Film Review: Death Machine (1994)


An average member of today’s audience is likely to think that science fiction cinema begins and ends with Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars or other franchises associated with big Hollywood studios. True cinephile, on the other hand, knows that some of the hidden gems in the history of the genre can also be found among low budget independent films. Most of them, however, failed to get proper distribution creating the phenomenon of great science fiction films nobody or few people heard of. One of such examples is Death Machine, 1994 British film written and directed by Stephen Norrington.

The plot is set in near future and deals with Chaank, corporation specialised in manufacturing high tech weaponry. Many of its products have tendency to malfunction or create too much collateral damage among children and innocent civilians, thus creating public backlash that Scott Ridley (played by Richard Brake), Chaank’s chairman of the board, tries to stop with some top personnel changes. Hayden Cale (played by Ely Pouget) is appointed as new CEO and she immediately tries to stop some of company’s more controversial R&D programs, apparently undeterred by her predecessor’s death in mysterious circumstances. She discovers that the corporation’s top researcher is extremely intelligent but psychopathic Jack Dante (played by Brad Dourif) who, when confronted by his new boss, reacts by trying to get her into bed. Cale is disgusted and decides to fire Dante who doesn’t take it well and instead and unleashes his secret superweapon – Frontline Mortal Destroyer a.k.a. “Warbeast”, huge homicidal robot that would take out Ridley or anyone who stands in Dante’s way. As this happens, three men – Raimi (played by John Sharian), Weyland (Andreas Wisniewski) and Yutani (played by Martin McDougal) – enter Chaank corporate headquarters with intention of robbing its vault. That seems to suit Dante’s evil plans very well before intruders decide to temporarily side with Cale and John Carpenter (played by William Hootkins), corporate chief of security in order to survive being hunted by mechanical monster.

Death Machine was made with relatively low budget and represented directorial debut for Norrington. But you couldn’t tell it after you watch that film, which might not be that surprising considering that Norrington began his career by working on special effects on many remarkable science fiction films, most notably Aliens. That film is given plenty of references in the film like character names, certain elements of the plot and general style. Norrington, however, doesn’t stop there and gives homage to many other classics of 1980s science fiction cinema like The Terminator or RoboCop with an action classic Die Hard thrown for good measure. He also as an inspiration Hardware, another low budget British film about killer robot stalking female protagonist at isolate location (on which he also worked). Although some might be tempted to accuse Norrington for the lack of originality, he actually shows great skill and handling relatively limited resources in order to create effective and very entertaining combination of science fiction, horror, action and black humour. An isolated setting of corporate skyscraper is put to good use and Norrington, like all good masters of horror genre, methodically creates tension by not revealing mechanical monster until very late in the film. Special effects are very good for early 1990s standards and the same, to a degree, can be said of rudimentary computer animation. Film, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from graphic violence (because of which it had censorship problems and bans in various countries) but limited number of characters make it less of an issue than with most films of the same genre.

The most memorable element of Death Machine, however, isn’t the monster but the human villain. And Norrington had very good fortune to bring Brad Dourif to play it. Character actor known for distinguished career during which he often played lunatics, psychopaths and mentally unbalanced persons is here at his best, obviously having great fun playing combination of mad genius and sexual maniac. Ely Pouget, relatively unknown actress, is also very good in the role of heroine who is obviously modelled on Ellen Ripley from Alien series, but here given an interesting and somewhat much darker backstory. The rest of the cast, although obviously overshadowed, is also quite effective, especially William Hootkins who has delivered great performance playing different kind of character in Hardware.

Death Machine never got proper distribution and on the most markets it appeared only in video stores. Problems with censorship and serious cuts also prevented audience to see it in Norrington’s original version. Those who managed to watch Norrington’s two hour version are likely to be very impressed, although somewhat excessive length and at times uninspired music score by Crispin Merrell deprives it of real perfection. Norrington nevertheless managed to build his career on it, soon afterwards starting Blade film series, but his proper directorial career was only few years later more or less extinguished after the failure of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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