Friday, May 20, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Freejack (1992)


"There's people at the bottom.  There's people at the top..."

- Freejack (1992)

Geoff Murphy's Freejack is a loose adaptation of Robert Sheckley's 1959 celebrated science fiction novel, Immortality, Inc

That literary work told a tale of the year 2110 in which a man named Blaine was reincarnated (by Rex Corp.) into a future world of suicide booths, body transplants and an after-life industry in which "only the rich" went to heaven.

By contrast, the 1992 film centers on a famous race car driver, Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) who, during a fatal accident, is zapped into the future year of 2009.  There, Alex countenances a corporate dystopia in America; one where Big Business has its corrupt hands in everything, even the ownership of the human soul. 

In this future America, our nation has lost "a trade war" with the Far East (either China or Japan, it's not clear...).  Accordingly, the middle class has disappeared entirely, leaving only the haves and the have-nots in perpetual conflict.  Most of the population seems to live on the over-populated streets, in shanty-towns.  This is a world in which you "either hide what you have...or you lose it," according to one character.

Alex quickly discovers that his very existence is on the line because a dying CEO, McCandless (Anthony Hopkins) has paid a considerable sum of money to transport him to this future, so that he can transfer his very consciousness into Alex's young, healthy body.   McCandless has only thirty-six hours to make the soul switch, or his consciousness will disappear into a kind of virtual reality/storage device called "the spiritual switchboard."

Hunting Alex down for McCandless is a mercenary and "bone jacker" named Vacendak (Mick Jagger), a man looking to collect on a big payday.  And, as Alex realizes, he is a "freejack," a person whose very body is up for grabs if you possess a big enough check book.

Taken in toto, Freejack is a woefully familiar man-on-the-run story, and that narrative pattern conforms with many cinematic dystopias, including Minority Report (2002), The Island (2005) and Logan's Run (1975), among others.  The 1992 action film also seems to owe something important to Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), with its heavy focus on action, and on a hero attempting to navigate a world and personal relationships he doesn't fully understand yet.  On the latter front, Alex re-encounters his fiancee, Julie (Rene Russo) in 2009, now a business lawyer working for McCandless.  She could either be a traitor or an ally...

In depicting the "future" world of 2009, Freejack offers some intriguing speculation.  For instance, it accurately predicts the erosion of the American middle class and the economic travails of 2009, but on the other hand features a world with no Internet

The idea of a trade war is scarily believable however, and Freejack's speculation about corporations grown unbound from legal authority seems right on the money given where we are culturally in 2011.  This guess about burgeoning corporate power, in and of itself, however, is not necessarily a reason for a positive reaction to Freejack.  Movies such as Blade Runner (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Code 46 (2005) have all concerned the rise of corporate rights over individual ones.  But this overlong iteration of such a future feels phoned in and clunky, no more than a mildly colorful back drop for car chases and gun fights.

What Freejack rather determinedly lacks is the coherent vision of a director such as Spielberg or Ridley Scott, and the larger-than-life presence of an anchor such as Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Here, Emilio Estevez is completely underwhelming as protagonist Alex Furlong.  Although he rattles off the requisite one liners ("Mom told me not to pick up hitchhikers..."), Estevez  isn't able to symbolically remain above the fray like Schwarzenegger did in The Running Man and thus convey a kind of irony or bemusement about the character's situations.  He has very little screen presence, and his decision to play the role straight only comes across as boring.

Mick Jagger doesn't fare much better.  He looks sillier in a tank helmet than Michael Dukakis did in 1988, and Jagger's abundant personal charisma doesn't translate well to the taciturn role of Vacendak.  Like Estevez, Jagger seems out of his element.

Even Hopkins is a dud in the villainous role of McCandless, the corporate soul marauder.  I remember reading an interview with  Hopkins in Starlog when this film was first released, and his key to understanding and playing the character of McCandless involved the fact that his character smoked cigars.  That anecdote reveals just how shallow the performances and concepts in this movie really are.  Under the surface, there's almost nothing of real interest.

There's little more desperate in terms of bad movies than a would-be blockbuster that can't entertain an audience, and that's, finally, what Freejack is.  Or, as Owen Gleiberman wrote in Entertainment Weekly: "The trouble with low-rent science-fiction movies is that beneath all the futuristic gimcrackery — the video phones and laser guns and hyperspace leaps, the obligatory time-travel setups — you realize, at some point, that you're watching a routine urban chase thriller: Lethal Weapon 2000."

Yep.  Clearly, the opportunity was here to present Freejack as what author Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," the kind of gritty, involving film that fuses high technology with low, basic human impulses.   But Freejack can't get there.   The film doesn't dig deep enough  about the reasons why such a miserable future has come to pass, or even why the characters respond the way they do to such a world.  The film's idea of humor is to feature a crotch-kicking, shotgun-armed nun in a habit (Amanda Plummer), but no thought or explanation is given to her demeanor or belief system.  She's just a joke, not a person we can undersand.

And the future world of Freejack looks ramshackle and cheap (a lot like Johnny Mnemonic, actually), with just a few "futuristic" cars dotting the streets.  Worse,  the action scenes are incredibly dire.  The film lurches from one boring chase sequence to another and then -- finally -- ends with a trippy virtual reality light show that today seems conspicuously dated, a relic from the age of such films as The Lawnmower Man (1992).  To put it another way, the entire film stakes itself on action, and then, in the last scene, attempts to thrill with metaphysical gymnastics.  It fails in both instances.

Perhaps Freejack's biggest hurdle is the film's thoroughly uncritical eye about the miserable future it attempts to portray.  At the end of the movie, Alex survives the cosmic switchboard and fools the authorities into believing he is actually McCandless, the CEO of the biggest and most powerful corporation in the world.  Now Alex has access to money, power and lots and lots of fast cars.   He could change the world, save all the freejacks, and work for a better tomorrow.   But does he?    Of course not.  As the end credits roll on Freejack, Alex drives off in McCandless's luxury car, beautiful Rene Russo at his side.  He's not looking back...or forward.  Nope, he just beat the bad guy and that's all the movie cares about.  With money and Russo, Alex will get by in Corporate Land just fine...

So much for those have-nots on the streets below...

4 comments:

  1. I regrettably paid good money in 1992 to see this in the theater.

    I had read the Sheckley novel Immortality, Inc. just a few years prior, so it was fairly fresh in my mind when I watched Freejack. Sheckley’s novel was dated when I read it twenty years ago, but at least the characters were interesting enough to carry the relatively flimsy plot along. This is another case of Hollywood buying a book property and then making a film that uses the basic concept (barely) and little else. Freejack even had the audacity to change the title from far more cerebral original.

    The basic premise of Freejack is ludicrous! The only bodies you can use to “jack” your mind into can only be found by STEALING A SOON-TO-BE-DEAD BODY FROM THE PAST VIA TIME TRAVEL?! I guess Freejack’s future doesn’t have homeless young people in it.

    The casting of Freejack is also dubious at best. Emilio Estevez as the poor potential body donor on the run, as you mention, plays it straight and if this were a better written SF film that might have worked. However, because Freejack is about as realistic as Demolition Man, a film it shares many other (bad) things with, Estevez would have been better playing it as satire. Particularly because his main adversary is played by Mick Jagger, whose frail physic is so unsuitable to play the part of the bone jacking heavy as to be laughable.

    A better Sheckley novel is The Tenth Victim, which ironically is a novelization of the Italian film La Decima Vittima, a thematically faithful adaptation of Sheckley’s 1953 short story “Seventh Victim”.

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  2. Erich:

    My goodness, I also went to see this theatrically back in 1992 (and worse, I dragged my wife...). Freejack is just as terrible as you remember, and as your comment indicates.

    I also feel your insights about Estevez and Jagger are absolutely correct: they're both lost here. Estevez'sd lack of presence makes one pine for the sly, self-mocking charisma of Arnie, that's for sure. And the Jagger role should have been left to the professionals in this kind of work: A Kurtwood Smith or Michael Ironside, perhaps.

    This is bad, bad, bad. But still not quite as bad as Johnny Mnemonic.

    Great comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  3. SteveW7:34 PM

    I was double-bummed about this movie when it came out because previously Murphy had directed a terrific colonial epic in his native New Zealand called "Utu." Sadly, none of the talent on display there translated into this depressingly generic sci-fi actioner.

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  4. Hi SteveW

    I share your opinion about Freejack -- a "depressingly generic sci-fi actioner" -- because I too enjoyed Murphy's earlier film work. He also made "The Quiet Earth (1985), which I'll be reviewing here on the blog in the not-too-distant future. I have not seen "Utu," but now I will definitely have to check it out.

    best,
    JKM

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