‘I can give you anything, but I can’t give you gas.’
Private transportation was banned twenty years after a global pandemic decimated the population. A one-time racing car driver rebuilds his vehicle and sets out for California with the authorities in hot pursuit…
Dystopian sci-fi adventure starring one-time ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ Lee Majors in a rare big screen role. Character actor Burgess Meredith joins in the fun for co-writer and director Martyn Burke.
Life isn’t much fun anymore for former racetrack hotshot Franklyn Hart (Majors) in 2011. These days he takes the subway to work, where he’s the mouthpiece of the Mass Transit Authority. The days of private car ownership are long gone in the wake of oil supplies being restricted by the government. Haunted by a past crash and the death of his family in the pandemic two decades earlier, he’s beginning to unravel, going off script in a talk to a room of boarding school kids, which includes Ring (Chris Makepeace).
Under investigation by sinister government official Santana (Diane D’Aquila), Majors secretly rebuilds his race car. After a nocturnal visit from Makepeace, who is on the run after hacking into government systems, the unlikely duo hit the road and head West, inspired by fragmented transmissions from an organisation called Radio Free California. When D’Aquila’s efforts to contain the situation don’t pan out, Washington spook Mr Hawkins (George Touliatos) takes command. He brings decorated hero Captain J G Williams (Burgess Meredith) out of retirement, sending him after the two fugitives in a recommissioned jet.
Originally planned as a novel by screenwriter Christopher Crowe, this odd dystopian drama pulls in several different directions at once to the severe detriment of the final results. Director Burke and writer Roy Moore also get script credits, and it’s tempting to think that differing takes on the material prompted the confusion. It’s a shame because there’s the seed of an interesting idea here with plenty of potential.
Proceedings start well, introducing Majors, first in the chaos of the pandemic and then twenty years later as bitter, disillusioned drone mouthing platitudes about the efficiency of Mass Transit to bored corporate types and school kids. In the evenings, he drinks and watches old news film of his last crash. Sometimes he ventures out to steal auto parts from abandoned junkyards. This last activity has brought him to the attention of D’Aquila, and he compounds the problem with his behaviour at work. His supervisor, Jud (Harvey Atkin), warns him he could be heading for jail, but Majors is beyond caring.
It’s a strong opening, with Majors in particular, displaying a naturalism and quiet charisma that’s as welcome as it’s unexpected. Unfortunately, there are story problems already that seriously impact the credibility of events later on. There’s no real explanation of the new society that has grown up after the pandemic or how it works. Reference is made to the oil running out, which is why all private transportation is banned, but it’s delivered in such a way as to suggest that the government is lying about it. It’s also heavily inferred that the pandemic led to this situation, but it isn’t easy to see how one thing led to the other.
Things go further awry when Majors hooks up with misfit tech wiz Makepeace. The thoughtful quality of the opening scenes is sacrificed to the familiar tropes of a surrogate father and son bonding exercise. Majors does sell it with his measured performance, but it’s predictable as all hell and nothing that hasn’t been seen a thousand times before. Just as standard is their layover in a remote rural community and our hero’s romance with attractive widow, Eudora (Alexandra Stewart). By then, what initially seemed to be a unique meditation on ageing and a vanishing way of life is but a dim memory.
It’s also unfortunate that director Burke is no George Miller. For those looking for parallels to midnight movie sensation ‘Mad Max’ (1979), the pickings are slim indeed. It’s highly likely that both stories were originally inspired by the oil crisis of the mid-1970s and the resulting shortages and ballooning prices, but that’s where any similarity ends. Burke’s film has almost zero vehicular action and stuntwork, and the little that exists is awkwardly presented. Burke has no eye for the poetry of the road, and it often feels that Majors is just out for an afternoon drive.
However, there are much bigger problems for the film to overcome. In the words of Touliatos, Majors’ breakout is ‘undermining the entire balance of this country’, and yet I fail to see how. Even if his rebellious act is that significant, who knows about it? The few dozen people at the settlement where they stop, and the voice of ‘Radio Free California’. No other media outlets exist. Also, it’s only clear toward the end of the film that the radio broadcasts are not just some crank with a ham set-up. No, the entire state of California is outside government control. Again, how that works I don’t know, but making it clear in the first place would have helped.
To make matters worse, apparently, the U.S. government has only three options to stop our heroes. Send in a dozen troops from Denver to machine gun the peaceful settlers, haul an old Coca-Cola truck across the road (real subtle product placement there) and use an alcoholic, cantankerous old pilot (Meredith) who hasn’t flown since Vietnam. Oh, and one laser gun turret by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. To add insult to injury, Meredith goes up in a jet that’s been out of commission for as long as he has, but it’s fine after a 5-minute refit and a new spray job. Eat your heart out, ‘Battlefield Earth’ (2000)!
And there’s more. Touliatos enters the film as a polite, soft-spoken observer before he takes over from D’Aquila when Majors and Makepeace avoid her brilliant Coca-Cola roadblock. By the end, he’s cackling sadistically as technician Morley (Ben Gordon) blows up cacti with the laser gun, and the troops shoot the settlers in their mountain village. Then he goes off on a rant about ‘the desperate quest for the impurities contained in mobility,’ which is supposed to explain why the government doesn’t want anyone to own a car. The script does cover Majors’ petrol requirements, though. Apparently, a ‘special pump’ can extract the last few inches in the underground tanks of abandoned service stations. We never see him use such a thing, and after 20 years, it wouldn’t be useable anyway. Still trying to figure out where Meredith gets his aviation fuel.
It is interesting viewing this film at a time when government interference in daily life is increasingly utilised as a political football. Curiously, the film seems to foreshadow concerns with the ’30-minute city’ concept and its perceived threat to free movement. Ironically, of course, these very fears are some of the building blocks used by populist figures to further their own political ambitions. The notion of a car-free world as a bad thing and petrolheads as the last great bastions of freedom and individual expression is not an agenda pushed by the film. However, it is strongly implicit, although, in the filmmakers’ defence, it was a whole different world back in 1981.
Despite his appearance in the laughable adventures of ‘The Norseman’ (1978), Majors’ popularity on television meant he still had a shot as a big-screen star at this point. However, this project was made outside the studio system and was distributed by Crown International Pictures, whose only big-time credit was their involvement with Disney’s ‘Tron’ (1982). Even if the film had been good, it might have struggled to find an audience. Worse still for Majors was that while he was stuck filming on location in Canada, the news broke of the relationship between his wife, Farrah Fawcett, and actor Ryan O’Neal. In the days before celebrity culture and social media were so pervasive, actors had little experience dealing with such public scandals. Whether it was that unhappy circumstance or the film’s box-office failure, Majors returned to television and, after the embarrassment of ‘Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land’ (1983), secured the lead in massive hit ‘The Fall Guy’ which ran for five years.
Some interesting ideas are badly fumbled at the script stage and can’t be saved by such indifferent execution.