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FUTUREWORLD (1976)

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"These people are important. I don’t want anything to go wrong."
"Nothing can go wrong…."
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FutureworldDirector: Richard T. Heffron

Starring: Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, John P. Ryan, Stuart Margolin, Yul Brynner, Bert Conroy, John Fujioka, Ed Geldart, Charles Krohn

Screenplay: Mayo Simon and George Schenck

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Synopsis: Reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) is contacted by a man known only as "Frenchy", who claims to have a big story for him. The two meet, but Frenchy staggers and falls, having time to utter only the word "Delos" before dying. Browning takes a large envelope from his hand…. Browning attends a meeting between the representatives of the IMC news network and Dr Duffy (Arthur Hill), the spokesperson for the futuristic Delos resort. Duffy explains that in the two years since the "Westworld" disaster, the entire resort has been completely rebuilt and expanded. He adds that while business at Delos is good, it is not what it should be; and offers IMC exclusive, behind-the-scenes access in exchange for a fair - and hopefully favourable – report on the resort. TV presenter Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) is furious when she learns that her partner on the assignment will be Browning, for whom she worked as a rookie reporter – and who fired her. Network president Arthur Holcombe (Charles Krohn) insists, saying Browning has "an angle". On the plane to Delos, Browning is puzzled by their fellow guests, most of whom are politicians and international businessmen. Tracy argues that no-one else could afford to go. As the passengers disembark, they are unaware that they are being monitored from within Delos – particularly the Russian General Karnovsky (Bert Conroy), Japanese minister Takaguchi (John Fujioka) and the two reporters. While Karnovsky and his wife travel to "Spaworld", and Takaguchi to "Medievalworld", Browning and Tracy prepare for the simulated space shuttle launch that will carry them to "Futureworld" – a space platform. At "Spaworld", the general and his wife undergo the "Waters Of Youth" ritual, after which they sees themselves as young again. Meanwhile, Takaguchi battles the Saxon Knight at "Medievalworld". Duffy is reproved by Delos’s scientific director, Dr Schneider (John P. Ryan), for spending too much time in the main control room. Schneider makes his way into a second, hidden control room, where the data collected on the guests is being processed…. After playing hologram chess with Tracy, Browning questions a robot bartender about Frenchy. The robot denies knowing him. Later, however, when Browning asks to have his picture of Frenchy returned, the bartender falsely insists he gave it back. Duffy takes the two reporters into the control room to demonstrate the running of the resort. Becoming suspicious, Browning asks Tracy to flirt with one of the technicians, which she reluctantly does, to absolutely no response. Browning demands to know what is "wrong" with the silent, emotionless technicians, and is stunned to learn that they are all robots. Schneider explains that one of the main reasons for the "Westworld" disaster was human error. By eliminating humans, they eliminate one potential danger. Duffy shows Browning and Tracy the ruins of Westworld. Browning slips off on his own, and discovers a manhole that leads into the resort’s underground passages. That night, the dinner that is served to Karnovsky, Takaguchi and the reporters is drugged. As the four lie unconscious, they are collected by Delos employees and taken to a secret control room where every single aspect of their physiology is analysed and recorded….

Comments: Though fundamentally flawed in its conception, Westworld is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable movie, with its humour and its thriller aspects disguising the outlandish and insufficiently thought through nature of its premise. Futureworld, on the other hand, is poor science fiction that fails both as an "ideas" film and as a thriller. The only feature of this film in which it matches – or to be fair, surpasses – its predecessor, is its concept of Delos. In my review of Westworld, I spent some time arguing that the Delos resorts were simply not the kind of attraction for which people would be willing to pay the requisite $1000 per day. In Futureworld, a bit more thought seems to have gone into this. For one thing, the screenplay totally abandons the silly harping on the "authenticity" of the Delos experience that did so much damage to Westworld. Here, they are willing to acknowledge that everything is a "simulation". The resorts are now populated by robots that not only know they are robots, but admit to it quite readily. (When an obnoxious guest hits on a female robot, she repulses him with a cheerful, "Oh, no, sir – I’m not built for sex!") Westworld, where the disaster that almost destroyed Delos was triggered, has been allowed to fall into ruins. Romanworld and Medievalworld are still standing (as are my objections to them), and "Eastworld" is in the works; while two new resorts have been added, both of which seem considerably more likely to lure people into parting with large amounts of cash than their fellows. At Spaworld, guests go through a ritual called "The Waters Of Youth", and come out of it restored to youth and health. (It’s a form of hypnosis, but the guests don’t know that.) Futureworld, where Chuck Browning and Tracy Ballard spend much of their time, has a "space shuttle flight" to a "starship"; and a visit there includes such activities as a space walk, skiing on Mars (red snow, one-third gravity) and a journey to "the caves of Venus". The starship itself, I must point out, comes equipped with a "Space Safari Lounge" – exactly the kind of "futuristic", too-cool-for-words setting that enlivened so many science fiction films (predominantly Italian science fiction films) of the sixties. While the Futureworld guests are encouraged to "request the host or hostess of your choice", Chuck and Tracy opt for a more cerebral past-time: hologram chess. (This sequence is rather enjoyable, even though Fonda and Danner aren’t exactly Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.) The other main attraction of the starship, which the reporters also throw themselves into with gusto, is a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots – and life-sized, at that. Now, all of this is rather fun. The problem is that, unlike Westworld, this film isn’t supposed to be "fun", but rather, a chilling, suspenseful thriller. That concept, unfortunately, lasts about twenty minutes. Futureworld has many flaws, but the big one – the killer – is that it tips its hand far too early. From the moment the guests arrive at Delos, the viewer is well aware of what’s going on. While it is, of course, quite possible to generate tension by having an audience conscious of things that a film’s characters are not, here the result is a deadened, rather dreary atmosphere that doesn’t lift until the final, admittedly intriguing sequence.

Like so many films of its era, Futureworld is a story of paranoia, of an evil conspiracy being conducted just outside the vision of everyday people. Also typical of its era (this was released the same year as All The President’s Men, remember), our hero is a crusading reporter, determined to expose "the truth" regardless of the difficulties or dangers in store for him. Futureworld starts badly, with a clichéd "killed before he can talk" sequence followed by a refresher course in "what went wrong at Westworld", consisting of clips from the film masquerading as security camera footage. (Although I should be fair here and point out that in this pre-video time, it would have been three years since viewers saw Westworld.) As real people are slaughtered indiscriminately by the malfunctioning robots, the representatives of the IMC media network look on unperturbed – which is as close as we ever get to "realism". Our "cute meet" follows – or rather, "re-meet" – as Chuck Browning and Tracy Ballard renew a professional acquaintance terminated abruptly some years earlier when the former sacked the latter. Chuck further antagonises his erstwhile employee by using her hated nickname, "Socks". "I can’t help it!" he protests. "The first time I was with you, you had those outrageous red socks on!" Wow, radical! Actually, I’m still not entirely sure whether this line is a subtle reference to Ms Ballard’s politics, or an intimation that she and Browning were, ah, personally acquainted as well. For a moment during this scene, Futureworld promises to be a satire on the state of the media, as Tracy, secure in her "fifty-five million viewers worldwide", dismisses the print reporter with a contemptuous, "Nobody reads." Sadly, this proves to be a dead end. The two reporters agree to try and work together, and are next seen on their way to Delos. Chuck becomes suspicious of their fellow guests, noting that they consist primarily of "oil ministers, rocket experts, heavyweight electronic types". Tracy dismisses this, arguing, "At $1200 a day, who else could afford this?" (My Westworld objection, that this couldn’t possibly cover operation costs, also still stands.) As the guests disembark and are taken to the resort itself, we cut into the second, hidden Delos control room, where Dr Schneider orders his technicians to "open the SR grid for file recording". As we watch, General Karnovsky, Mr Takaguchi, and the two reporters come under scrutiny, and information on each of the four begins to be recorded.

Okay – hands up anyone who hasn’t figured out what’s going on. Anyone? No, I didn’t think so – and there you have the problem with Futureworld in a nutshell. So much of what comes after this scene plays like padding, rather than story, that the film struggles to hold its audience’s attention.

The actual "Futureworld" sequence follows, and is moderately entertaining. (Oh, and if the shuttle sequence looks authentic, there’s a reason: it was shot at the Houston Space Centre.) Less so is the Dramatic Revelation scene that follows, with Schneider retreating to his secret control room, where he oversees the analysis of the data gathered on the four targeted guests. As various shots of the four flash up on the technicians’ computer screens, we hear an hilarious series of Ominous Pronouncements, with references to "prosthetics" and "cosmetic analysis". We also see a close-up of Chuck Browning’s face, accompanied by an electronic voice intoning, "….subject’s eyes and lachrymal apparatus, printing….twenty-four millimetre sphere….checking cornea….". Subtle, this ain’t. Meanwhile, Browning and Tracy are invited into Delos’s inner workings, and the film falls into a fairly irritating pattern that will fill up a considerable amount of screentime, with Browning being hostile and suspicious of everything, and generally behaving like a jerk, while supposedly "startling" disclosures about the nature of Delos are made one by one. In an embarrassing scene, Browning has Tracy hit on one of the technicians, who pays absolutely no attention to her. Humiliated, Tracy suggests that "he doesn’t like girls". (That her come-on was about as subtle – and attractive – as a punch to the gut might have had something to do with it.) Browning then turns on Schneider, accusing him of keeping the technicians "drugged, or hynotised". We then get another Dramatic Revelation: that almost all of Delos’s employees are robots. If we look carefully at Schneider at this point, we’ll see a maniacal glint in his eyes; one last seen in the eyes of Dr Alex Harris, of Demon Seed, as he extolled the superiority of the computer over the human being. "They have no ego, so they have no hang-ups," gloats Schneider, explaining that the main cause of the Westworld disaster was "human error". At this point, Duffy invites the reporters to tour the remains of Westworld (a set which, it is impossible not to notice, bears no resemblance to the original set). Browning slips off on his own, and discovers an entrance to the underground workings of the resort (ditto this set). Schneider slips down to his secret laboratory, and is reassured by a technician that "we start molecular studies in one hour" – which at that distance, is a mighty clever trick. Schneider warns the technician that he wants "all thermal x-ray and electrochemical studies finished by tonight", since "our Mr Browning is getting much too curious". Hmm….well, perhaps you shouldn’t have invited him in there, hey? As Schneider moves away, we see computer simulations of those stick-and-ball chemical models. The first one reads "papain", the second one "ribonuclease". Ah – well, ribonuclease I’m willing to go along with, but papain? One of those four guests is in big trouble….

That night, drugged food is served to the four endangered guests, and they are carried off from their rooms by red body-suited Delos employees. (Either Mrs Karnovsky was drugged too, or she’s a mighty sound sleeper.) What follows is doubtless intended to be the film’s highpoint, a dramatic showcasing of state-of-the-art computer graphics. Well, of course, they’re not quite so state-of-the-art any more; but I’m not going to criticise them for that. For one thing, I was infinitely more interested in the pseudo-scientific babbling that accompanies the scene, which is more of what we heard earlier, only much, much funnier. As the four are poked, probed, analysed and downloaded, various electronic voices say things like "carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen readings up" and "I have readings of cytoplasmic structure now" and my personal favourite, "pinocytotic channels….microvilliar [sic.]….mitochondria….endoplasmic readings are recording". For those of you who like that kind of thing, we also get medical footage of someone’s intestine, and down an oesophagus; not to mention a fairly silly shot of a barium meal. Meanwhile, Schneider either contemplates the scene over his touching fingertips, or wanders around saying things like, "Helium count?"

From this sequence, we cut directly to Tracy having a nightmare. Three guesses how she comes out of it? Yup. She also belts out of her room yelling for Browning, only to find him dressed and on his way out. Learning that he’s about to go snooping, she insists on accompanying him. Together, they penetrate the bowels (eww! – there’s an expression!) of the complex. Chuck tries to turn some lights on and, among other things, activates a mysterious chamber. Here the film goes completely haywire, as within the chamber three gentlemen of Asian appearance materialise out of thin air These samurai types track down Our Heroes, who somewhat improbably manage to out-fight and/or evade them until rescued by one Harry Croft, one of the very few remaining human employees of Delos. (We learn that Harry is necessary as the Higher Ups have not yet learnt how to overcome the problem of wet areas – humidity, you perverts! – where the robots consequently cannot go. Which, you would think, would throw a considerable wrench into the Delosian plans for world domination. [Oops! Hope I didn’t give anything away there!]). Harry takes the reporters back to his underground lair, which he shares with "Clark", an obsolete robot rescued from the scrap-heap. (The relationship between Harry and Clark owes rather too much to Silent Running.) Hearing that Harry knew the late, unfortunate Frenchy, Chuck tries to talk him into telling what he knows. However, Schneider has discovered the reporters’ absence and tracked them down, having them escorted back to their rooms. When the two are alone, we get another Dramatic Revelation, as Chuck shows Tracy what he took from Frenchy: a bundle of newspaper clippings on various world leaders and industrial heavyweights, all of whom have visited Delos since its re-opening.

All of which comes as rather more of a surprise to Tracy than it does to the audience.

It is during the film’s next sequence that Futureworld hits rock bottom. Clearly, the film-makers felt they couldn’t have a sequel to Westworld without Yul Brynner putting in an appearance as The Gunslinger – but oh! – how I wish he hadn’t! In a wholly ludicrous plot twist, it turns out that the Delosians have developed the technology for recording people’s dreams on video. Tracy agrees to undergo the process, and The Gunslinger shows up as her "fantasy lover". Ah….no, sorry, I’m just going to skip over this bit. Yecchh!! Meanwhile, Chuck sneaks off to talk to Harry. When Harry learns of Frenchy’s fate, he agrees to help, and shows Chuck a secret research facility to which only the highest echelon robots have access. After figuring out how to break in, the men join up with Tracy and infiltrate the facility, where to their utter horror, they see duplicates of not only Karnovsky and Takaguchi, but themselves. Recalling Frenchy’s clippings, Chuck realises that a plan is afoot to take over the world by replacing the real human beings with Delosian-controlled duplicates.

All of which comes as rather more of a surprise to Chuck, Tracy and Harry than it does to the audience.

The three plan to flee Delos ASAP and separate. Chuck and Tracy are cornered by Duffy, however, before they can escape their rooms. "You’re one of them?" Chuck says in dismay, and Duffy laughs. "Of course!" He then goes on, in best Supervillain fashion, to expound on the Delosian plan. Human beings, he explains, are violent, irrational, unpredictable creatures who if left to their own devices will probably destroy the world. How much safer to have things in the control of the Delosian duplicates. Then follows something of staggering idiocy. As if the ability to visually record dreams isn’t quite unbelievable enough, we now learn that the Delosian duplicates aren’t robots – or as Duffy puts it, "mere robots. They are not machines!" he continues. "They are living beings produced by the genetic material in your own cells! There are no mechanical parts!" Anyone swallow this? No, I didn’t think so. Chuck, in honour bound, gives the "you won’t get away with it" speech. Then Tracy creates a diversion, allowing Chuck to jump Duffy. As the two struggle, Duffy’s gun flies loose. The fight ends with Duffy staring down the barrel of his own gun, which is clutched in Tracy’s shaking hand. (Blythe Danner has a nice moment here, as Tracy visibly psyches herself into pulling the trigger.) Tracy fires, and we learn that Duffy was indeed One Of Them, as he explodes in a shower of sparks, rather than blood.

All of which….ah, forget it.

The film’s climactic sequence follows, and it is a marked improvement over anything that has come before, as Chuck and Tracy must face off against their duplicates, both of which have been programmed to destroy their originals. (By the way, the little matter of where the duplicates get their memories from is never touched upon. We assume that the "dream recording" equipment has something to do with it, but the screenplay offers not even a hint of explanation.) Chuck discovers that his double is on the loose in the worst way: he sees him/it murdering poor Harry. An extended game of cat-and-mouse follows, as the two Chucks pursue each other through and up the shuttle launch area scaffolding. The battle ends in hand to hand combat at the top of the scaffolding – from which one of the Chucks falls to his death…. Tracy’s confrontation, on the other hand, is far more psychological (more cinematic indebtedness here, this time to the ending of The Stepford Wives). When her double confronts her, she/it has a gun in her/its hand, as does Tracy herself - and she/it tells Tracy that she/it knows everything that she knows, thinks everything that she thinks. Knowing that she cannot elude her assailant, Tracy must stand and fight – and somehow outwit her/it…. The film’s final scene sees Chuck and Tracy – calm, unemotional – passing Schneider at the exit from Delos. The screenplay has one twist left – and it probably isn’t the one the audience was expecting.

If Westworld was hard to swallow, with its "perfect" robots, its heat-dodging bullets and its all-night repair shop, Futureworld is simply ridiculous. A conspiracy to replace world leaders with their robotic duplicates might have been one thing, but biological duplicates!? It is hardly surprising that no explanation for the technology on display here is ever offered. Still more glaringly obvious is the total absence of any indication as to who "we" might be. We rebuilt Delos after the Westworld disaster, at a cost of $1.5 billion. We want to save the world by replacing its leading citizens with unemotional, Deloisian-controlled duplicates. Who the hell is "we"?? A country? A cartel? A band of renegade robots? Who knows? Not Mayo Simon and George Schenk, that’s for sure.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this film is that we never get a scene revealing that Schneider, too, is One Of Them. As it stands, maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. He might well be a robot. Or a biological duplicate. Or one of those cold-blooded scientists who prefer technology to mankind. Or a Mad Scientist bent on World Domination. Or perhaps he’s simply a man suffering from Advanced Taren Capel Syndrome. (Whew! How’s that for an obscure reference?) It’s good to see John P. Ryan again, but from the very first moment we lay eyes on him him, he is just all too obviously the film’s villain. (Throughout, he wears glasses, a lab coat, and a tie. If that doesn’t scream "EEE-ville!" I don’t know what does.) Peter Fonda is rather too wooden as Chuck Browning (amusingly, he is substantially more convincing as his own evil doppelganger), but Blythe Danner is genuinely good as Tracy Ballard, who proves to have unexpected depths in times of crisis. (However, there are times when she looks so much like her daughter that it gave me the creeps.) Stuart Margolin and Arthur Hill lend good support as Human and Robot, respectively (the other thing to look out for, cast-wise, is a brief appearance by Robert Cornthwaite); while the film’s production design is always imaginative (if occasionally uncomfortably "seventies-ish"). But all of this counts for little in the face of such an idiotic storyline. Speculative science fiction is one thing; downright impossible science fiction is just annoying. You know - I’m quite tempted to call Futureworld a modern science fiction movie: it went to the trouble of coming up with an interesting premise; it assembled a talented cast; and it spent a lot on production design and special effects. And then – it simply threw it all away with an asinine screenplay full of gaping plotholes and rank stupidities. As such, it is a film that would fit comfortably amongst most of what passes for science fiction today.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB

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