Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Films of 1989: Cyborg


Welcome to the post-apocalyptic future as it was imagined in the late 1980s.  If it looks familiar to you, all the better.  There can be little doubt that Cyborg is heavily inspired by the success and artistry of George Miller’s The Road Warrior (1981), a film that generated a slew of imitators in the Decade of Reagan.

Cyborg’s (1989) anarchic world is one of mullets and shoulder pads, not to mention roving gangs and the total breakdown of law-and-order. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Gibson Rickenbacker, a taciturn, Clint-Eastwood-like outsider known as a “slinger” whose tragic personal past is explored in the film through a series of flashbacks.

The Clint Eastwood connection is important not only because Van Damme play a man of few words, but because Cyborg can easily be parsed as a transplanted Spaghetti Western. There’s a Sergio Leone-vibe to the film’s visual presentation. To wit, action is frequently punctuated by close-ups of creepy, physically unusual characters, like the film’s gold-toothed, glow-eyed villain, Tremolo (Vincent Klyn).



Produced for just 500,000 dollars, Cyborg was the final theatrical release under the Golan and Globus Cannon banner. The low-budget film might be deemed somewhat silly-looking by today’s standards, since its evil gang is so two-dimensional and stereotypically villainous, and because the fashions reflect the late eighties to an alarming degree. Similarly, it’s not difficult to discern that the filmmakers take any excuse whatsoever to have Van Damme inflict his van-damage while shirtless. 

Yet Cyborg still works hard to earn a degree of respectability.

It does so primarily through crisp, cleanly-directed fight scenes that don’t hide the stunt-work or rely on quick-cutting or herky-jerky cameras. At least two fight scenes -- one set in a Southern marsh, and one set in the pounding rain -- are unforgettably crafted.

Similarly, the film’s quiet moments (which don’t require Van Damme to speak or emote much…) are oddly affecting. These moments are abundantly simple -- almost more like sketches, or memories half-visualized than full-fledged movie scenes -- and they add to the sense of a fractured, fallen world, and a half-remembered, past.  There’s a dream-like, hazy feeling here that works in Cyborg’s favor.

Cyborg operates on two parallel narrative tracks for most of its duration, telling one story in flashback, and another one in the present. The commendable quality about this structure is that the stories connect in a meaningful way, and each story helps to generate interest in the other.  For instance, the flashbacks reveal Gibson’s sad history, thus explaining his anti-social nature in the present. Similarly, his deliverance, in the final act, hinges on the (surprise) re-appearance of a character from his past.  It’s not like you go to see a movie like Cyborg for the character touches, I realize, but the film actually offers more of value than just a series of increasingly picturesque kickboxing tournaments.

Cyborg may not be a great film, but it features neo-classical touches worth noting.  And since so many post-apocalyptic movies of the 1980s are outright terrible (like Warrior of the Lost World [1981], or 1990: The Bronx (1982), Cyborg’s general competence, thrills and visual legerdemain qualify it, at the very least, as a better-than-average example of the then-popular post-apocalypse sub-genre.


“Just get us out of the City!”

In the not-too distant future, civilization has collapsed and a plague -- the living death -- has decimated the human race. Savage gangs now rule the cities, raping and pillaging wherever they go.

A female cyborg from Atlanta and the CDC, named Pearl (Dayle Haddon), has discovered a cure to the plague, but gang leader Tremolo wants it for himself.  Indeed, he plans to take Pearl back to Atlanta, and control the cure himself.

A loner and “slinger,” Gibson (Van Damme), who has a shared history with Tremolo, shadows Pearl’s journey with an unwanted sidekick, Nady (Deborah Richter). They brave many dangers together, and along the journey, Gibson recalls the family he lost because of Tremolo, and the pain he has suffered.

Before long, Gibson and Nady must confront Tremolo, and get Pearl safely back to Atlanta.



“I Like Death. I Like Misery. I Like this World.”

In several significant ways, Cyborg mirrors an underrated and unheralded post-apocalyptic film from the 1970s: The Ultimate Warrior

In that film, Yul Brynner played a loner and fighter who -- at the behest of Max Von Sydow’s character -- had to transport one woman from NYC to North Carolina.

In both cases and in both films, the hero must contend with a villainous gang, and risk emotional connection so as to save the future itself.

And in both films, of course, the journey takes the lead characters from the dangerous “city” (the Big Apple) to the South.  And in both cases, that woman holds the key to the re-birth of the human race. Cyborg isn’t quite as good as The Ultimate Warrior, frankly, but it is not unimpressive.

As noted above, the Pyun film is pretty low-budget, and yet it features two matter terrific paintings of the future world (NYC, and Atlanta) that go a long way towards selling the End of the World as a reality. 



Another scene, also cheaply-produced, sells that reality in another, more intimate way.  Pyun’s camera pans across a series of wagons at a bazaar, and at one point, the audience sees the gruesome imagery of one person being treated for the plague. The patient screams in agony, but is largely unnoticed by others.

The moment is not big and epic, for certain, but the economical imagery sells the reality of this world in a way that is both memorable and economical.

Suffice it to say, you wouldn’t want to live here.



If one is inclined, one can also gaze at the film as a kind of extended Jesus Christ metaphor. After losing his earthly connections -- his family -- Gibson wanders the wastelands and cities, an outcast. At one point, he is crucified by his enemies, literally, but then resurrected, stronger than before.

In his new, fierce fighting form, post-crucifixion, Gibson battles not for personal happiness, but for the future of the planet itself.  He fights to save Pearl (a Pearl of great price), and bring a cure to suffering mankind. 

The Christ comparison is telegraphed in an early fight scene in which we see Van Damme beside a graffiti cross, and then fulfilled, at least, during the character’s crucifixion on the wetlands.  

In fact, if you go back and watch the first frames of the film (following the matte painting), you'll notice, even, a crucifix in a kind of urban junk-yard setting. 





Although Cyborg raises some questions about its post-apocalyptic world (which features both barbarians and high-tech cyborgs…), and relies on clichés occasionally (like the sting-in-the-tail/tale ending), it really goes for broke with its careful and evocative imagery.  The Christ metaphor is valid, certainly (and has been used before, in the post-apocalyptic arena, in The Omega Man [1971]), but other visuals remain just as powerful. 

For instance, in one scene, we see a traditional wedding cake topping burn and melt, a sign forecasting the end of civilization, and more specifically, the end of Gibson’s happy “marriage” because of Tremolo. Two worlds (ours, and Gibson’s) burn down.


The film’s fight scenes, similarly, make the most of their locations.  The scene leading up to the marsh fight -- a pitched chase after a run through the sewers -- gets the adrenaline pumping.  



And it indeed feels like real (if post-apocalyptic) justice, when Gibson finally takes down the film’s villain in a cleansing, cathartic rainfall.



So Cyborg may not be great, it’s true.  The film’s opening scenes -- with the ridiculous over-use of slow-motion photography and the mood of a bad Italian action movie -- portend bad movie disaster.  

But Cyborg avoids that fight with its dedication to trenchant imagery, and a nice focus on humanity.  

Gibson’s memories -- like gauzy and diffuse photos from another era -- make us feel for him, and understand his refusal to be drawn back into battle.  He’s lost everything, and wants nothing from the world.  


Commendably, the film allows him to pull back from that point of nihilism and re-join the war in a noble way.  Sure, it’s been done before (see: The Mad Max movies!), but Cyborg is so crisply shot and lean in presentation that the film succeeds on an artistic basis: as a straight-forward transplantation of the Spaghetti Western to the science-fiction genre.


A cyborg is a being who is part machine and part human. The nice thing about Cyborg perhaps, is that the film’s focus lands more on the human and less on the machine side of that equation than one might rightly expect from a low-budget post-apocalyptic movie of late-eighties vintage.

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