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?
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.
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 – not human error – designed by computers themselves, that were the real culprit.
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, but instead it will waste countless minutes showing us the wonders of this park; where guests can drink from the fountain of youth in Spa-World, joust with knights in Medieval World and in Futureworld they can indulge in holographic chess, robot boxing, or go skiing on Mars.
When we aren’t being subjected to 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 – seeing the same grey corridor will get even the most stoic viewer – but it only goes to showcase what an inept investigative journalist Chuck actually 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.
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.
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 – and 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?
And this is where the movie completely falls apart. While trying to escape Chuck and Tracy are confronted by Duffy – looking so laughably evil that it borders on parody – and 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 to fabricate good publicity, which in turn would draw more world leaders to Delos to be replaced. So Delos is basically a passive aggressive Skynet.
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, and without enough time to wrap things up properly. We never learn if this was 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 Delos is 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.
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 that 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, and not only is this a bit of fanciful of science fiction but it’s also a terrible idea. You have no control over what you dream – complete strangers can watch how your mind works – so 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 – where in Tracy’s dream she is at first stalked by the Gunslinger, then she is saved by him, and then has sex with him…what?
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 run-time 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 – it is kind of fun in a goofy offset kid of way – but if you want to watch a good movie about replacing people with doubles you’re better off watching The Stepford Wives.
As a science fiction movie the science on display is vastly ludicrous, and as a conspiracy thriller it never quite sells the menace, now there are a couple of fun moments that may entertain some viewers but overall Futureworld is probably only worth the watch if you are interested in camp 70s sci-fi.