Monday, January 17, 2022

30 Years Ago Today: 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 -- now 30 years old -- 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 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 the Great Recession, but on the other hand features a world with no Internet.  

The idea of a trade war is scarily plausible, of course, and Freejack's speculation about corporations grown unbound from legal authority seems right on the money given where we are culturally today.  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. Estevez has very little screen presence, and his decision to play the role straight only comes across as flat.

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 here.

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 and scholar 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 understand.

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 to keep him flush and happy, Alex will get by in Corporate Land just fine...

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

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