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Many direct-to-video "Sci-Fi" movies cross Savant's path, some of them fresh from cable TV and others produced by independent filmmakers with a wide range of production knowledge and resources. Eyeborgs showed up with a gaudy cover and an unpromising tagline: "Nowhere to Run. Nowhere to Hide." All this led me to expect a junk production, perhaps a metallic variation on Cyclops, a gawd-awful cheapjack Roger Corman film made for the Sci-Fi channel. Reviewing that one about a year ago encouraged me to be more discriminating. But hey, Eyeborgs! I was curious to find out what the crab-like monster on the cover was all about. Back when I was eleven years old I would have stared at that movie poster for an hour, just soaking up the coolness factor.
As it turns out, Eyeborgs is a reasonably competent thriller with a story idea that exhibits more intelligence than most of its competition. In the near future, The Patriot Act has been extended and ratified to protect Americans through a vigilant, technology-assisted surveillance network. The President (Mark Joy) has pushed through legislation that allows the full deployment of ODIN, a vast network of robotic cameras called Eyeborgs. In addition to standard street-mounted surveillance cameras, ODIN's mobile Eyeborgs are seemingly everywhere. The Homeland Security Department monitors hundreds of thousands of them, watching us at all times, for our protection.
Detective Gunner Reynolds (Adrian Paul, of TV's The Highlander) begins to realize that something is amiss when he picks up hints of a plot to assassinate the President. Jarett Hewes (Luke Eberl), the President's nephew, is almost killed by Sankur, a violent radical (Dale Girard). The gunman unaccountably escapes from a high security lockup and is murdered by Eyeborg robots, which are supposed to be incapable of carrying weapons or harming people. But Gunner is confronted with video and data evidence showing that he accidentally unlocked the radical's cell; the incident is chalked up as a suicide. Young Jarett is scheduled to perform at a rally for his uncle's supporters, and takes his guitar to be repaired by G-Man (Danny Trejo), another radical convinced that the United States is being taken over by a sinister conspiracy. Gunner and Jarett find themselves uneasy allies when they trade similar stories -- surveillance cameras that record evidence that contradicts the facts, faking murders as suicides and replacing images of killer Eyeborgs with generic assailants. Gunner also finds an ally in news reporter Barbara Hawkins (Megan Blake). While rushing with evidence that somebody is faking surveillance video, Hawkins' cameraman is likewise killed by Eyeborgs that make it look as if he were driving drunk. Gunner is convinced that the President's life is in danger, but it soon becomes clear that a much bigger conspiracy is afoot.
Eyeborgs is a polished film production (Super 35) that has hundreds of effects shots, most of them quite good. Eyeborg monsters are everywhere: small hoppers that are little more than a camera ball on a pair of legs, and dog-sized crab-shaped things that have to tip themselves to one side to pass through doorways. We immediately think of RoboCop when we see "Eyeborg Vision" views annotated with data as the robots scan faces and make identifcations. Getting Eyeborgs through its rough parts are special effects good enough to make us believe in these metallic snoops. They creep silently about, recording conversations and tipping off the cops to crimes in progress. Eyeborgs are supposed to be harmless, but it soon becomes clear that they go wherever they wish without search warrants, and are armed with various kinds of weapons. The crab Eyeborgs are large enough to tackle a human; in one rather clever shot, a pint-sized robot pops out a little cigarette lighter to ignite gasoline pouring from a wrecked car.
Adrian Paul's cop already has misgivings about the coming of the Eyeborgs. When his wife and child were murdered, Gunner's emotional testimony helped get the ODIN legislation passed. Luke Eberl's Jarett Hewes is a purple-haired rock musician (cueing a performance scene or two) who wants nothing to do with his uncle, but people near him keep getting killed. A RoboCop- like TV news team chirps out the government message that all of these security measures are necessary for our protection; dialogue alludes to Gulf War 7, with the complaint that we are constantly invading some Eastern country or another that just happens to have a desirable raw resource.
Checking on the web, we see announcements that Eyeborgs was in production as early as 2005. A big push to land a distributor was made in 2007. But one of its few screening notices comes from an English Sci-Fi festival half a year ago. Unless I've missed something, this relatively lavish production's official debut will be on home video. That's a sobering thought for aspiring moviemakers; the days are long gone when an independent movie with a star name or two could depend upon a reasonable release. 1
The mid-decade production date for Eyeborgs indicates that it was produced during the George W. Bush years and was intended as a critique of Homeland Security measures, which do indeed offer plenty of opportunities for abuse. But now in 2010 the pendulum has swung the other way. The loudest crazies now scream that the Obama administration is a Socialist takeover that will enslave us with new technologies. Eyeborgs can't be taken as an abstract paranoid fantasy (remember when paranoia in the movies was fun?) because our present warped political discourse is overwhelmed with hysterical conspiracy claims. I'm sure that plenty of nuts out there right now are convinced that our "Evil" government is hard at work cooking up Eyeborg-like conspiracies.
Therefore it comes as a disappointment when (spoiler) Eyeborgs reveals that the shady killings are part of a secret scheme hatched by an Evil vice-president. Rushing to save the Commander-in-Chief, Gunner and his allies are instead trapped in a building with a group of "Mark II" Eyeborgs that resemble tanks, and carry powerful machine guns. Jarett Hewes is being scanned for replication in faked videos, as in the older Sci-Fi conspiracy thriller Looker. The show resolves in a big gun battle, a commercial necessity that takes the edge off what was shaping up as a challenging show. The conclusion (spoiler still) redeems the story somewhat by leaving things in an edgy and unresolved state. This is one show that could produce an even better sequel -- had the original been given a chance to find a major audience.
Fran and Richard Claburgh's script dishes the requisite number of clever remarks and irony-laden statements, including one real gem. Gunner's associates keep showing him file videos that contradict his account of events, adding, "I'm seeing it with my own eyes." He's wrong, of course, as somebody points out: "No you're not. You're seeing it with their eyes." That's a valid statement, and applicable to more than fantasy Eyeborgs. Every day we're bombarded with people trying to sell us a bill of goods, whether a politician or an advertiser. Whose version of the truth do we accept, and with what evidence?
It's obvious that the makers of Eyeborgs were trying for more than a cheap Sci-Fi action picture. Adrian Paul is quite good as the cop hero and Danny Trejo makes a fine impression as the smart-talking dissident guitar repairman. Luke Eberl reminds us a bit of a less goofy Dana Carvey, and does well with an unpromising character -- a punk musician estranged from his First Family relations. Megan Blake shows spirit in a role that can't be made interesting, the ambitious reporter who makes a stand for what's right. We're used to seeing medium to low grade digital animation effects in modestly budgeted movies now, but the ones here are mostly all successful. The design ideas vary in quality but the robots are convincingly inserted into all kinds of moving shots with no regard to ease of compositing. The crab monster Eyeborgs are particularly feisty when Gunner has to fight them man-to-robot. Director Richard Clabaugh shows a good graphic sense for these skirmishes. Best of all, the robots almost never look pasted in, which happens all too frequently in cheap CGI work. We often see them peeking in the background of wide shots, and we quickly accept their presence. Eyeborgs isn't a great classic Sci-Fi film but very few new pictures these days are, whether made for $5 million or $150 million. My idea of a tagline for this show would be "No Haunted House Clichés! No Stupid Kickboxing Fights!" It's good to see an ambitious independent Sci-Fi thriller that exhibits some integrity.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of Eyeborgs is a fine transfer of this fun action thriller, with a punchy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. The show comes with a number of deleted scenes and several publicity-oriented featurettes. The cast and crew leap to extol the film's virtues on a making-of piece, while the stunts and the special effects are given individual shows. In an effort to enliven a robot design featurette, the special effects supervisor acts out a skit in which his artists must design some robots in three minutes flat. It's an acceptable way to conduct a quickie tour of the development of each robot.
The movie has a very good trailer, included on the disc. A quick online Teaser can be seen here; it demonstrates how slick a production this is.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Eyeborgs Blu-ray rates:
1. Eyeborgs should be an object lesson to filmmakers -- even those with a great idea, a name cast, good direction and a superior production. Unless you possess the clout to lock a solid distribution deal, you also need to be extremely lucky. Big movies, even those with good credentials and publicity, can be sidelined for any number of reasons. A highly publicized true-3D horror movie called The Hole has been kept from a theatrical release for months because 3D is hot right now and the big players have tied up all the available theaters with "preferred" product. Only the heaviest hitters can wangle a 3D play date. That's why inferior 2 to 3 D movie conversions make it to neighborhood screens instead.
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T'was Ever Thus.