Population Implosions, Explosions and the Coming Dystopia: A Review of Hardware (1990)

Hardware (1990)
by M K Gossel

Currently across Europe, birth rates are falling and the population is ageing. This study assesses which policies can prevent or mitigate the adverse consequences of these two trends. A framework highlights the interrelationships among government policies, macro-level conditions, and household-level demographic behaviour. Guided by this framework, the RAND team reviewed the research literature, examined European demographic data, and conducted case studies of five countries.

Source: Population Implosion? Low Fertility and Policy Responses in the European Union

In 1990 music video veteran Richard Stanley directed an unlikely classic, Hardware. A classic, not because of its story, but due to its brilliant, evocative style over substance cinematography and editing. Unlikely, precisely because of its plot, which was an adaptation of a story featured in the well known and ongoing British science fiction comic anthology, 2000AD. The film is a serious oddity of dystopian science fiction in that on the surface it appears to be an action thriller in the vein of Terminator (1984) having pretensions of being something greater, when in reality it is actually quite the reverse. The slow pacing, obsession with neonoir and dystopian style, and cohesive thematic elements in the creation of the filmic reality itself result in something that most action moviegoers will likely dislike, some intensely so, while those of a more intellectual and philosophical bent will find it all more than a little intriguing, particularly those with a lifelong interest in all things cyberpunk. The only real criticism I would level at the film is the same that I would level at all of his films in general, and that would be his seeming obsession with presenting an overlong sex scene early on that, as with most sex scenes in film in general, are self-indulgent and add nothing to the film. Considering the fact that in each of his films where a sex scene is featured, the sexual positions of the actors are always almost exactly the same. This is likely a quirk stemming from his days as a director of music videos.

Spoilers abound, so if you’d prefer to cut out here and see the film first, by all means …

In the derailed future of Hardware, society is on the one hand apparently progressive, while on the other hand reactionary in a primitivist sense: marijuana is fully legal and sold in cigarette packs by corporations, as are various kinds of psychedelic recreational drugs. There are only two classes, those who have nothing, and those who have at least something. Space travel and colonization is the norm, with space also being fully militarized in a manner similar to that of Alien. Radiation pollution is extreme, though increasingly tolerated by the slowly mutating populace. This was certainly not the first film to depict a techno-primitivist future, but likely the first to do so in such a macabrely detailed fashion that went far beyond Soylent Green.

Not unlike the standard “killer robot” cliche as featured so effectively in films like Terminator, the single-minded purpose and goal of the machine is to slaughter humans indiscriminately. The version of such a genocidal machine in Hardware is designed specifically for this purpose by human governments, this one called “Mark 13,” a reference to the Biblical quote on the Gospel of Mark:

And unless the Lord had shortened the days, no flesh should be saved: but for the sake of the elect which he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days.
Mark 13:20

The Public Image Ltd song The Order of Death is prominently featured on the soundtrack to further stress this thematic point, a very nice touch and one of several elements that help transform the film from something rather forgettable into a unique experiment in expressing social commentary through style rather than substance.

Given that Hardware is about overpopulation and what length governments will go to in order to limit and control populations—igniting senseless wars seemingly over territory and/or natural resources, but in reality launched simply to engage in indiscriminate slaughter to lower population numbers in a particular area; transforming law enforcement from a legitimate “protect and serve” model into a force of social oppression and state terrorism against the general populace; using taxes to economically cripple the ordinary citizen and prevent them from legitimate employment—the “killer robot” makes for an obvious and convenient plot device, but considering the fact that the robot does not fully embark upon its rampage until almost an hour into the film, effectively taking up the last half hour or so of the movie, it is not exactly the central plot element.

That central element is the female protagonist played by American actor Stacy Travis, an agoraphobic left-anarchist artist who specializes in building sculptures using scrap metal and found objects. Her cloistered apartment is filled with CRT monitors, some of them used as part of an building-wide closed circuit television network—it is important to note that if such a post-apocalyptic dystopian future were ever to curse our planet, the CRT would be all the rage again, as with many other seemingly “obsolete” technologies. This is due to the fact that CRT televisions and monitors can be easily repaired using spare parts, as opposed to plasma and LCD monitors which are essentially disposable once damaged, as their screens are not easily repairable and more often than not, cannot be repaired at all and require a totally new replacement. Given the circumstances of such a future, new replacement parts would be almost impossible to come by, given the lack of resources and the need to return to more traditional and human-based manufacturing methods. Mark my words, there will come a time yet when the CRT will once again be king.

To be continued in the second part: the inevitability of dystopia given current population implosions and explosions across the developed and developing worlds …

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