Survival Research Laboratories: 10 Years of Robotic Mayhem
Music Video Distributors // R // $19.95 // May 25, 2004
Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 29, 2004
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The Movie

Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) was founded by Mark Pauline in 1978, and has been going strong ever since. SRL is committed to the art of building robots, although the actual methods are far more interesting: in essence, Mark and company make every effort to craft their robots out of things commonly used for "practical purposes", including products found in science, industry, and the military. Since its inception, SRL has staged nearly 50 presentations around the world, captivating audiences of all sizes.

The packaging for this DVD release proudly proclaims SLR's creation years before such technology-themed films as The Terminator and The Matrix (I'd also add Robocop to the list, among others), cementing its status as one of the true originals. More modern shows such as Battlebots have taken a similar concept into the mainsteam, but SLR still remains an outsider. The social satire, high level of danger, and abstract nature of the performances don't exactly equal a comfortable prime-time spot, and it's just as well. As it stands, SLR wears its infamous reputation on its sleeve, and audiences wouldn't have it any other way.

Ten Years of Robotic Mayhem celebrates the general history of Survival Research Laboratories, and this collection provides a unique look at the sinister side of mechanized creation. A collection of three short films serves as the main program (totaling roughly 70 minutes in length), and gives a nice look into the main themes and concepts behind SLR. At times, the films are graphic and disturbing (not to mention extremely dangerous), but these films are simply unlike anything you've seen before. Included here, in their entirety, are A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief, The Will to Provoke, and The Pleasures of Uninhibited Excess. Although they may seem a little pretentious and self-important (heck, just look at the titles), the sheer creativity and technical skill required to pull this stuff off is simply amazing.

This DVD compilation comes to us from Music Video Distributors, although the results are a little sketchy. It's no technical marvel, but this is still a satisfying release that is sure to please anyone interested in general destruction and chaos. In any case, let's see how this one stacks up:

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality:

Although the footage itself was quite fascinating, this one won't get by on technical quality...not by a long shot. These films (and subsequent bonus footage) are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, and look quite worn (hence the lack of screen captures). Essentially, they're on the level of a VHS transfer, and that's being very generous: colors are dull and flat, and overall image clarity and black levels are lacking. Still, I can't be too harsh on this release, as the source materials are most likely to blame. It's a very low-budget release (with the bulk of the footage shot in the early to mid-1980s), so this is probably the best we're going to get.

The audio fares slightly better, presented in its original mono (NOTE: The first film, A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief, offers an optional 5.1 Surround remix). Overall clarity is a little rough and could have benefitted from optional subtitles, but everything is easily made out for the most part. Of course, directional activity and ambience are absent on everything but A Bitter Message (making me wish the rest of the films were remastered), but this is still a passable effort in the audio department.

Menu Design & Presentation:

The overall presentation does little to hide these films' low-budget origins, and could have been tightened up a little more. While each film can be accessed separately via the "Chapter Selection" menu, these should have been presented individually with a "Play All" option instead. Additionally, the navigation (especially on some of the bonus feature sub-menus) is a little sloppy, but everything is still accounted for. The actual packaging is also a little hastily designed, resembling more of a magazine advertisement than a typical DVD cover (read: mountains of text). All things considered, it's still not a bad presentation overall.

Bonus Features:

Apart from the main feature, there's also an assortment of bonus films (described as Special Edition Documentaries): Seven Machine Performances, A Scenic Harvest from the Kingdom of Pain, Virtues of Negative Fascination, and Delusions of Expediency (approximately 40 minutes total). As an aside, these "performance pieces" appear to be excerpts from their respective full-length counterparts, but are equally fascinating nonetheless. The other main extra is an Audio Commentary which is optional for both the main program and the bonus films. Although I doubt it's a first on DVD, the participants for these tracks (SRL members Matt Heckert and Mike Dingle) were recorded simultaneously over the phone. While this would be a cheap cop-out for most other releases, the unstable audio quality and low-budget approach is strangely fitting for this compilation. Regardless of format, the participants offer a great commentary, including tons of insight and personal experiences that complement the footage well. Also included are Biographies of Mark Pauline, Matt Heckert, Eric Werner, Jon Reiss and Leslie Asako Gladsjo, rounding out a short (but sweet) spread of bonus features.

Final Thoughts

The footage included in Ten Years of Robotic Mayhem really covers a good amount of ground, making this compilation of creation and destruction a great choice for fanatics of the robot world. Although I could have done without some of the vague ideology, there's enough creativity here to ignore the films' minor faults. Even those with no interest in building the darn things may want to give this a shot, as it offers a condensed history of this unique phenomenon. Although the overall presentation is a little on the sloppy side, there's enough decent content here (and a cheap enough price) to make this release worth a look. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is a mechanized art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.

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