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, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jeffrey Combs
18 | 1hr 35min |Action, Sci-Fi
Budget: $8,000,000 (estimated)
As an action star, Christopher Lambert will always be remembered as something 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? You could probably count them on one hand. 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, a touch of the Mel Gibson, but doesn’t quite possess that natural charisma to elevate him to the next level. 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.
For those reasons, Lambert will always be remembered as a kitsch B-movie stalwart, and you can’t fault his work ethic. After breaking into the industry as the star of Luc Besson’s slick and stylish 1985 pursuit thriller Subway, a brief fling with the Hollywood mainstream and a string of high-profile flops would eventually lead him along a much more humble path. Even 1995‘s wildy successful video game adaptation Mortal Kombat, in which Lambert was oddly yet suitably cast as spiritual warrior Raiden, was well and truly in the B-movie mode. All in all, the actor starred in an incredible 23 movies in the 90s alone, often starring in 3-4 movies a year. Regardless of his less than emphatic waltz with the mainstream, for more than a decade Lambert’s face was everywhere.
It was only inevitable then, that Lambert would one day cross paths with director Stuart Gordon, who with horror flicks such as the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cult classic Re-Animator and playful killer toy fairy tale Dolls had turned tongue-in-cheek, wholly self-aware genre filmmaking into something of an art form, and his ludicrous and cruelly underappreciated sci-fi vehicle Fortress is certainly one for Lambert to be proud of. The fact is, the movie’s marquee name is probably the worst thing about the movie, 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 elements so recycled they were appearing in science fiction magazines back in the 1950s, and some of the characters are so predictably one-dimensional they are a line or two off qualifying for a Zucker/Abrahams spoof.
Trash filmmaking has a strange appeal for many movie fans. Just as we like to analyse why movies are great, there is as much fascination in understanding why they’re not. Some films are so haphazard you wonder how they were ever made; the infamous Zombi 3, for example — a fugasi of a follow-up to Romero’s zombie series that would absolutely lose its shit under three different directors in one of the most blatant examples of the lawless canvas that was Italian horror cinema during the 1980s. Others (see Cannon’s mid-80s action catalogue) tap into our basest desires with a cavalier approach that proves hugely endearing. Fortress takes a punt at dystopian sci-fi, and it does an excellent, if wholly self-aware job of it. It’s the Stuart Gordon way.
In Fortress, the ‘terrible’ factor is very much a part of the formula. The film looks great in an enchantingly cheap, wonderfully derivative 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 wizened, 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 add 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. Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs also puts in a typically bizarre and frenetic performance as an almost unrecognisable tech geek with MacGyver level skills.
The plot is standard dystopian fare. 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, a hopeless place 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. Try escapeing and you’ll be subjected to the dreaded mind-warp, a high-tech version of a full frontal lobotomy that is too much for any man who isn’t played by Christopher Lambert.
Such an extreme vision came in the wake of rising numbers of US prisoners under the Bush and Clinton administrations, the number of nationwide inmates doubling for the second time in as many decades, as hardened laws on cheap drugs ensured that a generation were raised without fathers. Many of those prisoners were unemployed or drug-addicted and therefore useless to capitalism, and a higher number of prisoners meant free labour and higher taxes. The New York Times would infamously release an article citing cod-scientists who claimed that a lack of education in impoverished communities was not about a lack of parenting or an absence of father figures, but down to a simple matter of genetics, inferring that folks of African descent were less intelligent by nature. People saw this for what it was, a political manoeuvre designed to provide justification for the government’s actions, and the article was quickly retracted. The Western world is not quite as democratic as some would have us believe.
It is this kind of unrestrained oppression that convinces hero Brennick (Lambert) and wife Karen (Locklin) to cross the border while pregnant, a plan which would have succeeded if only the on-duty guard hadn’t noticed the lapel of a flack jacket worn by Karen in an attempt to hide the baby. The fact that this would have been the first thing he’d have checked for is peripheral, as is all logic in this exquisitely 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, an emotionless supercomputer named Z ultimately overriding affairs and 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 delightful series of scenes that expose the full extent of our lead’s lack of acting nous. 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.