Futureworld (1976) – Review

In 1973 a small little science fiction film was released by MGM called Westworld, then three years later American International Pictures made a sequel, and it kind of sucked. The original movie was written and directed by science fiction author Michael Crichton, and as I mentioned in my review of that movie it was cool high concept idea, executed very well but was best watched without giving too much though into how this park would actually run. In the case of director Richard T. Heffron’s Futureworld you have a film with half a good concept but very poor execution. So what exactly went wrong with Futureworld?

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The film’s primary protagonist is newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda), who apparently wrote the expose on the disaster at Westworld, and now a with a tip from a murdered source he wants to investigate what the Delos Corporation is up to now. He’s partnered up with TV reporter Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) who was to be sent on a publicity junket to check out the new park, and she’s too not happy about being stuck shotgunning with print journalist Chuck. It’s kind of cool seeing a futuristic 70s movie where one character claims that “print is dead” and that, “No one reads anymore.” Of all the stuff in this movie the filmmakers try to pass off as “futuristic” that is really the only one that was rather prescient.  Of course this antagonism is more about providing sexual tension than anything else.

vlcsnap-2016-09-07-22h23m56s964“Print journalism is dead, and I don’t like you. So sex later?”

Tracy Ballard would be right at home at Fox News; she’s constantly criticizing Chuck for being suspicious, and is worried that their hosts will cancel her television special if they get caught actually investigating stuff. The fact that two years ago a park run by Delos resulted in the death of over 50 guests, as well 95 of their own technicians being killed or wounded, is more than reason enough to want to do a thorough investigation of this new park, no matter how much money they tell you they spent on upgrading their tech. Dr. Duffy (Arthur Hill), one of Delos’s head honchos, explains how Delos has spent over 1.5 billion dollars rebuilding their equipment and that, “Not only is new Delos the most fantastic resort in human history, it is also failsafe.” And how exactly do back up this claim that not only is Futureworld the “Happiest Place on Earth” but also the safest? Well Dr. Schneider (John Ryan) reveals that all the monitoring technicians for the park are now robots, sighting human error the cause of the Westworld disaster.  Dr. Schneider apparently likes to rewrite history as it was clearly established in the last film that it was a computer virus, caused by programs that were designed by computers themselves, that was the real culprit.

vlcsnap-2016-09-07-22h51m03s242“Guys, haven’t you heard about the dangers of a technological singularity?”

For those of you not up on your computer sciences the technological singularity is the hypothesis that the invention of an artificial super-intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. Whether this will result in a utopia or a robopocalypse is the big question. This film will not try and answer that question. Instead this film wastes countless minutes showing us the wonders of this park; where guests can drink from the fountain of youth in Spa-World, joust with nights in Medieval World and in Futureworld they can indulge in holographic chess, robot boxing, or skiing on Mars.

vlcsnap-2016-09-07-22h50m34s321Apparently in the future we’ll be wearing brightly coloured mattress covers.

When we aren’t being subjected of lame comedic moments like the Japanese dignitary Mr. Takaguchi (John Fujioka) sneaking a camera into Medieval World (Get it? He’s Japanese and always has a camera) or a game show winner going on and on about having sex with a robot, “Once you make it with a robot chick you’ll never want anything else,” we are subjected to watching Chuck and Tracy wander up and down an endless amounts of maintenance corridors. Not only are these scenes tedious but it only goes to showcase what an inept investigative journalist Chuck is.  At one point they find a bank of machines and he just starts throwing switches at random, and when Tracy questions what he’s doing his response is, “Don’t bother me, I’ve got an instinct for these things.” Sadly his “instinct” fails him and instead he turns on a machine that generates three samurai warriors. It’s at this point that we realize we aren’t watching a science fiction movie anymore but one that is leaning more towards science fantasy. Luckily our “heroes” are saved by a mechanic named Harry (Stuart Margolin), who just so happens to have been friends with the dead tipster that brought Chuck here in the first place. It’s with Harry’s help that the two finally uncover what is really going on in Delos.

vlcsnap-2016-09-07-23h20m23s115Our heroes take a break to meet Harry’s robot pal Clark.

This movie does give us a nice surprise as it is soon revealed to us that this movie isn’t just a retread of Westworld, a computer malfunction isn’t causing robots to kill, it’s much more insidious than that, it turns out that world leaders and captains of industry are being invited to this park so that they can be replaced by clones that are controlled by Delos. While at the park targeted guests are drugged, and while asleep they are spirited away to a lab where they are scanned both physically and mentally so that the duplicates will be so good that even the creators can’t tell them apart.

vlcsnap-2016-09-08-01h43m59s167I sense a small problem with that last bit.

This leads to evil clone Chuck facing off against good Chuck atop a Futureworld launch tower while Tracy gets into a gun duel with her evil clone amongst the ruins of old Westworld. It gets a little interesting here as the clones have all the knowledge and memories of the original so that they are able to guess where their opponents will run and what they’ll try to do. That’s all well and good but if I was programming evil clones I’d have added martial arts and marksmanship to give my creations an edge. But just who is behind this nefarious plan? Could it be one of Blofeld’s plots for world domination? What about Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom?

vlcsnap-2016-09-08-00h58m49s183Or is it creepy Dr. Schneider?

And this is where the movie completely falls apart. While trying to escape Chuck and Tracy are confronted by Duffy, who proceeds to tell Chuck that, “The human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal. All our probabilities studies indicate that if left alone you’ll destroy much of this planet before the end of the decade. We at Delos are determined that this doesn’t happen. We don’t intend to be destroyed by your mistakes.” Chuck is told that the duplicates of the world leaders are programed to first think of the welfare of Delos and accept their instructions. Tracy and Chuck were chosen to be replaced so that Delos could use them fabricate good publicity, which in turn would draw more world leaders to Delos to be replaced. So Delos is kind of a passive aggressive Skynet.

vlcsnap-2016-09-08-01h14m07s394And Duffy turns out to be a bargain basement T-800.

This is not intrinsically a bad idea, and if the film had sprung this on us a little earlier it could have worked, but instead we get this revelation dumped on us with but fifteen minutes to go, without enough time to wrap things up properly. We never learn if this actually a case of artificial intelligence deciding we aren’t bright enough to run the planet and that a computer mind is better suited to the job, or if there still a human mad scientist behind it all? When Chuck and Tracy exit Delos, while pretending to be their evil counterparts, they leave without finding out if Dr. Schneider is also a robot or just your standard evil human villain. The film ends abruptly with the Chuck explaining to Tracy that he’d managed to call his editor, who is even now running the exposé on Delos, and that the whole world will know what they are up to. Nice that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to give us that scene. Then the two exit Delos under the watchful eyes of Dr. Schneider, who believes them to be his evil duplicates, just as the not quite dead Tracy Clone staggers up to reveal that he’s letting the wrong ones go. Chuck turns and gives Schneider a salute as they leave.

vlcsnap-2016-09-08-01h33m31s785Is he flipping off Dr. Schneider or us the viewer?

Where Westworld was a fun and somewhat goofy science fiction thriller Futureworld tried to go with a more serious conspiracy theory aspect, and it never quite gels with the science fiction theme. One of the film’s biggest missteps is maybe going too far with the futuristic science; in Westworld we were introduced to a park that had lifelike robots, something we’ve already had a taste of in reality with the Disney parks, but in Futureworld they’ve got machines that can just generate Japanese samurai right out of thin air. At one point in the film Tracy is given a chance to try out a machine that well let others see what you are dreaming; not only is this a bit of fanciful science fiction but it’s also a terrible idea. You have no control over what you dream and now complete strangers can watch, how is that a good idea? This scene is also where they ham-fistedly stuff in a cameo of Yul Brynner who played the killer robot gunslinger from the original film. In Tracy’s dream she is at first stalked by the Gunslinger, but then she is saved by him, and then has sex with him?

vlcsnap-2016-09-08-00h57m11s585Tracy has some really strange fantasies.

It’s a bizarre scene, and as dreams don’t always make sense it’s probably the most realistic moment in this movie, but it also served no real purpose other than giving us that cameo. Too much of the film’s hour and forty-five minute runtime is this kind of padding, and we never really get a sense that our heroes are in danger. The trick to a good science fiction thriller is to keep the believability factor as high as possible, because if you don’t you are in danger of creating a disconnect with the audience and they will quickly lose interest. There is some interesting ideas presented in Futureworld, replacing world leaders with clones is pretty ingenious, but the filmmakers don’t bother to really explore any of these ideas, instead it becomes your standard thriller with a completely telegraphed “button” ending. If you happen to catch it late one night while surfing channels give it a look, but if you want to watch a good movie about replacing people with doubles your better off watching The Stepford Wives.

vlcsnap-2016-09-07-22h48m44s468Delos does make nice models though.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.

  • Don Carlin

    Great review. I actually agree with your points. I still love the movie though lol. I watched it the first time as a kid and it actually scared us, we started wondering if people around us were robots. And that animated face creeped me out at the time. Speaking of which, this was the first movie to use 3D computer graphics.
    And you are the first one I’ve come across to point out the WTF that Delos can create robots out of thin air. Even as a kid I thought that was hokey. Like if they could do that they don’t need to worry about humans lol.

    • Michael Brooks

      I’m not sure if this film had the first 3D animated graphics in movies, though the 3D hand was animated by a Pixar alum, but Westworld did have the first use of computer digitized images as part of a feature film.

  • Walter Clark

    In the movie futureworld. People (civilians) are dressed as astronauts, e.g., white (going to the Moon) and Yellow (going to Mars). These spacesuits that people wore in that movie resemble ski suits of today that people wear when they go skiing in the winter at a ski resort.
    Imagine what it would be like dressed up in those spacesuits, just like those seen in the movie Futureworld, it would be very comfortable, just like you are in bed covered up in a heavy blanket, or in a sleeping bag. They were probably made of nylon, or polyester. The oxygen tanks on them were the size of a small cereal box (in the front), and the size of a briefcase, lying on its side (in the back). The yellow spacesuits that people wore in that movie, when travelling to Mars resemble ski suits of today that are seen at a ski resort that people wear when they go skiing in the Winter, (those spacesuits were probably made of nylon), and the white space suits people wore in that movie, when travelling to the moon were also made of polyester, or nylon.