Release Date: September 3rd, 1993 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stuart Gordon Actors: Christopher Lambert, Kurtwood Smith, Loryn Locklin, Clifton Collins Jr., Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Vernon Wells
Border Stations have grown significantly more severe in the not-too-distant future. Citizens now have barcodes tattooed on their arms for failsafe identification, while guards are armed with heavy weaponry and have vicious dogs at their disposal (though the canines aren’t actually futuristic). When former Black Beret Captain John Henry Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his computer technician wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) attempt to cross the border into Vancouver, smuggling a second unborn child after having lost their first child to an illness (abortion is illegal and procreation is limited to one chance at having offspring per family, designating the people who try to break these rules as outlaws called “Breeders”), they’re apprehended. And though Karen flees to safety, John is captured.
Receiving a 31-year sentence, John is shipped to a privately-owned, subterraneous, maximum security prison called the “Fortress,” located in an incredibly secluded desert. Run by the Men-Tel company and commanded by the sadistic, perverted Prison Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith), John soon learns that, despite being comforted by the idea that his wife escaped to a better life, the Fortress is designed to be a living hell (and, essentially, a physical and psychological torture chamber). He’s outfitted with an Intestinator – an automatic behavior control device – that causes pain when a prisoner wanders across a yellow line, and results in death if a red line is crossed. Additionally, all of the inmates’ thoughts are continually monitored, and pain is inflicted when inappropriate feelings are felt or acted upon – including anger, violence, and even erotic memories.
If it weren’t bad enough that the warden likes to toy with the prisoners, the convicts themselves manage to behave quite barbarously when Poe chooses to turn a blind eye. Maddox (Vernon Wells) and Stiggs (Tom Towles) are two of the most disagreeable of the bullies; D-Day (Jeffrey Combs, nabbing all the best lines) and Gomez (Clifton Collins Jr.) are regular victims; and Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick) is the wise elder, who knows a thing or two about survival (the equivalent of Morgan Freeman’s Red from “The Shawshank Redemption”). Escape looks impossible; but Brennick is an uncommonly tough man.
With Stuart Gordon directing (the man behind “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”), there’s plenty of body horror, including exploding stomachs, torn flesh, and destructive bullets. Blood tends to flow freely in Gordon’s pictures, even when it’s completely unnecessary – such as during an initial attack by dogs, which yields visibly torn chunks of skin. Plus, a Mind Wipe machine scrambles brains, while memories can be reconfigured into nightmares, and zombie-like reprogrammed cyborgs appear as grotesque mixtures of human body parts and robotics.
The futuristic elements are rather minimal, though there are a few mechanical advancements and a sophisticated artificial intelligence overseer named Zed-10. Mind control notions aren’t terribly creative, while prison movie tropes arrive as expected. And the population control concepts are fairly standard. Even the government’s confiscation and experimentation on illegal babies doesn’t seem that farfetched or inspired. Regardless of the film’s take on common sci-fi themes (which are nicely visualized, along the lines of “Total Recall”), or the convenient failures in surveillance systems, or the near-misses and in-the-nick-of-time escape plan formulations, “The Fortress” just isn’t paced fast enough to maintain suspense. Action scenes are too infrequent, while revelations by both the heroes and villains are unable to inspire immediacy. The look of the film – and even the story – isn’t to blame. It’s the writing, which focuses too heavily on typical Orwellian interactions; creative conversations and genuine surprises are almost entirely absent.
– Mike Massie