Futureworld (DVD)

Delos about it.

Remember Westworld? Sure you do. Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi blockbuster was ahead of its time in some ways, doing the “futuristic theme park runs amok” years before Jurassic Park, and doing the “unstoppable killer robot that looks human” years before The Terminator. Every big hit deserves a sequel, right? Along came the lesser-known Futureworld in 1976. Now in the living future that’s all around us, the movie reappears on DVD courtesy of the new MGM Limited Edition Collection.

It’s the future. Delos was once the hottest theme park in the world, where its lifelike robots helped guests live out any fantasy. Except that a few years earlier, the robots ran amok in the park’s Westworld attraction, killing a whole bunch of people. It was a public relations nightmare, to say the least. Now, Delos is about to reopen. To reassure the public the place is safe, and hoping it’ll be money in the bank, Delos executives invite a group of politicians, millionaires, and celebrities for a preview weekend at the park. Among these visitors is investigative journalist Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda, Ghost Rider) and entertainment reporter Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner, 1776). Browning has reason to believe something is seriously wrong with the new Delos, and he’ll risk his life to prove it.

What we have here is a movie that couldn’t be made today. Not because of subject matter, but because it predicts a future that has not come to exist. There’s a lot of talk about Delos being the place to go for role playing, where visitors can become anyone or anything they wish. Watching this, it occurs to me that people all over the world are already doing this through their computers. You’ve got online role playing games, and some folks have even created their own fictional identities for themselves through social media (warning: that hot chick you met online might not really be a chick). That makes the appeal of dressing up in costume to role play (LARP-ers notwithstanding) less appealing today than it was when the movie was made. Fortunately, Futureworld takes Westworld’s role playing concept and expands upon it in other ways.

The creators of Futureworld could have gone the easy way out and just repeated Westworld’s gun-totin’ action movie beats for a sequel, but instead they took the higher ground. I’m only speculating here, but I believe someone must have suggested if you have robots that look and act just like human, perhaps that could have far-reaching and potentially frightening possibilities way beyond a theme park attraction. That’s the idea here, as footage of the park guests enjoying the salacious delights the robots offer is combined with Chuck lurking around in the park’s hidden behind-the-scenes areas, trying to learn what the real plan is for the robots. Along with the robots, the movie features Star Trek-style holograms, and even some talk about bio-engineering, as the villains plan to rewire and recreate everyone and everything until no one can tell what is human and what isn’t.

Of course, that’s all subtext. On the surface, we get…cheese and lots of it. While snooping about where he shouldn’t, Chuck is attacked by three robot samurai. But, are they robots? We’re introduced to these guys as they appear out of thin air, appearing first like a bunch of shimmering triangles that take of the form of samurai. So, they’re robots? Holograms? Magical floaty triangles just for the sake of magical floaty triangles? In the ensuing fight scene, Chuck somehow manages to hold his own against all three samurai using a metal pipe as his “sword.” OK, so they’re not really samurai, but still. Also, not being able to tell human from robot works great in a thematic statement kind of way, but as far as the story is concerned, it’s wildly inconsistent how people know when someone is a robot and someone isn’t, and that was very frustrating.

Along similar lines, the iconic image of Westworld was Yul Brynner (The Ten Commandments) as the unkillable gunslinger robot, relentlessly tracking and killing the hapless guests. He’s back in the sequel…sort of. What happens is, during a tour of Delos, Tracy is chosen to demonstrate a new attraction, a machine that can record and play back a person’s dreams. Tracy falls asleep inside the machine, and then everyone watches her dream on a screen. It’s in this pseudo-psychedelic dream that the gunslinger appears, pursuing Tracy through a bunch of odd rooms and corridors. At first, I assumed that this was leftover footage from Westworld, as Brynner wasn’t actually in the same shots as the other actors, but then it ends with a shot of him and Blythe Danner getting it on (ick). I have several problems with this whole sequence. Why would Tracy be dreaming this, of all things? What does this dream machine have to do with the robots/role playing aspects of the park? Most importantly, why is this even in the movie? It doesn’t move the plot forward in any way. The flick just screeches to a halt so Yul can have his cameo, and then everyone moves on in the story as if this never happened.

This being made in the 1970s, Peter Fonda does his cocky 1970s swagger that only he could do. He is of course playing an anti-authority type of guy. He doesn’t care about the artificial wonders of the park, but is instead a lot more interested about what goes on behind the park’s closed doors. I never really bought Blythe Danner as a celebrity TV journalist, as she plays the character more like the audience surrogate, as though we’re seeing the whole crazy story through her eyes. Arthur Hill (The Andromeda Strain) is appropriately slimy as the corporate villain, and Stuart Margolin (The Rockford Files) provides some welcome humor as a put-upon maintenance man.

The picture on the DVD is mostly clean, if a little soft. Audio is adequate—not exactly booming or immersive, but you’ll have no trouble making out what’s being said. That’s a big fat zero when it comes to bonus features.

Futureworld is fun, and presents some interesting ideas. It’s an interesting relic of 1970s sci-fi, pre-Star Wars. Still, it’s far from a perfect film, and its cheesiness will likely be a turn off for many viewers. Give it a try only if you like your sci-fi on the quirky side.

The Verdict

You have not passed your safety inspection again, Delos.

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