Retro Review | ‘Cyborg’ (1989): Who Says a Glitch Can’t Be a Positive Thing? Not Van Damme

“…we’ve lost our humanity, we’ve lost our purpose. There’s no meaning in this world. I wanna change that.”

Movie poster. Via The Cannon Group.

You know those action games that kick off in the middle of a conflict, a death happens, and a solution is provided— all explained in a series of frantic shots and texts—reminding you that you are humanity’s last hope or in charge of protecting humanity’s last hope. This prologue introduces you into the world that you’re about to call home for a few hours or days, depending on the length of the missions. In such style, Cyborg kicks off and I don’t remember ever seeing a movie succeed after such genesis. 

As mentioned, in an embattled game world, a solution is often provided, then placed in the game player’s care. A solution in the form of a vial, piece of tech or in Cyborg’s case— a cyborg— yes, a cyborg that carries the last hope of humanity in a plagued post-apocalyptic USA. If anything happens to this cyborg (who is a non-playable character), it’s game over. The hero is tasked with watching over the cyborg’s life as much as he forgets to sleep, likewise is he in charge of other innocent but annoying non-playable side characters that may come his way over the course of the game.

After an action-filled prologue, Cyborg introduces us to our hero, Gibson Rickenbacker (Jean-Claude van Damme), the player we have to control, in other words, a character we popularly referred to as an ‘actor’. This ‘actor-hero’ has to reluctantly safeguard humanity’s hope after the cyborg (played by Dayle Haddon) is kidnapped by a group of pirates, led by Fender (Vincent Klyn). With his words, he doesn’t get much chance to say that he would rather be elsewhere, but he shows this with his kicks, punches and robotic grunts.

A reluctant hero and an annoying non-playable character.Via The Cannon Group.

As the movie goes on, he warms up to his mission, role, destiny, or whatever you want to call it and has to ensure that the abducted cyborg, carrying vital data that could end the plague, safely reaches Atlanta. As we know, for every ‘actor’, there is a ‘boss’, one who was teased in the prologue, but we meet him once again to know how awful he could be just by how low he can pitch his voice. His words are almost inaudible to hear, which tells you that he’s the ‘boss’ and there’s no other big bad badder than him. 

Besides his low-pitched voice, he also boasts a villain-like stance, walking posture, etc, which might be typical of 80s villains. However, this is no superhero villain who cowardly or lazily or Thanosly or Darkseidly sends his henchmen to do the dirty job while he stays behind for the final job. Every corner, every bend of the mission, he’s right there with his men and engages seldomly. This occasional involvement teases what the final showdown would be like, while we are still building our main player’s (actor’s) stats,like you have in your action games, such as health, bonus, strength, mental, stamina, etc

The gothic pirates, led by Fender. Via The Cannon Group.

In pursuit of these pirates, our hero goes through so much, that a final success is nothing but assured. If he loses, you are ready to smash our gaming consoles, sorry, I mean— TeeVee or your phone or laptop or whatever you watch your films on.

My game analogy is further supported by other game-like actions and events. The henchmen attack in a certain number, they get defeated in a certain style, even everyone’s walking posture is more robotic than the supposed cyborg. It doesn’t end there. The dialogue and manner of speaking come across like we are being told what to do as an active gamer who needs more information on where to go next.

However, what saves this movie or cannot save it because it’s not enough, are the flashback scenes which are not without dialogue and acting problems, but actually boast more emotional resonance, and you hope to spend more time in their past, which is exactly what you feel when an unplayable segment of a game is too short and you’d love to see more of this past world just to get an extra excitement during moments you are not constantly tapping your gamepad. Despite these brief rays of success, it must be noted that the flashback scenes have no sequence and are messily placed in order to fill in some shocking gaps.

An attempt at a harrowing backstory. Via The Cannon Group.

When the actors manage to do something successfully, it feels like a glitch. As a viewer, it feels odd from their previous efforts, like something has gone wrong from the usual robotic/ CGI-like acting, in which they have gone off their vectorial paths. This robotic game-like behaviour can be observed down to the way the main character drops his weapon bag, lays his bed and carries out basic activities, like there’s a set path he must not override. When this happens, when he mistakenly does something in a more natural way, it catches the viewers by surprise and it feels like a glitch. OMG, he’s aware of his own existence. 

All of these poor elements make the 1hr 25min movie feel like double of its running time, and as the time gets longer, you might just begin to laugh at their shortcomings, gradually settling for a hilarity session. After giving up on anything serious the movie has to offer, you’re only expecting it to surprise you from there on, because it can’t do anything worse to disappoint or let you down.

Van Damme is not the cyborg. Via The Cannon Group.

If it was the film’s goal to speak against humanity, then it does well with the overabundance of fight scenes, which capture how we often result in fighting and wars instead of dialogue that could provide long-lasting solutions. Also, it boasts impressive shots of earth as a wasteland. But like humanity, the film takes an easy way out with these fight scenes which we experience on land, on water, underground, and in the air (Van Damme’s famous split).

As a SciFi action flick, Cyborg increases the challenge at every level by adding to the numbers of evil forces that the hero needs to face, or gifting them an extra trick to make them seem insurmountable, alas, it only takes a few more action tricks from our ‘actor-hero’ and the bad guys are defeated once again, while priming him for the final boss. Or does the final boss just put him in his place? It doesn’t even matter, because at the end, you would feel like you have just completed a tedious game walkthrough on YouTube. And no, I won’t be subscribing to your YouTube channel.

Rating: 4.5/10 (it should score lower, but for reasons explained in our debut retro review, timeliness saved it)

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Side Musings

  • Note: I have intentionally written my paragraphs in small chunks to make a statement on how games are often divided into multiple missions, spanning different locations, which didn’t exactly work in Cyborg.
  • The villain’s mid-sentence pause is so villainy!
  • If they went on foot, how did they ever catch up with the people that were on a boat?
  • Those heavy noises and punches brought back childhood memories that just made me laugh more. Those sounds we made as kids when we played actor vs boss. Then the double kick effects.
  • Sound effects and music remind me of old nollywood.
  • Timeliness: the action scenes possibly set precedent for some that we’ve seen in movies today. It can also be said that Van Damme has definitely inspired stunt students and actors over the years, even until today.
  • Fun fact: 500,000 dollars production budget. Do with that information as you please.

Cyborg is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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