When one hears the name Toho Studios, what immediately jumps into their mind are the likes of Godzilla, Mothra, and their respective ilk, and though this is easily their most recognizable contribution to science fiction, the company has taken various stabs at creating works centered on different science fiction concepts besides giant monsters. Examples include the alien-invasion flick The Mysterians, the fantastical adventures of Atragon and Latitude Zero, and the cyberpunk, robot-centric Gunhed. Gunhed has an interesting history; the script was a runner-up in a competition held by Toho that would allow people to create and submit their own plot concept for the next Godzilla movie following 1984's The Return of Godzilla. While the winner would become 1989's Godzilla vs. Biollante, Gunhed was reworked into its own feature-length product, but was receiving second place worth the effort?
(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS ARE AHEAD) In the not-too-distant future of 2005, a company known as Cybortech builds the first self-operating machine producing complex on a remote island known as 8-JO. Running the facility is a super computer known as Kyron-5; although things seem perfectly fine, in 2025, Kyron goes rogue and declares war on humanity. To prevent any further cataclysm, a platoon of soldiers and Gunhed mechs is sent to the island to take care of the problem; unfortunately, countless losses during the dispute forces them to retreat, leaving Island 8-JO to be nothing but a giant ghost town. In the following years, gold has lost much of its value and computer chips and plastic materials have become hot money. In search of such valuables, a team of scavengers travels to the abandoned island with the hopes of obtaining Kyron-5's computer chips and any other materials. Amongst the team is their newest recruit, Brooklyn (Masahiro Takashima), who everyone views as nothing more than just a rookie.
They arrive at the island and begin their search, but as they continue their endeavors, an unknown being has started to pick off the group one by one, and soon only Brooklyn, Bebe (Aya Enyoji), and Bombay (Jay Kabira) are left. The three come across a Texas Air Ranger named Nim (Brenda Bakke), who explains that her unit was pursuing a robot cyborg called the Biodroid when their helicopter crashed on the island. After losing Bombay while evading the Biodroid, the two hunters and Nim find Kyron-5's control complex, along with a vial of a powerful element known as Texmexium, which can be used to power supercomputers. Nim's target attacks the trio, causing Bebe to fall in a vat of green liquid and disappear. Brooklyn and Nim are then attacked by Kyron's last line of defense, the Aerobot, and narrowly escape its grasp. Fortunately, they are saved by two kids named Seven (Yujin Harada) and Eleven (Kaori Mizushima), who is mute. The pair are the only people left from when researchers and families were stationed at the complex years prior, but as the groups tries to find a way out, they discover parts of a Gunhed mech.
Brooklyn believes that it can be fixed and used to take down Kyron-5, who is on a countdown to total reactivation, and needs the Texmexium in order to be successfully revived, but Nim thinks escaping the island should be their main goal. Therefore, the two split, with Seven staying to help Brooklyn and Eleven assisting Nim in finding an escape route. As the former duo gets to work repairing the robot, they are attacked by the Biodroid, who is searching for the vial they stole, and Brooklyn learns that Bebe has become trapped within its conscience. With no other choice, Brooklyn and the newly repaired Gunhed spring into action to prevent the return of Kyron.
From the perspective of its set-up, Gunhed sounds like a promising endeavor, and adding to that notion is the film's visual style and aesthetics. The movie is clearly inspired by the likes of The Terminator and Aliens, as the design and tone is similar to those works. From the opening sequence of the movie which showcases the fight between Kyron and the human and robot forces, to the battered and dingy look of Island 8-JO, the filmmakers clearly wanted their movie to feel like one of James Cameron's productions. Sadly, when the plot kicks into gear and the cast of characters is introduced, the movie reveals itself to be a jumbled mess.
In Gunhed, the characters are either bland, forgettable, or annoying, with the exception of one. Brooklyn, in spite of being set up as the hero, is fairly generic, and there's not much reason to care for him, even when he's put into perilous situations or given an explanation as to why he joined up with the scavengers in the first place. Speaking of which, everyone else who encompasses the vagabond group are fairly arrogant and unlikeable, and making matters worse is that most of them are killed off within the first thirty minutes, which further adds to the notion of how disposable they are. Some of them do have brief glimpses of an interesting personality, such as the manic behavior their leader Bancho (Mickey Curtis) exhibits at the beginning of the picture, but such moments are few and far between.
Nim, Brooklyn's unlikely partner, doesn't fare much better either, as she is not only just a boring character, but a stubborn one too, since she doesn't decide to help the protagonist, but instead, ditch him, and hope he can figure things out on his own, combine that with a dull performance courtesy of Mrs. Bakke, and the only thing left she has going for is good looks. Yet, such individuals do not compare to the sheer frustration that is Seven; imagine Newt from Aliens if she was less helpful and more bothersome, that's this child in a nutshell. Most of the movie, his contributions to the plot involve obnoxious behavior and doing things that nearly threaten the lives of the protagonists, such as hopping into the Gunhed's rocket thrusters, preventing Brooklyn from activating them and avoiding death.
However, the one silver lining to this line-up of frustrations is Gunhed itself. The titular robot may be machine, but he has an endearing personality that gets plenty of chance to shine after he is rebuilt. He's akin to KITT from Knight Rider, as he prefers to get the job done, but there is also a humorous side to him; additionally, his design is quite unique, as he is capable of shifting between mech form and a vehicle mode which bears a slight resemblance to the Batmobile from Arkham Knight, and his weapons and abilities are unique too, it's just a shame he's being controlled by someone with as much personality as a 2x4.
Besides featuring characters loaded to the brim with problems, Gunhed's script suffers from too many plot holes and moments which seemingly come out of nowhere. To begin with, there's no clear explanation as to how Kyron-5 was disabled, even though the film explains that the forces retreated, they never tell how the supercomputer was still able to be shut off to prevent global takeover. Not only that, but its scheme for being resurrected is one which relied on sheer luck. The artificial intelligence had to hope that somebody would show up on the island with Texmexium in hand, and hope they would bring it to its core processor. Therefore, had the Biodroid not shown up, then a large portion of the events that happen during the movie could have been avoided. Adding more salt to the would, in a scene that completely comes out of nowhere, the reason for Eleven's muteness is that she is really a catalyst to help set Kyron's plan into motion. Because this character was largely off-screen prior to this revelation, it means we never got any clues or hints to this moronic twist.
On the bright side, the visual effects look solid, in spite of some obvious limitations; there's a nice mixture between full-scale and miniature models and sets, even if certain sequences involving a model Gunhed do look like you're witnessing a BattleBots episode on the big screen. Additionally, there's a lot of choppy editing and poor camera work interspersed throughout the picture, with frequent cuts to scenes that go nowhere and actions scenes that can be hard to follow due the frantic nature of the camera and pacing. Sound is a mixed bag; though this was an A.D.V. Films release, they decided to utilize the dub produced by Toho, which is a shame, because the voiceovers are laughably bad. The actors sound either too bored or too exaggerated, on the positive side, there are plenty of lines of dialogue which will stick out due to how silly they sound, with the highlight being Bombay's exclamation, "Sushi Slop Weirdos, Man!" upon looking at a lifeform scanner. The synth-heavy soundtrack ranges from good to forgettable; the best tracks include the ambience which plays during the introduction and the rhythmic, pulsing beats heard during Gunhed's first test run, but others, such as the confrontation music played during the fight between Gunhed and Aerobot, lack memorability.
It's a shame Gunhed is such a disappointment, as this was a film I had always wanted to see growing up. After years of watching a promo on the tape for Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, I finally got my hands on the film this past summer, and was very ecstatic to see what this was about; disappointingly, such high hopes were shot down. Admittedly, the movie does stand out from Toho's other work, given its darker style and gritty look, but its wasted on a story littered with clunky writing and characters not worth caring about. It does have merit to offer through its design and there is entertainment to be had from Gunhed, just not the right kind of fun.
Final Score: 4/10