Thursday, May 18, 2006

Random Movie Report #4: Futureworld

FUTUREWORLD is one of those kinds of movies. I'm going to have to define a term for them, but they're the ones where, if this happens to be on TV, and I'm flipping through channels, I will gladly stop and watch regardless of circumstances. Films like JAWS, Carpenter's THE THING, I'm sure you have your own lists. For me they tend to be slick, well-made, not-too-demanding genre thrillers, not emotionally draining or too intellectually challenging, but solid entertainment. "Comfort movies", perhaps. Steakhouse entertainment, straightforward, well-done, not too fancy. I dunno.

FUTUREWORLD is the sequel to Michael Crichton's WESTWORLD, the mildly famous 1973 sci-fi thriller about Delos, a futuristic amusement park where patrons get to act out heroic fantasies with a supporting cast of robots, always triumphing over evil gunslingers and bedding robot women (which apparently didn't sound as creepy back then), until finally the robots get tired of losing and start killing the guests. It's known basically for the image of Yul Brynner as the robotic Gunslinger shooting one of the main characters before pursuing the other through the park's lower levels. It was memorable but even by action-thriller standards didn't make a whole lot of sense- why does the robot Gunslinger have a real gun to start with? Why does anyone in the park have a real weapon and not a prop? (Even assuming the "nothing can go wrong" stance of Delos management, which I'm sure the insurance company LOVED hearing, and a scene where the guns were shown to have special bullets that avoided heat i.e. warm bodies, would it not just be cheaper to use fakes, have some squibs and blood bags on the robots so they can "die" convincingly with only routine maintenance needs, etc.?) The sequel actually manages to explain the huge logical gaps of the first movie, while telling a substantially different story.

Peter Fonda is a newspaper reporter who gets a tip about something suspicious behind the re-opening of Delos, from a contact who conveniently dies before he can give any real information. Fonda's character meets up with an old flame turned TV anchor (played by Blythe Danner), and they're both assigned to take a look at the new park and hopefully generate some good publicity to offset the whole "a bunch of people died here once" problem. They're joined by a batch of world leader types (the resort being the ultra-pricey sort, which it would have to be) and a hickster game show winner, and led around by an uncomfortably friendly Delos executive played by Arthur Hill (who was in the film version of Crichton's ANDROMEDA STRAIN.) Fonda starts getting a little suspicious of the goings-on at the new Delos, and drags Danner along investigating the park's shadowy underbelly.

FUTUREWORLD was produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff at American International, and does feel a bit cheaper than its predecessor (though it apparently cost more), with a made-for-TV quality. It has its own gaps in logic, of the conventional movie variety- the tipster who has information but for some reason can't give it over the phone, the protagonists easily sneaking around a high security installation, etc. I found these a bit less glaring, if only because they've almost become genre conventions. The one major flaw in the film is a bizarre "dream machine" sequence featuring Danner's character which only really exists as a pretext for an extended cameo by Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger (who was again mentioned prominently in advertising, and still is on some of the various video covers.) It starts out interestingly enough but finishes with a bizarre romantic interlude involving red ropes and dancing and Brynner being utterly expressionless.

On the upside, this is basically just a fun, very old-fashioned thriller, with Fonda and Danner exhibiting a cute 1940s chemistry. The main actors are all pretty good, and Stuart Margolin (Angel on THE ROCKFORD FILES) has an amusing part as a plumbing technician who lives with a faceless malfunctioning robot. If that sounds goofy, it is, and that's probably part of the film's charm- there are a lot of odd, quirky little things going on that make watching the picture a fun experience. There's a sequence where Fonda and Danner face off with doubles of themselves who have all the original's memories. As the two Danners train guns on each other, the clone remarks, "It's a good thing father taught us how to shoot. Maybe we shouldn't have worried so much about whether he loved us." And there's the theme music, a nice five-note motif played repeatedly on strings. (The score, by Fred Karlin, seems to have been done with a fairly small orchestra, and is surprisingly effective.)

There's no Region 1 DVD of this film just yet, and no apparent release planned. It does show up on TV occasionally, most recently having popped up on one of the Showtime networks. Watch it and tell me I'm not crazy. It's a fun little flick.

Directed by Richard T. Heffron
Written by George Schenck and Mayo Simon

Grade: B

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