The Future is not bright.
Futureworld (1976): 5 out of 10: It is two years after the tragedy of Westworld and the Delos corporation has retooled their robot filled theme parks so the robots don’t kill all the guests. Two reporters, a print journalist (Peter Fonda) and a TV personality (Blythe Danner) are along for the opening of the absolutely nothing can go wrong this time for sure futuristic theme park with non-lethal sex robots…. we promise.
The Good: The acting in Futureworld is actually good. Peter Fonda gets a lot of stick from some critics for his performance (He plays an insufferable sexist jerk) but I think he is fine. His romantic interest and perky cohort Blythe Danner is downright delightful, however (Yes that is Gwenyth Paltrow’s mother and yes you can really see the resemblance here). Blythe is almost worth the price of admission.
There is some outstanding supporting work as well. Stuart Margolin (Angel on the Rockford Files) plays one of the few human employees at Delos who handles plumbing issues and humid environments (Turns out the robots can’t get wet. Which makes the sex robot angle even that more dubious.) He is having an affair with a decommissioned and literally faceless male robot from the old Roman World he saved from the dump in a progressive and touching bromance.
The always solid as a heavy John P. Ryan does an excellent turn here as, you guessed it, the evil scientist guy. His nothing can go wrong mantra gets funnier throughout the film.
Futureworld also gets some fantastic milage out of its Houston filming locations. Particularly the Johnson Space Center. While the movie itself spends much time in pipe filled corridors behind the scenes, the Houston locations give Futureworld that nice seventies retro futuristic feel.
There are also some forward thinking special effects on display here. The first use of 3d CGI on film (the animated hand of Edwin Catmull of Computer Graphics Lab, which is better known by its later incarnation Pixar). There is also a holographic chess set a year before Star Wars, and my favorite a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with life size robots. (The movie could have used a lot more of this.)
The Bad: Oh dear God, where to begin. There is a difference between script and story in movies. In Futureworld the script is bad, but the story is atrocious. If you ever want to see someone’s talent, look at what professionals do with their work without their input. Michael Crichton’s Westworld was an excellent meditation of the fears of out-of-control technology intermixed with that not so distant past that is the old west. He kept the technology grounded where you could believe the animatronics in the movie could really exist in your lifetime.
The makers of Future World instead attach that old seventies chestnut, the secret conspiracy (Evil Corporation, Evil Government, Evil Girl Scout Troop ect). Not just was this becoming well tread territory only a few years after the Church Committee and Watergate it doesn’t even make sense in the movies own fiction. We already know Devos is an evil corporation. Their last theme park killed a hundred people, and John P. Ryan is their chief scientist.
Futureworld’s technology in no longer grounded in a possible near future. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be grounded in any understanding of science at all. To better explain here is how I imagine the initial story meeting between Futureworld’s scribes Mayo Simon and George Schenck.
“So Devos invites World Leaders to their theme park; kidnaps them; and replace them with robots.”
“No, not robots… I am thinking clones,”
“But it is a Westworld Sequel shouldn’t it be robots,”
“No fully grown clones and we use a mind reading machine to steal the memories of the people we capture,”
“Okay fine, but if we get a mind reading machine I want my teleporting Samurai,”
“You can have your teleporting Samurai if I have a control room that is run by an AI computer but still uses actual robots to give commands and enter data at terminals for no apparent reason,”
“Okay, you can have that if I can have SpaWorld where old people become young again through no discernable mechanism.”
“Okay, but I want the script to remind the audience every other line that these are sex robots available to either sex just for the asking,”
“Sure, and since this is the first modern US film to be released in China, we need to make sure there is no nudity or violence,”
“All right, I think we have a script”
You know that Banned in China trope is a lot older than I thought. Might explain the out of place “Japanese always taking pictures” humor that sits in the middle of the film. On another note, why exactly do you have a movie about sex robots and make it PG? Is it China’s fault? Is it because Director Richard T. Heffron mostly worked in TV and didn’t realise you could have nudity?
Plus, you have Roman Orgy World and Game of Thrones World, why go to Future World, anyway? (In all fairness, this was actually a niggle I had with Westworld. I found the glances into other worlds more engaging and always felt Roman World got shorted). And why does Future World consist entirely of the bar from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the basement of the Houston Water Department?
While we are discussing water. Making your robots like the aliens from Signs or the Wicked Witch of the West really handicaps them as potential threats. Yul Brynner is not nearly as scary if they can defeat him with a garden hose.
The Ugly: And speaking of Yul Brynner. It rarely gets as ugly as this. Yul Brynner, who’s man in black Gunslinger is the iconic character in Westworld, is listed third in the opening credits of Futureworld. He appears in flashback footage from the Westworld movie. (Unconvincingly framed as found security footage) and in an erotic dream sequence that has to be seen to be believed.
Blythe Danner is trying out the dream machine (Did I mention they have a machine that can read your dreams and project them to a television. Yeah, they got one of those too). So she has an erotic fantasy about Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger (A character she never met.) And I swear this is the most accurate explanation I can give, it is a done in the exact style of an eighties Meat Loaf music video.
It is a true Big Lipped Alligator moment fifteen years before the trope namer All Dogs Go to Heaven even came out. It is also a ripoff. The movie promised Yul Brynner and more importantly his character in the sequel and we get enough billowing sheets and soft focus for a Stevie Nicks perfume ad watched by the characters from Fifty Shades of Grey.
In Conclusion: You had one job, Futureworld. Get a bunch of rich, obnoxious people and our two reporter heroes. Put them in Roman Orgy World or Game of Thronesville and have a bunch of exploitative sex… then the robots go crazy and you get a bunch of exploitative violence while our heroes try to escape. How hard is this?