Movies centered around the dangers of technology run amuck focused on two primary flavors, in the cyber drunk decade known as the 1990's: angsty cyborg killers with the will to fight their evil corporate programming, and operatic cyberspace dreamscapes populated by "hackers". Sure, every flick didn't fit into this flock, but with the swift tap of my fingers on Apple glass I've just described dozens of films. From among their number rolls Evolver, off the John de Lancie assembly line. Yes fellow nerds, the man who would be Q is the fictional brains behind the Evolver home game, having crafted a prototype robot to engage the imagination and children of consumers at Christmas season. But how should its bugs be tested and kinks worked out?
Perhaps in a nod to The Last Star Fighter, the company decides to bestow that beta tester status upon the highest scoring player of their virtual reality version of the Evolver game (I want to be involved in one of these board meetings at some point in my life. "Yes, give our multimillion dollar prototype to a twitch kid, high on energy drinks and ADD!"). Onto the scene, spinning like a top, rotates Ethan Embry (who I will shameless admit to loving in both Empire Records and Can't Hardly Wait). The spinning analogies are apropo as we are introduced to him engaged in a 90's VR booth, which includes a surrounding, waist high rail, VR helmet, and blaster gun. These earliest games had very rudimentary directional tracking and, while they had their own specific games, were mostly used to play ports of Quake and Duke Nukem 3D (I spent a good chunk of time working at a laser tag and virtually reality place on the Jersey shore in the 90's). So I'm familiar enough with the tech to know the game represented on screen, while cutting edge CGI of the time, was just not possible outside of the fanciest of screen savers.
Embry is one of those actors that is delightful in pretty much whatever he pops up in, including his recent stint on Once Upon a Time. As our protagonist in Evolver, he is moments from claiming the high score when into the game spawns Cassidy Rae as "the love interest". Her appearance womps Embry over the head, leaving him enshrined at second place by a mere fifty-five points. With a quick bit of Hollywood Hacking (TM), he quickly adjusts the score and is awarded with a home visit from John de Lancie's robot install service. I should quickly point out that the hacking itself has a bit more credibility than most films (for the time or at all), which is probably a result of budgetary constraints, but since it actually works, we won't begrudge it.
Is it even necessary to painstakingly detail how the fun home game of the future (laser tag-esk combat with a freewheeling robot that "learns") will go horribly wrong in a 90's movie? This is a guaranteed outcome when you base the programming of a kid's toy on failed automated military drone code. As Evolver loses rounds, he learns, and becomes more and more agitated, soon rearming with more lethal munitions. And before you can say "Exteminate!", Evolver is on a murder crazy rampage that could have seen him recast as a killbot in Chopping Mall a decade earlier.
Sadly there is quite a bit less gore and one hundred percent less nudity than in Jim Wynorski's murder mall mayhem, but in its place is a more good natured exuberance. Sure people are being brutally killed by this out of control robot, but there's so much to giggle about in this laughably dated exercise. Ethan Embry tweeted that he owed my seventy-five minutes back, but Evolver has an enjoyable streak running through it. Inspite of, or perhaps because of, its dated nature, Evolver is a campy great time, forming the perfect evening with friends. When I often strive and fail to explain the sort of goofy, campy manner of films which would feature on USA Up All Night or in heavy rotation on Cinemax that shaped my beloved notion of bad but enjoyable movie, Evolver is exactly the kind of flick which I should reach for to better explain it.
While we've stopped in the 90's basement of bad cinema, I thought it might be funny to name drop a few of IMDB's "More like this" suggestions on Evolver's entry. Normally the algorithm is ten shades of brain dead, but today must be a rare lucid fever dream, as nearly every suggestion is absolutely perfect, forming a playlist ripped right from the soul of a 90's Saturday afternoon on Cinemax. Cyborg (starring Van Damme), Cyborg 2 (not staring Van Damme BUT staring Angelina Jolie!), Fortress, Trancers, Droid Gunner, Digital Man, and Barbwire (protip- don't watch Barbwire). So if you live in the half of the country currently paralyzed by snow, I've just handed your the perfect action plan for the day (after acquiring beer, of course). Cheers maniacs.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
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