Sunday, May 16, 2010

Future War (1997) - MST3K Review

After Sister Ann (Travis Brooks Stewart) nearly runs over a mute and nameless man (Daniel Bernhardt), she takes him to a local shelter she works at. In a matter of days the man is able to speak and explains that he is a slave, escaped from a starship run by dangerous cyborgs. These cyborgs use dinosaurs to track down the slave and kill anyone who gets in their way. Sister Ann and the runaway must keep the dinosaurs at bay, elude the Cyborg Master (Robert Z'Dar), and keep the cops from arresting them. The only solution is to get the local gangs and the shelter staff to do battle with the alien forces in a real Future War.

Movie Review
If my summary sounds a little jumbled and confused, well that's because Future War isn't very well thought out. You get the feeling very early on that this story idea came about because someone liked Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park and decided to fuse the two together. Hire a guy who looks like Jean Claude Van Damme and you've got a sci-fi action winner, right?

Well the big problem with basing your movie on two huge budget sci-fi blockbusters is that you need to have a budget to really make this work. The story requires dinosaurs and cyborgs, not to mention space ships and explosions and nuns. Really, we are talking a good-sized budget, even if you are an independent production. The crew behind Future War didn't have that kind of budget. In fact it doesn't look like they had much of a budget at all.

It's kind of sad, because from the right perspective this could have been a crazy fun type of movie. The story idea sounds so much like something a grade school kid would come up with on the playground, and the script is so haphazard, I can't imagine any of the cast or crew taking it too seriously at all. In fact some of the performances come across like there were only there as friends or just filling in for line readings (the cop on the phone is especially bad).

The main cast is all over the place, they are trying but honestly none of them is very good. Bernhardt does look a lot like the muscles from Brussels, and even has the accent. But he's not convincing as an escaped slave. I do believe that he is a martial artist in a crappy movie. Stewart is horrible during her voice over sequences (but the writing is atrocious). During her actual scenes she ranges from shrill and irritating to almost convincing. Z'Dar is hired for his size and intimidating features, but he acts like a generic cyborg. The supporting cast goes from average to horrible.

Aside from long sequences of walking down streets or inside reservoir complex, Future War actually moves at a decent pace. A few of the talking scenes go on a little too long, but it might be the bad acting that makes it feel that way. If the script weren’t such a mess, I would almost be convinced that a logical movie could have been made. Some of the action scenes are even staged well, with editing making some of the hits actually look pretty good. But there is the use of cardboard boxes. There are two action sequences staged in "warehouses" filled with empty cardboard boxes. It may have been economical, but it sure looks silly.

The special effects are where the whole thing goes wrong. The dinosaurs are actually pretty detailed little puppets. They look pretty cool on the surface and have some impressive motion (compared to the hilariously static Hobgoblins). The only problem is they aren't very big. The director tries to use forced perspective and model work to make them look bigger, the only problem is when they have to interact with actual people you end up seeing how small these guys are. It also makes the dinos look like they shrink the closer they get to people. While the puppets looks pretty cool, they are still obviously puppets, and some of the shots hold on them a little too long or in areas that are too brightly lit. Either they were confident in the model work, or they knew it looked silly and just went with it.

Then there are the cyborgs. Basically get a big actor, dress him in black, put on some clown white make-up (or not, depends on the scene I guess) and strap all kinds of plastic bric-a-brac on him. Make sure all that stuff is painted black or metallic. Put a visor thingy over an eye, make something look like a ray gun here, and you have your basic cyborg, right? Um, not quite. Add to it the cheesy computer graphics that supposedly represent the cyborg's vision (rendering everything pixilated and in neon colors), and you've got a real questionable menace.

At some point when you are waving little plastic dinosaurs in front of the camera to make it look like the dinosaur is huge compared to the kids in the park, you have to say to yourself - this is ridiculous and it's going to stink. Rumor has it, that's exactly what the producer of Future War thought. He even told the cast and crew that at some point this motion picture would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Episode Review
And so Future War obtains the distinction of been the most recent movie featured on MST3K. It was released in 1997 (but was shot in 1994), and this episode aired in 1999. A similar event happened in Season One of the show, with Robot Holocaust being shot in 1986 and being featured in an episode in 1989. Does this make this episode any better or worse? Not really.

Part of the problem is the slow start to the film There is a long pre-credit sequence, meant to pull the viewer into the action. It has the opposite effect, featuring characters we don't know sneaking around in the darkness. The momentum of the episode never seems to recover. Once our hero shows up, things pick up and the laughs easier (because the dinos are after him as well). But the movie does hit a few hiccups and riffing slows down because of it. Slow riffing is fine, but sometimes the energy can be drained, and that seems to happen in this episode.

Lots of laughs in Future War are generated by the dinosaurs and cyborgs of course. But you also get lots of humor from our "nun" in training, the antics of "the runaway" and the fact that he refers to himself as a tool. You've also got some funny bits with the shelter and guys who run it. But some of the best stuff occurs at the end when our heroes do battle against the dinosaurs at the reservoir. You've also got the hilarious bit with the final confrontation with the Master Cyborg, a moment that is so funny you get it for the stinger at the end of the end credits too.

The host segments are a bit mixed. The show starts with Mike and bots using a computer program to determine how many "times a lady" each of them is. Then Pearl appears and subjects the bots to not so secret LSD tests. Observer and Bobo provide appropriate musical accompaniment. Tom is inspired by the movie and challenges Gypsy to a kick boxing battle. Then Mike and bots thank Pearl for not killing them. It's very heart felt. Crow is inspired by how important water is in the movie, and appears as Droppy the water droplet. I think he's still tripping on LSD at this point. After the movie finishes Mike tries on a Robert Z'Dar sized chin and Bobo and Observer's band has hit the big time!

Future War is one of those episodes, like Quest of the Delta Knights that I remember more fondly then it may deserve. It's a funny episode, how can it not be with the cute dinosaurs and silly looking cyborgs. But as goofy as the movie is the riffing never takes off. I find myself enjoying it, but wishing it was a little faster with the riffing or a little more up tempo. Mike and the bots do a solid job, but I'm left thinking it could have been better.

Three exploding dinosaurs out of five.

This episode is available in the Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition.

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