to Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987), with things like POV monster chase cam, solid color, comic book-like lighting and attempts to convey madness on screen. It ends up more adequately emulating Sam Raimi’s TV work than anything,  more a live-action cartoon with stylized violence (an art Raimi mastered through the 90s on the boob tube). In many ways, it could serve as a prequel to Universal Soldier (1992) as it displays similar tech and politics. It could probably just be added to the canon of that film with little retconning (or at least far better than some of the “official” sequels did). Some of Paul Verhoeven’s storytelling comes over with the borrowed RoboCop (1987) pieces, but it's missing any of the direct jabs at commercialism that stand out in his fake tv clips. It's just as much a tribute to infamous rip-offs, incorporating some of Shocking Dark (1989) and R.O.T.O.R. (1987) DNA into the mix. There are more than can be mentioned, but Aliens (1986) becomes the dominant influence during the films tail end, minus any of H. R. Giger’s otherworldly style, substituting a sharp-toothed killing machine for the xenomorph and adding a Dr. Smith like character to serve as robot-baby daddy. It could also be Hardware’s goofy ass brother and features a similar monster in a few ways but none of its moody atmosphere. Although the entire thing is stitched together from more remembered things, it ends up with a vibe all it's own, and the parts it borrows are more in the spirit of a tribute than they are larceny.
We don't see much of the movie’s world, outside of super-science and shrill business practices, the normal 80s stuff (minus the Verhoeven swipes at advertising that are noticeably absent). Almost the entire misadventure takes place in some kind of office building/lab/maze of blank walls and metal doors, with endless corridors that someone can be stalked or chased in. This makes it easy for the set to take on a cyberpunk atmosphere, but sometimes it feels a little like someone just pinned a another white sheet to each set to make them different. The film’s editing and stylization jump around from one 90s extreme to the next, with a hint of the late love 80s colored lighting. It employs several effects that vary from scene to scene, stylized as newscasts, security footage, and the killer robots view. The cuts are erratic but help keep a nice pace that is never boring, even if it reminds me of soda commercials from the early digital age. To match its story, the style never tries for hyper-realism. The designs are gritty, but it's the kind of grime you find drawn in a comic book, not brutal or grotesque like some of its influences were. As a highlight, it mixes in some CG sparingly on top of mostly practical effects. The majority of the monster’s appearances hold up, not having the luxury to fall back on one hundred percent computer generated bullshit, like it may have a few years later. There is plenty of blood splatter and some adequate gore (depending on the cut you watch), though some of it loses its edge with the music video editing job. The soundtrack plays heavily to the more comedic nature of the film, which worked for the most part, but did end up telegraphing some of the more nuanced directing. There are a few cuts of the film and, depending on the version, it can feel a little choppy in some areas, but the story is simple enough that it doesn't suffer much.
The film is written and directed by Stephen Norrington, who has a pretty solid history in creature design, including some work on the robot in Hardware (1990). He would direct the mainstream hit Blade (1998) four years later, continuing to employ the nu-metal music video style of the 90s. Unfortunately, his next big-budget film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), seems to have stunted the directing portion of his career. Death Machine feels more like a passion project compared to the aforementioned film. Reportedly, he wasn't happy with the original studio edit of the film, hence the multiple edits. For the most part, Norrington's creative control comes off as the work of a fan who has built his own world from classic highlights.  Brad Dourif plays the mad robo engineer Jack Dante. Dourif is, kind of, all over the place in this one but is still the highlight of the whole flick. It seems like he never settles on a crazy for Dante, appearing with a different silly voice or abrasive behavior in each scene. Both Andreas Wisniewski and William Hootkins play sweaty, post-80s businessmen that could have walked out of the RoboCop films. Ely Pouget plays the lead role Hayden Cale, and pulls off the character’s various stages as well as anyone can expect. She has the task of playing a character that rips off three other characters--and each in different points in the film. It would be easy for that to come off as a Naked Gun type thing, but she somehow avoids it.
Death machine is a tribute laden, solid chunk of science fiction horror cinema. It's more funny than scary at any given moment, but it never feels like a parody, and its comedy is nuanced. There is probably enough action for anyone, once it gets going, but it plays like an I Spy book for those already indoctrinated by the films that came before it. I enjoy the shit out of it. Under all the classic callbacks and 90s cyberpunk flavor, there is a story about a dude who is really excited about the computer system he has just put together. I mean, sure, it kills people, and he has some mommy issues-- but when he pressed the power on Warbeast it booted right up, lights and everything. I can't help but be happy for him.
2h | 1994
Director: Stephen Norrington
Writer: Stephen Norrington 


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