Wow! Finally! Yeeeees! When Blender Master Sam stirred up an “Ancient Future” theme week, I jumped with glee! Finally, a reason to review one of my favorite home video rentals that oft-played on HBO. It was the first movie that my analog cortex correlated to “ancient futures,” aka “future history,” if you will, when Sam published this month’s schedule. Eh, yeah, it has a some post-apoc stank on it from our last week’s “Post-Apoc Week,” but since this has a lot of pre-Matrix tech tomfoolery, we’re reviewing it this week.
As with the Sam Raimi The Evil Dead precursor Equinox (1970), and, in a sci-fi vein, John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), Circuitry Man got its start as a UCLA student film by Steven Loy and his brother, Robert. IRS Media, the home video arm of IRS Records, backed the expansion of the project into a feature-length film. The burgeoning cyberpunk effort was successful enough on the retail rental circuit that it inspired one of the earliest direct-to-video sequels (eh, still cool, but not as good), Circuitry Man II, aka Plughead Rewired: Circuitry Man II (1994), in which Vernon Wells, Jim Metzler, and Dennis Christopher return from the first film. Both films are highly recommended as a great, first time doorway into ’80s VHS-era sci-fi (but always one over two, for me). (Remember how Escape from New York always rules over Escape from L.A., and it’s always Phantasm the original over II? Yeah, it’s like that. Sometimes, we don’t want the ball to come back.)
Of course, the major studios put out the likes of the similar cyberpunk-cum-tech noirs Hardware (the very cool debut feature by South African writer-director Richard Stanley) and Total Recall (eh, Dick’s book We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is better) that same year, but neither are quite as distinctive and fun. To that end, and considering Total Recall, there’s a definite Phillip K. Dick-vibe with the Loy brothers against-the-budget post-apoc world forced, by pollution, to live in underground in parking garage-like bunker-environs. Lori (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), a female body guard, is pressed into service by a drug smuggler for a major microchip deal; when the exchange goes bad, Lori’s on the lam, aided by Danner (a really great Jim Metzler), a pleasure android (read: male prostitute). Together, they’re now “drug smugglers” of virtual reality computer chips, chased from Los Angeles to New York City and aided by a fellow fringe-denizen, Leech (an also great Dennis Christopher). Not only are they pursued by the police, but by gangsters, led by the villainous, VR narcotic-addicted Plughead (an incredible Vernon Wells . . . yes, Wez from post-apoc influencer, The Road Warrior*).
Released five years before Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’s not-so-memorable tale of black market VR smuggling with Strange Days (1995), Circuitry Man, as far as direct-to-video movies go at the height of the VHS tape market, is right up there alongside Charles Band’s Trancers in the imagination-against-the-budget sweepstakes. And the Loy brothers were smart to forgo the cheezy, low-budget computer graphics and just sticking to the noirish caper. (Ugh, remember how great Christopher Walken was, but how awful the big screen, dream-VR romp Brainstorm (1980) was for that very reason?) Another plus: the genre switching of the roles, with a woman as the noir-spiraling P.I (if you will) and making her sidekick the male “prostitute” who helps the jammed-up detective. And, as I rewatch Circuitry Man all these years later (on VHS, natch), the Windows 3.1 software is a lot of fun . . . dated, but fun to watch. At least our reluctant protagonists aren’t running around with “mission critical,” ’80s-era Kmart Kraco (or Radio Shack’s Realistic) audio cassette tapes in 1997, à la Snake Plissken. (Truth: As cool as Escape from New York always will be; the cassette tape bit still sucks; so, a major ball drop there, John. Couldn’t you make-up a some faux-techo doo-dad?)
Circuity Man is definitely — in terms of low-budget indie sci-fi’ers that began their life as student film, such as Dark Star and George Lucas’s space opera precursor, THX-1138 — required viewing and worthy of an entry in any sci-fi fan’s home video library. How, and why, Carpenter and Lucas (and Raimi) hit such career highs from such similar beginnings, but the Loy brothers dissipated into the analog snows after Circuitry Man II, is crime against cinema. I, for one, would have loved to have seen what they would have come up with courtesy of a major studio’s backing.
If you search “Circuitry Man” on You Tube, you’ll find many-a-fan favorite clips uploaded. While there’s no streams — freebie or official — online for Circuitry Man II, you can stream the original Circuitry Man at Amazon Prime and Vudu.
Be sure to look for our review of the “ancient future” of Brainstorm, this week.