Saturday, March 12, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Futureworld (1975)


A key character in Futureworld (1975) informs another character that the problem at Delos -- the amusement park of the future -- is "the memory" of the nightmarish events that occurred in Western World, or for viewer purposes, the harrowing events of the great sci-fi movie Westworld (1973).

The very same problem might be ascribed to this less-than-satisfactory cinematic sequel directed by Richard T. Heffron and starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner.  In short, it just doesn't live up to the original, action-packed experience of Westworld.

Though it is rewarding and ambitious that this AIP, Samuel Z. Arkoff sequel heads off into new story territory rather than aping the formula or plot-line of the previous film, Futureworld still suffers dramatically from a lack of forward momentum, and a slow-moving, obvious narrative. 

In short, it takes this movie roughly 83 minutes to get to the plot point that audiences have already reached much sooner, and that is that the robots at Delos have taken over the park, and are producing robot duplicates of world leaders and opinion makers.  

Today the amusement park...tomorrow the world.

Since the two lead actors in the film are playing ace newspaper and TV reporters, you'd expect them to put two and two together a lot sooner than they actually do.   But no, they can't even detect a robot close-up, face-to-face in the Delos mission control room. 

Not exactly Woodward and Bernstein, this Browning (Fonda) and Ballard (Danner).

Worse, Futureworld spends an inordinate amount of the film's running time in the underground bowels of Delos, apparently really the Intercontinental Airport in Huston.  Whatever the precise location, it looks like an endless, over sized boiler room, and after a while all the scenes set there look interchangeable and play as deadly dull.

"In Futureworld, nothing can go wrong..."

Some time after the violent events at Western World, the Delos board of directors holds a briefing to announce the re-launch of the $1,200-a-day amusement park. 

The company has committed 1.5 billion dollars to replace the malfunctioning equipment, and executives claim that the new Delos is "fail safe."

International Media Corporation sends reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda)  to investigate the new Delos.  Browning is eager to take the assignment because an informant just recently contacted him about a "big" story at the park and then was found murdered, with news-clippings clutched in his hand. 

Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) a TV newswoman with an audience of fifty-five million viewers is none-too-pleased that Browning will be tagging along at Delos, but she and Chuck quickly develop a flirtatious and competitive relationship.

Once at Delos, the reporters visit "Futureworld," a new theme park to go alongside Roman World, Medieval World, and the now-defunct Western World.   After their arrival, the reporters board a rocket simulation, visit a space station, spar with robot boxers, and otherwise enjoy the space age sights and sounds of the luxury resort.  A Delos executive named Duffy (Arthur Hill) escorts the duo on a tour of the Delos facility, and Chuck sneaks off to see if he can discover the truth behind the smooth-running facade.

What Chuck and Tracy soon learn with the help of an employee named Harry (Stuart Margolin) and his android buddy, Clark, is that Delos has been producing duplicates of all the big-wig, high-roller visitors, from Russian generals to Iranian oil magnates.   Ballard and Browning themselves are to be duplicated by the robots, who believe that "the human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal" and that mankind will destroy the Earth "before the end of the decade."

Before escaping Delos, Tracy must face down a robot double of herself in the abandoned Westworld, while Chuck battles his own malevolent doppelganger in Futureworld.

"Once you make it with a robot, you don't want anyone else..."

All movies are a reflection of their cultural context, and Futureworld is no exception. 

Coming soon after the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, this movie headlines  two "hero journalists" -- again, think Woodward and Bernstein -- as they uncover a far-reaching conspiracy and essentially save the world as we know it.  In other words, this movie comes from an age in which we had respected journalists (not "lamestream" media), and believed that these truth-seekers could successfully stand-up to City Hall. 

The other cultural or historical context at work here is one that a blog reader Indianhoop insightfully suggested to me in a comment on my original review of Westworld.  I had asked the question "why were the mid-1970s obsessed with robots who could have sex, and duplicate other human functions

In particular, I was thinking of movies such as Westworld, Futureworld, The Stepford Wives and TV characters such as The Bionic Woman's fembots.  Indianhoop suggested that the women's rights issues and battles of the 1970s (Roe v. Wade, Title IX, the ERA, etc.) were at the crux of the issue, and I believe Indianhoop is correct.    In the mid-1970s, women were stepping out of so-called "traditional roles" and countenancing more economic and reproductive freedom than in any decade before.  The reaction by men -- if genre movies are any guidepost -- seemed to be downright fear. 

Without women to lord it over, I guess, human robots were considered next in line for domestic servitude.  After all, machines follow orders, don't step outside of their programming, and can fake orgasms brilliantly...at least if Stepford Wives is any indication.

Ironically, one fact that so dramatically undercuts Futureworld is the writing of the lead female character, Tracy Ballard.  This is a  dedicated woman who has risen to the top of her profession (think Barbara Walters in the 1970s) and who commands a vast worldwide audience.  And yet Ballard spends most of the film as an arm ornament for Peter Fonda, alternately poo-pooing his theories or screaming in terror.  Ballard initiates no investigation on her own, and shows not the slightest bit of interest or curiosity in learning the truth about Delos.

Lois Lane, she ain't. 

Despite what was going on in America at the time, what we really have in the Tracy Ballard character is a good old fashioned damsel-in-distress, dressed up in disco-decade, women's lib clothing.   Ultimately, she's kind of laughable, and almost wholly incidental to the narrative.

That's not Futureworld's only letdown either.  Late in the film, robot duplicates of Chuck and Tracy are produced, and sent out to hunt down "the originals."  All throughout the film, the robots of Delos have been portrayed as unemotional creatures who obey orders and programming, but have no overt "human" countenance. 

Well, wouldn't you know it, Fonda and Danner both play these robot duplicates as devilish, sinister characters, who seem to take tremendous, sadistic pleasure in destroying their human prototypes. 

Why are these robots -- all of the sudden -- out-and-out evil?  Aren't they just fulfilling their programming?  Even when The Gunslinger went on a rampage in Westworld, he wasn't cackling with malevolent glee.  That's what made him scary: he was an implacable foe with a neutral countenance.  We were able to project our human fears upon his relatively blank visage, but he was no two-dimensional moustache-twirler.

Another major scene in Futureworld is simply baffling.  Duffy escorts Ballard to a "dream chamber" where she can go to sleep and Browning can watch her dreams unfold on a video monitor that resembles Spock's library computer on Star Trek.  

Almost immediately, Ballard dreams of the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) from Westworld, but not as a terrifying predator or foe, but rather as a "fantasy lover."

In the dream, the Gunslinger appears out of nowhere and rescues Ballard from doctors in red-jumpsuits who are pursuing her.  The Gunslinger shoots them down, and then lassos Ballard in slow-motion...and beds her.

Okay...

So, why is Tracy Ballard -- TV newswoman extraordinaire -- dreaming of the Delos Gunslinger as a fantasy lover?  Not a single word in the screenplay indicates she even has specific knowledge of the rogue robot cowboy.  But assuming she did have such knowledge, why would Ballard's dreaming mind spontaneously turn the murderous Gunslinger into a fantasy sex partner?

Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I just don't get it.

I know that my wife thinks Yul Brynner is hot, but come on.  Would you dream of bedding a  mass murderer?  And a robotic one at that? This entire, incongruous scene feels like an excuse to shoehorn Brynner into the proceedings.  It's a bizarre and confusing interlude, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the film.   The moment wherein Brynner lassos Danner with an animated pink lasso is just...well, embarrassing.  It's great to see Brynner back in his iconic role, looking as fit and menacing as ever, but his presence adds nothing to the movie.

I've read various reviews of this film over the years indicating that there is "high tension" here, but I certainly didn't feel that way.  Unlike Westworld, which moved with drive, humor and purpose, Futureworld meanders  around for about an hour-and-a-half minutes, then spends the last fifteen minutes tying up loose ends.  There's almost no real tension, since Delos employees allow Browning and Ballard to look around, and the 400 robot series is programmed to ignore visitors in their midst.

I also find it unfortunate that Futureworld wastes so much time in the bowels of the amusement park rather than exploring the Futureworld setting.  This is a place of "space safaris," holographic chess (presaging Star Wars by two years...) and skiing on the "ice slopes of Mars."  Wouldn't you rather see some of that, instead of endless boiler rooms?

But the trenchant point here concerns fantasy...and the fantasy experienceWestworld was about living in a fantasy world of violence and sex, and discovering it isn't such a fantasy after all.  The film didn't hammer you over the head with that theme.  Rather, it had a nice, droll sense of humor about the whole thing.

Futureworld ignores this idea (and the sense of humor) entirely in favor of its very dry conspiracy about lookalike robots...and boiler rooms.

Or as Tracy Ballard declares at one point in this interminable movie, walking through  yet another industrial-looking chamber, "This is about as exciting as a visit to the waterworks."

Yep.  This movie went to Futureworld and all the audience gets is a dumb T-shirt.

5 comments:

  1. I am not worthy...but thanks for the props, made my day!!

    This is just an awful film on so many levels. The "gunslinger dream sequence" has to be up there on the most pointless cinematic moments of all time list. The whole film has the look of 1970's TV police drama...Margolin's appearance makes me think "Rockford Files" but that was superior to this dreck.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another great review. My 11yr old self loved this in the theater, but seeing it again as an adult was a bit disappointing. I actually still have the "novelization" from this film, which has behind the scenes stills.Neither lead actors looked too thrilled. Do you think the sets and special effects budgets were eaten up by the fee for Yul Brynner's cameo?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Indianhoop:

    You deserve the props, buddy, and your comments really helped me put together my thoughts on this film and that time in our culture. Thank you. I also agree with you that the Gunslinger sequence is silly, and poorly done...tonally out of touch with the rest of the movie.

    jdigriz: Another great comment. One of the things I've learned by revisiting all these films from my childhood is that they can both be "bad" in terms of quality but also "powerful" in the way that they affect children. I can see how that would be the case with Futureworld. Just the scenes of the robots without faces could be very...bracing, for a kid. So even though the movie doesn't really succeed in my opinion, that doesn't at all negate its power as a kinder trauma!

    Thank you both for writing about my review.

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fine review, John. I always felt FUTUREWORLD was one of the lesser quality made-for-TV movies of the 70s that somehow got promoted to the big screen. I actually showed this in the theater I worked as a projectionist way back when. I certainly agree with you about what doesn't work here. I couldn't wait for it to finish its one-week run. Can't say I have the same fond memories as I do with WESTWORLD. Thanks my friend.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Le0pard13: Yes, Futureworld does have the feel of a bad tv movie of the 1970s, doesn't it? A big disappointment after the wonderful Westworld.

    Thanks for the comment, my friend!

    regards,
    John

    ReplyDelete