Like everyone else with internet access and a crippling nostalgia addiction, I ravenously devoured Netflix’s recent offering Stranger Things. My entirely imaginary love affair with Barb aside (girl, I want to exchange notes with you in study hall, but nothing too racy because I know you’re not into it), I enjoyed the series a great deal and look forward to the inevitable second season. More than anything else, though, it got me thinking about the kinds of time travel movies and television allow us to have.
Stranger Things has become instantly and nearly universally beloved by faithfully recreating 1983. And not just upper middle class TV 1983, but grimy, working class, midwestern 1983. A common error when recreating a specific point in the past, is to make everything cutting edge, but Stranger Things gave us a much more realistic take by including holdovers. The decor looked like it was from 1976. One of the moms had Farrah hair. Most of the cars were several years old. The toys had use on them. It was a journey back to a 1983 that actually felt like the time I remembered.
This week’s movie is no Stranger Things. It’s a hell of a lot weirder, but the important thing here is that it features a different kind of time travel for the audience, one that substitutes the comforting glow of instant nostalgia with the campy zeerust of a future that never was. That’s my long-winded way of telling you that 1994’s Death Machine really looked like it was going to come true… for all of five minutes. It was made at the crest of the aimlessly nihilistic cyberpunk wave of the early to mid ‘90s, and unintentionally became a time capsule for every one of that era’s strange preoccupations and predictions.
In 1994, were positive that megacorporations were going to replace the government (as opposed to just legally buying the politicians they want — thanks, Citizens United!), and free of any kind of social responsibility, would pillage the natural world for raw materials to create new kinds of military technology. In this case, it’s a giant robot gorilla-dinosaur that smells fear, and it’s up to your standard cyberpunk anti-heroic crew of mercenaries, salarymen, and corporate spies to do something about it. There’s even a soupçon of pointless Japan fetishization, as one character plays the part of a dark future samurai. Well, more like a guy who’s seen one too many samurai movies, but still.
The time capsule extends to the styles as well. An executive (played by Rachel Weisz in her first role ever) has an edgy eyebrow ring. The team of environmental activists/possible terrorists sport radical ‘90s fashions, from short painter’s pants in pastel colors, to hair shaved in random patches. The bad guy dresses in a black leather trench coat with greasy Trent Reznor hair, and ripped jeans that used to host a talk show on MTV. Pop culture riffing — never a good idea in science fiction as it instantly dates your project — makes its post-Tarantino presence felt. Most of the characters are named for genre directors, and two just straight-up reference the megacorp from the Alien franchise. This might be the most 1994 movie ever made this side of Reality Bites, but with the added bit of hilarity that it takes place in a cyberpunk 2003.
You’ve probably already figured out I’m not recommending Death Machine with my usual verve. It’s not a terrible movie by any stretch, and when it does veer into badness, it’s a fun sort of badness that’ll make you think of Ecto-Cooler and dino-damage. Stephen Norrington, a special effects man who directed Blade and… um… The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, took the director’s chair for this one. He also wrote it, which gives what could be a forgettable piece of genre fare a point of view and a certain idiosyncratic style.
But here’s the thing: if I were to elevator pitch this movie, it sounds pretty damn good. It stars Brad Dourif as the creepy bad guy, William “Porkins” Hootkins in a substantial role, and even the first terrorist to be killed from Die Hard who has feet smaller than John McClane’s sister. The climax can best be described as RoboCop vs. RoboPredator. And sure, Rachel Weisz is in it for like 2 seconds, but she is extremely pretty. It might not be a great film, but you’re not wasting your time with it. It lurches back and forth between the self-aware campiness of an era-appropriate sci-fi horror film to the unintentional variety, but it’s never not enjoyable. It shares the most DNA, perhaps, with Richard Stanley’s Hardware, but while that film sports an active cult following, this one does not, despite being demonstrably superior. If only only by virtue of not being set in a single room and featuring a monster more mobile than a recliner.
The monster is a hell of an achievement for a movie like this one. Norrington cut his teeth on the FX crew in the classic Aliens, and there has never been a film before or since featuring better puppets. While the Warbeast in this one can’t compare to the Alien Queen (nothing can), it’s much better than a film of such a modest budget could expect. It’s a credible threat, and Norrington mostly gets around the creature’s limitations with a lot of Terminator-esque PoV shots.
For all its slavish devotion to the time in which its made, Death Machine is somewhat prescient in its choice of villain. Brad Dourif, looking like he was kicked out of Ministry for being, well, Brad Dourif, plays villain Jack Dante as a combination of Grima Wormtongue and that guy in your freshman dorm who really wasn’t good at picking up signals. He is instantly obsessed with heroine of the film, Hayden Cale (another super ‘90s name), even referring to her as his girlfriend, despite her showing nothing but disgust and contempt for him. It feels like a clumsy attempt by Norrington to engage with the thorny issues of stalking, harassment, and entitlement that are only just being brought into the national conversation (mostly because most men think listening to women is a fucking novelty, but I digress). It’s pretty far from perfect, but I’m a believer in supporting people when they try to take a step forward, rather than slapping them down when the step isn’t perfect.
Death Machine isn’t great cinema, but maybe more importantly it is fun cinema. Granted, you’re not going to be enjoying it for all the reasons Norrington wants you do, but who cares? Don’t you want to see a robotic super soldier fight a half-velociraptor half-gorilla machine? Of course you do. You’re reading this.