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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Eyeborgs (Blu-ray)
Eyeborgs (Blu-ray)
Image // Unrated // July 6, 2010 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 24, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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"I just wanted to catch the bastard who killed my wife and took my son."
"I know...and you got the eyeborgs instead."


You had me at "eyeborgs".

It's
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just the way I'm wired, I guess. If I hear that there's a movie floating around called Eyeborgs, that's it: I'm kind of honor-bound to watch it. I'll admit that I grabbed this Blu-ray disc expecting some sort of schlocky campfest with a cartoonishly over-the-top sense of humor and bargain basement CGI...something ripped out straight of the SyFy Original Movie playbook like Mansquito or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. Instead, I was rewarded with a smart, ambitious, and fiercely independent slice of science fiction.

If you thought having to toss your shoes in a plastic bin at the airport was intrusive...well, the future doesn't get all that much sunnier. Think Big Brother meets Harry Caul. At some point in the not-too-distant future, government computers lord over every form of electronic communication in search of terrorist threats. Every security camera from one end of the country to the other has been networked together. Those cameras are perched seemingly everywhere, but on the off-chance you think you've found a way to duck out of view...think again. Among the many highlights of the Freedom of Observation Act are roving surveillance cameras. Yup, some are miniature bipedal cameras that waddle around like webcams with legs. Others skitter around like insects, crawling up walls and scanning the faces of everyone in sight. Oh, but don't sweat it. Use of these machines is tightly controlled. We've gotta be vigilant, after all, and what's a little lack of privacy compared to being blown to holy hell by a couple pounds of C4? What do you have to hide anyway? Anyway, they're just cameras at the end of the day, so how much damage can they really do?

Turns out...? Kind of a lot. Wouldn't be much of a science fiction action flick otherwise.

Eyeborgs isn't set in the far-flung future, so unlike a lot of movies with somewhat similar themes -- where science has advanced to the point where it might as well be sorcery -- its world is one that we could conceivably see in our lifetimes. It's more relatable...less of a fantasy...and especially considering how timely so much of the film's political commentary is, Eyeborgs' themes resonate more deeply in this kind of heightened reality. Some of the smaller touches help flesh it out too. With however many hundreds of thousands of cameras there are constantly beaming video around, it follows that the imagery being captured isn't at some staggeringly high resolution and that the feeds will sometimes be pixelated and jittery. The pipe's only so large, after all. Computer monitors are touchscreens but play more like an oversized iPhone than those incomprehensible walls of
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light in Minority Report. The concept of a world where people are more likely to trust their hardware than to trust each other certainly doesn't seem all that far removed from ours.

...but hey! Why am I still yammering on about themes and metaphors when I could be talking about eyeborgs? Even though the movie was shot for just a few million dollars in North Carolina, Eyeborgs is startlingly ambitious, and one of its greatest strengths is the design of these robots. The effects team isn't just mashing copy-and-paste over and over again; there are quite a number of different machines on display here, and that sort of variety infuses Eyeborgs with a lot of energy. There are the waddling webcams I mentioned a paragraph or two up, roving tanks, skittering crabs, spider-like behemoths, and even a couple of almost humanoid engines of destruction. An enormous amount of thought has clearly been invested into shaping how these machines function and move. The modeling is impressively intricate -- the design and execution ranks up there with sci-fi blockbusters with many, many times Eyeborgs' sticker price -- and they're animated remarkably well too. A handful of these eyeborgs take their cues from insects and crustaceans, and their movements do make them seem almost alive. Even in sequences when the action dial isn't cranked up, the way the VFX artists have the machines watching...evaluating...almost judging...is unsettling, and Eyeborgs wouldn't have been nearly as effective without it. The movie doesn't pull back on the reins either. Even with its very modest budget, pretty much every last sequence in the movie has at least one of these 'bots in it...and almost always prominently and repeatedly. The tally mentioned in the extras is in the neighborhood of 700 visual effects shots, and I can believe it.

Because the eyeborgs score so much screentime, the pace never really has a chance to drag...something is always happening. I mean, this is a movie that doesn't want to just have two characters sitting in a gray office somewhere lobbing out exposition, so when it comes time for the infodump, Eyeborgs puts them in a car wash where a small army of nubile twentysomethings are writhing around and doing the whole Joy Harmon thing. If that's how Eyeborgs approaches stretches of dialogue, try to picture what happens when the action kicks in. The machines rack up a pretty hefty body count, and they start wreaking havoc really early on too. Sometimes they'll exploit the well-documented weaknesses of their victims to make it look like suicide, sometimes they'll frame things to come across as a grisly but not-exactly-undeserved accident, and sometimes their processors'll whir, click, and come up with "screw it": buzzsaws, oversized power drills, flamethrowers, and artillery that's about as heavy as they come. Eyeborgs doesn't hesitate to slather the screen with the red stuff, and some of the kills are as brutal and gory as anything you'll catch in a slasher flick. Despite shooting so far outside the usual movie hotbeds, the production clearly didn't run into any trouble assembling a first-rate stunt team in North Carolina, and Eyeborgs dishes out one poor bastard completely engulfed in flames, another being skewered after a seven story plummet, some practical pyrotechnics mixed in with the CGI...its emphasis on
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stuntwork is nearly as ambitious as the visual effects work. Director Richard Clabaugh wants you to see it all too, and the action isn't obscured by chaotic quick-cutting or gimmicky camerawork. He and cinematographer Kenneth Wilson keep the movie visually interesting but ensure that the focus is placed where it ought to be.

There is a clearly defined political message, sure, but that doesn't mean that the movie takes itself overly seriously. Remember: the flick's called Eyeborgs; how stone-faced serious do you think it's gonna get? The screenplay does a pretty good job of leaning more towards satire than outright camp, poking fun of everything from the six o'clock news to overzealous smoking regulations. Even when Eyeborgs does start to get a little ridiculous, the movie pulls it off in a pretty terrific way. Danny Trejo whacking little terrorbots with a cane and shouting "binary bastards"...? Works for me, at least. There are a couple of moments when I wasn't really sure if Eyeborgs was aiming for camp or not, like a bug-eyed spit take right before one poor bastard was charbroiled, but I'll give the movie the benefit of the doubt there.

I know I've been kind of over-the-moon-and-then-some about Eyeborgs up to this point, and there really is a lot to like: a razor-sharp visual eye, startlingly ambitious effects work, unrelenting action, a great sense of humor, and a script that's frequently very smart. I figured I might as well do the whole glass-half-full thing and start off positive, and I guess this is about the time when I dive headfirst into the downside. The cast is kind of a mixed bag for sure. Eyeborgs' greatest find is Luke Eberl. Sure, his character Jarett has purple hair and pounds away at a guitar in a punk band, but thrust in the middle of this conspiracy, he's the ultimately the heart of the movie too. Eberl is handed the film's most expansive emotional arc, and everything he's asked to field -- overwhelming pain, awkwardness, a smirking sense of humor -- he pulls off flawlessly. He's an enormous talent and a name to remember for sure.

Considering that this is a movie set in North Carolina, it's understandable that Adrian Paul would chuck his charming English accent out the driver's side window, but I couldn't figure out who his arch-nemesis really was in this movie: the eyeborgs or whatever ambiguous accent it is that he's settled on. I couldn't quite figure out what kind of accent he's going for, exactly, but it has an English-as-a-second-language stiffness to it with which Paul never feels entirely comfortable. Paul struggles delivering some of his dialogue convincingly, and I'm surprised that a guy who starred in Highlander for so many years would have a rough time with the fight choreography. There's a fist fight early on where you can almost picture Paul counting the beats in his head...it's not bungled or anything but doesn't feel smooth or natural. The broad strokes of Paul's character seem a little uninspired, especially since it's only been a couple of weeks since I last gave Minority Report a spin. Gunner is a grieving father who lost his wife and son to crime, sparking a fury that led to the institution of an oppressive, bleeding-edge surveillance system that soon sets its
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sights on him. At least Eyeborgs doesn't get too caught up in his backstory..."the hero type" covers it all well enough.

The intrepid reporter in search of the truth sounds like another familiar genre trope, but Eyeborgs puts at least some effort into doing something else with the character. In any other movie, Barbara would be some twentysomething centerfold in an absurdly tight skirt, there to nudge the plot along, fall in love with the hero, and probably get captured at some point. Eyeborgs plays it better than that, casting Megan Blake in the part. She's the sort of believably pretty, nearing-middle-age woman you'd be likely to see doing remotes on the evening news in the here and now -- precisely what Barbara's gig is in Eyeborgs -- and there's no clunky romance shoehorned in here at all. Though Gunner's background may be kind of inconsequential -- you could dream up a different story for him without changing much of anything -- Barbara's does add some additional color to this world...one of the few reporters of her generation to continue marching on in this dystopian future. At times, Blake settles into the role marvelously, such as when she's explaining how her colleagues responded to the government's stranglehold on the press and why she refuses to relent. Of the main cast members, though, she has the shakiest grasp on the dialogue and is the most prone to sounding like she's acting. It was enough to take me out of the movie several times, and that's not really a check in the Win column.

Eyeborgs' screenplay is teeming with great ideas, and I've rattled off a few of them already. It's careful never to bludgeon viewers over the head when it's setting something up that'll come into play later, and it doesn't get too heavy-handed with the political commentary. Eyeborgs gets that it's an action movie at the end of the day and doesn't get mired in endless reams of dialogue or clunky jargon either...it's smart and nimble. I also have to give the movie credit for resisting the urge to throw in some moustache-twirling villain with a long, rambling monologue at the tail-end of the third act. It doesn't take the easy way out, especially once the finalé rolls around. There are certain lines of dialogue that creak along, though, and even with as much care went into establishing the machines'...well, machinations, the logistics of one key plot twist still wind up being kind of a hard sell.

The scale and scope of Eyeborgs' visual effects work is staggering by any standard, but that's especially true for a movie shot on such a low budget. Again, there are somewhere around 700 visual effects shots throughout the film along with a legion of different types of machines. The skill and craftsmanship behind the effects is deeply impressive, from the animation to mass...to the weight...that each machine clearly has to it. It's mentioned in the extras that different 'bots were fielded by different groups, and this does come across somewhat on-screen. The walking webcams -- some of the earliest models we see -- in particular really do seem to
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inhabit this world. Other machines don't gel with their surroundings quite as well. There are some shots with the Reaper-bots near the end that are disappointingly sloppy, especially considering how accomplished so much of the other effects work is by comparison.

There's absolutely a part of me that's kind of floored that I've written this much about a movie called Eyeborgs, and even if this review wound up being a lot more than any sane person would want to trudge through, the fact that I think it warrants this sort of discussion kind of says it all. This is a movie that doesn't settle for what's expected out of a low-budget genre piece. It's smart, sharply plotted, endlessly ambitious, intentionally funny, overflowing with action, and a ridiculous amount of fun. Plenty of other sci-fi flicks in its class can point to a couple of those, but very few have managed to pull off all of that, especially with the degree of skill and talent on display here. Eyeborgs absolutely has its flaws, and some of the acting in particular may be tough for some to look past. Me, though...? There's so much more worth appreciating throughout Eyeborgs than there is to grouse about, and for those of us who like our sci-fi with plenty of action and a splash of humor, this is a movie that's well-worth discovering on Blu-ray. Oh, and snicker at the title if you want, but it got your attention, didn't it? Recommended.


Video
Eyeborgs can be somewhat uneven but generally looks reasonably strong in high definition. The presentation is at its most impressive when the camera's closed in tightly, revealing an enormous amount of texture and detail. More expansive shots are fine but unremarkable...immediately recognizable as high-def and not at all disappointing, but they're not exactly something you'd grab off the shelf to show off your shiny new TV either. It's somewhat softer overall than usual, yes, but I really don't think the screenshots scattered around this review reflect how good Eyeborgs looks when splashed across my 60" Kuro, so please don't let those throw you off.

It's a pleasant but
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unexpected surprise that this effects-heavy indie was lensed on 35mm rather than some flavor of digital video. The film stock struggles under lower light, especially in wider night exteriors. Contrast winds up looking a lot blander in these moments, and the depth and dimensionality visible throughout so much of the movie flatten out almost completely. Eyeborgs has a deliberately gritty look to it, but the weight of the film grain spikes dramatically when the lights are dialed down, and this can be kind of jarring. As is frequently the case with movies with this sort of modest price tag, a handful of shots are noticeably softer than the rest. I'm sure all of this dates back to the original photography and shouldn't be considered flaws specific to this Blu-ray disc.

I wasn't distracted by any edge haloes, artifacts from overzealous noise reduction, or hiccups in the compression, so this generally looks to be a faithful presentation. The image does seem somewhat unstable in a few moments -- there's a shot of the regional Department of Homeland Security office just before the half hour mark that seemed to vibrate rather violently, for instance -- but upon closer inspection, it looks to be overactive film grain...perhaps excerbated by the visual effects crew shaping their CG work to match the grainy visuals. A few tiny specks pop up from time to time, but they're hardly even worth a mention. Its palette also appears to be accurately reproduced on Blu-ray. Colors are generally restrained while veering away from the skip-bleach look or blueish-green tint that have a frustrating tendency to creep into sci-fi anymore. Certain hues still leap off the screen, particularly Barbara's wardrobe of bright shirts and sweaters as well as Jarret's Kool-Aid purple dye job.

This isn't some sort of reference-quality home theater showcase, no, but this Blu-ray disc boasts a more than respectable presentation and should prove to be well-worth the slight premium over the DVD release. Eyeborgs is served up on a single layer platter. The visuals have been encoded with AVC and are letterboxed to preserve the film's original aspect ratio of 2.39:1.


Audio
Eyeborgs is further bolstered by a very effective DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. From word one, there's never any question that this is a movie expressly designed with six-channel sound in mind. The surrounds are
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almost unrelentingly active. Frequently it's to build a sense of atmosphere: radio chatter, a crying baby and ringing police sirens as Barbara and her cameraman skulk around a dingy apartment, whirring helicopter blades...that sort of thing. It kind of goes without saying that the sound design is at its most aggressive when the eyeborgs are on the attack. Even in the early stretches of the movie when the robots are first being established, the multichannel mix helps convey a sense of unease with the sounds of the 'borgs skittering from one speaker to the next. When they drop the charade and all hell breaks loose...well, that's something else entirely. Sprays of gunfire scream from channel to channel, and the stomping of certain models of eyeborg are reinforced with a thick, meaty thud. There's enough attention to fleshing out a sense of directionality that the mix properly places the sound of a pistol as it tumbles down a flight of stairs.

Some moments aren't as full-bodied as I would've liked, though; the score sounds like more of a dull roar as a van careens out of control, for one. Eyeborgs' dialogue also often sounds as if it's dialed just a touch too low in the mix. With one exception, the casts' lines are consistently discernable, but they would've felt more comfortable if dialed up just another couple of ticks. Right before one character's send-off, he rattles off a quick joke. Because of the other effects overwhelming the dialogue, I caught the punchline but not the setup, so that means I kinda missed the entire point of the gag.

Overall, though, the soundtrack is a strong effort and certainly complements the scope and ambition of the film. Eyeborgs also scores some bonus points for including Bad Religion on the soundtrack, even if it is "21st Century Digital Boy". There aren't any dubs or alternate mixes this time around, although subtitle streams are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.


Extras
  • Behind the Scenes (33 min.; HD): There may not be all that
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    many bulletpoints under the "Special Features" heading, but that's because five different extras are grouped together for the 'Behind the Scenes' section, running just over a half-hour in total. None of this is the usual stale promotional filler either.

    "Making Eyeborgs" is, as you could probably guess from the title, more of a general overview of production. It focuses not just on the nuts and bolts of getting an independent science-fiction film off the ground -- though there's certainly plenty of that too -- but the philosophy of its approach...of drawing from the largely untapped well of talent throughout North Carolina. This first making-of featurette focuses on casting, rehearsals, cinematography, an emphasis on plot and characterization over body count, and the headaches of acting, directing a play, and producing simultaneously.

    Another featurette aims its cameras at Eyeborgs' extensive stuntwork, taking advantage of every trick in its stuntmens' playbook, delving further in-depth into the execution than I'm generally used to seeing, and noting the upsides of casting a seasoned stuntman in a prominent acting role. We also hear about the boot camp the cast and stuntmen were put through to make the DHS raids look as realistic as possible.

    There are two visual effects clips too. One is kind of goofy and hypercaffeinated, with the folks at Out of Our Minds Animation tearing through the process of creating an eyeborg -- conceptual sketches, modeling, rigging, texturing, and animation -- in three minutes flat. Okay, they might've sped that one up a little. A lengthier VFX featurette explores the challenges of bringing these machines to life, particularly for a team used to working in an entirely different style. Along with this lengthy look at different render passes and the robot designs, the featurette also touches on how the film's crew tried to accommodate for these 700 or so effects shots during production...how that impacted the cinematography and editing in particular.

    Last up is a three minute blooper reel, and the highlight there is a couple different takes on some poor schlub getting his arm ripped off. Although all of the interviews and excerpts from the film are in high definition, the short snippets of behind-the-scenes footage are very low resolution.

  • Deleted Scenes (10 min.; HD): Most of the footage in this reel extends sequences already in the film, with the overwhelming majority of them further expanding Barbara's investigation. One of the only completely new scenes follows Barbara as
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    she's introduced to her robotic cameraman -- complete with an inspired acronym for a name -- and gives it a proper test run. The bulk of this footage was wisely snipped out of the final cut; the intro to Barbara's cyber-camera is long and unnecessary, and the orgasmic cigarette smoking extensions elsewhere are overly talky. The one change I do miss is a longer spin on the terrorist interrogation...there's some clever dialogue that gives some heft to Eyeborgs' driving metaphor and to Gunner's gradual change of heart. It's still appreciated that all of this footage has been included, of course, especially in high definition. (The robo-cam sequence has a smirkingly ridiculous placeholder where the finished VFX would go, but it's still in high-def.)

    Like the behind the scenes material, these scenes can be viewed individually or played consecutively.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): A standard definition trailer rounds out the extras.

The Final Word
Though some rough edges certainly remain, I'm overall very impressed by Eyeborgs. It's every bit as infectiously fun and overflowing with robot shootouts as you'd expect out of a sci-fi flick with this sort of title, but there's a clear intelligence and respect for the genre propelling it along too. There are certain expectations for what a low-budget science fiction movie has to be; Eyeborgs cherry-picks the best of those and is disinterested in settling for the rest. Its scale and ambition far exceed what ought to be possible for a film shot for just a few million dollars, but this movie proves that with the right talent, the proper craftsmanship, and enough passion, just about anything is possible. Recommended.


Oh, and Sometimes Visual Effects Professionals Need Spell-check Too
Maybe "Tempe" or "Scottsdale" would've been easier to spell.
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