Friday, May 3, 2013

PROTOTYPE X29A is Not Your Typical Killer Cyborg Movie

Prototype X29A (1992)
Director: Phillip Roth
Rating: 5 / 10
Seen via: Vidmark VHS

I'm not going to pretend that I bought Prototype X29A for any reason other than the box art. Look at it. I'm powerless before art like that. Maybe it's because such a large portion of my formative years were spent playing NES games where the future was synonymous with lasers, vector graphics, and cyborgs. Put a robot with a gun in front of a neon grid and I'm sold. I wasn't allowed to see most of the big-name sci-fi action films of the day in theaters, so I had to be content with video game adaptations, action figures, and edited-for-TV B-grade knockoffs like this. In my young mind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day seemed to be the killer cyborg movie that all other killer cyborg movies dreamed of being. Prototype X29A seems to support this notion based on its tagline: "Part Man. Part Machine. All Killer. Mankind Doesn't Stand a Chance."

In the opening scene, it seems as if it isn't going to do such a bad job of living up to its claims. We're told (via title card, of course) that in the ruined city of L.A. in 2057, cyborgs called Omegas were created to govern society, but quickly began to rebel against humanity (as cyborgs tend to do). Robot warriors called Prototypes were created to hunt them down and stop them. Enter a giant Prototype (i.e. dude in a rubber robot suit), shooting up a bunch of hacker Omegas who are jacking into a computer network through cyber-shunts in their necks. The eagle-eyed viewer will notice something that plants this film squarely in the 90s:

That's Kato Kaelin, getting a missile fired through his torso. It says a lot that he's the only recognizable name attached to this film, and he dies not 5 minutes into the story. After killing what appears to be the last of the Omegas, the Prototype shuts down and faceplants into the dirt, its mission accomplished.

Fast forward twenty years, when humanity is still a wreck living amongst post-apocalyptic rubble. This is where the film somewhat unexpectedly switches gears - if the explosion-packed intro had you hoping for more gunfire and robot combat, you might be slightly put off by the character-driven story that follows. Everything about the marketing led me to believe it was a mindless action film, but underneath this outer shell of schlock is a story that tries really hard to get you to give a shit.

The only things that will survive the apocalypse intact are cockroaches and mullets.
We're introduced to Hawkins, a tech wizard who rocks one of the most terrifying mullets of the future (I fully expected it to be prehensile). His confinement to a wheelchair has left him insecure, especially when it comes to reigniting his relationship with a young woman named Chandra. Chandra is just trying to survive in this harsh future, where thugs wander the ruins and are always looking to rape, rob, or harass the weak. Hawkins is convinced that his inability to walk is what's keeping him from getting back together with Chandra, so he usually just opts for cyber-porn instead:

Don't worry, Hawk stays far away from the Necrophilia sequence. 
There's also Sebastian, a kid Chandra has adopted as her younger brother. He wanders around the wasteland with an anachronistic bow and arrow to defend himself while he's out gambling and stealing from people. When he runs into trouble, he always seems to be rescued by a gang of musclebound gay monks called the Protectors, who practice some future version of tai-chi out in the desert. (And yes, they are actually gay - there's a kiss at the end of the film that kills the ambiguity.)

Meanwhile, a woman named Dr. Zalazny has obtained access to the decades-old Prototype technology. She's interested in the project for its application to the field of medicine. If a human body could be transferred into a Prototype robot, it'd effectively be "rebirth." She sees a potential patient in Hawkins (who else), who thinks that robo-legs may be just the trick to reconnect with Chandra...

While Hawkins foolishly agrees to the experimental surgery that'll grant him a physical (albiet mechanical) body, we get a meandering slice-of-life portrait of this post-apocalyptic world. Chandra tries to avoid being raped by a gang of thugs, and is saved on multiple occasions by Hawkins, Sebastian, and the Protectors. Sebastian does cyber-drugs and gambles with a tweaker punk in a shady hole-in-the-wall bar. Everyone smokes cigarettes all the time. Can I just say that despite the low budget, the crappy effects, and the mythology that feels at best only marginally fleshed out, I really appreciate what this movie is trying to do? How often do we get a sci-fi action movie that even pays attention to its characters, let alone tries to establish backstories and motivation for them? I know most of this is undermined by the sub-par acting, but I'm impressed at how hard this movie TRIES.

The future is bleak. And shot primarily through yellow and blue filters.
In an ironic twist in the last act, robo-Hawkins discovers that Chandra is the last remaining Omega. By undergoing a procedure that he thinks will make him more physically appealing to Chandra, he's become a machine that's programmed to hunt her down and kill her. This leads to a bizarre mood-killing scene where he almost rescues her from the pack of aforementioned rapists (again), but is stalled when the sight of her triggers a search of his memory banks with the string "FUCK ME HAWKINS." He ends up reliving digital memories of the one time they had sex and ignores her while she's being attacked. Thankfully, Sebastian is there with his trusty bow and arrow to save the day. (He'll grow up to be a great Protector someday.) Hawkins and Chandra converge toward an inevitable showdown in a  an ending that swings back toward action movie territory, but with an added layer of tragedy that's not typically present.

I'll admit it. Prototype X29A was a bit of a surprise. I expected a sci-fi / action cheese-fest with people shooting robots and robots shooting people, nothing more. What I got instead was a character-driven drama set punctuated with a few fight scenes. Normally I'd be completely behind this change in the formula, but this movie aims for something that is way out of its league. The scenery-chewing and bad writing sabotage it at every turn. Despite all the flaws, it sort of reminded me of a cyberpunk sequel to Threads in its commitment to showing just how terrible life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would be. Is it crazy that I sort of like this movie? I have this wish to see it succeed against all odds, like it's that kid on the little league team who shows up to every game and practice giving it 110%, but still drops fly balls and can never quite eke out a hit.

Wait, that was me. This explains a lot.

For these It Came From the Thrift Store posts, I'm bringing back my The Good/The Bad/...The Hell? summaries, to give those who don't want to read me rambling about movies like this for longer than I should a quicker way to get the point.

The Good:

An unconventional charater-driven plot.

Awesome retro computer graphics.

The Bad:

A disappointing lack of lasers. Once again, cover art proves to be a lie.

The heavy focus on drama in the middle portion is interesting, but not riveting. I may or may not have fallen asleep at about the 2/3 mark. (My failing, not the film's - I know.)

...the Hell?

How are cigarettes still so readily available after the apocalypse?

I'm pretty sure a punk suggests sharing a used condom with his friend in one scene. Excuse me while I go throw up everything I've ever eaten in my life.



If you're a fan of 90's sci-fi trash, you might find something to like here, provided you can get past the idea that it's not an action-oriented film. After the opening scene, just abandon all hope of seeing a killer robot blowing things up with a gun. This movie is strangely ubiquitous, so if you have access to a streaming service, it's probably available.

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