“You’re bonkers, Manborg!”
The thing about filmmaking technology today is that that anyone can put his or her dreams on screen. The thing about the movie Manborg is that that ANYONE can put his or her dreams on screen.
It’s the future. Earth is at war with Hell (yes, the Hell) and the humans are losing badly. One soldier falls on the battlefield, only to wake up later as a half-man, half-machine…a Manborg! Manborg (Matthew Kennedy) is captured by a sinister Baron (Jeremy Gillespie), and put into a gladiator ring with other resistance fighters, including martial arts master Number One Man (Ludwig Lee), wisecracking sharpshooter Justice (Conor Sweeney) and knife-fighting hottie Mina (Meredith Sweeney). Manborg helps his new pals escape captivity, but there’s no escaping destiny. He learns it’s up to him to defeat the evil Draculon (Adam Brooks) and drive back the forces of Hell for good.
Here’s another great example of a filmmaker accomplishing a lot with very little. Director Stephen Kotanski, one of the brains behind Astron-6, filmed the movie mostly in front of a green screen in his garage, with occasional locations around his hometown of Manitoba. Props, models, and costumes were created by scrounging up random junk at thrift stores. The CGI backgrounds never look like anything other than CGI backgrounds, and the stop motion animation of the giant monsters and robots is of the clunkiest kind. Yet somehow this strange alchemy comes together to be its own visual style, one that both works as an homage to cheesy sci-fi while also being cheesy sci-fi.
Although the whole movie is tongue-in-cheek, I get the sense that Kotanski genuinely loves these characters, and there’s a real sentiment simmering beneath all the laughs. When Manborg speechifies about family and heroism, it’s all part of the spoof, but it’s delivered with such earnestness that I can’t help but think Kotanski and actor Matthew Kennedy are really pushing themselves to make these moments as heartfelt as can be. The point is, unlike a lot of other low-budget spoofs, this one has some heart, and is more than just cynicism.
That said, don’t mistake Manborg for high drama. The bulk of the movie takes place in the gladiator arena, where Manborg and his pals fight all manner of baddies, from random thugs to giant stop-motion monstrosities. There’s a lot of gunplay, martial arts moves, and rubbery gore. The best thing about all this is that it keeps the movie zipping along at a quick pace, and doesn’t feels too repetitive. The violence is peppered with comedy bits, such as Justice’s hilarious dance-fighting.
While the filmmakers and cast are in on the joke, which is fine, Manborg slips when making the comedy less of an homage and more overt. Number One Man is badly dubbed, in an attempt to recreate the infamously bad English dubbing of old kung fu movies, and the joke wears itself thin quickly. This is too bad, because Number One Man has a ton of expository dialogue, and that dubbed voice really grates after a while. Similarly, there’s a comedic subplot about the Baron trying to seduce Mena, even though he gets flustered around girls. I’ve never been a fan of buffoon villains, even in comedy, and the Baron/Mena shtick is the worst kind of bad guy buffoonery.
The picture quality on the DVD is a little rough, often hazy or grainy when it could be clearer. I assume this is due to the film’s low-budget nature. There are two commentaries, a jokey one with the cast and crew, and more technical one with just the director. Both are worth a listen for tales from the indie movie trenches. From there, we get a behind-the-scenes featurette, Q&A footage from the premiere, deleted scenes, special effects montages, bloopers, and the trailer. The packaging proclaims, “includes Bio-Cop.” This is a short sketch that appears at the end of the movie itself.
God help me, I actually liked Manborg. It’s a loving homage to the cheesiest of sci-fi, told in a cheesy yet loving fashion.