Prototype (1992): Built to Last

Matty is a fan of B-movie demigod Phillip J. Roth’s surprisingly arty first stab at science fiction.

Here’s a fact for you: back in the late ‘80s, Gus Van Sant and Phillip J. Roth shared an office in Roth’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. Both of them wanted to make movies, albeit for very different reasons. Van Sant, who already had a couple of shorts and an unreleased feature-length debut, Mala Noche (1986), under his belt, was chasing art. Roth, meanwhile, was watching every single one of Van Sant’s subsequent attempts to get a project going flounder. Thus, Roth elected to do what all the great B-movie and exploitation practitioners before him did and cater to the market (in this case, the then-rapidly ballooning and content hungry home video and cable TV arena), churning out cheap and easily saleable genre product with cool titles, high concepts, and eye-catching artwork. By the time Van Sant became a critical and festival darling with his acclaimed yet not exactly box office friendly works Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), Roth was earning a crust as a purveyor of commercially-minded pulp, turning a healthy profit on low-budget action capers Bad Trip (1988), Fatal Revenge (1989), Red Snow (1990), and Prime Target (1991). The rest, as they say, is history. Van Sant would cement his status as Hollywood’s artiste du jour with the likes of Good Will Hunting (1997) and Elephant (2003). And Roth — well, hello Velocity Trap (1999) et al. But as revered as Van Sant is among discerning cinephiles, I’d argue that the masses have probably seen more Phillip J. Roth movies given how mammoth his resume is and how often a Roth joint was on video store shelves or spinning on the boob tube — particularly on SyFy. 

Roth’s tenure with SyFy — whom he’d supply with such fine fare as Interceptor Force (1999), Python (2000), Epoch (2001), and Dragon Storm (2004) among others — can, of course, be traced back to the picture that transformed him into a sci-fi filmmaker in the first place. Ironically, that effort, PROTOTYPE, also happens to be his artiest — or, if you will, his most Van Sant-esque — venture. 

An ambitious if not entirely successful little number, Prototype largely sidesteps the straighter action beats of Roth’s later robo-schlockers A.P.E.X. (1994) and The Digital Man (1995) in lieu of something stranger. The aesthetic and conceptual lifts from The Terminator (1984) and RoboCop (1987) are obvious, but Roth and his co-producer/co-scenarist Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi favour melancholy and despair. Thematically, Prototype is closer to the mannered existential posturing of Blade Runner (1982), and tonally, there are shades of Hardware (1990) to Roth’s potent depiction of a bleak future-shock world cloaked in eternal twilight (David Douglas, Tim Knapp, Shauna Oetting, and Graham Schildmeyer’s ruinous production design is excellent). The pomp-y, James Whale-style Frankenstein (1931) licks once the eponymous cyborg is finished after much (occasionally wearying) narrative edging seal it: Prototype is a horror story. Accentuated by the gothic lilt of Emilio Kauderer’s electronic choral score, it’s a creepy mood piece about what it is to be a whole person, physically and emotionally, and the conflict — internal and external — that ensues when you and society at large are wrestling with that.

Visually interesting, Prototype is laced with Roth’s now trademark shadowy photography (see also: Boa (2002) and Dragon Fighter (2003)), and peppered with several pleasingly surreal touches. Where it stumbles, though, is plotting. The crux of Roth’s script involves a scientist (Brenda Swanson, whose robo-schlock credentials extend to a minor appearance in the brilliant Steel and Lace (1991)) offering a wheelchair-bound tech-wiz (Robert Tossberg) the chance to be “reborn” in biomechanical form — but there are a lot of extraneous characters that muddy the waters, the bulk of them reliant on weird tics and gimmicks at the expense of genuine character development. Witness: the longbow-wielding hacker kid; a religious, gun-toting slumlord; the stuttering, leather-clad card shark; and a mysterious tough guy with braids like Davey Boy Smith. Thankfully, as distracting as they are, they never completely torpedo the good that Roth fosters.

Lensed in part at The Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana, California (a location featured in RoboCop, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and fellow droid-sploiter Nemesis (1992)), Prototype hit U.S. video on 23rd December 1992 via Vidmark, and landed on U.K. cassette through 20:20 Vision in early 1993.

USA ● 1992 ● Sci-Fi ● 94mins

Lane Lenhart, Robert Tossberg, Brenda Swanson ● Dir. Phillip J. Roth Wri. Phillip J. Roth, from a story by Phillip J. Roth & Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi

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