Friday, June 10, 2011

The Last Days of Man on Earth (1973)

I have never read The Final Programme, the original novel The Last Days of Man on Earth (aka The Final Programme) is based on nor any of author Michael Moorcock’s other Jerry Cornelius stories. I have no idea where the film and novel diverge and converge. However, if Robert Fuest’s movie is any indication, this is a world (or worlds) I’d like to revisit in the future.
The story is basic, but the details get complicated. Civilization is slowly breaking down. The third World War has been going on for years, “but everyone’s so busy watching the bleeding commercials, they haven’t noticed.” Rakish dandy and anarchic scientist Jerry Cornelius’ (Jon Finch) geneticist father has died, and Jerry is approached by the group of scientists with which dad had been working in order to find some missing microfilm vital to their project. They are led (seemingly by leashes around their genitals) by vampish computer programmer Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre). Jerry, who just wants to napalm the family estate and run off somewhere to await the inevitable apocalypse, eventually comes around and aids the scientists in the culmination of their messianic plan.
This is a science fiction film in the same way “The Avengers” was a spy show (as a matter of fact, Fuest worked on the influential, pop-culture-influenced/influencing program), and if you enjoy that, chances are you’ll enjoy this. The movie is filled with stylistic and absurdist touches, and there are all sorts of oddball things brought up in building the story’s world. Some are explained, and some are left to the viewer to decipher, and some are really nothing more than throwaways.
Though the production design seems to waver between whatever locations were available and meticulously art-directed sets, it is always interesting to look at. This is obviously sci fi on a budget, but the film never lets that get it down. Like Dr. Phibes’ lair and the Clockwork Wizards of Fuest’s earlier film, (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, natch), TLDoMoE bears a heavy art deco look and feel about it that is wonderful to behold. It also has some nice nods to its chosen genre, like the plastic needle guns and the human pinball game.
The film, to its slight detriment, bears the marks of its time. Handheld, fish-eyed shots, nonlinear smash cuts and zooms, and the use of negative effects as visual effects seemed to occupy a place in just about every movie of this era. Sadly, instead of creating a groovy, psychedelic atmosphere, all they seem to do is create amused chuckles, especially in the wake of such films as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Personally, this style has never worked for me, and I always felt it was distracting and unnecessary. Also, Jerry is a drunkard and inveterate pill-popper, while Miss Brunner will bed down with just about anyone at anytime. This casual attitude towards drugs and sex probably wouldn’t pass muster today, at least not in mainstream cinema, but this is a counterculture film. It’s expected, required almost.
The acting is solid from everyone, and though no one goes full-on camp, some do get dangerously close. Sterling Hayden, for example, plays Jerry’s “Q”-like associate, Wrongway Lindbergh, in a scene that I’m still not sure should have stayed in the movie. Hayden saunters about his digs, taking phone calls and doling out exposition. And then he looks right in the camera. True, this sort of self-reflexive rulebreaking is a charm of the film, but here it feels more like winking at the audience, and, to me, there’s no faster way to lose them than doing that. That said, Finch and Runacre do a marvelous job carrying the film, and their Steed-and-Peel-esque chemistry helps immensely in holding the movie together.
Because there is so much Fuest tries to squeeze into his adaptation, the characters never get fully developed. There are no arcs for the characters to follow, per se. They essentially start and end, emotionally anyway, at the same point. I bring this up not as a criticism but as a reality of the final product. This is a movie about ideas with the chase for a McGuffin as the central thread. Scientific mysticism sits next to religious allegory sits next to eugenic conspiracies and so on, and the characters are more archetypes than individuals, but they’re so charming you don’t mind at all.
Once the plot reaches its final act, the more fantastic aspects of the film really take off. We’re treated to a lot of technobabble, none of which makes much sense (at least to me), and none of which really needs to. We simply need a reason to believe that what we are witnessing can happen in the film’s universe, and we’re given it. The outcome of the film’s climax, while ridiculous and kind of a letdown (how could it not be, really?), still feels totally appropriate. The movie’s imagery is somewhat ambiguous in the final moments, but the point is not: “Time to start building anew.”
TLDoMoE is a film that succeeds in spite of itself. There are subplots brought up and never paid off, characters whose destinies are not revealed, and some really great theories that are brought up as a matter of course and never heard from again. It is ludicrous at its core, but it is brought off with such style and splendid performances, you buy into its world of organized chaos and the characters who inhabit it. Somehow, I don’t feel my little, incoherent rant here is doing justice to a unique film. Suffice it to say, highly recommended.
MVT: Robert Fuest’s design and direction really keep this film on what track it has. It’s bold but pleasing to look at, and there’s always something to command your attention.
Make or Break: The first scene of Jerry’s father’s cremation sets the tone of the film. For me, its unexplained eccentricities lured me in immediately, and I stuck around for the rest.
Score: 8.5/10

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