Today I watched Masato Harada’s Gunhed (1989)
In the near future electronic components and rare earth metals have become so rare that there is a whole class of people who scavenge through the wreckage of robot wars to collect it. The film opens with a ludicrous amount of exposition setting up this world and why it is the way it is; on an island only known as 8JO the world’s governments built the first fully automated robotics facility, but as these things go, the computer rebelled and declared war on the human race. Before the main plot gets going the Allies send in an army of giant robots or mecha known as Gunheds and since then the island has been abandoned. The main character is a scrapper known as Brooklyn and he and his team have found themselves on the abandoned island only to come face to face with the evil computer.
While this film is Japanese and is to some extent Cyberpunk, it is not of the unique ‘Japanese Cyberpunk’ genre. It does share in that genre’s propensity for visual white noise, tribal industrial soundtrack, and ultraviolence. The film’s look is great for the most part, the setting is visually very evocative and it conveys the idea that these people are in a truly vast industrial facility that has been ruined for some time. The special effects are also quite awesome, especially the Gunhed itself when it finally appears, the practical effects give the machines great weight, making them seem truly dangerous and practical as this film fits nicely into the ‘real robot’ sub-genre of mecha media. The one element of the film’s look that I think could have used some work is in the diversity of colour, the film is a barrage of grays and greens and the hyper detailed prop and effects work can get lost in this imagery.
The biggest problem effecting this film is a lack of characterization for all but the central protagonist. Brenda Bakke plays the main supporting role and she is just awful, despite portraying a military ranger she seems eternally sleepy and unfocused. Masahiro Takashima on the other hand does a pretty solid job as the protagonist, capturing that Han Solo style ‘rough around the edges’ charm. Really though, it is the set dressing that does the most emoting, if the plethora of mechanical details on the Death Star in Star Wars excites you, this is a whole film of just that, and it is awesome.
Retro futurism has always entertained me, especially the gritty late 80’s early 90’s style of post apocalyptic and cyberpunk works. The video market of the time meant these films were generally made cheap which leads to a lot of underdog creativity on the part of the design teams and while this film looks like it has a bigger budget than most, that same sense of creativity is still all over this. The film is fully immersed in industrial waste chic and if that Mad Max inspired style appeals to you, this is definitely something to check out. Unfortunately if you want a deeper, more well developed narrative with this diesel punk nightmare, you might be disappointed. 3/5