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Hipster Holy Grail: Evolver (1995)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover a hidden treasure. Sometimes I don't. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews:

Evolver is one of those movies I hate to admit that I enjoyed.  It's bafflingly stupid and isn't particularly funny-bad, but I kinda enjoyed finding all the ways it made no sense.  Don't watch this if you want a Bad Movie Night, but maybe check it out if you enjoy picking nits and want a little bit of nostalgia while you're at it.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Kyle Baxter (Ethan Embry) is a teenage computer genius / hacker who loves to play an exciting Virtual Reality arcade game called "Evolver."  The point of Evolver is that you go through an obstacle maze and fight with a robot - also named Evolver - who gets smarter each time you beat him.  By the time you reach Level Four he is apparently so brilliant that he cannot be beaten, as nobody has done so yet.

That doesn't stop many from trying, however, because there's a groovy contest going on.  The prize?  A real Evolver robot that'll bring the game to life!

Actually, I'm really not clear on whether or not the competitors know that this is the prize, since Kyle acts surprised when the robot is delivered later on.  Also, I'm not entirely sure what the rules are for entry or how you actually win, as it doesn't look like the game gives you many standards to go on.  But that's besides the point.

The point is that Kyle wins - actually, he doesn't win; he hacks into the gaming company's database and changes his score to cheat his way to winning, but this is never again brought up or paid off, so he might as well have just won - and their head programmer, Dr. Bennett (John de Lancie) comes to Kyle's house to deliver his very own Evolver bot.

Kyle and his friends and family are all excited at first to try playing with Evolver.  In real life, he acts pretty much the same as in the game, except that he shoots little foam balls instead of bullets and plods around like a tank instead of swooshing back and forth on jet packs.  But there's one tragic similarity: he's a killer robot.

Honestly, this should come as a surprise to nobody, least of all the guy who invented him, but... you know what?  Let's table that.  Evolver's got a lot of problems we'll have to get to.

At first nobody realizes that the robot's out for blood because he keeps saying things about "playing" in a cute, non-threatening robot voice.  But once Evolver realizes he can't actually kill people with foam balls, he starts upgrading his hardware with deadlier ammunition: steel ball bearings, kitchen knives, and eventually an honest-to-God laser beam.

You know... now that I write that out, it's actually kind of a major leap from a steak knife to a laser blaster.  The movie kinda glosses over that.

Anyway, Evolver kills some people without being detected for awhile, but then the murders start piling up and eventually Kyle realizes the real-life game is... uh... real.  He faces off with Evolver in a dramatic confrontation in his own home, which includes Evolver setting a lot of slow-burning fires that don't actually spread (you know, the movie kind of fire) and holding his mom and sister hostage beneath a laser beam death trap.

Speaking of that death trap - I just wanted to mention what might be my favorite part of the movie.  It's already established at this point that Evolver is a threat and Mom and Allie (Kyle's sister) are afraid of it.  They're also pretty well aware that the laser trap will kill them if they try to move through it.  So, the movie cuts away from that and show's Kyle's battle for awhile.

Then, apropos of nothing, it cuts back to Mom and Allie.  Mom's line to her daughter is, "Allie, give me bear."  (Not a typo; the actual line.)  Allie hands over her precious stuffed bear, then Mom throws it through the lasers and it bursts into flame.  Then it cuts away and this is never revisited,

I guess I just like the idea that Mom is a vindictive jerk who really, really hated that bear.  And she decided that now was the right time to prove a point.

Anyway, Kyle wins.  The End.

The Part About Killer Robots (One in Particular)

Ugh, this robot really gets to me.  Killer Robots are an easy genre to figure out, but somehow Evolver screwed it up.  I think they made it too hard on themselves.

I would say the problem is that the movie doesn't set up any rules for how Evolver works, but it actually does.  The problem is more that it sets up too many rules and then either ignores or forgets them.

Y'see, what we're led to believe is that Evolver thinks it's playing a game.  The game starts when you tell him, "I want to play," and he scans your face and registers you as a combatant.  All the humans are on a team against Evolver.  It wins if it can score 100 "kill points" against every human - points are attributed seemingly at random - and the humans win if they can score 100 kill points against Evolver.  It scores by shooting you with pellets, and you score by shooting a light gun at a couple of little blinky lights on his shoulders.  After each round, Evolver upgrades his motor functions to become more difficult, but if you tell him you don't want to play anymore, then he shuts down and resets.

That seems to be clear enough, except as soon as this is established, Evolver proceeds to ignore the fuck out of all of it. He's just a little asshole murder-bot.

Don't want to play?  Too bad - Evolver will scan your face, anyway.  Did you already get 100 points scored against you with foam bullets?  Too bad - Evolver decided it doesn't count as a kill until you're dead.  Did you fake your death and Evolver registered it as a kill?  Too bad - Evolver changed his mind and marked you down from "dead" to "still alive."  Since when can a kill-bot change it's damn mind about these things?

And why does Evolver keep going up in difficulty against all new combatants?  Shouldn't he reset to Level One difficulty when he's playing against somebody new?  What's the point of "levels" at all?

You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize just how shitty Evolver's programming really is.  He has like a billion ways of recognizing that a game is beginning, but almost no way of recognizing that a game is ending.  He has no concept of losing - he actually glitches out and turns robot-insane once Kyle bests him on Level Four - and he doesn't even have a built-in definition of what a "kill" is until he "kills" Allie and she tells him, "No you didn't, I'm still alive."

Can you imagine if Evolver was, say, Excel?  You'd type up your spreadsheet and it would go, "I see you have started doing some math.  Do you want me to do math with you?"  And you'd say, "No, that's okay, Excel.  I got this covered."  But then Excel would follow you around and keep counting prime numbers, and that's all it would do.  Next time you try to make a new spreadsheet, it would be like, "Error, I have not reached infinity yet."  Evolver is basically a less annoying version of Clippy, is what I'm saying.

The Part About Rogue Scientist Types

Really, though, you can't blame Evolver for being a piece of shit.  It's all Dr, Bennett's fault.

Y'see, at one point in the movie, we find out that Dr. Bennett loaded a program called "SWORD" into Evolver's database.  SWORD was a top secret military project that ended six years prior to the film, and its purpose was to invent an adaptive form of AI with the explicit goal of "total elimination of all targets."

So... why is Dr. Bennett so surprised when his killer robot, loaded with top-of-the-line killer software, kills people?  In a remorseful moment, he says he "just wanted to prove that the program worked," but if the goal of the program is explicitly KILL EVERYONE, where exactly was he going with this plan?

And if you know that you're putting the SWORD protocol into your stupid robot, why wouldn't you put in even one safeguard?  Like... make it shut down completely when you say "Game Over" or make it unable to load new ammunition into its pellet barrel or make it take you out of its target database if you say, "I don't want to play," or literally one of two thousand possible ways you could prevent it from turning itself into a Terminator?  Even laundry machines have cut-off switches so you can't run them with the door open.

And if Dr. Bennett's plan was just to prove that SWORD works, why did he even go to the effort of putting it into Evolver in the first place?  In order for his plan to work, he'd have to:

a) Program a new virtual reality platform capable of running exciting new combat-related games;
b) Program a game on said platform that features a robot villain that can use SWORD technology;
c) Ensure the game was so hugely successful that it would even merit setting up a contest;
d) Hope that he got enough entrants into his contest that at least one of them would want a real-life version of Evolver; and
e) Hope that his robot that is specifically programmed to kill people would not actually kill people, but give him usable data on how to kill people.

This is the worst criminal plot I've ever heard. James Bond villains have thought their shit through more than Dr. Bennett.

The Part About Weird Movie High Schools (Again)

I've thus far neglected to talk about Kyle's high school, and I want to make sure I hit this point because it's another one of those crazy movie high schools where all the kids get into shenanigans that should be way beyond their years.  I really feel like I must have gone to a sheltered school system whenever I see a movie like this.

First of all, you've got Kyle's best friend, Zach, who is not only a horndog, but also an entrepreneur.  And I don't mean that he sells candy or weed on the side or that he makes stupid Evolver-themed T-shirts. I mean that he runs a gambling ring, sells illegal porn, and basically runs a black market out of his garage.

One of Zach's first misadventures is to lose a bet with a jock / bully, who threatens his life if he doesn't pay up a matter of a $1,200 gambling debt.  What kind of fucked up school is this?  Zach owes a grand to a wannabe mob enforcer?  Jesus Christ.  Back in my day, the worst thing that happened was you sometimes had to eat lunch alone because you forgot to give your friend back a Nintendo game you'd borrowed.

But later Zach somehow manages to outdo himself by trying to use Evolver to sneak into the girls' locker room at school, take naked pictures of them, and sell them to the highest bidder.  It's another one of those Revenge of the Nerds moments where one of your protagonists, ostensibly a merrymaking prankster, is actually a sex offender, and suddenly you don't know who should live or die.

The Part About Underground Arcades

I hate to admit this because it kinda makes me feel like one of those obnoxious types who gets excited about movies for terrible reasons, but I was hooked by this movie as soon as they revealed the arcade.

It's one of those hip, sorta underground-type arcades that only ever existed in movies.  You know the kind, right?  The ones with a bunch of attractive people were all too eager to watch nerds play video games and everybody who hung out was cool instead of a fat weirdo who was only barely grasping the concepts of personal hygiene?  Like the gamer scene in Hackers or the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Wizard.

But it never worked out that way in the real world, sadly.  Most arcades I've ever known have gone bankrupt and even when they were at their peak (during my life, anyway), they rarely had anybody in them other than slight variations on me.

The arcade in Evolver looks like it actually has a somehow shittier business model, as the entire building seems to be devoted to exactly one game that only allows for two players at a time.  How much money do you have to spend to play Evolver, anyway?

But I definitely need to mention the arcade because it's where my other favorite moment of the movie is set.  Might as well go out on this one.

At one point Evolver (the robot, not the game) is strolling around outside and gets a peek at the arcade.  He goes inside and sees two stoners playing the game.  Evolver kills one and then blasts a hole through the virtual reality helmet of the other.

But the other stoner isn't dead - he just has a helmet with a hole in the visor.  And he's so stoned, duuuude that he thinks he's still playing the game.  So he hangs out and parties with Evolver until it kills him.

That might make this movie the world's longest, most elaborate, and most poorly-planned PSA.

Where You Can Watch

Evolver is currently streaming on Netflix, but you can also check it out on Youtube until it gets pulled.