Run With It: Phillip J. Roth, SyFy & Digital Man (1995)

Matty can’t get enough of Phillip J. Roth’s lively blast-’em-up and sees it as a work of great importance for both its maker and a certain cable channel. 

Swiping its name from a Rush song, DIGITAL MAN (1995) is the final film that Phillip J. Roth and Talaat Captan made together, and represents something of a watershed in regards to Roth’s career.

Roth and Captan had enjoyed a fruitful collaboration since the production of Roth’s third feature, Sitting Target (1990). A ramshackle action thriller, the pair quickly followed Sitting Target with another spirited DIY caper, Red Snow (1990), before Captan, inspired by the money he’d made on a film about reanimated super-soldiers called Stealth Hunters (1991), encouraged the increasingly more ambitious and polished-seeming Roth to try his hand at sci-fi with his sixth crack of the directorial whip, Prototype (1992). Riding the robo-wave initiated by the boffo box office and hearty VHS profits of The Terminator (1984) and RoboCop (1987) and their first sequels, the financial success of Prototype led Roth and Captan to mount a second droid-centric sci-fi epic, A.P.E.X. (1994). Like Prototype, A.P.E.X. was a big hit on video and a firm, schedule-filling favourite in the early days of SyFy (née The Sci-Fi Channel) — so much so that, when the network got wind of Digital Man, they elected to co-produce it alongside A.P.E.X.’s North American distributor, Republic Pictures. 

In retrospect the move was a passing of the baton. While Captan and his company, Green Communications, would go on to assemble Space Marines (1996) for SyFy, the positive response Digital Man received from the station’s audience and — crucially — its executives resulted in Roth becoming SyFy’s preeminent supplier, when he and the film’s lead, Ken Olandt, the star of TV show Super Force, which was playing in syndication on the channel, founded the Unified Film Organization in Digital Man’s wake.

Roth and Olandt’s aim for UFO was simple. They wanted to produce low budget theatrical quality FX extravaganzas for the home entertainment arena, and the content-hungry SyFy were happy to lap up whatever wares Roth, Olandt, and, later, former Green Communications exec turned UFO VP Jeffrey Beach were touting. The rest is history. UFO and SyFy’s harmonious agreement endured for the better part of thirty years and encompassed every key trend in DTV and made-for-cable science fiction, fantasy and horror, including but not limited to: VR nightmares (Darkdrive (1997)); biff-’em-up space operas (Velocity Trap (1999)); creature features (Python (2000) and Boa (2001)); mythical mini-epics (Dragon Storm (2004)); disaster flicks (Magma (2006)); and franchise sequels (Wrong Turn 3 (2009), 5 (2012) and 6 (2014)).

Watching Digital Man, it’s easy to see why SyFy’s brass declared Roth a talent to keep hold of. As already noted, Roth’s skills as a technician and stylist had come on leaps and bounds across his Bad Trip (1988) to Prototype slate, and, at the time of Digital Man’s release, it was certainly the helmer’s most strikingly shot movie. Lensed by Harris Done — who Roth, Olandt and Beach subsequently hired to direct Storm (1999) — the film is gifted a slick and dynamic sheen, with restless and propulsive camerawork that roves around and finds ‘the moment’ in each and every scene. Often stunning to look at, Roth is at the top of his aesthetic game and playfully flits between shadowy future-shock and sun-soaked western licks, navigating the visual juxtaposition with elegance, ceremony, and wit. 

Where Digital Man falters a touch is in its scripting — but it’s tough to level too much criticism at Roth and frequent collaborator Ronald Schmidt’s screenplay due to how much it’s appeared to have impacted on nearly every film that SyFy has bankrolled since. Broadly speaking, writing has never been Roth’s strongest suit. Decent characterisation and quality dialogue are rare commodities in a UFO joint. Instead, their scripts are conceptually and rhythmically focused. They’re battleplans rooted in market-friendly hooks and attention-holding narrative developments; the exact same template that SyFy insisted companies such as Nu Image, Active, CineTel, and The Asylum rigidly stick to when execs Thomas P. Vitale, Ray Cannella, and Chris Regina revamped the network’s in-house movie division in 2002, when the ‘SyFy Original’ really started to rise. Here, in Digital Man, the elevator pitch is ‘a rogue cyborg vs. Aliens (1986)-esque grunts and a bevy of rent-a-hicks’, and the story, in which Mattias Hues’ eponymous war machine blasts his way through the dust bowl he crash lands in, is essentially an escalating series of gunfights and explosions punctuated by pockets of speech-bubble chatter. Additional pomp is provided by what’s arguably Roth’s finest and gamest cast (Adam Baldwin, Ed Lauter, Paul Gleason, Don Swayze, Clint Howard, Susan Tyrell, Sherman Augustus, and an uncredited Amanda Wyss among them); a smattering of cool flesh n’ steel make-ups by Todd Masters; the video game élan of the Digital Man’s bulky combat outfit; and a bunch of great visual effects by Mach Universe and David Wainstain that stand toe-to-toe with the much ballyhooed CGI vistas innovated by Roth’s bigger budgeted contemporary, Brett Leonard, in his films The Lawnmower Man (1992), Hideaway (1995), and Virtuosity (1995).

The meat, however, comes courtesy of the auteur flourishes.

Without question, Roth’s love and understanding of CGI as a gimmick, storytelling device, and a form of expression is as art-oriented as it is fiscally motivated. As mentioned, FX-driven programmers are UFO’s reason to be — their bread and butter. But when Roth wields the megaphone (his switch from directing to producing is a tremendous loss to B/cult/DTV cinema, regardless of the bangers he’s supervised post his directorial swansong, Dark Waters (2003)), the images and ideas transcend the mercenary genesis of his output. The end goal is always a saleable product, but his preoccupation with specific notions and motifs suggest an artist keen to probe the mysteries of the human condition. It’s this, then, that’s Digital Man’s legacy. Not only is it a totemic text in the development of the SyFy movie framework, it’s also Roth’s crowning thematic achievement despite its cookie-cutter exposition and an obvious narrative flaw. In a curious bit of plotting, it’s made clear to us that half of the Olandt-headed marine team sent in to take Hues offline are cyborgs — a bit of a flub considering that who is and who isn’t a tin-man is presented as a surprise throughout the film’s duration. But as the nuts, bolts and wires of those that Hues’ experimental battle bot obliterates are exposed, the existential, Blade Runner (1982)-indebted angst mounts with a poignancy that eclipses Digital Man’s structural misstep, enabling Roth to finally answer the questions on the nature of identity that have bugged him since his debut, Bad Trip.

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