May 14, 2008

GUNHED (1989) - Japanese robot wars

(1989, Japan, Ganheddo)

Uh-oh – it’s an Alan Smithee film…

Great miniatures, great visuals, great sets and a video game scenario that was well ahead of its time – why is Gunhed so frustrating to watch?

I was excited by a 1992 pop video for a track called Mindphaser by Frontline Assembly (or FLA), a Canadian heavy electro band. The visuals seemed to work perfectly with the music. The band members are seen in a futuristic cockpit driving a huge robot-tank, capable of changing configuration as it rolls along. The modelwork looked intricate, but there was live action and futuristic military costumes – surely this wasn’t all built for a pop promo?

The promo director had been given the Japanese film Ganheddo to cut down for the video clip. I looked out for the original film and it arrived in the UK on VHS soon after, as Gunhed. But the music wasn’t as good in the film, and the English dub of the film was terrible. I even sold my VHS thinking I never wanted to see it again. Now on DVD, I wanted to give it a second chance, in widescreen and in the original languages.

It begins well, with a quick recap of a future war between humans and machines, then a huge dropship approaches a vast fogbound island/city, entirely defended by robots who have successfully taken over the valuable refining complex. The action kicks in straight away, as a wireframe computer animation shows the extent of the island complex, reminding me of a similar story device in the far more recent Resident Evil movie.

The ship is full of bandits prepared to fight their way in, to retrieve valuable computer chips. But once inside, mechanical booby traps hack down the raiders one by one. As the survivors struggle to avoid robot sentries both big and small, their best hope is to reconstruct their own robot in a vast graveyard of machine parts a legendary, heavily-armed Gunhed tank of their own. Some of the scenes of the actors with this tank are realised with a full-sized prop, but it’s only glimpsed in the film, and used extensively in publicity.

The film looks good for its age – though the animated electrical effects date it. The modelwork would still look good in a modern Japanese sci-fi, and is often spectacular. The complex Gunhed miniature, with lots of missile launchers and robot arms hanging off it, sometimes wobbles a bit too much as it trundles along.

But it’s the humans that really let the film down. There’s initially some fun to be had with Brooklyn the bandit (Masahiro Takashima) and a female Texas Ranger (Brenda Bakke) developing a love/hate relationship. The script then makes the mistake of splitting them up for the rest of the story. Brooklyn is then left to talk to the humourless Gunhed computer, which isn’t nearly enough of a character, considering he has so much to say.

As Gunhed rolls into action, it displays some really neat tricks, with a barrage of grappling hooks, riding up walls and spouting a variety of missiles. But during it’s debut action scene, the complete lack of music makes it a far less exciting spectacle than it should have been. Again, the same scenes in the pop promo were far more effective because of better music. The camera is so tightly framed, it's hard to see what's going on. Gunhed gets out of some really tight corners unexplained, and the robot wrestling goes on for far too long.

The story and the action get more confusing as it progresses and towards the end the editing is almost shoddy, as if everyone had given up and wanted to go home.

The director of the US version has declined to keep his name on it, hence the generic replacement Alan Smithee name. It looked avoidable too - the film seems to have been sabotaged in the editing stage. It could have been salvaged, with some clarification from the onboard computer about what the hell is going on, tighter editing and more and better music.

Gunhed stands as a huge effects showreel for a missed opportunity. almost a glimpse of what an 'Aliens vs T2' scenario might have looked like. There is a substantial budget on show, especially with the huge cyber-sets and inventive design work. Good matte paintings add to the feeling of scale. If only as much effort had been lavished on the post-production.

A DVD has finally appeared in the US, from ADV, with an English-only option (with poor dubbing filling in what little Japanese dialogue there was) as well as an original language option with subtitles. The picture is non-anamorphic widescreen, and a couple of analogue video faults indicate that it's not been digitally remastered yet. It’s a rare chance to see it, if those posters still tantalise you.

A murky copy of the Frontline Assembly video is also on YouTube at the moment, pity it’s not on the DVD.

Gunhed is not without it's admirers, especially this guy on SFF World.

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  1. Mark ... a great deal of work went into the sets, effects and styling of this movie and it's a shame to hear you essentially brush that aside "..the animated electrical effects date it.." It's a late 80's movie, and I think they put the cell painted lighting effects to very good use, certainly no worse then other Hollywood examples of the same era such as Ghostbusters, Big Trouble In Little China or The Running Man which also used them to great effect.

    Yes it's not perfect by any means, the script and editing are both a little ropey in places, but I think it's written to be cheesy, definitely a genre piece, that's part of its charm and I like it for that. In a similar way to many Toho movies there is an element of comedy and 'hammyness' to the script and characters.

    As far as I'm concerned it's perfectly good 80s cult sci-fi fodder, I like the mixture of influences and would happily watch more like it if they'd been made. These days I think a film like that would try to take itself far too seriously, you mentioned the Resident Evil franchise, which I think is a prime example. Probably better games then they are movies.

    I'm actually having trouble getting hold of a DVD copy here in the UK, if you really think Gunhed is a little crappy, please consider sending me your copy, I would certainly appreciate it and would be happy to cover the postage cost :-)

  2. Please read my review again, it's full of praise for the visual effects. Though I think I sold the DVD long ago...