July 20, 2013

Bonus Review: Cybercity, aka The Shepherd


We'll be back to our regular schedule next Saturday, but to fill the gap this week, I decided to slip in a little bonus review. Before creating and producing Starhunter, Daniel D'Or and Philip Jackson produced (and occasionally wrote and/or directed) a handful of low budget scifi films for Canadian television, many of which were distributed down here by Roger Corman's New Horizon label. Curious to see something else by these guys, I picked up the dvd of Cybercity on a whim, which, like Starhunter, was put together at Danforth Studios for The Movie Network, and was written by Nelu Ghiran, the initial head writer of the series.

In the near future, a war for control of the orbital satellite network (they're a little vague, but I believe that's what they're showing as horrible CGI satellites shoot one another) leads to apocalyptic devastation on Earth when the atmosphere is ignited and the air becomes toxic. One pocket of survivors (it's never said if they're aware of any others) is a now sprawling and brutal city deep underground. An unbreakable cloud of despair hangs over the populace, leading to a surge of organized religion. But it's scattered, leading to dozens of different churches and self-proclaimed messiahs, all of whom battle for ultimate control in violent gang wars, with no regard for the innocents mowed down amidst their exchanges of gunfire. The two biggest factions are the cult of Sophia (Marina Anderson), a dominatrix leading an army of amazonian biker women who all embrace the darker side of humanity, and the church of Miles (wrestler Roddy Piper), who's in full on Rowdy mode as a red-faced televangelist barking holier-than-thous so frequently he's come to believe his own hype.

Each of the factions have Shepherds, mercenary assassins used to weed out the leaders of smaller faiths and dispel their flocks to the big leaguers. One such Shepherd is Boris Dakota (C. Thomas Howell). Take a second to process that name. Boris. Dakota. Oh yeah, you can definitely tell this is from the writer who gave us Dante Montana. And it doesn't end there! With voice overs about how he hates his job and how "it's just something I do", we learn Dakota was a cop back in the day, with a loving wife and son. Around the time everyone was sent below ground, they were brutally murdered, sending him on a dark spiral. He now works for the military arm of Miles under the cold, pragmatic Lyndon (Mackenzie Grey), one of his old police partners. They keep him loyal by having stripped out his memories of his family, returning them piecemeal through a string of virtual reality glasses as hit payments.

So yeah, mercenary who lost his wife and son, occasionally lost in memories of them through a virtual reality headset, who's cheesily named after a state. We have here a definite archetype for what would become Dante Montana, and fans of Starhunter might be curious to check the film out for this alone. Don't. It's not worth it. We've argued about Michael Pare's level of charisma in his take on the archetype, but I'll take it any day over Howell's. While C-dog does have a much more expressive range, it goes too far to the point of camp, almost swaying like Captain Jack Sparrow, but without the intention of humor to give it focus. There's bits where he's swooning from scene to scene and trying to look like a badass which had me rolling with laughter, as the bulky, over-sized coat on his lean frame makes him look like a 7-year-old trying on his dad's clothing. And the gruff voice he puts on is far closer in tone to Cobra Commander than it is a hard-boiled noir hero.

And yeah, the world he's in sets up some interesting ideas, but like Starhunter, the handful of interesting bits are largely drowned out by a wash of ones both bland and cliched, and everything is painted with such a cold blue and brown, and takes itself so ridiculously seriously, leaving the entire experience feeling largely dull and joyless.

The main plot of the piece is that Dakota's latest target is a Shepherd for Sophia named Lilith (Heidi von Palleske, who plays Dante's holographic wife Penny on Starhunter), but once Dakota sees her and her young son, Abe, he's instantly nostalgic for his family and helps her escape, the combined forces of Miles and Sophia coming after them strong. Actually not all that strong as it's mostly just Lyndon and a few grunts in a golf cart occasionally running across their golf cart until they can get away again. Which they thoroughly do, as any hope of a ticking clock is thrown away by Dakota and Lilith spending several days settling into locations, taking side jobs, splitting up and coming together and splitting up and coming together, and being attacked by a street gang, and menaced by a spiky-haired alley cannibal who Dakota briefly collars and uses as a bloodhound in a bit of randomness. Through it all, Abe instantly buddies up to the teddy bear of Dakota's son and chooses this man to share his first words with in years, and Lilith finally falls for the stranger when she's charmed to learn she reminds him of his wife, culminating in them having one of those prolonged sex scenes of the 80s/90s with lots of soft focus, dissolves, synth sax, close ups of hands coming together, and lots of heaving, gratuitous boob shots. To pay a compliment, von Palleske's character has a snake tattoo coiled along her torso and around her breasts which is rather fetching.

None of this has any actual impact. None of it. It's all so random and lacking in depth as to just float by and be forgotten soon after. The most random bit of them all is David Carradine's character of a nameless drifter in love with the blonde ventriloquist dummy on his knee. During one of Dakota's breakups with Lilith, he finds himself in a hotel room with this man, who slips him a mickey and leads him to the bed. While having a sex dream about his wife, who starts choking him, Dakota awakens to find David Carradine straddling him and grimacing while wrapping the dummy's wooden hands around his neck. This is a weird enough "thing that can't be unseen" on its own, made all more shocking in hindsight given Carradine's real life departure to auto-erotic asphyxiation. The last we see of Carradine is him sobbing and stroking the head of his broken dummy as Dakota and, thankfully, we get the hell out of there.

So the reason why both Miles and Sophia are after Lilith is because they want to use Abe as a sacrifice in the union of their two churches. That's a surface reason, as they actually want to get rid of the woman because she knows the surface of the Earth is clearing up, and if such knowledge spreads among the populace, people won't turn to the churches to prey on their faith. Aside from a forced on coda at the end about how God can show his will in small miracles (spoiler: our heroes reach the surface of Earth and find it a paradise), the film takes an extremely cynical viewpoint against religion and faith. I'm an anti-religion atheist and don't mind it, but as with the Starhunter episode "Order", it comes off as a very cheap and one-sided condemnation that lacks any depth because they make it a declaration instead of a discussion. Either way, it all leads to Miles and Sophia turning on one another, she crashing his compound with biker chicks and robots with uzis, and Mr. Rowdy Roddy ripping out of his own crucifixion and screaming across a battlefield about how he is the Alpha and the Omega. And then they both blow up.

This film is crap. The writing is a bland mess that doesn't have a clue what to do with the few good ideas it has. von Palleske is pretty good as the deadpan snarky Lilith, but spends the entire film being dragged around by C. Thomas Howell in a performance that gives testament to why his career sloshed in the crapper. The grimed and costumes extras are fine, but the sets are barely dressed up sheets of corrugated steel in warehouses and parking garages. The midi score toots in one ear and out the other. The direction is so choppy and poorly staged that I'm not surprised in the least to learn Peter Hayman's only other work in that position was Leslie Nielsen's Stupid Little Golf Video. I'm totally not lying about that. While Piper does make for a very imposing villain and nails the role of Miles (Sophia is largely a background menace who just appears a couple of times), his part is watered down by placing the pursuit of and character history with Dakota entirely in the hands of Lyndon.

Which isn't a bad thing as Mackenzie's Lyndon is the most compelling and complex character in the film. He's the extremely efficient officer who sold out to Miles, not because he believes in the man's messianic bullshit (which he never hesitates to call out to his boss's face), but because that's where the power is, and by being the hidden mastermind organizing how that power is laid out, Lyndon is just about as equally powerful. He's the one who gave his old partner, Dakota, a job, and he didn't take the memories of the other man's family just to hostage them to Dakota, but rather to scrub away his own guilt as Lyndon was the one responsible for their death. He tries to soften this as best he can, altering the memories to remove conflict and give Dakota nothing but comfort, but it still comes calling in the end as not only Dakota but Miles turn on him. And how does Lyndon respond? Pure chilling badassery, as before Sophia's forces can get to Miles' complex, he's already taken out most the people there, driving up out front with a bazooka, then methodically cleaning it out room by room with grenades. He's wiping clean the slate, taking out his own men with whom he's committed atrocities. But this doesn't absolve him, nor does he expect it to, as he almost takes Dakota down with him in the end.

Overall, skip this movie. I do find it interesting to see some of the early stylistic "flourishes" and character archetypes that would be explored in Starhunter, but they still aren't good and haven't been significantly improved upon by the later series. This movie is crap, so don't waste your time and money like I did.


Strannik said...

Based on the trailer, I assumed it would a wonderfully silly DTV film, the sort of thing that got featured on Svengoolie. But you like silly-bad even more then I do, and if you didn't like it, I'm pretty sure I would absolutely hate it.

But hey - at least it shows that Starhunter could've been much worse.

Tony Williams said...

Are you sure they didn't just edit together some of David Carradine's home movies and slap the title "Cybercity" on it?

NoelCT said...


I hear the sequel (which was done by a different director) is actually a little better and would like to give it a watch. Sadly, never released on video or DVD.