You know what best symbolises an apocalypse? Fire. Ideally with a dash of brimstone. Spurting from the ground for no discernible reason, springing from pockets with an obscure source, burning continuously in small, well-ventilated areas. Fire is the marker of apocalypse, scorched earth, cleansing.
Fire is also probably why Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn), the villain of the piece, wears sunglasses all the time – it’s both practical and terrifying. A nuclear desert, Cyborg’s world is an apocalyptic dystopia par excellence, an achingly realistic portent of global things to come and Californian things that were.
First there was the collapse of civilization: anarchy, genocide, starvation. Then when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, we got the plague. The Living Death, quickly closing its fist over the entire planet. Then we heard the rumors: that the last scientists were working on a cure that would end the plague and restore the world.
Restore it? Why? I like the death! I like the misery! I like this world!
– Fender Tremolo
In this world exists Gibson Rickenbacker. Inhabited by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rickenbacker is a man of vengeance, fleeing the blaze’s origin yet seeking he who fans it. As broken and pitiful as the modern world, Rickenbacker trudges through this wasteland bloodied, alone, and invariably shirtless. Pushed beyond breaking point like the earth itself, Gibson is a man out for revenge. And though his motivations are gradually revealed through flashback over the course of a brisk 82 minute runtime, we’re never really sure how much we know him, this man named after a guitar.
What we do know is that Gibson is stalking Fender and his crew, made up of Mad Max 2 style oiks with names like Tytus and Brick Bardo. Fender is stalking Pearl Prophet and Marshall Strat, the former a cyborg with a cure for the global plague stored in her head, the latter her bodyguard. It’s not long until Fender finds his quarry though, with Strat sacrificing himself to allow Prophet to flee. “Go to hell!” spits the imminent corpse of Strat. By way of response? A pause, a smirk, a statement that says it all: “Been there”. Within ten minutes, so have we.
Looking like a dreadlocked Hemsworth brother (we’ll call him Bret Hemsworth), Tremolo is pure evil. A slightly inhuman skull that phrenologists the world over could have a field day with, he towers above everyone on screen, lean and animalistic. Clad in chain mail, a remnant of a barbarous world, he’s only too willing to strip off and reveal a poised, cobra-like stance. How fitting that he should have assumed the form of an animal so long part and parcel of global fauna, this man named after a guitar.
Fender and fraternity set off with the cyborg in tow, Gibson in pursuit, on the way to the last bastion of science, Atlanta. As far as saviour cities go it’s a faintly amusing choice, one that sounds just a little like another doomed civilisation. On the way they’ll trek, sail and pillage; at one point we see a signpost, a fork in the road: to the left, Wasteland; to the right, Temptation; straight ahead, Charleston. Cyborg is neither a subtle nor a particularly balanced picture.
However, where more recent releases might focus on the breakdown of humanity or the global reaction to catastrophe, Cyborg is content to keep us grounded. Van Damme is the hero, whether he likes it or not, and Bret Hemsworth the villain. Accordingly, questions that might seem so natural – how did another continent fare? how did another city fare? how did that place down the road fare? – don’t matter. Even the cure seems inconsequential to survival.
JCVD gets too little credit for his acting. Here is a man who can stare into the middle distance for the entirety of a film’s duration, even when his eyes are closed; in Cyborg it all makes sense. Why would you focus on anything out here? Just as soon as something catches your eye it could be strung up, burnt down, tossed aside. So, when propositioned by a sometime companion, Gibson looks past the woman in front of him and covers her up. What innocence is left seemingly resides with him alone – this is the cure for “humanity”.
Ultimately Cyborg suffers from a fairly inadequate synth soundtrack and the inability of director Albert Pyun to keep the camera still during shots of bleak but beautiful wasteland. However, there remains a simple, brutalistic savagery to Cyborg, one of Van Damme’s finer efforts that still manages to find time enough to feature half a dozen roundhouse kicks and his signature splits. For all its bleakness though, Pyun never lets up on the colour. Perhaps it’s a mark of the decade in which it was made, but Cyborg‘s palette is totally rad to the max. Maybe that’s why Tremolo needs those sunglasses?