Film review: ‘Futureworld’

Year:  1976

Starring:  Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill and Yul Brynner

Directed by:  Richard T. Heffron / Written by:  Mayo Simon and George Schenck

What’s it about?

Two reporters are invited to visit the reopened Delos resort, closed down after its android ‘attractions’ malfunctioned and began murdering the guests…

In review

Having recently reviewed Westworld (which you can read here), I thought I’d take a look at its sequel.  I actually saw Futureworld a few years ago and didn’t remember it being very good but given instances where I’ve looked on things more favourably with subsequent viewings, maybe it deserved a reassessment?

Well, this is certainly not one of those instances.  Futureworld (named from the new ‘theme area’ of the Delos resort) is a prime example of an unnecessary sequel done “for the sake of it”.  The main protagonists are newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Fonda) and television reporter Tracy Ballard (Danner), both weakly drawn and clichéd characters, the snooping reporters eager for a story/the bickering (later romancing) man/woman team up we’ve all seen before in a thousand films and television shows.  Both Fonda (who’d later star in another ill-conceived sequel – Escape from L.A.) and Danning make what work they can of the dull script with the latter the superior of the two leads, infusing a bit of fun in the Lois Lane style hijinks (an intention on the writers’ part?  There’s reference to Superman in the film with an android character named ‘Clark’, after Clark Kent).  Unfortunately Fonda’s performance is a little flat at times although he’s a little more ‘animated’ than James Brolin was in Westworld.  This aside, the two do have decent onscreen chemistry – providing at least one watchable aspect of the film.

Inevitably and predictably things eventually go awry for the two reporters as they end up on the run from murderous malfunctioning androids.  What worked in Westworld just doesn’t here and a sign that it sorely lacks the creative touches of Michael Crichton, Yul Brynner’s cameo as the Gunslinger in a bizarre fantasy dream sequence is a disservice to his Westworld character and a misuse of a fine actor (and a massive shame since it was his last screen appearance) who’s cleverly restrained and nuanced performance was the key to the prior film’s effectiveness.  It’s something that none of the performers in Futureworld are able to replicate – the sequence where Fonda and Danner are chased by android Samurai is a laughable example and fails to instil anything near resembling the chills or tension that Westworld evoked.

Other attempts to shock the viewer also fall flat – the android clones of the two central characters set loose in the final act by the evil Delos corporation (another cliché?) only upholds the above point and again lacks what was achieved so effectively in Crichton’s film.

Futureworld also looks rather cheap, granted Westworld didn’t exactly have a massive budget, but the production design is rather uninspired and the direction workmanlike leaving the film feeling more like a slightly souped-up television production.

The bottom line:  Futureworld is a poor and completely unnecessary follow up to a little gem of SF cinema, with nothing really to recommend it.  You’ll laugh and you’ll cry for the wrong reasons – stick with the far superior Westworld instead.

Futureworld is available on Blu-ray (select territories) and DVD.

'Futureworld' features an android named Clark Kent - guess he didn't want his face associated with the film!

‘Futureworld’ features an android named Clark Kent – guess he didn’t want his face associated with the film!

Have you seen… ‘Westworld’?

The films you may not have seen that are definitely worth a look…

Year: 1973

Starring:  Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Director:  Michael Crichton

What’s it about?

In the near future, Peter Martin accompanies friend John Blane on a vacation to the high-tech $1,000 per day adult theme park known as Delos, split into three themed areas – Roman World, Medieval World and Western World.  During their stay in Western World (aka ‘Westworld’) the android ‘characters’ begin to malfunction and the two men are soon running for their lives…

In review

Written and directed by the late Michael Crichton, author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, Westworld presents the chilling notion of technology gone awry that holds just as much relevance today as it did back in the 1970s.  It’s an idea that Crichton would adapt just as successfully to Jurassic Park (whereas the park’s attractions would be biological as opposed to mechanical, the failure of technology would still precipitate disaster) but is perhaps more unsettling here given that the very human-like (only discernible from real people by inspection of the palms of their hands) androids programmed to fulfil the fantasies that the guests take for granted in safety and comfort, would unexpectedly turn on them.

Yul Brynner, in homage to his character from classic Western The Magnificent Seven is key to the film’s success by providing a virtually emotionless, cold and robotic performance as the homicidal Gunslinger.  Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger made you believe he was an unstoppable killing machine in The Terminator so does Brynner (the difference being that he was actually a damn good actor anyway), instilling fear and chills in the viewer by using simple body language and flat delivery of the little dialogue he has.

There is some fun interaction between Benjamin and Brolin (Brolin’s character constantly prodding at Martin until he starts to loosen up and ease into the spirit of things) and until Brynner appears the tone of the film is fairly light but it is then that Westworld really draws you in.  Although Brynner’s ‘character’ is gunned down twice with relative ease by Martin, it adds gravity to his return the third time as Westworld starts building to a terrifying and tense climax as the Gunslinger (upgraded with infra-red vision) pursues Martin relentlessly through the park and the corridors of its control centre.  With the staff and guests murdered by the android attractions, Martin stands alone against a machine without conscience.  The influences on James Cameron’s afore-mentioned Terminator are clear, also providing the basis for the hilarious “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode of The Simpsons (back when it was still good).

Why you should watch it

Westworld is a gem of science fiction cinema that’s a tense and unsettling ride, particularly in its last half hour, with a truly chilling and iconic performance from the late, great Yul Brynner.

Standout moment

Martin and Blane have not long since arrived in Westworld and enter a saloon, an android Gunslinger enters and starts to taunt Martin.  Blane convinces Martin to get into the spirit of things by shooting down the Gunslinger – little do they know that it won’t be the last they see of him…

Did you know?

The late Majel Barrett – wife of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry – has a cameo appearance in the bordello scenes as ‘Miss Carrie’.

Watch it if you like…

Jurassic Park, The Terminator

Westworld is currently available on Blu-ray (select territories) and DVD from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.

Yul Brynner's chilling and mechanical performance in 'Westworld' is key to the film's effectiveness.

Yul Brynner’s chilling and mechanical performance in ‘Westworld’ is key to the film’s effectiveness.