Skip to main content

Intestination commencing.


(SPOILERS) Stuart Gordon’s pulpy prison sci-fi has acres of splatter and some vital ideas to see it through its budget-conscious paces; one thing you could rely on with Gordon was a sense of humour, even if the finished product was frequently patchy. Here, he amasses a collection of dystopian tropes and runs with them to sporadically effective results; like the previous year’s Wedlock, Fortress is better when its protagonists are confined, rather than engaged in the act of escaping.

Gordon had a bit of a raw deal here, having withdrawn from Body Snatchers (ultimately directed by Abel Ferrara) when Fortress got the go-ahead as an Arnie project. The Austrian Oak and prime Nietzschean had reasonably good taste for cheesy/witty sci-fi at this point, and he’d apparently fallen about at Gordon’s debut Re-Animator. Schwarzenegger’s exit meant a budget that cratered from $60-70m to more like $15m (Arnie’s switch-in was presumably Last Action Hero, a likeable mess and a celebrated box-office bomb). Gordon’s name isn’t on Fortress’ screenplay, which has four credited writers, none of any special esteem. Nevertheless, there’s some grim ingenuity here that smacks of his tastes, running with the exploding inmates of The Running Man/ Wedlock, but instead of heads opting for intestinators.

It’s 2017, and presumably Hillary won, as the US has stepped up the totalitarian torment; couples may have only one child, leading to John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) – the most decorated captain in the history of the Black Berets, who quit in disgrace after he lost his entire platoon – and his wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) attempting to flee to Canada when they are pinched at a Border Station (“Goddam breeders… You’d think they’d learn”). As Gordon commented in 2016, it’s “a world that’s sort of inspired by what’s happening in China with them trying to control the population by limiting the number of children you’re allowed to have”.

Poe: We live on a very small and fragile planet. We must maintain the population balance.

Abortion is illegal while the overpopulation mantra is preached at every opportunity; one would have thought it would be easier to enforce sterilisation/vasectomies etc once a couple have bred (and what happens if they divorce?) than test the capacities of the prison system. Regardless, John is sentenced to 31 years in the Fortress, a privately-owned prison – as opposed to simply privately run – of the Men-Tel Corporation. “The federal government pays $27 every day for each one of you” we are told. This is the world’s biggest underground penitentiary. It’s 33 – uh-huh – stories deep in a secluded desert location; escape is, naturally, impossible. Overcrowding is rife.

Zed-10: You are about to be outfitted with intestinators.

Rather than barcodes on their limiting devices or tattoos (Wedlock, Alien³), our heroes already have them on their IDs in Fortress’ future. To prevent any acting out, they have intestinators inserted, an “automatic behaviour control device” that induces pain if prisoners step over yellow lines and causes death if they cross red ones. Also forbidden are sexy dreams. Or possibly dreams altogether, although I don’t see how this could be prevented, except through chemical stimulus. Nevertheless, Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick) tells John “I haven’t dreamt in forty years”, making for an effective emphasis not just of limitation on the procreative act but also any imaginative, creative impulse.

There’s also a mind-wipe procedure available, as no well-outfitted prison would be complete without its own MKUltra lab. This involves strapping John to a gyroscope and leaves him staring vacantly for a spell, until Karen reminds him of his priorities and gives him back his wherewithal. Fortress’ early stages include all the necessaries for any self-respecting nightmare-prison movie. Thus, we have the young, inexperienced fellow (Clifton Collins Jr’s Nino) who is subjected to vigorous attentions from prison hard nuts wanting to make him their bitch: namely, Maddox (Vernon Wells, Mr Igo from Innerspace) and Stiggs (Tom Towles). There’s the boffin who can help the escape bid (Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs as D-Day). And also, the lifer standing no chance of parole fairly or otherwise (Abraham, a trustee). Oh, and the requisite ruthless warden.

Poe: The Men-Tel Corporation has transformed me into a more efficient human being. Once a month I absorb amino acids wasting neither food nor fuel. When my kind are in the majority there will be no more world hunger, no more overpopulation.

This is where Fortress’ future contempt for natural human expression feeds into the expected transhumanist apocalypse. Prison Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith, offering a nuanced performance; apparently Richard E Grant was up for it) is, we learn, what happens to the babies born in the facility. Well, that and presumably the Strike Clone cyborgs, the “perfect soldier”. Unless they actually are clones. Poe has been brought up in the facility (“I’ve never left these quarters my entire life”) and transformed into a true transhuman star pupil, but discovers he has a yen to override his programming.

Karen: You don’t sleep. You don’t eat. You can’t make love, can you?
Poe: But I can love.

He finds himself experiencing some jollies – albeit not physical ones – by watching dirty movies of John’s dreams, despite warnings from computer system Zed-10 (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Gordon’s wife) that “We do not observe for personal pleasure” and it is “causing you to act in a non-professional manner”. Indeed, he will eventually be relieved of command, having offered Karen the gig of Mrs Poe (she consents in return for John’s being approved as “fully rehabilitated”) and gotten all tipsy on champers (“This is very special. I wonder why I’ve never tried this before”).

The Poe subplot alone marks Fortress out as worth investigating, offering the antagonist, a conflicted individual, more depth that one might expect from this kind of B-movie (Smith assuming the foetal posture after getting sozzled is strangely affecting). On the more standard-issue front, the sources of prison conflict are reasonably well spun. John refuses to submit to killing Maddox in a decently-staged fight sequence (the latter ends up buying the farm anyway), and D-Day comes up with a means of removing the devices with magnets (appropriately gross).

The performances are memorable, with the exception of Locklin. Lambert is his usual bewildering combination of oddball and wooden, and as eccentrically-accented as we’ve come to expect. The movie nurses the myth of a safe haven, be it Canada (!) or Mexico, albeit I watched the extended cut this time; upon reaching the latter refuge, the Fortress computer, evidently biting its thumb at national boundary lines, takes control of John’s truck and tries to kill him.

Five years on from 2017, and we’ve seen chapter and verse on the perils of committing “unauthorised thought process”, along with concerted attempts to stamp down on “overpopulation”. If you want to see what’s been happening this year, however, best check out another futuristic prison movie, No Escape

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was