Shudder’s latest is a synthwave sci-fi opera is thinly plotted and unapologetically lurid, but packed with gorgeous grindhouse visuals.
French electronica artist Carpenter Brut and Seth Ickerman (the combined name of filmmakers Raphaël Hernandez and Savitri Joly-Gonfard) have worked together before to lend Brut’s synthwave beats some delightfully nu-grindhouse delights. The 2016 music video for Brut’s “Turbo Killer” is soaked in neon purples and reds, filled with buxom babes and muscle cars, and is studded with Brut’s iconic upside-down crucifix logo. Hot off the cult success of that video, Brut and Ickerman reunite for the 50-minute-long odyssey Blood Machines, which stretches that lurid sensibility into a cosmic opera with the gonzo appeal (and limitations) of its music video origins.
Like most high-concept music videos, Blood Machines is big on visuals and thin on story. The brief is pretty simple: two scavengers (Anders Heinrichsen and Christian Erickson) hunt down a living spaceship, determined to follow a galaxy-wide crusade against thinking machines. Following the crashed ship to the surface of a planet, they run across a priestess (Elisa Lasowski) determined to protect it — particularly when the ‘soul’ of the crashed ship escapes its hull and takes the form of (naturally) a beautiful nude woman with Brut’s crucifix logo glowing luridly along its naughty bits. The blade runners, with priestess in tow, chase it through space, only to find themselves stumbling into the heart of a robot revolution.
The plot, however, is a distant third fiddle to Blood Machine‘s true purpose: a thrumming synthwave space opera drowning in ’80s and cyberpunk influences, with an icky organic component underneath. What’s happening on screen is immaterial: it’s more a showcase not just for Brut’s ambient, pulse-pounding tracks, but for the sharp, gritty VFX visuals that feel as much like a Blizzard game cutscene as anything else.
That’s not a dig, really; it’s gorgeous to look at, especially given the budget they were able to amass (run off a Kickstarter campaign that raised roughly $128,000). Spaceships undulate with cartoonishly big articulated cannons and teeth-like grapplers, and space travel looks like if warp speed was mixed with an iTunes visualizer. The lead ship’s AI looks like the robot from Metropolis mixed with a tribal fertility doll. If Nicholas Winding Refn directed a big-budget Heavy Metal movie, it might look something like this.
Which brings us to the inevitable discussion of Blood Machine‘s unabashed male gaze, the kind of thing it feels like a killjoy to discuss but must be discussed all the same. Ickerman’s camera loves the female body; so many shots are dedicated to nude women with glowing crucifixes pointing to their genitalia, you’d be forgiven for turning your nose up at the Brian De Palma-ness of it all. Blood Machines is horny, make no mistake — no less when it comes to Heinrichsen’s brutish, abusive Vascan, who takes delight in threatening Lasowski’s Corey with grotesque sexual overtures (“I’ve been fucking machines for so long, I’m starting to smell like them”).
And yet, there are odd moments of empowerment in all the gratuitous nudity and hypermasculine bluster. There’s a maternal bent to the priestesses and their AI charges, and Erickson’s elderly copilot gets some sparse moments of character-building vulnerability. Sequences like a gas mask-wearing woman psychically puppeteering a troupe of nude spaceship-souls in a battle for the cosmos make a deliciously abstract metaphor for an escape from male subjugation.
At 50 minutes (split into three episodes — cutting out credits, I’d be surprised if the real runtime wasn’t closer to 40), there’s not a lot of plot to go around. Dialogue is minimal, and the actors do their best to chew through it, hampered by thick Scandinavian accents. The story itself defies explanation — what is the history between robots and machines? Who is the mysterious commander who follows the humans and barks orders at them? Who are these priestesses defending the ship AIs?
The point is to take an edible, throw on Shudder, and kick back to fifty minutes of kickin’ beats and slammin’ bods thrown through space.
The plot is either too straightforward or too deathly obtuse to work as a straightforward sci-fi narrative. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is to take an edible, throw on Shudder, and kick back to fifty minutes of kickin’ beats and slammin’ bods thrown through space.
In that respect, Blood Machines‘ aspirations are deathly simple, and they most certainly exceed whatever modest expectations could be placed on such a high-concept, small-scale project as this. As a science fiction story, it’s hardly going to bring the roof down. But bringing the roof down is Brut’s job, and with his beats and Ickerman’s bizarre, neon-soaked visuals in concert, Blood Machines makes for suitably sensory entertainment.
Blood Machines is currently streaming on Shudder.