Cyborg (1989) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Only one man can save the future. Unfortunately, it’s Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller Cyborg overpromises and under delivers, in his follow-up role to Bloodsport. Billing itself as a science-fiction action film, Cyborg will leave fans wanting more. A lot more.

First Impressions

The trailer depicts a post-apocalyptic future where martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme must protect a female cyborg from the roving gangs and villains. This is obviously an action oriented film with many fights, explosions, and other action moments sprinkled throughout the trailer. Will it have any plot or just be a series of action vignettes? The first hero of the 21st Century has our attention this week on Sci-Fi Saturdays.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays


Cyborg title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In the future, civilization has collapsed and a plague has spread over the world. Rumors of a cure spread throughout the population, a fact that pirate Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) takes issue with. He hears that Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon) is in New York City gathering data to take back to Atlanta to make the cure. Fender and his gang kill her handler, and come for Pearl. In her escape she meets slinger Gibson Rickenbacker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and identifies herself as a cyborg, deciding she can trust the mercenary. Gibs is injured by falling debris from Fender’s attack and loses Pearl.

Fender steals a boat and takes to the intercoastal waterways. Gibson has no interest in continuing to help Pearl and defends himself from a would-be attacker, knocking her out. He watches over Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter), while sharpening his knife. He remembers a time when he helped a woman, Mary (Terrie Batson), her pre-teen sister Haley (Kristina Sebastian) and younger brother (Thomas Barley) out of the city. The next day Nady continually questions Gibson about going to rescue that woman and take her to Atlanta, but he wants no part of it.

Gibson, however, is going after Fender for his own reasons. He hears from an older man in a camp that Fender is headed to Charleston. Gibson and Nady continue walking towards Charleston and are attacked by a gang along the road. Gibs manages to take care of most of the gang members while Nady fights off the one female member. That evening Gibson declines to have sex with Nady when she awkwardly offers. On Fender’s boat, Pearl remembers volunteering to go to New York City and get the data on the cure. In Charleston, Gibson and Nady find and attack Fender’s men in an abandoned building. With Nady continually prodding him, Gibson finally offers to help take Pearl to Atlanta.


Fender Tremolo and his gang of pirates stroll casually through the apocalyptic wasteland.

Pearl doesn’t think that Gibson can help anymore, that he’s not strong enough. The next wave of Fender’s pirates show up and follow Gibs and Nady into the sewers, where an injured Gibson kills a number of pirates, including Brick Bardo (Rolf Muller), Fender’s right-hand man. They exit into the Marsh where Gibson and Nady become separated. There are too many pirates and Gibson falls to their repeated blows. He notices a woman in Fender’s group wearing a St. Christopher medallion. He realizes it is an adult Haley (Haley Peterson). Gibson is beaten by Fender who then hoists up onto a derelict ship, crucifying him on the mast.

Haley lingers for a moment, watching Gibson, but then leaves with Fender. As he dies on the makeshift cross, Gibson recalls how a younger Fender and two pirates assaulted and killed Mary and her younger brother, forcing Haley to watch. Gibson escaped the attacks (obviously) and has been looking for the man that took his happiness. Angered by these memories, Gibson begins kicking at the mast with his foot repeatedly until it falls to the sand. Nady shows up and cuts him free, applying bandages to his wounds.

Somehow the two injured heroes manage to get to Atlanta before Fender and his gang and lie in wait for them. A storm unleashes a torrential downspout as Gibson attacks Fender. Nady tries to stab Fender but is killed herself. Haley turns on Fender as she realizes Gibson is the good guy. Gibson stabs Fender with a huge knife, but he doesn’t die and comes back for Gibson. They have one final battle and Gibson kicks Fender backwards onto a meat hook killing him for good. Haley and Gibson mourn the dead Nady, and then escort Pearl the short distance to the base where she goes with a scientist to provide the cure to the plague.

I didn’t make this world.” – Gibson


What the heck is this monstrosity? Is that supposed to be a cyborg? From the standpoint of this film, the answer is ‘yes.’

History in the Making

Cyborg seems like a film that would be the culmination of a lot of the advancements in the sci-fi genre throughout the 80s. An action oriented film, starring an up and coming action star, set in a dystopian future, and named after a human/robot hybrid sounds like all the things to make an entertaining film. Some audience members may find Cyborg entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. Seeing the advertisements for the film, it would be safe for people to assume that Van Damme is a cyborg, or perhaps that the villain he fights is a cyborg. The trailer does make it clear that the female that Gibson must escort is the cyborg, but there of course could be others. Well, all those ideas are wrong. It seems like a classic bait and switch. For an 86 minute film entitled Cyborg, there is at most only 10 minutes of the character on screen, and only maybe 30 seconds demonstrating any cyborg-like qualities. They also seem to have no understanding of what a cyborg is, potentially choosing the title for its sound rather than any formal definition.

Conceived as a low budget film to use costumes and sets created for Canon Films planned sequel to Masters of the Universe and a Spider-Man film (which would have been 11 years prior to Sony releasing the first cinematic Spider-Man film), Cyborg was written to showcase Van Damme’s martial arts prowess. Van Damme had made a splash the previous year in Bloodsport which was a traditional martial arts film. Here, due to the elements already in place, a futuristic sci-fi story was concocted utilizing the actor. Perhaps due to the constraints of the project, or the low budget and swift shooting schedule, the film did not highlight Van Damme’s skills as well as many other films of his. Some of the problems include the film being shot in a majority of close-ups, action scenes are often out of focus (possibly due to the slow motion being used), and the action was just not framed well to capture the martial arts moves. As such, editing was used in an attempt to enhance the fights, but it makes everything look cheated and fake. As such, it was universally panned by critics, while still managing to develop a cult following. Cyborg was not the last sci-fi film for Van Damme however. He would go on to work on films such as Timecop, Universal Soldier (all of them), and Replicant.


One of several flashbacks presents Mary, Gibson, and Gibson’s wig. Unfortunately, two of them didn’t survive.


Certainly for some, creating the setting for a film in a dirty city, with rusted car parts and piles of bricks in the street, and calling it “the future” is enough to make a sci-fi film. But longtime readers of Sci-Fi Saturdays know that there is much more to the genre than that. Cyborg does the bare minimum to communicate the state of the world. No specific date is given, which can be helpful–meaning that the film is perpetually in “the future.” The opening prologue and narration mentions “the collapse of civilization; anarchy, genocide, starvation,” and shows a collapsed New York bridge. It then mentions a very non-specific plague as a further complication to living in this world. The evidences of bombed out buildings, like those seen on the way into Atlanta, and other debris would suggest some kind of man-made catastrophe such as a war. However, there’s no other indication of anything like that occurring. Then there’s this deadly plague that is mentioned over and over. What did it do? It’s still on people’s minds as the main thrust of the plot is finding the cure for this in New York and returning it to Atlanta (presumably because that’s where the CDC is located. The film never explicitly states this). But no one is really worried about the plague. There’s no concern that someone might catch it, or that there’s extra precautions to be had. It’s purely plot-based window dressing.

Then there’s the confusion about what a cyborg is. By definition a cyborg is a portmanteau of cybernetic organism, and appeared by definition in the early 1960s. This fusion of robotic and organic material can be best imagined as characters like Darth Vader from Star Wars, Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man, and Officer Murphy from Robocop. In this film, Cyborg, Pearl Prophet is indistinguishable from any other human (being played by an actress as humanoid robots have traditionally been). That is, until she removes her wig revealing a partially enclosed brain and a metallic endoskeleton in her neck. In fact, it appears that other than the brain, nothing about the head is real–almost as if it’s just the brain encased in a robotic shell. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the “cyborg” elements in the film. She doesn’t have any super strength or speed and really doesn’t seem to do anything in the film, sitting out several major fights. Pearl is literally a Macguffin designed to draw Gibson back into caring about the world and people in it, and move the plot along.


Who knew that Wasteland, NC and Temptation, GA were off the same road to Charleston, SC?

Societal Commentary

If the film makes a case for who we are as a species or why we’re here, it must be well hidden. Cyborg functions more as a futuristic Western in this case with a theme of revenge, than any kind of traditional sci-fi film. Gibson is the lone killer and mercenary that has found his little piece of the world to settle down in, until Fender and his gang come to take it all away. The film unfolds and unpacks his pain and loss, explaining why he doesn’t much care for interacting with others, and why he won’t stick his neck out to help Pearl. His loss of Mary soured him on relationships and set him on a path of vengeance against the men that did this to him. It’s a frontier story given a slightly different twist. Cyborg also makes an allusion to another classic Western, whether it may have intended to or not. About halfway through the film, it’s revealed that one of the women in Fender’s gang is Haley, a grown-up version of the young girl who was forced to watch Gibson and her family killed. She still wears Gibs St. Christopher medallion as a reminder of who she used to be. This seems very similar to Natalie Woods’ character in John Wayne’s The Searchers. She was a young girl, abducted by the Comanches, who comes to adulthood having been raised by them–remembering little to nothing of her former life. In both instances, the protagonists must face a sliver of their former lives, now in the clutches of the thing they hate most.


The piercing eyes of Fender are not due to him being a cyborg. They’re contacts. Or maybe a genetic abnormality.

The Science in The Fiction

Calling this film science-fiction implies that there is some adherence to science in it. As mentioned above, there seems to be no backstory information about the fall of society or the plague that is killing people. For some reason the data for a cure must be manually moved from New York to Atlanta, and in the hands of a cyborg. Why? Is there no other way to transport this information? It seems as if there’s no telecommunication, but there’s enough skills to build a cyborg. Also word seems to reach Gibson of Fender being in Charlotte (North Carolina) while he’s still in New York City. Weird that word of mouth would travel so specifically, so fast. Vehicles don’t exist, except for some boats used to navigate waterways–so it ends up being a lot of walking for the characters involved. With all these limitations that the world has to offer, Gibson still manages to make it to Atlanta (on foot, and after being crucified) faster than Fender can on a boat. Also, no discussion of the fact that Atlanta is not a coastal city, except that perhaps it is in this future.

There’s also no explanations about the need for a cyborg, or what was involved in that. One of Pearl’s flashbacks indicates that she was chosen due to her personality and “matrix engineering background” for this mission. She indicates she would have volunteered, whether for the mission or the conversion to becoming a cyborg. It seems like she was human, but that there was an “operation” that changed her. Why change her into a cyborg (what appears to be a human brain in a robotic shell, if there’s absolutely no reason for it? A better choice for the film, if Van Damme was not going to be a cyborg, would have been to have the villain enhanced in some fashion. That seems like a story element that would have put more at stake, since Fender would obviously have the upper hand. It would also give him more reason (possibly) as to why he wants to own the cure. As it stands his need for control seems like a weak element, since he already goes and does whatever he wants.


Fortunately Fender took his sunglasses off. For a couple minutes he was fighting in the dark, in a rainstorm, with his sunglasses. He could give Corey Hart a run for his money!

The Final Frontier

One of the other distracting elements of the film is naming of the characters. In a very cyberpunk feeling moment, all the main characters are named after popular musical instrument types and brands. This helps to set the film further into the future, as any near future world would indicate that people in the 80s named their kids these weird names. For the uninitiated, there’s Gibson Rickenbacker named after Gibson and Rickenbacker guitars, Fender Tremolo named after a Fender guitar, and its Tremolo arm, Marshall Strat who references Marshall amplifiers and the nickname for the Fender Stratocaster guitar, Pearl Prophet named after Pearl drums and the Prophet 5 synthesizer, and Nady Simmons who derives from Nady Systems, Inc., makers of wireless audio technology and Simmons electronic drums.

Two sequels were made from this film, both directed by Michael Schroeder. Cyborg 2 and Cyborg 3: The Recycler came out in 1992 and 1993 respectively, with part 3 coming directly to video. They loosely continue the story of this film in the same world and do feature more cyborgs. Cyborg 2 is maybe most famous for being Angelina Jolie’s first film role, as the Cyborg Cash. Fortunately, Jean-Claude Van Damme sought out better sci-fi projects (and films in general) after this movie, and became a popular action star in the 90s. Director Albert Pyun, maybe best remembered for his debut film, the 1982 fantasy film The Sword and the Sorcerer, would continue making low budget action and sci-fi films, including the 1990 live action Captain America film with Matt Salinger, 20 years before the Marvel Studios version. As far as Cyborg goes, there are better ways to spend 86 minutes of your future.

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