Canadian comedy collective Astron-6 has built a devoted following over the last several years thanks to its hilariously bizarre internet output of short films and faux trailers. Their following has boomed over the last year thanks to the release of two features from the troupe, Father’s Day (released by Troma) and Manborg (released by Raven Banner in Canada and Dark Sky Films in the States). Both films are informed by the highly unique sense of humor that signals an Astron-6 production, but they are also very different. While Father’s Day‘s directorial credit is shared among the whole group, Manborg is the brainchild of Astron-6’s special effects mastermind Steven Kostanski. And while Father’s Day celebrates (and brilliantly subverts) 70s grindhouse revenge films, Manborg is a tip of the hat to another subgenre: the type of low budget straight-to-video sci-fi/action films that crowded video store shelves in the 80s and 90s and the violent arcade games that gave video a run for its money as the top choice of teenage entertainment.
The film opens near the end of the Hell Wars, when the armies of Hell rose up and took over the planet and enslaved humanity. A soldier (Matthew Kennedy) sees his brother killed by the commander of Hell’s army, Count Draculon (Adam Brooks). He attacks Draculon but is quickly dispatched, despite his bravery. The soldier’s body is dragged away and rebuilt by an unknown party as Manborg: part man, part robot. Some time later he awakens to a world completely under the control of Draculon, and is quickly captured by demonic police along with prison escapee #1 Man (Ludwig Lee). They are returned to police custody, where #1 Man is reunited with his former resistance colleagues Mina (Meredith Sweeney) and Justice (Conor Sweeney).
The prisoners are forced to do battle in an arena for the bloodthirsty legions of Hell’s minions in order to live, their fights orchestrated by The Baron (Jeremy Gillespie). While in the arena, Manborg attracts the attention of Dr. Scorpius (Adam Brooks), a human scientist working with Draculon and The Baron. Scorpius pits Manborg against a fierce creature in the arena as a test, and Manborg manages to control his newfound cybernetic powers to pull out a victory. Shortly thereafter, Manborg and his fellow prisoners manage to escape and flee to the wastelands outside the city. Here Manborg learns the secret of his creation and his ultimate destiny, leading his new friends back to the city for a showdown with the armies of Hell and Count Draculon himself.
If all that sounds mostly straightforward, rest assured that Manborg is packed with surprises, not least of which is how well its characters are drawn in such a short running time. Kostanski and co-writer Jeremy Gillespie manage to make the viewer empathize with what are essentially cartoon characters, helped along by solid performances from all the cast and some truly inspired choices for the characters. Shot almost entirely against green screens, the world of Manborg looks like a cut scene from a Sega CD game. It’s a gleeful sugar rush of no-budget action: anime fight choreography, claymation monsters, the inexplicably Australian guy, etc. etc. Kostanski and his Astron 6 teammates pack Manborg with more laughs, action and heart in 72 minutes (including the amazing faux trailer for Bio-Cop that runs after the film’s end credits) than any dozen Hollywood action blockbusters. It’s absolutely required viewing, both because everything Astron 6 does is essential by definition and because it’s a true testament to what committed, passionate filmmakers can create with the barest minimum of resources.
Dark Sky Films released Manborg on DVD on 30 April 2013. Special features include two full-length commentary tracks (with director Steven Kostanski, actor/writer Jeremy Gillespie, and producer Peter Kuplowsky), deleted & alternate scenes, a blooper reel, behind the scenes featurette, stop motion & vfx montages, interviews with cast and crew, a Q&A session from the film’s premiere, and another stop motion short by Kostanski entitled “Fantasy Beyond.”