A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… okay, this galaxy in the year 2000… Patrick Malahide played Peter Teller, director of a space-based prison orbiting the Earth in “Fortress 2: Re-Entry“. Apparently “Fortress 2” was the sequel to the somewhat modestly successful “Fortress” (1992), in which Kurtwood Smith (a familiar and reliable baddie from such movies as original flavour “RoboCop“) played “Prison Director Poe”, although his prison was Earth-based. Now, I haven’t seen the first “Fortress”, but I’m guessing that Poe met some kind of gruesome end at the hands of protagonist John Henry Brennick (Christopher Lambert), thereby requiring that he be replaced for the sequel. And from a brief look at IMDB, the storylines are extremely similar, except that they’ve upped the ante by putting the prison on an orbital platform this time. (Oops, that’s a spoiler.)
The original movie takes place in the near-future of 2027. Due to strict population controls, Brennick and his wife Karen (Beth Toussaint) were arrested for the crime of having an unauthorized child. Brennick was thrown into the Fortress, a futuristic prison run by the evil Men-tel corporation (yes, it’s a silly name) and Director Poe, from which Brennick escaped in what I’ll assume was some kind of showy, explode-y fashion. This movie opens seven years later, with Brennick and Karen still on the run with their son Danny (Aidan Ostrogovich), who’s now ten years old instead of seven, but whatever. That’s a minor thing compared to the other plot points coming up.
Captured by Men-tel
Brennick and his family have settled into an idyllic, isolated cabin in the woods, when they’re approached by some other Men-tel escapees, asking for Brennick’s help in smuggling a former Men-tel executive, who has the plans for the company’s new power station, to “Resistance HQ”. They also want Brennick to help them take out the power station, because Men-tel apparently only has the one. But before any of that can come to anything, there’s a raid on the cabin (not so secret as Brennick thought) by Men-tel militia, who expend a lot of ordinance to blow open doors on a relatively flimsy wooden cabin. After ensuring his wife and son’s escape (so he thinks), Brennick is taken alive. He’s knocked out with gas and wakes up in prison, freshly barcoded and awaiting processing.
Peter Teller, Your Basic Evil Overlord
Watching Brennick’s processing via desktop monitor is Peter Teller, doing a wee bit of restrained gloating. In contrast with the rest of the station, Teller’s office is fancy-schmancy, with a nice desk, Greek statues, plants, and a view. Teller watches with interest as Brennick is injected with Men-tel’s “new neural implant”, which basically ensures his obedience via “behaviour modification and control” – in other words, he’ll experience severe pain whenever he does something wrong. His escapee friends, including the former Men-tel executive with the power station information, have been taken prisoner as well. Unfortunately for the exec, Stanley (Willie Garson), his implantation has gone wrong; he’s still alive, but his brains have been scrambled. Yes, this becomes relevant later.
Teller is interrupted in his gloating by a video call from Susan Menderhall (Pam Grier), who appears to be checking up on him. Teller sarcastically asks how “Daddy” is doing, but she’s more interested in what he thinks he’s doing by bringing Brennick, a known enemy of Men-tel, to “her power station” (“Oh, is that what we’re calling it these days?” snarks Teller). Brennick’s a known security risk who’s already escaped from one Men-tel prison, and Susan pointedly reminds Teller that it was only her and his father’s intervention that saved his career “last time” (uhmmmm… but wasn’t that Kurtwood Smith?). She adds that it’ll be more than his job on the line if Brennick escapes again. I also couldn’t help noting that when Susan hangs up, we get a very brief glimpse of a computer screen that looks suspiciously like it’s running an early Windows OS… I might even say Windows 95 if I was being cynical. Perhaps Men-tel had to find some ways to economize. And I think we can also guess that Teller’s relations with his… stepmother… are a wee bit complicated.
A female computer voice informs Teller that “the new prisoners” have completed their orientation. “Labourers, Zed, labourers,” corrects Teller, exasperatedly. “Next thing you know, they’ll want a fucking union.” Okay, so I think we can surmise that the power station is being built by slave labour, with everyone’s behaviour under the control of a master computer – which appears to be running Windows 95. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s Hard Out There for a Prison Director
Brennick settles into the prison population while he tries to figure out his next move. Over a delightful-looking meal of nondescript prison mush, Brennick discovers that the rest of his ex-Men-tel cronies have been captured as well, with former flame Elena Rivera (Liz May Brice) particularly eager to get started on an escape plan. But then a riot breaks out in the commissary amongst the co-ed prisoners, because of course it does, and Teller – who’s watching the prisoners for his own amusement – is mostly perturbed at having his meal interrupted. Unlike his charges, he appears to be eating a much fancier meal of steak and potatoes. “Zed, I’m dining,” he protests, with an air of being terribly put-upon. But he does get a certain amount of sadistic joy out of watching the prisoners clutch their heads and writhe around on the floor in agony after Zed activates their implants: “Give them a little more juice,” he says, eyes glistening with enjoyment. One female prisoner refuses to let up her stranglehold on a guard, so the torture continues until Brennick kicks her in the head, which makes him a marked man among his fellow prisoners (of course). Intrigued, Teller orders Brennick brought to him.
On his way to the meeting, Brennick notes that Teller’s office is protected by a so-called “pain zone” which Zed must deactivate before he can go any further. Once there, Teller introduces himself as the “administrator of this God-forsaken institution” and explains that ten years ago (not seven!), he used to be in charge of all of Men-tel’s prison facilities, including the original Fortress, which Brennick destroyed in the first movie. “I’m so sorry,” says Brennick sarcastically. “You will be, once I get them here,” replies Teller smugly, swiveling his monitor around to show that Men-tel has found Brennick’s wife and son. Brennick lunges to attack but is instantly dropped in his tracks by the implant, activated by Zed at any perceived threat to Teller.
Not Just Any Prison, But a Space Prison!
Completely unphased, Teller checks his look in a hand mirror before giving an address to the entire station. He tells the prisoners there are only a “few simple rules for them to follow”: 1. Their death sentences have been stayed for “as long as [he] sees fit”, because they’re now property of the Men-tel Corporation; 2. “Physical contact” with staff is “strictly forbidden”, resulting in “being asked to leave”, which Teller dramatically illustrates by showing the female inmate from the commissary scuffle being ejected out an airlock. Oh, and the big twist is 3. Dramatically backlit by a view of the Earth from space, he reveals to the prisoners that they’re actually on a space station in orbit and therefore “26,000 miles from the nearest bus station, surrounded by an airless, irradiated vacuum,” as he notes with a certain amount of satisfaction (psst… no one tell him “airless” and “vacuum” are redundant). Just to rub it in, he adds, “While there may be those amongst you who think otherwise, there can be no escape. Thoughts to the contrary will be… discouraged.”
The next morning, the prisoners’ torture continues with mandatory aerobic videos they can’t shut off. Teller, who’s already shown voyeuristic tendencies to spy on his charges, can’t resist taking a peek for himself as Brennick goes through morning roll call. Brennick and three of his buddies are assigned the extremely hazardous duty of replacing panels outside the space station. One of them doesn’t make it back due to a meteor storm, but they do learn that the station receives regular supply visits from a water tug, and therefore there’s actually a way to get back home – if they can get past all of Teller’s security measures. And Brennick manages to steal an explosive bolt for later use.
Teller Has Some Strange Hobbies
Otherwise, there isn’t a lot to do on the station besides work, eat, and fight. Brennick, who’s still a marked man, gets into an altercation with another prisoner while Teller’s watching on his monitor. Teller, who’s both the image of ennui and somewhat sadistic, temporarily suspends Zed’s “behaviour modification” so he can watch Brennick fight. When the computer asks him why (seriously, Mr. Malahide spends most of his time in this movie conversing with a disembodied computer voice, which had to be both a bit boring and yet skill-testing for his acting), he replies, “Because it amuses me.” He’s kicking back with his feet up on his desk, smoking a cigar, and wearing a luxurious-looking, black velvet smoking jacket as he watches the fights on his big-screen tv. I began to realize at this point that (1) Mr. Malahide was going to chew some scenery in this movie, and (2) they might’ve spent more on his wardrobe than the entire effects budget. Also, Teller is so bored (and/or creepy) that he spends a lot of his time watching his co-ed prisoners in the shower. He just isn’t a nice man – even if he is incredibly stylish.
Aside from doing a lot of voyeuristic peeping, Teller’s other hobby is keeping close track of Brennick’s wife and son. He doesn’t even care if he violates international borders to hunt them down; he’s so obsessed he goes off on a breathlessly salacious rant to Zed about how much he wants to get his hands on them, with all the zeal of a crazed fanatic. “I don’t care… She’s an escaped convict… A multiple breeder!” he hisses, practically salivating. “Her innocent offspring is the property of the Men-tel Corporation… This will not be over until they’re all here… One big, happy family.” Ohhhh-kaaaay, then. Perhaps it’s not that much of a mystery why Teller’s father and stepmum decided an orbital platform was the best place for him.
An Attempted Escape
Since it wouldn’t be a prison movie without an elaborate escape, Brennick hatches a plan to stow away on a cargo ship leaving the Fortress. His scheme involves chewing gum and a chewing gum wrapper (both unwittingly provided by the visiting shuttle pilot), that stolen explosive bolt, and hiding himself in a container of power panels, even though containers are scanned prior to loading. He thinks his plan has worked, and cracks open the lid expecting to find himself aboard the ship – only to discover he’s still on the station. “Did you really think it would be that easy?” gloats Teller, who’s already there waiting for him. Then just to prove he’s a total meanie, Teller fires two of the guards for letting Brennick even attempt an escape, orders the prisoners’ rations cut in half, and doubles their work day, making Brennick even more of a marked man than he is already. But he saves a special, extra punishment for last: Brennick is to be thrown into “the hole”, an unheated observation bubble unshielded from the Sun, so he’ll alternately freeze and fry as the station rotates. But unlike most villains, Teller is too classy to cackle and rub his hands with glee at thwarting Brennick’s plans; he just smirks in satisfaction and heads back to his office.
Unfortunately, his satisfaction is short-lived. Stepmum Susan calls as soon as he’s in his office, wanting to know the details of Brennick’s escape attempt. She’s surprisingly up on all the news from the Fortress, so either she’s got a mole or maybe the whole family is just oddly obsessed with prisons. In return, Teller peevishly demands that she should congratulate him, since he prevented Brennick’s escape and production is “on target”. He also wants to continue using the Fortress’ prisoners to bring another power generator online to prove he’s not a failure. But he gets sidetracked in discussing his plans when Susan’s latest boy toy comes into view (she’s calling Teller from her bed), looking both nonplussed and pruriently curious as they begin to make out while they’re still on camera. He’s so lewdly fascinated he can’t look away, his voice breaking up and becoming hoarse with envious distraction – he should really take a trip back to Earth once in a while. Susan, who’s obviously taking some pleasure in making her stepson eat his liver, gives permission for him to construct the second generator without pausing in her boy toy activities. Despite his discomfitedness, Teller does manage to get in a parting shot: “Do give my love to Daddy!” Susan hangs up abruptly in annoyance.
Doing a Spot of Gardening
Teller then sets out to do a spot of gardening (hmm, maybe he’s sublimating his energy into a hobby), proving that either he’s actually an over-the-top, completely tongue-in-cheek villain straight out of “The Avengers” (John Steed and Emma Peel vintage) or “The Prisoner“, or he’s completely doolally. Or both. Even though he’s in an orbiting prison and about as far away from real dirt or sunshine as he can get, he changes outfits yet again, donning gardening gear (including a straw hat and overalls) and using garden shears to harvest… a single strawberry from his planter box. One has to admire his dedication to a theme. Apparently the strawberry puts him in a good mood, since he finally allows Zed to release Brennick (who isn’t dead yet, but does look rather freezer-burnt) from the hole. He’s still keeping an eye on him, of course.
It’s kind of a wonder Teller bothers with the behaviour modification system at all, since mostly what he does with it is suspend it for his own entertainment. Brennick, who’s now on hard labour for his escape attempt, is deliberately paired up with a blowtorch-wielding baddie in yet another punishment detail. Teller once again orders the behaviour modification turned off so that Brennick is forced to fight for his life. Once Brennick wins (note: blowtorches can be just as dangerous for their wielder as their target), Teller, who gleefully watched the entire thing, insincerely apologizes for Zed’s “technical difficulties”. However, Brennick and his techie prisoner friend Marcus (Anthony C. Hall) do make some progress on their escape plans; they blunder onto a way to tap into the prison’s video system which allows them to see what the guards see. In the process, they also discover that Zed can tap into the prisoners’ optic nerves via their implants, making it very difficult to keep secrets. Maybe that’s how Teller found out about Brennick’s plan.
Arguing With His Best Friend, Zed
But despite being the evil overlord of a space prison, poor Teller still has problems of his own. Over yet another gourmet dinner, Zed voices concern that Teller’s new power generator will exceed output expectations, since she has no data to back up the results. She insists she can’t operate at peak efficiency without knowledge of any anomalies that might be present. Teller takes Zed’s comments as a personal affront to his management style and proceeds to… bully the computer into cooperation (or at least try to). He whispers menacingly, “Now, let’s get one thing straight here. I decide what’s relevant data, not you. So don’t bore me with these anomalies unless I ask you to. Is that clear?” He really does need a trip back to Earth. Zed’s the only being it seems he can actually relate to, since he spends more time talking to her than anyone else. It’s like they have a dysfunctional relationship, but the poor guy is losing his grip. Of course, when you’re an Avengers villain, I guess menacing your computer is par for the course. I’m also pretty sure this is a set-up for something going catastrophically wrong later.
Stepmum Susan Arrives
Unhappily for Teller, he soon has another problem on his hands: Stepmum Susan shows up to take over and put a serious crimp in his style. She’s unimpressed with Teller’s performance so far and doesn’t care that he’s been working on his supervillain plans for ten years, with a second generator just about ready to go. She’s more concerned with Teller’s nefarious deeds aboard the station, including his weird obsession with the Brennicks and his tampering with the behavior modification system. She scolds him just like an angry mother, threatening that if anyone finds out what he’s been doing, “[he’ll] be a resident here and not the super.” In return, Teller reacts like a kid who’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, backing down instantly while still pouting like a sullen little boy – albeit a little boy dressed all in supervillain black. Susan must have some major stepmum karma on him. And I really have to give Mr. Malahide credit for being able to pull off these scenes at all, because they’re just too ridiculous for words, even for a sci-fi (this is not science fiction) baddie.
Teller Reveals His Real Plans
But before Teller can impress his stepmum and dad by making his death star operational… oops, wrong movie… bringing the second generator online, Brennick and his gang launch another escape attempt. They break into Teller’s office, using Stanley (remember Stanley?) to get in, because Stanley is the only one immune to behaviour modification due to his screwed-up implant. They succeed in critically damaging Zed before the guards realize what’s going on (the guards aren’t too bright, so it’s not that difficult), just as the Russian shuttle arrives. The Russian prisoners and assorted others make a break for the ship without waiting for Brennick and his gang, who appear to have lost their only chance at escape. But then the Fortress’ defenses – which no one was aware of until now – suddenly come online and blow the shuttle out of the sky, much to everyone’s surprise. Apparently Teller has a few tricks up his sleeve, which include a giant space gun conveniently aimed at the Earth. “Nice shot! If I say it myself,” he mutters, watching the explosion approvingly. Aaawww, the poor guy is so lonely he has to give himself compliments. 😉
However, Stepmum Susan isn’t at all pleased with the new space weapon. She confronts Teller about his “unauthorized” gun, but he’s so delighted with his new toy that he’s immune to her criticism. He can’t resist doing a bit of gloating: “It’s clever though, isn’t it? A hundred trillion volts of electro-magnetic pulse, powered by vast amounts of Men-tel’s cheap electricity! And now you’ve brought me the firing pin, I can burn any target in the northern hemisphere!” See, I told you he’d cut loose! He actually has a global domination plan! We won’t even ask if “a hundred trillion” is a real number or not. And he doesn’t care if Stepmum Susan, or even Men-tel, disapproves.
Settling An Old Grudge
But just because Teller is a newly successful supervillain doesn’t mean he’s forgotten old grudges. His first order of business is to throw Brennick in an airlock for immediate ejection. He interrupts a confrontation between Brennick and a traitorous former-friend-now-guard, Nestor Tubman (David Roberson), with an exasperated “Oh, please!” before throwing Brennick in and sealing the door. And unfortunately for harmonious family relations, Stepmum Susan is next on his list. I do think Daddy might have something to say about that once he hears. But unbeknownst to Teller, Brennick manages to snatch Tubman’s shock baton on his way in and is already coming up with a Cunning Plan™ for escaping Certain Death by Airlock. Teller hits the button and sends Brennick out into space, confident he’s gotten rid of at least one nagging problem.
Then Things Start to Go Wrong
While Brennick struggles to reach safety before vacuum kills him, Elena attacks Teller, leaping on his back and struggling with him while Susan escapes. Elena is eventually subdued by another guard and spits in Teller’s face in defiance. Delicately patting himself dry with a handkerchief, Teller – who thinks everything’s under control again – orders Elena and the rest of Brennick’s gang to be tossed in to the hole (not sure why he just doesn’t throw them out the airlock as well). Meanwhile, Brennick makes it to safety but damages a hatch getting back inside, which allows atmosphere to escape and damages an entire section of the station. Oops. The entire prison begins to make alarming noises as the pressure changes and things begin to break. Teller gets back to his office only to be informed by Zed that due to her damaged system (remember, she got wrecked by Brennick and his gang), the doors to that section will have to be closed manually if they want to avoid a fiery death by orbital degradation. Poor Teller never planned for this; he looks crushed that his new toy is broken already.
To add insult to injury, Zed also informs Teller that not only is Brennick still alive, he’s somehow managed to save Susan, too – and she’s even now finking on Teller back to Men-tel via an outgoing transmission, so Daddy will know he tried to kill her. Damn! Going for all-out revenge, Teller orders Zed to inflict behaviour modification on Brennick at the highest level but… since Brennick’s record has already been deleted as “dead” by an over-zealous guard after the airlock ejection, Zed can’t do it. Brennick doesn’t officially exist. Oops again! “Casualties means ‘dead’, you cretin!” growls Teller at the luckless guard, channeling a certain Cockney detective sergeant. 😉 But even he never had problems like this. Teller also asks Zed why she didn’t tell him about defects in the damaged section, but Zed reminds him that he ordered her not to bug him about anomalies unless specifically asked. Another oops. Maybe Stepmum Susan was right that he’s not good at running things, or he shouldn’t have cheaped out on that Windows 95 OS to start with.
Hunting Down Brennick
While the rest of the prisoners get to the water supply ship, Brennick heroically decides to remain behind and disable the station permanently, so Teller can’t possibly use the power generators again. Meanwhile, Teller breaks out a pair of machine guns to use in hunting Brennick down. When Tubman reminds him the bullets could puncture the station’s walls, Teller snarls in reply, “The last thing I’m worried about is another prick in the hull!” Okay, that was a good line. 😀 And Mr. Malahide is beginning to chew the scenery in earnest. He does look pretty convincing with a machine gun, though.
Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy for Teller to find Brennick as he’d like. Zed can’t locate him because he’s officially dead, and she also can’t access the administration area where Brennick likely is, because Teller locked her out of it when he discovered she was reporting his various extracurricular activities to Men-tel. Oops yet again! “Zed… you betrayed me…” Teller says plaintively, sounding (and looking) like his heart has been ripped out. Once again, I really have to take my hat off to Mr. Malahide; I think only he could make an evil space prison warden tearfully pleading with his supercomputer sound in any way plausible, let alone sympathetic. However, Teller hasn’t given up quite yet; he restores Zed’s access just in time to find Brennick about to destroy the station’s gun. “Not… my… *GUN*!!” Teller growls, and sets off in pursuit.
After a short delay in which Teller has to decide between helping Tubman close an airlock door or getting Brennick first – and he really has to think about it – Teller finally reaches the administration room. He discovers that Brennick’s plan is to shoot the giant space gun at the station’s energy panels, all of which are equipped with explosive bolts, thereby causing a big enough *KA-BOOM*! to wreck the entire station. Teller and Tubman surprise Brennick before he triggers the weapon, but Teller wastes a couple of crucial minutes monologuing (“Ten years… I feel like I know you better than anyone I’ve known in my whole life…”), which gives Brennick the chance to fire. The resulting charge hits the energy panels and overloads the station’s systems, sending it into orbital decay again. Zed helpfully informs everyone that they have four minutes to get off the station before it’s completely destroyed.
Tipping Over Into Full Doolally
Mass chaos reigns as the station begins to tear itself apart. Brennick races for the safety of the water tug amidst many kabooms and explosions, hotly pursued by Teller, firing his machine gun heedless of any additional damage he might cause. Now it’s really personal! Teller takes a few parting shots at Brennick as he climbs the tug’s gangway, but misses. Then, completely losing sight of his priorities (with a dash of Crazy Eyes thrown in – well, he is a supervillain), Teller orders Tubman at gunpoint to go up the ladder and bring Brennick back down, even though it means certain death for all three of them.
But sadly for Teller, Tubman isn’t willing to die for him. He rebels at the last second, saying Teller’s out of his mind and throwing down his gun; Teller calls him a “traitorous piece of shit!” and shoots at him in return. Brennick tries to help Tubman get into the tug, but Tubman’s been mortally wounded and can’t make it. He falls off the ladder, activating his shock baton and snagging a large power cable on the way down. He lands in the deep puddle of water Teller happens to be standing in, electrocuting them both – and in true supervillain fashion, Teller takes an excruciatingly long time to die, firing his gun all the while. Brennick manages to scramble into the tug just in time (of course) and they get away just as the Fortress begins burning up in atmosphere behind them. Whew! Brennick, the remaining prisoners, and Susan survive, but poor Teller does not. 🙁 Aaaww, he just wanted to be a successful supervillain with his own giant space weapon. Is that so wrong??
An Oddly Fun, But Very Silly Movie
Now, make no mistake… this is not a good movie. It’s like someone decided to mash up a straight-ahead space romp with some kind of Avengers tongue-in-cheek thing, without a clear idea of what the end product should be. But if you go into it not expecting very much (some of the effects are… not that great, and it really does come across as more of a tv movie), you’ll still have a good time with it. It’s almost a “so bad it’s good” thing, with Mr. Malahide’s performance being the best thing about it. As I’ve mentioned to Fearless Admin, I suspect that at some point Mr. Malahide decided “To heck with it,” and set about having a good time, chewing as much scenery as he possibly could along the way, which I found completely hilarious to watch. I do think that he took some scenes that, quite frankly, would’ve been simply unfilmable in anyone else’s hands, and made Teller a believable villain – with an unexpected touch of sympathy to him, yet a lot of energy as well (and a great all-black wardrobe!). So while the writers pulled out just about every supervillain trope they could think of, he still found a way to rise above the material – and I hope he enjoyed himself doing it.
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