Richard Stanley’s visionary 1990 post-apocalyptic film Hardware is a brilliant and tense piece of work, a movie that sets a hostile but nebulous authoritarian government as the backdrop to a surprisingly cooler story of one seriously tough woman. When her former military boyfriend Mo (Dylan McDermott) returns home bearing the gift of a decapitated robotic head, the artistically inclined Jill (Stacey Travis) uses the head as the centerpiece for her latest metal sculpture -- and Mo egotistically takes credit for completing her masterpiece. But the head he brought home belongs to a secret government project called M.A.R.K. 13, and is a sentient robot capable of reassembling and recharging itself, and its primary directive is to kill all humans.
Mo has made a career of abandoning the reclusive Jill and showing up on her doorstep unannounced, insistent to his pal Shades (who is just as wonderfully ridiculous as the moniker implies) that she needs him and enjoys having someone to keep her warm and safe at night for the few days he’s sporadically around. But what we know and see of Jill paints a very contradictory picture: here is a woman who has asserted an independent life for herself, a life in which she’s decided it’s morally questionable to bear children, and that it’s not her gendered responsibility or even in her natural disposition to reproduce. Instead of dedicating her life to raising another, she’s dedicated her life to the development of something she views as equally valuable: her art. When Mo questions what her completed piece means, Jill is frustrated and tells him it represents nothing.
This is a man who, time and again, has left her, returning only to share a bed, as if his limited presence, financial contributions and the mere labeling of him as her boyfriend should be enough to satisfy her -- as if it’s enough to warrant his insistence that she get a real job, or argue with her about whether or not they should have children; as if he can dictate the terms of her uterus or tell her what's best for her. She’s an aspirational woman who’s more than content to just hang out in her excellent silk robe, crank her stereo to 11, smoke some pot and create wild works of metal art. Mo's showing up on her doorstep bearing spare metal parts for Jill to use in her projects and sharing her bed for a few nights doesn’t amount to much; in fact, it represents nothing. Perhaps it’s little more than a man showing up at your door after being gone for months on end and practically dropping his figurative bullshit at your feet. Honey, I’m home.
And that figurative bullshit amounts to much more when it turns into a sentient, murderous being hell-bent on destroying every living thing in sight. What’s even more striking is that this object becomes a part of Jill’s artwork -- she takes it and puts it into what she’s most passionate about. That evil thing invades and absorbs her creation, until the thing she loves the most is literally trying to kill her. And it’s only doing so after she’s inserted Mo’s contribution. This element illuminates the artist’s struggle with compromising their vision for anyone else and interference from commercial (government) entities. Mo looks up the Biblical scripture from Mark, Chapter 13 and finds, “No flesh shall be spared.” Jill has essentially sold out, and the M.A.R.K. 13’s relentless attack reflects the tiresome and draining effect that corporate entities have on artists.
Jill’s nightmare is exacerbated by a lecherous neighbor (perhaps the most disgusting peeping Tom character in cinema history), but one that Jill handles incredibly well, refusing to cower or relent to the slimy intrusion; instead, she uses clever verbal manipulations to work her away around the problem. And while Mo is out trying to solve the mystery of the M.A.R.K. 13 so he can play White Knight, Jill is holed up in her apartment alone, as she always is, coping with this nightmare on her own. When Mo finally shows up at the 11th hour, Jill literally shrugs him off of her, and it will be Jill, not Mo, who confronts this hellacious terror, which has symbolically scrapped itself together from the metal of Jill’s own artwork.
For as relentless as this robotic creature is, so is Jill, and no matter how many people try to hold her back and tell her she cannot confront the monster that’s taken over her apartment, Jill insists on taking back what is hers and trying to save the man who could hardly be bothered to be there for her. While Mo has been off in the military for years, it has seemingly taught or instilled in him very little, while being abandoned by Mo has reinforced Jill's innate strength and ferocity, making her the real badass of Hardware. The climax of the film is something truly joyful and glorious to behold, making this film -- for the uninitiated -- quite a revelation. It’s more than just a post-apocalyptic film about a killer robot, a sci-fi movie with fantastic practical death scenes (used sparingly and to great effect), a genre flick that works in themes about societal lethargy in a future where an unseen authoritarian government threatens to establish laws on our reproductive rights (sound familiar?). More than that, it’s a film about a modern feminist woman just trying to live an independent life, free of male White Knight bullshit, where she can dedicate her time to what she’s most passionate about, without society and men who are barely even there for her telling her what to do with her body and her life.