A scientist working at a secret government facility in the desert has discovered a gateway 56 years into the future. Mankind seems to have vanished after some kind of ecological catastrophe, so he keeps his discovery a secret and plans to permanently relocate a group of young people there to restart the human race.
Unusual, low-budget science fiction from director Peter Fonda, who had made his name in the ground-breaking, counter-culture classic ‘Easy Rider’ (1969). These days, he’s more familiar as a jobbing actor, although associations with high profile duds like ‘Ghost Rider’ (2007) and John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From L.A.’ (1996) have done little for his career. He sat in the canvas chair as a filmmaker on only three occasions, the other two being on Westerns made at either end of the 1970s.
The story and script here are by Thomas Matthieson, who has no other film credits, and shows very little inclination to pander to the audience in terms of providing exposition. This is a nice change to the endless captions and voiceovers favoured today, but ultimately proves to be a little frustrating. We join the story with the set-up already established; scientist George Braden has recruited a group of more than a dozen teenagers, including his two daughters, to make trips into the future and examine its’ ecology. Arrival there occurs inside metal containers buried beneath the desert (a nice touch) and the flora and fauna seem to be normal. However, expeditions to local population centres (which we don’t see) have found them completely deserted with no sign of human life.
One of the Prof’s daughters, played by Kelly Bohanon, is the new girl on the block and this does allow for a few explanations. Only young people can travel into the future because an unspecified kidney problem will kill anyone older who tries it, and travellers have to strip down to their panties to go because any metal fittings will fuse with their bodies (obviously, no metal-free clothing was available!) The time travel SFX are very simple, but surprisingly effective with subjects ‘flickering’ out of existence. Things start to go seriously wrong when suspicious military types turn up to close down the project and the youngsters flee into the future to escape. Only to find themselves marooned there when the machines are turned off.
This is a premise with bags of potential, but the film begins drifting when our stranded explorers head for the closest city. Given the obviously tiny budget, it’s fair to say the audience aren’t really expecting them to get there. The group splits into three groups for no discernible reason, leaving us in the company of Bohannon and geeky Kevin Hearst. Whereas we might reasonably expect some kind of Adam and Eve business to follow, Hearst seems strangely reluctant, the more so when Bohannon is confirmed as the selfish, whining brat we always thought she was. There is a pleasing lack of the kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo that plagued cinema at the time, but our protagonists might be any normal, irritating teenage couple out for a hike in the great beyond. Hearst does find an abandoned train filled with hundreds of corpses in body bags, but the unpleasantness is kept strictly off-screen (see the ‘tiny budget’ reference earlier). So just what has happened to mankind and are we ever going to find out? Probably not if we’re relying on these two.
Most reviews of the film tend to concentrate on the cast. Almost without exception, they were amateurs that Fonda selected from kids he met in everyday life and very few managed any subsequent acting credits. To Fonda’s credit, he does manage to elicit fairly naturalistic performances, but, perhaps inevitably, none of them really manage to create a character that encourages emotional investment from an audience. The only face you’ll probably recognise is Keith Carradine, whose big screen appearances include Ridley Scott’s ‘The Duellists’ (1977), Walter Hill’s ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981) and ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ (2011) with Daniel Craig. He’s perhaps more recognisable from TV, where he’s played in everything from ‘Dexter’, ‘Fargo’, and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ music video! Having said that, his appearances here are brief and inconsequential. Hearst moved onto the movie sound department, where he worked on ‘Home Alone’ (1990), ‘My Cousin Vinny’ (1992), ‘Beverly Hills Cop ll’ (1994) and ‘Stargate’ (1994), among others.
The major problem here is a script that drags badly around the mid-point and leaves too many questions unanswered. There’s a big twist as well which should have been very telling indeed, but is rather poorly handled. Obviously, most people will focus on the left-field ending, which initially appears to be quite the head-scratcher. However, if we consider the selﬁsh nature of Bohannon’s character, the underlying theme of man’s exploitation of the planet’s finite natural resources and all those body bags on the train, then we finally get an idea of what Fonda was shooting for.
The film also ends with the caption ‘Esto perpetua’ which roughly translates as ‘Let It Be Perpetual’. It’s the state motto of Idaho, but here seems to be more of a comment on mankind and our total inability to learn from our mistakes. This is quite effective when given some thought, but too much is left unexplained during the film for it to really hit home.
Unfortunately, a week after its initial release, the film’s distributor went to the wall and it was pulled from theatres. After that, it went unseen for 15 years until it surfaced during the 1980s home video boom. So it never really had the opportunity to find an audience, although it’s unlikely that it would have ever become anything more than a cult item.
Although flawed, it’s undeniably a project of more than a little interest, and it’s a shame Fonda had such a short career as a director. With a tighter, more developed script and a professional cast, this could have been quite something. Remake, anyone?