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Westworld (1973) was a popular, slick science fiction adventure produced at MGM and written and directed by Michael Crichton. It offered up a then-novel concept - a malfunction at a futuristic theme park that results in mass casualties of guests and park technicians alike. The movie was a box-office hit and its producer, Paul Lazarus III, developed a follow-up, although without the direct involvement of Crichton. When MGM passed on the property, Lazarus and co-producer James T. Aubrey bought the sequel rights from Crichton and brought their story to famous low-budget producer Samuel Z. Arkoff and his American International Pictures (AIP). The result was Futureworld (1976), which wisely avoided the theme-park-run-amok scenario of the first film (Crichton himself would revisit that theme years later with his novel and screenplay of Jurassic Park ). Instead, the sequel delved into a deeper conspiracy plot involving the Delos corporate entity, placing Futureworld squarely in the company of other post-Watergate 1970s movies that exploited the general mistrust at the time of political, industrial, and corporate institutions.
It is difficult to imagine that any theme park would reopen following a malfunction that kills more than 50 guests and kills or injures 95 park technicians, yet a mere two years after the events in Westworld, the Delos park reopens, at three times its previous size. The West World section is still shuttered, but the park offers Roman World, Medieval World, Spa World, and Future World. Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) is the newspaper reporter responsible for giving Delos the worst press at the time of the incident. On the eve of the reopening, he is contacted by former Delos employee Frenchy (Ed Geldart), who has information on the park to sell. Meeting at a hotel lobby, Frenchy is shot and is only able to whisper the word "Delos" to Chuck before dying. Browning is invited to the Delos reopening, along with TV reporter Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), an old flame with whom he now has a love/hate relationship. Others along for the trip are Ron Thurlow (Jim Antonio), who won the $1200 trip on a TV game show, and an assortment of high-powered paying guests - "oil ministers, rocket experts, and heavyweight electronic types" according to Chuck. Tracy and Chuck are hosted by Park owner Dr. Duffy (Arthur Hill) who explains the new fail-safe system for controlling the Delos robots. Before very long, the reporters are snooping around in the bowels underneath the park, uncovering a conspiracy more insidious than the simple malfunctions that fueled the plot of the earlier movie.
As the reporters-with-a-past, Fonda and Danner are never able to generate any chemistry together. The two snip at each other throughout the film; he uses the pet name "Socks" with her while she hurls insults at him like "ink stained Neanderthal." The banter is supposed to be cute, but is merely annoying. Not as annoying, though, as a ridiculous cameo contrived for Yul Brynner's "Gunslinger" robot from the first film. Even though his character had been thoroughly dispatched in Westworld, Brynner was brought back to film an embarrassing, awkward dream sequence in which he twirls Danner about with a silk scarf; sadly, this was Brynner's final film appearance. There are also some problems with the internal logic of Futureworld. For example, great care is taken to show the workings of the robots, including several scenes in the Delos robot repair station. Yet late in the film, Chuck and Tracy are attacked by three samurai warriors who materialize from nothingness. Presumably, they are holograms, but they appear to be as solid and dangerous as the robots.
The film has the unfortunate look of a made-for-TV movie. Director Richard T. Heffron made his name in that field, helming such highly-rated efforts as Outrage (1973), Richard Matheson's The Morning After (1974), and I Will Fight No More Forever (1975). The film's script is by George Schenck and Mayo Simon; the latter had experience with two previous science fiction projects. He adapted a novel for the space-mission-gone-wrong adventure Marooned (1969), and he wrote the unjustly neglected Phase IV (1974), an ecological horror-thriller and the only feature directed by famed title designer Saul Bass.
Futureworld feels as if it were shot on location at an industrial theme park thanks to extensive shooting at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Prominent as "sets" are such distinctive sights as the giant circular latch of the Space Environment Simulator Laboratory (which was also featured prominently in the posters and advertising of the film), and one of the Mission Operations Control Rooms, with its familiar rows of computer monitors facing a large bank of tracking screens. The film was also shot in several other locations in Houston, making liberal use of the late 1960s-early 1970s Modern architecture of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the lobby of Jones Hall, and the tram system at the Houston Intercontinental Airport.
Richard Eder of the New York Times was unimpressed, saying "Futureworld is a film about robots and, evidently, for robots. It is as much fun as running barefoot through Astroturf." He goes on to say, "it is all the most ordinary kind of hardware science fiction, full of computers and empty of thought. It features miles and miles of tubes and pipes and valves and as Tracy - who otherwise mostly says 'Let's get out of here' - intelligently observes: 'It is about as exciting as a visit to the waterworks.'" Eder also notes, "The film is rated PG. Parents are advised that there is nothing offensive in it. Offensiveness would help." Jay Cocks of Time magazine, on the other hand, found the film "...daffy and easy to take, with a relaxed, ingratiating performance by Fonda and a very witty, rambunctious one by Ms. Danner, who is altogether one of the niftiest actresses around."
In his rave review in Cinefantastique, Frederick S. Clarke called the film "strictly top-notch in all departments" and praised the "highly imaginative use of old themes in twisting the premise of Westworld..." Clarke says the makers "...assume we have seen [the] original film and keep the exposition about Delos to a minimum while exploring new facets of Crichton's material. Locations at Houston's Manned Space Center are remarkable, and there's a neat cameo by Stuart Margolin as a park worker more accustomed to the company of his robots than real people. Surprising well done..."
In his book Future Tense, John Brosnan was less impressed with the film's use of old themes, writing that "Futureworld lacks the unified structure of Michael Crichton's original film, as the makers seem confused and take it in several logically conflicting directions before settling for one of pulp sf's oldest plots: a mad scientist creates robot duplicates of influential people in order to control the world." Brosnan also notes that "the main flaw is a superfluous dream sequence in which Blythe Danner is pursued through a house by Yul Brynner's robot gunslinger from Westworld, obviously the only way the makers could contrive to include the key image from the previous film in their version." In his book The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy also finds the central plot conceit to be old-fashioned, saying that "Futureworld reduces the impact of its central situation - robots turning against their masters - with an explanation that wouldn't be out of place in a thirties serial: Hill is the administrator of Delos, planning to take over the world by substituting his robots for world leaders." Hardy also laments that "...the film has rejected the cold purity of the robots, as essayed in the earlier film, in favour of seeing them as lumbering tin-cans."
Although by 1976 Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) had been seen in several short animated films, Futureworld was the first feature film to incorporate such effects, and Peter Fonda was no doubt the first major actor to have his face "digitized" for the big screen. The 3-D wireframes for the film were created by a couple of graduate students at the University of Utah. One of these students, Edwin Catmull, would go one to become a leading figure in CGI at Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Disney.
Producer: Paul Lazarus III, James T. Aubrey
Director: Richard T. Heffron
Screenplay: George Schenck, Mayo Simon
Cinematography: Gene Polito, Howard Schwartz
Production Design: Trevor Williams
Music: Fred Karlin
Film Editing: James Mitchell
Cast: Peter Fonda (Chuck Browning), Blythe Danner (Tracy Ballard), Arthur Hill (Dr. Duffy), Yul Brynner (The Gunslinger), John Ryan (Dr. Schneider), Stuart Margolin (Harry), Allen Ludden (Game Show Host), Robert Cornthwaite (Mr. Reed), Angela Greene (Mrs. Reed), Darrell Larson (Eric), Nancy Bell (Erica), Bert Conroy (Mr. Karnovsky), Dorothy Konrad (Mrs. Karnovsky), John Fujioka (Mr. Takaguchi), Dana Lee (Mr. Takaguchi's Aide)
by John M. Miller