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Weekend Reviews : Movies : Future-Jail 'Fortress' Holds You in Its Grip

September 06, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Fortress," (citywide), a science fiction movie about an impregnable high-tech jail in an overpopulated fascist future world, is a surprise.

For a film that first seems a throwaway, it has unusual intensity and grip. It's not another over-reaching, under-financed "Terminator" or "Total Recall" wanna-be. Right from the opening scenes--a border-crossing shootout that contrasts rotting, scavenging homeless hangouts below a bridge with ultra-efficient sterile police car searches above--"Fortress" delivers something extra. For a picture that seems stamped with "low expectations"--it was dumped into a Friday L.A. opening without critics' screenings--it shows some quality and ambition.

Not in the script: That's another tag-team job lacking surprise or punch. But director Stuart Gordon and his company get tension, mood and style into "Fortress" anyway.

Gordon--whose tackily ingenious low-budget horror movies for Empire ("Reanimator," "From Beyond") offered some of the more robust guilty pleasures of the '80s--is telling another dystopian story here: the nightmare of an outlaw future couple (Christopher Lambert and Loryn Locklyn) whose crime is having a second baby when one only is allowed, and who are thrown into a sexually segregated super-prison, a fortress surrounded by desert, controlled by an omnipotent computer and a super-voyeur warden/director named Poe (Kurtwood Smith in corpse-like makeup). The prison piece de resistance : explosive devices called "intestinators" implanted in the prisoners' guts.

This obvious parable of fascism has as its villains huge corporations, bottom-liners, anti-abortionists and soulless science. The conspiracy seems strained, but the passion is palpable. Working with more opulent means than usual--Australian facilities, a $14-million budget, lavish effects--Gordon widens his arena. "Reanimator" was a cute, scrappy, wickedly funny shock-comedy that stretched the boundaries of low-budget horror, but Gordon's previous science fiction epic, "Robojox," looked chintzy, budget-strangled. This one has more visual aplomb.

In his college days, Gordon was a big admirer of Stanley Kubrick; this most Kubrickian of his movies has a stately pace, huge, sterile trap-like interiors that remind you of "2001," and gaudily anarchic violence and flashy mind control scenes that recall "Clockwork Orange." There's a family connection too: Gordon's wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, plays a computer named ZED--a distant cousin of "2001's" outwardly beneficent, inwardly crazy HAL.

"Fortress" suffers from problems beyond its script. Lambert once again plays too American: His French accent makes his "John Brennick" as bizarre a hybrid as his "Sanderson" was in the ridiculous "Knight Moves." Couldn't he play Canadian immigrants named LeBeau or LeFleur?

The movie never really explores or exploits its flashy central locale: the multileveled, "Metropolis"-like prison. Gordon's darkly genial humor is also largely absent--except in the vibrating role and performance of "Reanimator" veteran Jeffrey Combs as wiggy demolition expert "D-Day," a seeming '60s refugee, who still yells "Right On!" in moments of emotion.

"Fortress" (MPAA rated R) has the theme of the great dystopian science fiction stories: novels like Zamyatin's "We," Huxley's "Brave New World" and Dick's "Man in the High Castle"; movies like "THX-1138" and "Blade Runner." But it doesn't have their elaboration or richness of psychological detail. Its script is the jail in which the project rots; its cliches are the computer program that won't let it escape, run free. But there's something there anyway: the thrill of nightmare, a hologram of paranoia, a seed cracking the concrete.

'Fortress'

Christopher Lambert: John Brennick

Kurtwood Smith: Poe

Loryn Locklyn: Karen Brennick

Lincoln Kilpatrick: Abraham

A Davis Entertainment Company/Village Roadshow Pictures presentation of a John Flock production, released by Dimension/Miramax Films. Director Stuart Gordon. Producers John Davis, John Flock. Executive producers Graham Burke, Greg Coote. Screenplay by Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg, David Venable, Terry Curtis Fox. Cinematographer David Eggby. Editor Tim Wellburn. Music Fredric Talgorn. Production design David Copping. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (Violence, language, sensuality).

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