B-movie Inspirations: Nemesis (1992) and its sequels
Nemesis (1992, Rated R)
… and its sequels (Nemesis 2: Nebula / Nemesis 3: Prey Harder / Nemesis 4: Death Angel)
Back in the early 90s, I got a copy of Nemesis from the local video store and watched it with a group of gamer friends as a movie night kind of thing. We were expecting just another terrible low budget B-movie with very little substance. We were pleasantly surprised by what is now considered a cult classic. It was a great action flick with awesome gun play and a deep story underneath it (although not very original). It turned out to be a very satisfying film. With actors like a very young Thomas Jane, Tim Thomerson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Brion James, and using great sets like the Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana, CA. and Yuma Territorial Prison State Park, how can you go wrong?
Unfortunately, the follow ups were far from the original. My biggest disappointment was the change in the star. Switching from Olivier Gruner who practically owned the role to body builder Sue Price, who just does not work for me in the lead role, was a huge disappointment. The sequels followed the core story arch but had little to do with the setting and the background set up in the first film. By the second film, they advanced it 70+ years and resorted to time travel to tell the story. Yes, from then on, it is just a cheap rip off of the Terminator series.
However, there is some RPG story seeds as well as a good story arc in this collection that I would like to explore. Yea, taking on four movies in one article is pretty challenging but these movies are bad enough that they can be easily handled in one article. The genre of these films is primarily cyberpunk which is rarely done well in movies. Hollywood thinks they understand this genre but they really don’t. Nemesis nails it pretty well in a low budget way, and the sequels carry on with the consequences of a world entirely too dependent on the tech that populates the cyberpunk genre.
Nemesis introduces us to the initial hero, Alex Raine. Set in the near future, he is a LAPD cop in a time when the police are overwhelmed by the level of tech crimes they have to deal with. It starts out with a feel that is a cross between Blade Runner and any 90s cop thriller, with a little hint of Robocop and Escape from New York thrown in. Lots of gun play in this movie. Great stunts too. The opening sequence has always been very memorable to me.
We are also introduced to a world where the US and Japan have merged like two big corporations; a world that is slowly being taken over by its technology. Raine is hunting down what he thinks is simply a terrorist group, which in this day and age would have more meaning then the 1990s. However, as he finds out, he is being used by the powers that be to hunt down freedom fighters – the only hope for humanity against the cyborg and synthetic androids that are replacing humanity. Raine himself is roughly 85% human, and struggles to remain human in a world more and more dominated by cyborgs. This theme resounds throughout the first film – can humanity lose its soul as it becomes more and more machine? Through Raine’s narration, we talk of his struggles to hang on to his humanity as more and more of him is replaced. This is part of the appeal of this movie. Unfortunately, this theme is diluted or completely lost in the sequels.
After a bad encounter with the terrorists, a group called the Red Army Hammerheads (nothing makes a bad guy in the 90s more than associating it with the “Red Army”), Alex Raine is put back together by the LAPD cybernetically (losing probably more of that 85%) and then we find that he has retired and hiding out in various remote locations, hunting down those that got away in the opening sequence. Meanwhile, the LAPD is trying to get him back for one final mission. Through various encounters, they finally capture him and implant him with a bomb ala Escape from New York and Snake Plisken’s deal. They force him into one last job to hunt down the terrorists and prevent then to do some bad stuff (a complex plot of some stolen data of security plans for some kind of summit).
In basically the second act, we change locations from LA and hot desert locations to the Pacific Rim. He is on the hunt for the leader of the Hammerheads and another character introduced earlier – Jerod, a synthetic ex-lover of Raine’s. The who and the why don’t really matter, a lot of intrigue, cloak and dagger and gun play in the streets of some exotic Polynesian location in the shadows of a volcano. Raine is caught between the LAPD android agents sent to make sure he does his job (as if the bomb was not enough), the agents of the Hammerhead freedom fighters, and the faction friendly to Jerod. The synthetic ex-lover, a sympathizer to the pro-human cause, is physically dead but her memory and personality is saved and passed on to Raine who must get it to the Hammerheads. They also implant a encoded jammer into Raine to give him a little more time and temporarily prevent the bad guys from detonating the bomb remotely, but it will be decoded into 6 hours. Thus the chase begins.
There are some great moments in Nemesis. The 90s overuse of the Desert Eagle as a futuristic weapons of choice or the man-portable .50 cal machine guns being shot from the hip by cyborg bad guys are just a few that I found funny. The clips of never ending ammo, “I’ll be back” line from a dying cyborg played by 80s hottie Deborah Shelton, the old lady killing the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s friend Sven-Ole Thorsen ending with the line “f*cking cyborg!“… all very great moments. These kinds of things were lost in the sequels unfortunately.
Core to the plot is an interesting idea on how the cyborgs are taking over. Instead of building an unstoppable army to roll over humanity in a massive war, the cyborgs are creating android clones that are perfect copies in all ways needed, controlled by the cyborgs. Raine’s boss Sam Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson) turns out to be one of those replaced. His bad guy accomplices with German accents are also cyborgs. You are lead to believe that Farnsworth is at the center of the take over. Jerod has data about this cloning process and the take over that has to get to the Hammerheads. This kind of blurs the line between human and android, flesh and cyborg, a little more than even Blade Runner – biotech droids that are indistinguishable from humans but still have a metal structure so much so that when you shoot them, sparks fly out. I took a lot for me to wrap my head around that one, but they are really trying to differentiate themselves from other similar stories.
Like I said, the sequels destroy all that the first movie built up by advancing things 70+ years and then time travelling back to the modern era to a remote (and cheap) location. At the start of Nemesis 2, we are told through scrolling text that a girl was born with mutant DNA that gives humans special powers and could spell doom for the cyborgs, although you are never really told why. The mother of this child gets access to time travel tech and travels back in time to the African savannah. The mother is subsequently killed by local gun toting mercenaries and the baby is taken in by local tribesman. It is not until 20 years after the baby was found by the tribesmen that the first cyborg hunters arrive. Named Alex, played by body builder Sue Price, she fights off each one as they come. The first two sequels are basically one movie split in two as most of the second sequel is left over and unused footage of the first. Both are more or less the same plot – android hunters are sent back in time to hunt her down – not an overused plot at all!
This is one of the worst examples of sequels gone terribly wrong. Nothing of the original movie is preserved in theme or story, except the fight against the cyborgs. They show you flashes of the original film during the credits as if to say “hey, remember how cool the first one was? Well, this one isn’t but still watch it please…” In the plains of war torn East Africa, our muscular heroine is chased down by a Predator-like cyborg called Nebula while fighting off local rebels. It is basically a cheap rip off of the Predator movies and like I said, has little to nothing to do with the original. If that was not enough, the most they can tell us about her “special DNA” and the powers it gives her is that she is big and strong. I bet that has the cyborgs shaking in their cyber-boots! There is a weak subplot when a couple of extra characters are brought in – something about a treasure and a plane – but this simply deviates even further from what Nemesis established. This probably would have been a fine movie separate from the Nemesis series but associated to it, it was terrible. It adds nothing to the overall story arch other than the fact that the DNA mutant is in 1998 Earth and is a big muscular girl. Even the bad guy made no sense? Why did he need to have breathing sounds in the POV shots (a la Predator) if he was a machine? Why the heck did he have some kind of blood draining weapon on one hand? So much more I can go into.
Nemesis 3: Prey Harder (why the play on words, I don’t know) supposedly picks up where #2 left off but it really doesn’t. Somehow we go from our heroine being rescued by two military guys in a jeep in #2 to her laying out in the desert with a Desert Eagle (yet again) in #3. This is actually explained later in a rather contrived but understandable way. Nemesis 3 brings back Tim Thomerson as Farnsworth 2, and by 1996, they found money in their budget to do rudimentary CGI for the new hunter drone. It camouflages itself as Tim Thomerson for the most part but is a chromed-up android underneath the human hologram.
Alex is pretty beat up and obviously dazed from something as she stumbles across Farnsworth 2. She has amnesia and doesn’t remember what happened to her or why she has a bullet hole in the head. Farnsworth helps her but at the same time manipulates her to try and remember what happened to her. This ends up being the first 30 minutes of the movie of which more than half is flashbacks to the previous film. Then the flashback scenes pick up in the jeep and carry it forward to a new time capsule entering into the shot. Thus finally enters the pendant her mother gave her in the first movie (and never was referenced again). It was like they said “oh yea, we forgot about the pendant… lets make another movie with all this extra footage we have.” It glows and leads her to the time machine where she meets her half sister, Rain. The two split up and plan to meet back at the time capsule. This leads to Alex having to search for her sister, who of course is in the hands of Farnsworth.
Nemesis 3 itself does more or less the same thing as the previous. Our heroine once again has to deal with renegade mercs, local rebels and exploding abandoned buildings. They introduce more eye-glowing cyborg hunters including two muscular platinum blonds and a few others that are helping Farnsworth. They reference the Nebula hunter from the first film as “just a bounty hunter” implying they are more official than the previous hunter. This comes into play late in the third act when the Nebula hunter reassembles, gains the same disguise function that the others have (somehow) and tries to claim its bounty from Farnsworth’s gang (introducing factional tension between the cyborgs). Using cloaking vehicles (that uses a very annoying special effect), the small army of cyborgs (that seems to grow with each scene) go after Alex in hopes they catch her before she procreates and passes on her genetic traits. She encounters several peripheral characters along the way including a shifty mercenary and a “war hero” that now has the brain of a 4 year old because of a head injury. They also brought over humans to help with the scientific stuff because the cyborgs can not perform abstract thought required to do the analysis of Alex’s DNA, apparently. They serve no other purpose other than to remind us of the enslaved humans in the future.
The sad part is that Nemesis 3 has more continuity with Nemesis 2 than Nemesis 2 had with Nemesis. And they did bring in more elements of Nemesis into the story, including a new Farnsworth and the plot behind the cyborg replacements. It carried forward the DNA mutation plot but still did not really explain why a stronger human would be such a threat. Can’t they make stronger androids? I think Nemesis 2 would have been a better movie if they simply merged the two and cut out a lot of the fluff. There was a lot more potential in Nemesis 3, especially when the reanimated Nebula hunter entered the picture, but it never reached it’s true potential.
There are many stupid moments in Nemesis 3 that I could have done without. The stupid cyber-cackle the two blonds would do after every one-liner; the aforementioned horrible effects for the vehicles which seemed to be some kind of cloak but didn’t seem to do any good because people always saw them coming; the inconsistencies in how durable the cyborgs are. It still was a little better than Nemesis 2, but marginally.
Finally, we return to the future (2080) in Nemesis 4: Death Angel. This brings it back to some semblance of the Nemesis, except with a lower budget and worse actors. We spend two movies watching Sue Price in skimpy outfits but never nude or topless, much to my relief. The director must have a fetish for muscular woman because in both 2 and 3, he tried to have as many provocative shots of her as possible without actually getting her naked. In Nemesis 4, however, all bets are off and she is topless or naked in most of the movie. I guess they were trying to make up for the lack of it in the other movies.
The plot of this is drab and disappointing, despite returning to the true genre of the original. The world of 2080 is a post war world, after the humans and cyborgs have come to an uneasy peace. Although they do mention that Alex is a human mutant, there is no mention of her special DNA or the threat she is to the cyborg take over. She has traveled to the future, apparently using the time capsule used by Farnsorth 2 in Nemesis 3. She even gains a last name – Sinclair. She is a bounty hunter and hit-man specializing in cyborgs, working for various factions of the underground and black market. She is good at what she does but her handler (played by Andrew Divoff) encourages her to retire after one final job.
This final job goes sour apparently and now someone wants her dead. People who thought she could trust turn on her. And she seems to wander the streets aimlessly while she waits for bad guys to come at her. During this mindless romp, she reveals several personal cyber and bio-mechanical modifications including a cyber-sex port allowing her to have sex with cyborgs, and some kind of nipple lances that she uses to skewer cyborgs through the head. Throughout, she is visited by a strange black garbed female she thinks is some kind of angel who has come for her. I thought this was going to be some kind of build up to the original DNA mutant plot but no, it was just a lame plot device that leads to the predictable twist – it was all a set up to kill her.
In the end, Nemesis 4 had even less to do with the original story arc then any of the others, except it had cyborgs. It dropped the “fate of humanity” plot for a lame crime syndicate plot ripped from an 80s TV show. The moral of the story is – don’t trust anyone in the cyborg future. And it turns out, Alex wasn’t all that special after all. I had high hopes for this one, and like my hopes when I saw Nemesis 2, they came crashing down.
RPG plots out of this are numerous, from simple adventures to long term campaigns. Some of them can come from what they could have done with the story arc they had started and not what they actually did.
Cyborg Enslavement: Something I got out of the Nemesis #1 was the Cyborg replacements. Cyberpunk games deal with the concept of “cyber psychosis” or the general break down of one’s humanity as more and more machines are implanted into them, in simple and very statistical fashion. What about the real consequences? What if the more you implant into yourself, the more you become a slave to the “system” or the “overlord AI” or whatever. An entire campaign can center around an AI overlord producing cybertech that slowly turns their wearers into cyborg slaves.
Who is the enemy?: The cyborg replacement plot-line had a Bodysnatcher feel to it. Replacing the powerful and the leaders can be an interesting plot twist that puts the characters on edge. They would not know who to trust. This kind of intrigue can only be accomplished with a solid group of RPers because many would not like being so left out there that they did not feel safe anywhere.
To find some place safe, they may need to turn to a former enemy. Turning someone they thought was the enemy (like the Hammerheads in the first movie) into allies would take considerable role play and some leverage – perhaps something the former enemies wanted.
DNA Mutant: What they did not deal with sufficiently, at least to my satisfaction was what made Alex Sinclair so special. What did she have that could bring down the cyborgs? And by the fourth film, she was less human than when she started because of new implants she was sporting. What was she? A mutant that could imitate any cyborg ability? A human that could not be copied into a cyborg synthetic by those that were doing the replacing? Or perhaps her DNA secretly stores a the code to a vicious computer virus that could infect all the cyborgs AI processors and destroy them once and for all (oh I like that one). That could be explored and an entire campaign of escorting her from one point to another could be drawn out.
However, I would avoid time travel at all costs. Unless you have your “time theory” down and defined, it is just going to be a point of contention for all and something the GM would have to keep up with in detail. Too much work.
I think the blurry definitions of cyborg, android and synthetic in all four movies would have to be more clearer before we can decide what she was. The cyborgs seemed more than organic material over a metallic endoskeleton. They seemed like a combination Terminator and Blade Runner and Alien Synthetics. They are partially organic but rugged and strong. What makes them indistinguishable from humans, even “by the best scans,” according to the first movie? A special cloaking field? Nanotechnology? The line is so blurred that cyborgs are having sex with humans. It’s pretty hard to imagine given the robotic and cybernetic examples we have had in the past, but with a little work and imagination, I think it can make sense.
The Hunter and the Hunted: I have done this kind of thing in multiple ways, but it’s fun to throw the players into a routine mission to some remote location where there is violence and then throw something alien and more violent them. Where do the players find allies? In the violent rebels they were just fighting with? In the villagers they were sent to save? Limit their supplies, isolate them from communication channels or a means to get out quickly. This is always fun for a one shot or a filler adventure.
However, because of the popularity of movies like Terminator and Predator, an adventure based on this concept has to be disguised well to prevent meta-gaming within the party. Also come up with an original hunter, and fully stat it out. In fact, come up with 3 versions of the hunter – lower powered, middle powered and higher powered. Some parties may work well enough together that they can take on the higher level hunter while others may not and need to take on the lower level. You may find yourself as a GM switching between each version during play until you are comfortable with one.
Battle of the X Armies: If they had simply done a trilogy, and 2 and 3 were one film, then you would have ended up with an interesting mix of competing factions. You would have two basic groupings – the modern Earth factions and the “other worldly” factions. The modern Earth factions would include the radical anti-government rebels of East Africa, the unpredictable mercenaries and treasure hunters who are usually their for their own reasons and potentially (although they never brought them in) pro-government forces. The “other worldly” factions would be the Nebula bounty hunter who was obviously in it for the money (and whoever he was working for) and Farnsworth 2 and his cyborg cronies (which would need to be trimmed down and made a little more unique, and significantly different from the Nebula cyborg). And the players could be caught between all these competing factions for their own reasons. These reasons could be, for example, the weak subplot that was never explored – the treasure hunter story in the second film or some mercenary team needs help extracting a wounded war hero they lost (who turns out to have severe head injuries and does not know who he is). There is a lot of potential there and unfortunately, they did not explore it in the movie.
However, a RPG GM can explore it in whatever genre he likes. Just define each faction, have stats for average soldiers, officers and special ops teams from each, a general idea of what each leader is like and his or her motivations, and make each faction significantly different so that the player do not get too confused on who they are dealing with.
Job gone wrong and it was a set up: Given a job that is actually a set up to eliminate the party can be a complex story line because you would have to have all the interested parties defined out well and their motivations clear. But once you have all that, the players would have a great time by first being the prey and then once they beat the hunters sent after them, they would turn to the hunters to take revenge against those that set them up.
Lost Hero: What the fourth movie should have done is return to the DNA mutant story line and bringing down the cyborg tyrants ruling over humanity but I am not sure their budget could afford it. Instead they stuck the heroine in the gutters of collapsed society where humanity is a oppressed and subjugated minority. Even that set up can be used, with a little tweaking of the plot (as well as a little more money in the budget). Now a cyborg assassin for hire, she would have to be pulled out of the dregs of society and reminded how important she is and why. Of course, the reason why she is such a threat to the cyborgs would have to be fleshed out as I mention above, and perhaps that’s why they never pursued this established story arch – because they could not figure out why she was such a threat. She could be caught in the middle of the plot to kill her, framed by various crime factions, and being chased through the ruins of an old part of a city (as she was in the movie) when a player party finds her and tries to convince her she is special and has the power to free humanity. But first they have to help her out of the underworld situation she is in. Meanwhile, more cyborgs that know who she is are hunting her down, getting word that a new freedom fighter group (the player party) is seeking her out.