Director Stuart Gordon, who won a wide cult following with his low-budget horror films RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, leaped into the higher-budgeted leagues with FORTRESS, a technically accomplished but dramatically uneven futuristic action film.
Not too many years from now, US overpopulation has reached the point where the law mandates that each woman may bear only one child. Former military captain John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his wife, Karen (Loryn Locklin), are defying that law; having lost their first child, Karen is now
pregnant with another. The couple attempt to escape into Canada, but border guards discover Karen's condition and Brennick is arrested as Karen flees. He is taken to the Fortress, a 30-story underground prison where the cell bars are laser beams and the whole operation is overseen by the computer,
Zed-10. Each prisoner is implanted with an "Intestinator," which can be triggered to cause severe pain or death for any infraction, or even at the whim of the sadistic warden, Poe (Kurtwood Smith).
Brennick soon meets his cellmates: hot-tempered Stiggs (Tom Towles), mechanical whiz D-Day (Jeffrey Combs), lifer Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick), and young Nino (Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez). The latter earns the enmity of hulking prisoner Maddox (Vernon Wells); when Brennick steps in to protect
him, he is taken to Poe's chambers. There Poe reveals to Brennick that Karen has been captured and is being held in another part of the Fortress, and that any further infractions on Brennick's part will cause her and her unborn child to suffer. Nonetheless, Brennick is forced into another violent
confrontation with Maddox, whom he bests; but when Brennick then refuses Poe's orders to kill Maddox, Poe does it himself with the Intestinator and has Brennick brought to a mind-wipe chamber where his memory will be erased. Meanwhile, Poe has taken an interest in Karen and has her brought to his
chambers, where she discovers that he is in fact a cyborg who can literally wire himself into Zed-10.
Ingratiating herself to Poe, Karen manages to reverse Brennick's mind-wipe and provide him with a crystal that, when laser light is fed through it, provides a holographic layout of the prison. Using the laser bars on their cell to project it, Brennick and company plot an escape. As they overcome
the robot guards and blast their way toward Poe's quarters, Karen is taken to a delivery room, where her baby is to be forcibly removed and used as the basis for a cyborg like Poe. Brennick successfully rescues her and destroys Poe, but of his cellmates, only Nino survives to escape with him and
Karen in a prisoner transport truck. On the surface, Karen goes into labor and Brennick pulls over to help with the delivery. But the truck, still under Zed-10's control, tries to run them down, and succeeds in killing Nino before Brennick destroys it. Karen successfully gives birth to their baby,
and she and Brennick head off to freedom.
One of the most impressive things about FORTRESS is the fortress itself, a hi-tech environment that both affords the film a convincing futuristic feel and provides the claustrophobia necessary to make its prison-escape story work. With the exception of the brief outdoor sequences that bookend
the movie, the entire production was shot on sets in Queensland, Australia. Given the relatively low budget (around $10 million), director Gordon and his crew have turned out a movie that's technically on a par with many U.S. studio productions costing much more.
Gordon has managed to carry his economical production capabilities over from his low-budget horror days, but his economical filmmaking style appears rather rough around the edges here. After a strong first reel or so, the storytelling becomes choppy, appearing rushed in places, and Gordon has
trouble finding his way into and out of scenes, as if transitional material got lost somewhere along the way. He's also been saddled with negligible actors in two key roles: Lambert has presence to spare but is still not an accomplished performer, negating some of the sympathy he's supposed to
engender; Locklin is earnest but unconvincing as the relatively resourceful heroine (although Kurtwood Smith is exceptional). And while the futuristic trappings are eye-catching, they ultimately can't disguise that the heart of the story is a largely conventional prison flick, with many of the
stock characters and situations present and accounted for.
Fortunately, Gordon's got a solid stable of character actors on hand, including such veterans of his Organic Theater stage company as Combs (from RE-ANIMATOR) and Towles (memorable as Otis in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), as well as perennial Aussie bad guy Wells (the mohawked villain of
THE ROAD WARRIOR). They carry enough goodwill to tide genre fans over until the last half hour, when the action kicks in and Gordon finds his footing again. The final reels are tense and exciting, with plenty of explosions, daring escapes and splattering robot goo, with touches of the gruesome
black humor that marked the director's previous work. FORTRESS is not all one might have hoped for from a larger-scale Gordon film, but it does prove him capable of marshaling a bigger budget and points the way to better things. (Graphic violence, sexual situations, adult situations,profanity.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: Director Stuart Gordon, who won a wide cult following with his low-budget horror films RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, leaped into the higher-budgeted leagues with FORTRESS, a technically accomplished but dramatically uneven futuristic action film. Not too… (more)