The prison depicted in this film dominates the storyline. However, prisons don't exist in complete isolation from the society which brought them into being. Although prisons supposedly exist to safeguard their instituting society, by isolating some members from others; the nature of the prison reflects the nature of its society. The dystopian vision offered by this film indicts many trends which strongly pull the society in which we live in directions away from individual freedom and toward an oppressive “big brother” agency of domination.
The opening credits begin with a laser scanning a bar code. This hints at the “big brother” panopticon aspects of the society in which the film's events transpire. The first scene shows homeless people gathered in a dilapidated urban setting. Some warm themselves near fires burning in barrels. Slowly the camera's focus rises to show a heavily armed soldier sporting body armor occupying a strategic position over all the people below. Quickly, the film maker has set the mood and shown the situation: an occupying force keeps many people under containment.
As more of the scene above the homeless comes into focus, the camera shows a border checkpoint which holds a line of cars waiting for inspection. Heavily armed troops direct the traffic toward the checkpoint saying: “Move along.” The camera zooms in on one car holding a couple: a woman seated next to a man who drives the automobile. As they approach the border Karen Brennick (Loryn Locklin) asks: “Think I'm scared, Captain?” and John Henry Brennick (Christopher Lambert) replies: “You're never scared.” However, they seem quite terrified at the prospect of going through the border checkpoint.
At the inspection point they leave their vehicle and remove their luggage from the storage compartment. As a heavily armed soldier gets into the driver's seat to start vehicular inspection, the former occupants of the car enter an inspection area for people. Their inspection begins when a soldier holding an optical scanning device reads a bar code tattooed on John Brennick's forearm. The scanned information feeds into a computer network which displays Brennick's identification data on the soldier's computer monitor. In case any one watching might wonder, the insignia behind that soldier says United States Immigration. After the soldier scans Karen Brennick's forearm her information joins John's on screen.
As another soldier handles their luggage, soldiers in the next station wand another woman and detect her pregnancy. Lights flash and alarms sound while soldiers take the pregnant woman (“a breeder”) into custody for illegal pregnancy. As the female soldier with the wand says: “Next” the camera zooms in on Karen Brennick. She passes the wand inspection and they return to their car which apparently has also passed. However, as they get ready to leave, the chatty luggage handling soldier notices that Karen has a flak jacket on under her coat. This protected her pregnancy from being discovered, but now their “jig is up” and the attempt to escape becomes more explicit, with John breaking arms and fighting to provide a chance for Karen to make a getaway. Emigration seems far more the issue at this checkpoint than immigration, but they do seem intimately related.
The soldiers release dogs which give all their attention to John who believes he has succeeded in providing Karen the chance she needed to escape. However, in doing so, he has been captured by the militarized border guard. In the next scene a heavily armored speeding truck hauls a trailer filled with captives bound to a large prison. The female voice of computer Zed-10 (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) announces that the prisoners will enter the Fortress: “a privately owned maximum security prison operated by the MEN-TEL corporation.” In the “cattle car,” John meets fellow prisoner Nino Gomez (Clifton Collins Jr.) along with others. A thirty-one year sentence in the Fortress hangs over John Brennick. As it will do again over the course of the film, the female voice reminds them: “Crime does not pay.”
Most of the fortress lies deep below ground in several levels. As guards direct the now naked prisoners down a wire tunnel, Prison Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith) appears on monitors above the cage at eye level. He tells the prisoners: “Everything here is the property of the MEN-TEL corporation, including you.” Poe goes on to tell them that the federal government expects the prisoners to be used to build on to the Fortress facility. PSIS (Psychological Security Intelligence Systems) will be monitoring them in the fortress, even more thoroughly than the level of monitoring in the wider society. Even the prisoner's thoughts will be known to Director Poe. As Poe says: “Your thoughts will be with me always.”
Devices install "intestinators" to control the prison population through pain and fear. The ubiquity of television screens providing information to the new prisoners seems much like what often happens in large corporate facilities in today's world, perhaps taken a few steps further. Zed-10 leads Nino and Brennick via voice instructions to their cell, which already houses three other prisoners: Abraham (Lincoln Kilpatrick), D-Day (Jeffrey Combs) and Stiggs (Tom Towles). Outside of Stigg's friend Maddox (Vernon Wells), that gives an introduction to all the major characters and places them in the story. Like most prison movies, this one also focuses on escape. However, the Fortress differs significantly from most prisons.
Although this film may not offer a vision of a future society likely to become a film classic such as 1984 or Brazil, it does provide a series of insights about the human society which existed when it was released that remains relevant today. This movie has much in common with films like They Live and Escape From L.A., both directed by John Carpenter. I think that resemblance goes deeper than the surface and reflects the usual genre of the movies made by both Stuart Gordon, who directs Fortress, and John Carpenter. Both usually direct horror films that rely on a significant number of action sequences. If an action horror film with extreme dystopian aspects sounds like something you might like to watch, then I think you will enjoy Fortress.