Tagline: Welcome to the future. Where punishment is the ultimate crime.
Director: Stuart Gordon
Writers: Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg, David Venable, Terry Curtis Fox
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Kurtwood Smith, Loryn Locklin, Clifton Collins Jr., Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Vernon Wells, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon
18 | 1hr 35min |Action, Sci-Fi
Budget: $8,000,000 (estimated)
As an action star, Christopher Lambert will always be remembered as an also-ran.
Sure, he achieved notable, short-lived fame starring alongside Sean Connery in fantasy blockbuster Highlander (1986), but other than that, how many of his 86 credited acting roles can you recall? The fact is, Lambert almost has ‘the look’ to succeed in the notoriously shallow movie industry, but there is something lacking. He has a hint of the Steven Seagal about him, a touch of the Mel Gibson. He is like a Frankenstein’s Monster of A-list actors; there are shades of something familiar and viable, but for some reason he doesn’t quite cut it.
One movie Lambert can be proud of is cult director Stuart Gordon’s hugely underappreciated sci-fi effort Fortress. The fact is, the movie’s marquee name is probably the worst thing about it, but because it works on a largely kitsch basis, he is also one of the best things about it. This is hackneyed fare to say the least, its speculative aspects so recycled they were appearing in science fiction magazines back in the 1950s, and some of the characters are so predictably one-dimensional that some of them are a line or two off qualifying for a Zucker/Abrahams spoof.
Of course, this is Stuart Gordon we’re talking about, the very same writer who brought us the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cult classic Re-Animator (1985) as well as tongue-in-cheek slasher The Dentist (1996), and it is clear from the offset that the ‘terrible’ factor is very much a part of the formula, proving central to the movie’s obscure appeal. The film also looks great in an enchantingly cheap fashion, featuring a cast of well-known B-movie stars who clearly relish in the whole cliché-ridden concept.
But this isn’t your standard rabble of low grade fodder. Gordon has a largely talented cast at his disposal, actors who are and have been capable of some rather admirable performances. Television mainstay Lincoln Kirkpatrick is essential as the prison’s wise, Morgan Freeman-esque con, while Robocop‘s Kurtwood Smith steals the show as amoral prison director, Poe. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s Tom Towles and 80s action stalwart Vernon Welles also add some prestige to proceedings as a pair of oppressive bullies who see the wisdom of our hero’s cod philosophies and decide to acquiesce for the greater good. Oh, and Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs puts in a typically bizarre and frenetic performance as an almost unrecognisable tech geek.
The plot is standard dystopian fare, as a totalitarian corporation named MEN-TEL rules with a draconian fist. Procreation is illegal in an overpopulated society where people are bar-coded like cattle, and the punishment for pregnancy is life in a privately owned, maximum security prison, where inmates are kept in line via intestinators, an ingested device that will blow the guts out of anyone who steps out of line. The device can also impose physical torture for lesser misdemeanours, and at MEN-TEL everything is a punishable offence. The corporation can even scan your cerebral cortex, punishing you for unauthorised thoughts and dreams, while an escape attempt will result in the dreaded mind-warp, a high-tech version of a full frontal lobotomy.
That is where hero Brennick (Lambert) and wife Karen (Locklin) wind up after trying to cross the border while pregnant, a plan which would have succeeded if the on-duty guard hadn’t noticed the lapel of a flack jacket which Karen was wearing in an attempt to hide the baby. The fact that this would have been the first thing he would have checked for is peripheral, as is all logic in this wonderfully contrived slice of B-grade hokum.
Every standard prison movie character you can think of can be found in this movie – the evil warden, the ‘I don’t belong here’ wimp, the cynical, ‘nobody gets out of here, pal’ cellmate – and you can’t help but appreciate the audacity of its derivative nature. It also borrows from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as an emotionless supercomputer named Z decides to override affairs, threatening to jeopardise our protagonist’s escape plan as he attempts to stop his wife from being killed by an extreme form of childbirth that will leave her dead and their baby the property of MEN-TEL.
Luckily for them, prison director Poe takes a liking to Karen and removes her from the women’s prison sector to share his isolated quarters. This means she is able to steal the prison map that will aid their escape as Brennick recovers from an unusually long visit to the mind-warp chamber. A regular person would have been left braindead from such wanton exposure, but this is Christopher Lambert we’re talking about, and judging by his banal performance in Fortress, it is safe to assume that there wasn’t much going on in there in the first place.
After Brennick gets into a fight with prison bully Maddox (Welles), he refuses to kill his opponent at the request of director Poe, who inevitably finishes the job for him, blowing a hole in his opponent’s stomach and watching as he falls hundreds of feet off a retracting bridge to his death.
Looking for a way to escape the from the highly complex MEN-TEL facility, Brennick dreams of acquiring some kind of map. Luckily for him, his wife Karen is able to smuggle a cheap looking crystal from Poe’s quarters, a holographic lens that contains the entire building plan. The only problem is, Brennick and his band of escapees require a laser to activate the device, which means they’re shit out of luck. That is until thirty seconds later when they finally realise that they can use the laser bars of their overcrowded prison cell, the same that they stare at for twenty-two hours every day.
Most Absurd Moment
After an automated MEN-TEL truck collides with the barn where a heavily pregnant Karen is resting, causing it to explode into flames, Brennick fears that his wife is dead. Luckily for them both, she was able to give birth and escape with the baby in the ten seconds it took for the truck to reach the barn. When Brennick finds her, she has even managed to cut the child’s umbilical cord and give it a nice bath. The woman is clearly harbouring superpowers.
Best Sci-Fi Gimmick
MEN-TEL’s version of ‘the hole’ is a high-tech variation of a bamboo prison in which inmates have to stand in a narrow prison made of deadly laser bars until one of the parties involved confesses. If you get tired and stumble, you’re toast.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Here is but one example of a plethora of wonderfully prosaic dialogue, as Brennick meets his cellmates for the first time:
Stiggs: Smart fish! Very smart. You know, the two of you gotta pay the rent.
Brennick: I do my own time.
Stiggs: There’s all kinds of time. Think about it: you don’t pay the rent, me and Maddox come and get it.
Brennick: [to D-Day] That you?
Stiggs: [laughs] No. Maddox is hard to miss. He’s got a 187 tattooed on his forehead. Do you know what 187 means, fish?
Brennick: Bet it’s not your IQ.
Nino Gomez: 187, murder statute. He’s doing the big biz.
Stiggs: So maybe you want to pay the rent after all.
A film that utilises Lambert’s bland appeal to dazzling effect, Stuart Gordon’s Fortress is a low-key treat so derivative you can’t help but be charmed by it. As a dystopian allegory, the movie is as unoriginal as they come, but the execution of those ideas results in a B-grade wonder that is essential to every ‘bad movie’ collection.