This film is so named because “the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall” was too long for theater marquees.
Nemesis is a surprising low budget film. It creates a strong fictional world, while melding the genres of Noir and Cyberpunk in an action film filled with amazing stunts and some moderate special effects.
Time to give cyborg action films another try. The trailer for Nemesis is jam packed with action, explosions and sci-fi elements. Alex Rain is a cop hunting cyborgs (or maybe straight robots as well). He is their…what was the name of this film again? Oh right, nemesis. Tim Thomerson (Trancers, Dollman) co-stars as possibly a federal agent or man in black of some kind. This appears to be a lower-budget/bigger action version of Blade Runner based on the narration, but really I’m not sure what to expect.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the year 2027, LAPD officer and bounty hunter Alex Rain (Olivier Gruner) kills a female “chip smuggler,” Morico (Blair Valk), who is also a cyborg. Her partners chase him out of the hotel and into an abandoned factory. Alex disables or kills the three male and one female accomplices, but is shot up by Rosaria (Jennifer Gatti), who questions his humanity, being 13.5% cyborg himself. A montage shows Alex having operations to become even more robotic as surgeons save his life. Six months later in Baja, New America Alex finds Rosaria hiding in a small bar and kills her. She was part of a terrorist group and he was just doing his job. He quits the LAPD.
Alex’s handler Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), and her partner Sam (Marjean Holden), confront him. Jared reminds him that they helped get him out of jail, but Alex doesn’t understand the point anymore. She’s a cyborg and can’t understand trying to make a better world. She lives here too, she says. One year later in New Rio de Janeiro, Alex has become a smuggler and wants to help a tech named Marion Face (Thom Mathews) move some Japanese hardware through the electronic web. Unfortunately it’s a setup and Marion, also a cyborg, shoots Alex via a hidden gun behind its faceplate. Alex is prepped and presented to his former commander Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson) for a mission.
Jared has gone rogue with some secret information for an upcoming US/Japanese summit that she plans to deliver to the Red Army Hammerheads, the same terrorist organization that Roasaria worked for. Alex has three days to stop her before the bomb implanted in his heart by the LAPD explodes. Jared is hiding in Java, where another cyborg, Julian (Deborah Shelton), is fronting for her with the Hammerheads. After Alex leaves, Farnsworth tells his lieutenants Germaine (Nicholas Guest) and Maritz (Brion James) that he was lying. He has sent Billy Moon (Thomas Jane) to ensure that Jared finds Alex and gets near him–presumably to detonate the bomb in his heart, killing both.
Julian, who is having an affair with Billy, knows he’s a spy for the cops and kills him. She helps Alex escape when Maritz and his men come to kill them, dying to protect him. Before she dies she disables the bug in his cybernetic eye (which Farnsworth was spying on him with) and implants a device that prevents the bomb from detonating. She also gives him a small data chip that contains Jared’s consciousness. She was injured in Los Angeles and this is all that’s left of her. It turns out Jared was not stealing the plans for a summit. She has information about a coup by the cyborgs to start a war between them and mankind by replacing humans with their own, perfectly cloned replicas. Farnsworth is the first of these cyborgs, actually a skin for use by Sam.
Alex meets up with a young local woman and tour guide, Max Impact (Merle Kennedy) who works with the Hammerheads. She takes Alex to meet the boss Angie-Llv (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) but does not trust the ex-cop because he killed her sister, Rosaria. Farnsworth and his strike team follow Alex and lay waste to the Hammerheads, with only Max and Alex escaping. After a huge shootout and chase, Alex appears to blow up Farnsworth with a grenade, but a metal endoskeleton emerges from the destruction. As the duo makes an escape on a plane, piloted by another member of the Hammerhead cause Yoshiro Han (Yuji Okumoto), the endoskeleton attacks.
Alex sacrifices one of his cybernetic arms, dropping the endoskeleton into a volcano. At another base, a technician (Jackie Earle Haley) prepares to download Jared and her information, which will wipe her from existence. She says goodbye to Alex, who is recuperating–having the bomb removed by the Hammerhead techs. He returns to Los Angeles, with Max in tow, killing Germaine and vowing to stop the plot by the cyborgs to wipe out the humans. He reads a final letter from the real Farnsworth, told in voice over, that reminds him he’s a good person. He and Max ready to visit New York and continue the fight.
“It takes more than flesh and blood to be human.” – Jared
History in the Making
Nemesis was a late choice for this week’s article. The original plan was to explore Groundhog Day this week, but as a number of close friends and film aficionado’s tried to explain, that film is certainly not science-fiction, even though it contains a time-loop. Thus, Albert Pyun’s Nemesis, which was released about two weeks prior to the Bull Murray comedy, was chosen. Given the reception I had for Pyun’s previous sci-fi film Cyborg, I was hesitant to add the film to the list, even though I enjoy a number of his earlier films, including The Sword and the Sorcerer, Captain America, and Dollman. All of his titles are usually lower budget productions, many featuring a mix of martial arts and science-fiction, and Nemesis is no different. However, this film manages to outperform Cyborg and a number of his previous films in a myriad of ways.
Some of the visual effects of Nemesis feel like part of a student film, specifically the fight with the endoskeleton at the conclusion. Some of the makeup effects were also a little less than desirable, but others worked very well within the context of the story. What makes the film standout is the overly ambitious stunt work. Pyun’s team created several memorable, complex and large-scale stunt moments that seem out of place in films of this caliber. These moments of high falls, large explosions (with giant smokestacks crashing to the ground), and excessive automatic weapons fire (which never need reloading and always results in explosions, regardless of the type of gun) elevate the film from a cheap B-film, to one that attempts to break free from its constraints. Pyun also seems to have channeled the works of John Woo into this film. Woo, a Chinese director who was known at the time for A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, has a distinctive sense of action choreography that is both graceful and cinematic. Many action sequences involve slow-motion, a moving camera, extreme stunts and characters firing with multiple handguns. Pyun’s action aesthetic in Nemesis really seems to have been influenced by these elements from Woo’s films.
As with Cyborg, which was an early role (and the first sci-fi role) for Jean-Claude Van Damme, Nemesis was the second film (and first sci-fi film) for French kickboxer Olivier Gruner. Gruner’s previous film, Angel Town, was also produced by the Shah brothers and showcased his martial arts prowess as Van Damme’s Bloodsport and Kickboxer films had done. He also had both the technical physical prowess as well as some decent acting abilities which allowed him to convincingly play the hard-edged cyborg bounty hunter in this film.
Low budget sci-fi films are normally not creating any new genre elements. Heck, most low budget films aren’t either. And Nemesis doesn’t either. But it does connect a number of existing genre conventions from various films and stories to make something quite unique. Pyun and screenwriter Rebecca Charles blended a noir infused cop drama with cyberpunk aesthetics to create the backbone of Nemesis’s stylistic sci-fi story. In fact, the film is probably one of the most cyberpunk films of its time. It leaned heavily on the slang terms from writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. It uses terms like uplink (in a pre-Internet usage), chip smuggler, matrix chips, and “extra rams” (referring to the extra amount of data that could be carried), while referring to bio-enhanced gangsters, tech retards, information terrorists, and cyborg outlaws. The Japanese are an extreme powerhouse, merged with the United States sometime between 1992 and the 2027 of the film. Nemesis also overtly, or sometimes obliquely, references the history of popular science-fiction, utilizing elements from earlier films. Alex is part cyborg when the film opens. He is happy to admit that he’s still 86.5% human, but that changes after his first encounter with Rosaria. Afterwards he’s more machine than man, much like Officer Murphy in RoboCop. And while Alex is working for the LAPD, he’s not controlled in the same way that Murphy is, still having some amount of free will. The brief montage sequence of him being rebuilt is reminiscent of the opening title sequence from The Six Million Dollar Man, where Steve Austin has both legs, an arm, and an eye replaced with cybernetic/bionic versions. Alex also has a bionic eye, but his is designed to spy on his actions for Farnsworth. He also has a bomb planted in his heart as a way to keep him in line (and blow him up when he gets close to Jared). This seems like an obvious nod to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (and a precursor to the bombs used in The Suicide Squad). A number of the people he kills are cyborgs. Some of them even have robotic heads (at least two with guns inside). While this may push the lines of what a cyborg is, it does draw parallels to both The Terminator, with its evil killer robot (including the final endoskeleton battle with Alex), and the replicants from Blade Runner. The similarities to Blade Runner are even more so when the voice over narration by Alex kicks in. Additionally Nemesis also has allusions to John Woo films, specifically a shot in the first fight where Alex slides down a hill on his back firing one handgun in each hand at the terrorists. His demeanor and look both seem to have been influenced by Jean Reno’s character in Leon: The Professional, especially his constant uses of sunglasses. Perhaps it’s the slight French accent that Gruner has that influences this perception. Putting all of these elements together might feel jarring, but the elements do create a larger, and more cohesive world for the crazy story.
As with many futuristic sci-fi films that have robots or cyborgs in them, Nemesis chooses to focus on the meaning of what it means to be human. Alex opens the film musing that in his business “it pays to be more than human.” Which is convenient to him while he is busy hunting for cyborgs and other bounties for the LAPD. That is until Rosaria questions his humanity and why he chooses to side with the machines by killing her partners who are only trying to save humanity. Alex then begins to question how much of his humanity is actually being lost with his multiple surgeries. He receives replacement parts that he did not necessarily want, and is now forced to become a “speed-loader” which is slang for a drug junkie. He does try to explain to people it’s for the pain caused by the cybernetic parts, but the stigma against drug use appears to be greater.
Meanwhile the cyborgs are working on a plan to replace the humans, all the humans, with cyborgs. The cyborg hardliners apparently have determined that humans are inferior and deserve to be killed. These cyborgs, like Sam, are shown as having no mercy for humans. She even shoots Alex’s dog in Baja. Complete proof of what a monster she really is. But not every cyborg character feels that way. While Alex questions his slipping humanity, characters like Jared know that there are more ways to be human than just being made from flesh and blood. She, along with the Hammerheads, wants to help the humans protect themselves from the cyborg uprising–ignoring that fact that the film appears to conflate cyborgs with pure automata (more on this shortly). That is one of the more engaging elements of the film. It’s not just humanity vs the machines. Some of those machine characters are actually fighting for us.
The Science in The Fiction
One of my biggest complaints about Pyun’s 1989 film Cyborg, was that he didn’t really seem to understand what a cyborg was. That film had the cyborg character reveal itself showing that it was basically skin over a robotic frame with a brain inside a plastic housing (and no skin on the back half of the head either). There’s no actual rule about what constitutes a cyborg, other than it’s a character with cybernetic and organic parts. Historically cyborgs are or have been humans at one point that have had cybernetic or robotic parts attached to them making them more than human or transhuman. Examples from sci-fi films include Darth Vader from the Star Wars films, Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man, and Officer Murphy from RoboCop. These are humans that have been augmented by some, or much, technology in order to continue living. Nemesis offers some questionable portrayals.
A number of the non-human characters (or partially human characters) in the film appear to be more a type of android or replicant, instead of a cyborg. Examples of the non-living, human-like, synthetic robots include Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the robots from Westworld, Ash from Alien, and the replicants in Blade Runner. These characters don’t have organic tissue as part of their makeup, but can act and often pass as human. This seems like a more plausible explanation for characters like Marion (whose face splits open and a gun barrel emerges) or Julian (who has her synthetic skull destroyed revealing multiple mechanical aspects) rather than being humans that have just had multiple surgeries. Another questionable character is Farnsworth in his final form. He was killed by Sam who cloned a perfect “cell-for-cell duplicate” that she was able to take over. Yet when the body is blown up, a metal endoskeleton emerges to continue fighting on. That’s not how clones work! This might be considered a cyborg initially (much like the T-800 Terminator, which has an organic flesh over the metal robotic skeleton to be able to time travel), but seems much more like a super convincing android instead.
The Final Frontier
Nemesis is not a perfect film. It has many odd moments and leaps in logic, but also provides many points for discussion. For example, it appears that the majority of the characters Alex interacts with that are cyborgs have gender-swapped names. Jared, Sam and Julian all present as females, and end up being cyborgs as are the men named Michelle and Marion. And while the woman Alex hooks up with (and kills) in the opening moments (Morico) is a cyborg with more a gender neutral name (or perhaps it’s her last name), it raises questions if characters like Max Impact (female) and Angie-Liv (male) are also cyborgs as well? Since a number of people in the Red Army Hammerheads, which fight for humanity and human rights also happen to be cyborgs themselves.
Another enjoyable aspect to the film is the rich tapestry of character actors in the film. Tim Thomerson (Trancers, Dollman), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Licence to Kill, Showdown in Little Tokyo), Yuji Okumoto (Karate Kid II, Better Off Dead), Nicholas Guest (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Trading Places), Brion James (Blade Runner, Tango & Cash), Deborah Shelton (Body Double), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, and later Watchmen) and Sven-Ole Thorsen (Conan The Barbarian, The Running Man) all provide different levels of energy, but also come as themselves, bringing something fun to the film. The film also has a bit part for up and comer Thomas Jane, who would go on to appear in The Mist, the 2004 reboot of The Punisher, and The Expanse, as well as feature Cyborg’s chief villain Vincent Klyn in a small role as Michelle.
With so much going on with the actors, and the action and stunt work, a lot of the problems with the film tend to feel less significant. If there’s any problem it comes in the writing of the characters and overly complex plot, that can feel a little daunting to follow. But most people aren’t watching a film like this for its nuance. It’s intended to be a loud, explosive, fast paced, fun film, and in that case Nemesis wins.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.