Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Space 1979: The one where they made a Michael Crichton sequel without Michael Crichton

Title: Futureworld
What Year?: 1976
Classification: Runnerup/ Prototype/ Weird Sequel
Rating: For Crying Out Loud!!!

For this installment, we have another new category, the Weird Sequel. This designation will be used for sequels to more famous and successful movies that would get a pass by themselves. A further characteristic of most of the sequels I have considered is that they aren't quite in continuity with their predecessor(s). The undoubted root is that continuity and "cannon" were not yet major considerations, particularly before home video made it easy to compare and dissect every entry in a franchise. This allowed for sequels that were substantially different in concept and tone, like the horror/ zombie film Dawn of the Dead, and others that did little more than slap a name on an unrelated film, like its "sequel" Zombie/ Zombi 2. Sometimes, these entries managed to go in new and creative directions, sometimes they retold the earlier story with varying degrees of success, and sometimes they tried to be different but simply didn't work. And that brings us to the current selection, the original sequel to the 1973 classic Westworld.

The story opens up promisingly with a recap and introduction: After the slaughter of many guests and staff in the first movie, Delos has built a new resort and resumed catering to the wealthy. The attractions include a space simulation, a life-size version of Rock Em Sock Em robots, and prominently and repeatedly mentioned anatomically functional "pleasure" bots. But two reporters are suspicious after a source within the resort is found murdered. An investigation reveals that the robots are in control of the resort, and have begun replacing their most influential guests with perfect duplicates. When our heroes realize that their own replacements are the latest on the assembly line, they must make their escape while trying to be sure who is still human.

After the success of Westworld, there was inevitable interest in a sequel. The first warning sign was that the author Michael Crichton wanted nothing to with it. The other shoe dropped when it became apparent that the producing studio MGM couldn't be bothered to make it. Instead, the rights were snapped up by the infamous B-movie factory AIP, who were left entirely to their own devices. The final product was released in 1976, alongside MGM's new toy Logan's Run, to modest box office and hostile reviews. A subsequent 1980 TV franchise spinoff, Beyond Westworld, is noted to have ignored Futureworld entirely, making it one of the first sequels to be excluded in the course of a "reboot".

This is where I will insert my personal story. I can remember more clearly than usual seeing Westworld for the first time in the middling 1990s (down to the snack I ate while watching it!), and being duly blown away. Despite that history, and in some ways because of it, it was one of the first movies I decided to be unsuitable for this feature. That film was in every sense a success in its own right, laying the way for movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator and even Jurassic Park without in any way diminishing its own legacy and reputation.  The sequel, on the other hand, was the first to stand out for attention even though I had never gotten around to watching it until I decided to do a review. I took particular interest in the fact that available summaries showed about as much resemblance to Blade Runner as to Westworld itself.

I suppose I can't say I was disappointed by what I saw, but I can't say it was a barrel of laughs either. T Futureworld is a whole pile of awkward, but like many of the most frustrating films I have encountered, it rarely if ever builds up the kind of energy needed for a "so bad it's good" romp. This is especially evident in the very direct dialogue about human/ robot sexuality, which is good for a few cringey chuckles but ultimately does less to develop the idea than Battle Beyond The Stars did with a throwaway gag. The even deeper problem is that the film never quite succeeds in making its bots threatening. Just by comparison, Yul Brynner (who returns in a bizarre dream/ fantasy sequence) supplied most of Westworld's best moments as the chillingly inhuman and nearly unstoppable Gunslinger in Westworld. In Futureworld, the bots are so benign they all but politely ask their intended victims to die. On top of that, they prove easy to destroy with conventional weapons, usually perishing in sparks and smoke that completely defeat their purpose. Apart from a replacement who recites her victim's own memories and a totally incongruous band of ninjas, the lot of them are a washout.

That gets us to the one scene, and it is the one sequence that feels like it should belong in a completely different and far better movie. Around the middle act of the film, the reporters are aided by a human maintenance worker who keeps a salvaged bot as his companion and friend. In their quite short time on screen, the man and android have a quite convincing chemistry together, with clear affection from the former and ample signs of mutual respect from the robot. It all culminates in a completely surreal scene where the man and the bot play cards. Of course, the literally faceless machine proves to have the advantage. It's weird, it's clever, it's funny, it's heartfelt, and it's way better than this movie ever deserved.

See my Introduction to the series.

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