Crash and Burn (1990) Crash and Burn / Robot Jox 2: Crash and Burn (1990) -**˝

     Back in the 90’s, there was a movie that I always used to get confused with Hardware— some cheap, strange, post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing involving a killer robot. I could never remember what that other movie actually was, though, so I couldn’t make any serious effort to track it down, and thereby disentangle it from Hardware in my own head once and for all. Well, it took me a hell of a long time, but I finally stumbled by accident upon the film that I didn’t know how to look for on purpose. Turns out it was Crash and Burn, one of the first products of Full Moon Entertainment, the direct-to-video label that the indefatigable Charles Band launched after his Empire Pictures studio collapsed into bankruptcy in 1989. It’s by no means a good film, and it makes inexcusably little use of its most memorable feature (a nifty giant robot animated by Dave Allen), but it represents a commendable effort to do something unexpected with its dystopian future setting at a time when all the expected applications of it were well and truly played out.

     For one thing, Crash and Burn is unusual in that its dystopia is not directly the result of its apocalypse. Earth in the year 2030 is a marginally habitable hellhole because humanity never got a handle on the decay of the ozone layer, leaving ever-increasing areas of the globe to bake in the sun’s unfiltered ultraviolet radiation. However, the corporate tyranny of Unicom arose in response to a worldwide economic catastrophe brought on by exactly the kind of automated high-frequency trading in stocks and financial instruments that would cause a more manageable real-world market crash in 2010. Because the instruments being irresponsibly flash-traded by unsupervised computers involved the sovereign debt of nations all over the world, their governments found themselves being literally acquired as collateral by the private corporations that wound up holding their now-worthless bonds. It’s never quite clear whether Unicom originated as a consolidated holding company to manage that strange new class of assets, or whether it was just the firm that took possession of the United States of America when the dust settled. In any case, the leaders of the new regime knew a good populist angle when they saw one, so they promptly banned the private use of computers— which, after all, had been the proximate culprits in the destruction of the global economy. Unicom banned robots, too (which had attained a high enough level of sophistication to be used successfully even as prostitutes!), although the details on that front are left fuzzy enough that the only thing we can be really sure of is that screenwriter J.S. Cardone (whom we last saw penning the early-80’s slasher oddity, The Slayer) read Dune and remembered the Butlerian Jihad. As usual, though, Unicom’s mastery over the ruined Earth (or the ruined USA, as the case may be) is not unchallenged. Again the details are vague, but a resistance movement calling itself the Independent Liberty Union has been giving the company an increasingly hard time, evidently striking from hideouts in territories that Unicom had written off as no longer habitable.

     Mind you, most Unicom employees have no ideological commitments to the corporation, and work for it simply because the pay is good, and because they have to make a living somehow. One such man is Tyson Keen (Paul Ganus, from Monolith and Drive Thru), who serves Unicom as a lowly motorcycle courier. One day, Keen finds himself ferrying six liters of vital freon to what used to be a power plant, but is now an audiovisual broadcasting station on the edge of a vast, trackless wasteland. The boss there is one Lathan Hooks (Ralph Waite, of Time Quest and Hot Summer Week). He runs the place with the help of his teenaged tech-genius granddaughter, Arren (Megan Ward, from Arcade and Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth), and a jack-of-all-trades called Quinn (Bill Moseley, of Osa and Halloween), and also appears on-air daily as a news anchor. Hooks would like to be able to devote his whole broadcast schedule to keeping the populace within range of his transmitter educated and informed— he even hosts the closest thing to a school that exists in these parts, allowing a teacher named Patrice (Eva LaRue, from Body of Influence and The Barbarians) to use one of his studios for her interactive lectures to the local children— but because that kind of thing has never paid the bills, Lathan must also air shit like “The Winston Wicket Show,” in which the eponymous blowhard (Jack McGee, of I’m Dangerous Tonight and The Hidden) rants angrily at his salacious guests like a pathetic amalgam of Geraldo Rivera, Howard Stern, and Morton Downey Jr. At first, Hooks assumes that Keen has been sent to him as a spy, which might seem on the surface like an overreaction. But because the broadcaster is also an ILU sympathizer, and because Arren is not merely operating an illegal computer, but using it in an attempt to resurrect the gigantic DV-8 mining mech in the junkyard behind the station, he has good reason to be a bit paranoid.

     Among the hazards of life on the edge of a giant, UV-irradiated desert is a weather phenomenon known as the thermal squall. This is yet another area in which the details are never explained, but the upshot is that it’s fatally unsafe for humans to be out in one. Consequently, Tyson ends up spending the night with Hooks and his entourage when a thermal squall blows in from the deep desert, instead of just biking home once he’s handed over the freon. Winston Wicket gets stranded at the station, too, along with Sandra (Puppet Master II’s Elizabeth Maclellan) and Christie (Katherine Armstrong, from Silk Degrees and The Arrival), the two porn actresses whom he interviewed on his show that afternoon. Wicket, wealthy enough by post-apocalyptic standards to get the distinction between porn star and prostitute blurred on his behalf, figures he’ll have a pretty good time tonight. Keen could, too, if he plays his cards right, since Arren and Patrice alike are visibly into him.

     In fact, though, everybody at the station will be spending most of the hours before dawn fighting for their lives. That’s because Hooks was right to suspect Unicom of keeping tabs on him— he just pegged the wrong guy as the eyes and ears of the corporation. Quinn is secretly a synthoid— a robot outwardly indistinguishable from a natural human— and he’s been carefully monitoring his nominal boss at the behest of his real ones ever since he came to work at the plant. He knows all about Lathan’s subversive activities and revolutionary allegiances, and consequently Unicom knows all about them, too. Tonight, the agents pulling Quinn’s strings will set in motion their plan to eliminate the increasingly troublesome old man and his granddaughter. They transmit something called a crash-and-burn virus to Arren’s own contraband computer, which in turn downloads it into whatever Quinn has in place of a brain. The virus, in turn, deletes all the Asimovian failsafes from the robot’s programming, enabling him to do whatever harm to a human his masters might desire. There’s one slight complication in the works, however. Synthoids aren’t like that huge old mining droid in the junkyard. They’re fully autonomous and the next best thing to sapient, capable of forming their own desires and making their own decisions. So when that crash-and-burn virus knocks out Quinn’s “thou shallt not kill” subroutines, it’s apt to have considerably broader consequences than the people who sent it intended. Not that they give much of a shit about that, of course…

     Crash and Burn reminds me rather a lot of The Blood of Heroes. It isn’t anywhere near that good, mind you, but it wanders comparably far from the usual business of its nominal subgenre, while similarly placing greater emphasis on exploring the implications of the setting for its characters’ daily lives than on moving the plot from Point A to Point B. Indeed, there are a couple characters— the proprietor of a general store (John Davis Chandler, from Carnosaur 2 and Jaws of Death) and his halfwit sidekick (Kristopher Logan, of Blood Dolls and Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge)— whose sole purpose in the film is to convey exactly how and how badly this future sucks. They do it without a single word of conventional exposition, too, which is something that I always admire. People who watch movies as much for their vibe as for their action or ideas are therefore likely to get more out of Crash and Burn than the rest of us, and although that’s not normally my thing at all, I do appreciate the sheer peculiarity of a movie like this one even attempting to appeal to that crowd. I’m doubly impressed to see Charles Band, of all people, working that register in a film that he directed himself, even if he does mishandle the pacing a bit.

     What surprised me most, though, was the specific kind of plot that Crash and Burn settled into once it was finished vibing at me: it became, to the best of my memory, the only post-apocalyptic slasher movie I’ve ever seen! Perhaps I should have intuited that simply from the presence of Bill Moseley, but I genuinely didn’t see it coming. We really are talking about a note-for-note transposition of the Spam in a Cabin formula, too— or at least the version of it that was current at the turn of the 90’s, which allowed for Final Boys as well as Final Girls, and occasionally permitted either to retain one opposite-sex ally going into the endgame. Hooks’s broadcasting station provides the isolated locale; the thermal squall serves to trap everybody there overnight, oblivious at first to the predator in their midst; and once Quinn starts killing, he winnows the cast one by one instead of taking out as many of them as he can in a series of frontal assaults like a Terminator would. The only important difference is that Freddy Krueger and Jason Voohees were never fool enough to go up against anyone with a 30-foot uranium-mining robot at their disposal.

     I do wish, though, that Charles Band and J.S. Cardone had given us a better post-apocalyptic slasher movie. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t get on with Bill Moseley, and his performance here as the increasingly unhinged android assassin is as good an illustration of why as any. Although Moseley is less oafishly broad here than usual, that still leaves him much closer to Russell Crowe in Virtuosity than to Yul Brynner in Westworld. A little bit of Jack McGee’s Winston Wicket goes an even longer way, and Crash and Burn sticks the audience with more of him than anyone could possibly stand. Most of the other characters, meanwhile, are just plain insufficiently developed— which, to be fair, is par for the course in a slasher flick. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much, had Quinn and Wicket been less irritating, and the movie less seriously in need of a counterweight to them. And speaking of counterweights, there’s something off about the balance between the parts of the stalk-and-slash phase before and after the other characters discover who the killer is, or perhaps between the ones before and after it becomes common knowledge that there is a killer. Either way, Crash and Burn finds itself struggling for a while to justify the slow, steady rate at which the victims are eliminated. But the film’s most vexing defect, so far as I’m concerned, is how little mileage it gets out of the DV-8. Granted that a Full Moon budget wouldn’t have sufficed to cover even half as much mecha action as Robot Jox had, but I really would have liked more than one scene. Even a few brief glimpses of Arren surreptitiously familiarizing herself with the machine’s systems by firing up an arm here and a head there would have done the trick, you know?

 

 

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