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Hipster Holy Grail: Grid Runners / Virtual Combat (1995)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

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

If you like the premise of Virtuosity, but you think it's just too good a movie, then go watch Grid Runners.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (Junior Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

It's the future (from 1995), and the Internet is a big deal.  But not exactly the way we know and love it.  In the world of Grid Runners, the Internet has been overshadowed / co-opted by incredibly powerful virtual reality machines that are used for pretty much the same things we use the Internet for (i.e., porn, gambling, and ego fulfillment).  So, instead of wasting money / masturbating in the privacy of your own home, people travel to hotspots where they can hook into "the Grid" via complex VR contraptions.

We get to see this in action at one of the most popular Grids in Las Vegas, where the holographic head of Rip Taylor tells us to come to a VR shop and enjoy some casual sex.  Then we get to see a couple of schlubby tourists go to a dark, neon-lit Grid club and pick out some sexy AI, then buy a day pass to have sex with each of them.  Business as usual.

But the Grid isn't just about sex - it's also about violence.  We quickly get introduced to our hero, David Quarry (Don Wilson), a policeman of some sort who is strapped into a VR machine for some combat training.  The program he's running lets him beat up virtual components who get increasingly more difficult to fight until eventually he gets to level 10 and squares off against Dante (Michael Bernardo).  Dante is a big, beefy dude who either wears a creepy mask or just mugs at the camera a lot.  David does pretty well in his fight with Dante, but loses at the last minute when he thinks he's won the fight and turns his back.

David comes back to the real world to chat with his partner, and here's where I'll have to interrupt to say that I'm not entirely sure what their job actually is.  They call themselves "Grid Runners," which implies that they're security guards who monitor and protect the Grid.  But then they also just kind of act like general police officers.  So... I don't know.

There's a few throwaway scenes here where they chat about life and take down a group of thugs who were trying to steal AI data from the Las Vegas Grid, but very little of it is important to the plot.  All you need to know is: A) David is a nebulous LEO; B) He has a partner; and C) David has a huge, '90s-era cell phone / device thing with a video screen that basically is a miniature AI that gives him information on demand.  The AI appears in the form of Mary (Stella Stevens), a gentle-mannered and kindly woman who is filmed against a white background.

I'm not sure I totally get what Grid Runners was trying to achieve with Mary.  Like, I get the concept - she's an AI that helps David.  But why is she presented as an actual woman sitting against a white wall?  Sure, that's cheap to film, but it's so boring.  She doesn't do anything.  If you wanted to show it off as the future, why not portray her as a blinky waveform or something and dub Mary's voice over it?  You wouldn't be spending much extra money and you'd end up with something that looks way better.  As is, it took me until near the end of the movie to realize that Mary was, in fact, AI and not just some random assistant talking into a webcam back at HQ.

So, now the movie cuts away to a sterile lab somewhere to introduce the villain, Burroughs (Ron Barker).  Burroughs is a sleazy businessman / evil CEO archetype who owns a bunch of AI that live on the Grid, including all the programs we've seen so far.  He's visiting the lab because his employee, Dr. Cameron, has just invented a new process by which he can take AI out of the Grid and turn them into physical beings in the real world.  The movie calls this "cloning," because I don't think the writer knew what that word means.

The way this works is that he types mumbo-jumbo onto a computer and then it sends information to a vat of sludge.  The sludge gels together in the form of the AI, and from there it basically acts like a normal person, except that if it gets hit really hard, it vaporizes and turns into a pile of goo.  The only other rule about these things is that you can only have one sludge-person per AI - no duplicates.  (Which is even more reason not to call them "clones.")

Besides that, there really isn't a clear set of rules about them.  Sometimes they act like robots.  Sometimes they act like humans.  Sometimes they are restricted by their programming.  Sometimes they have free will.  Sometimes they have super strength.  Sometimes they're wimpy.  They're just weird sludgebots that do whatever the screenwriter needs them to do.

Burroughs is excited about this new invention and has Dr. Cameron create sludgebots out of his two best-selling sex AI: Greta (Dawn Ann Billings) and Liana (Athena Massey).  Greta is an icy dominatrix type, and Liana is a generic Playboy model type.  Burroughs creepily tells them both to join him in his limo, and then he puts shock / behavior collars on them to stop them from running away on their own.

After they leave, a third sludgebot mysteriously rises out of the goo... oh, no, it's Dante!  He kills Dr. Cameron and leers spookily at the equipment, then leaves to go about some nebulous plan.

A lot of this is either needlessly kept a secret or just not explained well, but what we're supposed to understand is that Dante talked to Greta and Liana while inside the Grid and planned his escape before Dr. Cameron sludgified anybody.  Somehow, in the process of being created, Greta left the doorway open to allow Dante to come into the real world, too, and now he wants to sludgify all his other violence buddies from the Grid so he can wreak more havoc.  He can't do that from the lab, though - he has to go to some other place for arbitrary reasons.  So now he's communicating to the sexbots using robot telepathy so they can all enact his master plan.

They get to work, and along the way, Dante kills David's partner.  David starts investigating and it's not very interesting.

Later, Liana either escapes from Burroughs or is sent away by Burroughs to track down David (I'm not sure I was paying enough attention by that point to really care what was happening).  Whatever happens, the point is that David and Liana meet up at a homeless shelter where he's continuing his investigation.  They immediately hit it off and decide to team up after David protects Liana from a couple of random thugs and helps her to get the shock collar off.

Through Liana, David learns that Burroughs is up to a shady criminal enterprise that indirectly was related to his partner's murder.  Then David and Liana have sex, because what else is there to do at a homeless shelter?  They have a post-coital fight with some random baddies, and gradually David comes to realize that Liana is a sludgebot and that Dante is trying to activate other bad guys.

I hate to speed through the rest of this, but honestly, the movie's gets less interesting as it goes on.  The big problem here is that you have two villains that are each working toward their own, separate goal, and the movie isn't smart enough or inventive enough to pull off a parallel structure.  It just becomes a bloated mess.  There are times you see David screwing around and you go, "Wait, which bad guy is he trying to track down right now?  I can't remember."

The point is, eventually David confronts Burroughs at his villain hideout, and then Burroughs dies.  Then Dante kills Liana.  Then David and Dante have a big stupid fight and David wins.  Then he goes back to life as usual, except now he hooks up with Liana back in the Grid, where I guess she's forced to live the remainder of her existence as a self-aware sex slave?

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Eh.  There's some good stuff here - a few great laughs or character moments, like how Burroughs is playing a pipe organ when they introduce him (as if he doesn't look enough like a villain).  But there's also a lot of down time.  I'm going to be generous can lump it in the Junior Varsity Bad Movie category: you have to reeeeaaally want to watch a bad movie to enjoy it.

The main problem is the action.  Grid Runners is another one of those movies where the crew got a serviceable action lead, but they didn't really know what to do with him.  I know for a fact that Don Wilson can be fun to watch - I've seen it before - but he's just so boring in this movie.  The fight scenes are slow and cut poorly, so you rarely get to see him deliver the goods.  Even when he's fighting with stuntmen who should be able to keep up, they've over-choreographed the fights so that incidental characters on the side don't look bad.  For example: the fight scene in the homeless shelter where Liana arbitrarily becomes a martial arts master.  Athena Massey is easy on the eyes, but she's an even worse action presence than she is a dramatic one, and every punch she throws is awkward and could easily be dodged if there wasn't a director telling the bad guys to hold still and take it.

Actually, the best-executed fight scene in the whole movie is a halfway-decent tracking shot toward the end that features the villain.  There's a part where the camera pulls back through a hallway as you see Michael Bernardo walk toward the frame, stopping only to beat up security guards along the way.  It's an unbroken shot that lasts about a minute or so and it's kind of neat to watch simply because it looks like everybody's actually moving like a normal human being.  When there's no choreography, (some of) the stars can be fun to watch.

Bad fight scenes can be funny, but they're more often just boring.  So, I guess I don't really have a lot to say about 40% or so of this movie.

There are a lot of fun touches whenever it's just being a dumb science-fiction movie.  The low-budget special effects are suitably cheesy and the world-building around the "Grid" concept is used well from time to time.  And of course, there's Michael Bernardo.

Actually, let me just cut to the chase and keep it quick: he's the only real good reason to watch this movie.  The thing I glossed over in my recap is how they present Dante in the real world.  I have yet to watch any other movies featuring Mr. Bernardo, so I'm not sure if I'm missing something obvious - like maybe he's got a thick accent or a terrible stutter or something.  All I know is that the director really didn't want him to say anything in this movie, so instead of speaking, Bernardo just twitches his eyebrows wildly while Michael Dorn dubs in all the dialogue after the fact.

It makes no sense.  The implication at first is that Dante is communicating with the other sludgebots via the Internet / telepathy, and I guess that makes a little bit of sense.  But then he starts interacting with other people, and it's clear he's speaking to them - but he keeps up his shtick, mouth firmly clamped shut.  So the whole movie is him gesticulating wildly as Michael Dorn's disembodied voice disinterestedly fails to keep up with Michael Bernardo's elastic brow.

That nonsense alone bumps this up from "bleah" to "mild recommendation if you're really stuck for bad movies."

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Obscurity bonus: 20 points, with around 330 IMDb ratings as of today.  I'll give it another 15 cred for the cast, split between Wilson, Bernardo, and an extremely brief appearance by Loren Avedon.

It gets an obsolescence bonus of 10 points for roughly approximating the impact of the Internet, but then immediately ruining it by tying it into virtual reality.  (Though who knows, I may be setting myself up for an obsolescence bonus if Oculus Rift ever catches on.  Then this review will be the snake eating its own tail when a hipster from 2050 goes, "Hey, you remember blogs?  I found this really meta one from the mid 2010s.")

Lastly, I'll give it a 5 point bonus for not really understanding what clones OR robots are.

That works out to a middle-of-the-road total of 50 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  That's an appropriately shrug-worthy score for a shrug-worthy movie.

Where You Can Watch

It was released on DVD, so technically you can find a legit copy if you check eBay often enough.  But I watched it on Youtube.