This column examines sci-fi films of the past that tried to predict a future that has now become the present…or perhaps the past (still with me?). We break down each film into categories (many of which recur from one installment to the next) and see how well or how poorly these prognosticating photoplays predicted those futures that were never meant to be. We’ll cover everything from the exceptional to the excruciating. So here’s to the future…all of them!
THE LAST CHASE
RELEASE DATE: 1981
FICTIONAL DATE: 2001 (approximate)
TEMPORAL DISPLACEMENT: 20 years
INTRODUCTION: The 1980s was a decade that “learned to live with the panic and fear.” With the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads like never before (except perhaps during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis), with the ecology and economy teetering on the brink as we began to recognize the effects our oil-based culture was having on our world and our bottom line (and we’re still having trouble convincing people about this), and with a complete moron running the country, things were pretty dicey back in the era of pastels and punk rock. Then, like a beacon of hope, a film came along that showed us where we might be heading in twenty years if we let it all spiral out of control, and we left the theaters with conviction, knowing we would do anything to prevent what we just saw from coming to pass. We would fight and we would win. We would do whatever it took. But first and foremost, we would never let THE LAST CHASE become reality. And the world rejoiced.
A NOTE ON DATING: Although the movie never nails the date down specifically, we know the epidemic that sparks the major changes in American society is supposed to happen in the early ’80s. Lee – I’m sorry, Franklyn – then tells us it’s over 20 years later. For purposes of this column, I decided to date the disaster to the film’s release date and jump ahead an even twenty years. Sure, this could really be happening in 2002 or even 2005, but it works well enough for our purposes…and trust me, a few years ain’t gonna make any difference.
THE SET-UP: “I’ve done a lot of losin’ the last twenty years.” A strangely depowered SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN stars as ex-race car driver Franklyn Hart, a man for whom souped-up Porsches and cherubic boys are more important than his dead wife and son, victims of an unidentified plague that ravaged the United States of the early ’80s (He tells us this in a film noir voice-over that thankfully stops after about ten minutes). It’s the turn of the century, and Hart now works for the Mass Transit Authority, which has become quite the “Big Brother” operation since cars and gasoline were banned following the catastrophe (exactly why a devastating disease and the abolishing of all motor vehicles go hand-in-hand is never adequately explained). Now everyone trundles along on bikes or in electric go-carts, but Steve – sorry, Franklyn – longs for something more, something better…something precision-engineered.
Along comes mischievous computer hacker and amateur demolitions expert Chris Makepeace, fresh off his stint as “Wudy the Wabbit” in MEATBALLS. Also desiring to slip the surly bonds of this oppressive culture, the two join forces in one of the more disturbing pairings in film history, determined to drive that old Porsche from Boston to California, where a rebellious radio station promises some measure of freedom. Naturally, the government can’t have this, so they do what any totalitarian organization would do – they draft a retired Korean and Vietnam fighter pilot (played by a clearly addled and regretful Burgess Meredith) back into service and send him off in an old Sabre jet to track down and destroy these symbols of the old way. Now that’s thinking.
While Lee is out on the road, apparently cruising at about 35 MPH (this is a race care, isn’t it?) with no discernible opposition apart from a few shotgun-toting hillbillies (and with a brief stop to have a gratuitous sex scene with a lady and a dip in the pond with Chris), Burgess is landing his plane every five seconds (he seems to have plenty of fuel) to fly a kite, literally. Eventually the two play an extended game of chicken, Burgess sacrifices himself to save Lee and Chris, and the two chums make it to California, possibly to set up house together.
RETROACTIVE RUMINATIONS: Let’s skip over the usual stuff that’s bound to crop up with all of these films, categories that we would usually discuss in some detail if they played a more significant role in the film. THE LAST CHASE features no overt attempts to predict the sartorial tastes of the 21st century, so there are no silver jumpsuits or collarless tuxes to be found. However, there are also no distinctly dated duds either, so things look fairly convincing for 1981 or 2001. Apart from one stunning matte painting (oh yes, it’s a beaut), there isn’t much futuristic architecture in sight, although the Boston of the early 21st century has its Jetson-esque components. That one shot of Lee walking into town from the subway station gives us a brief glimpse of some classic ’50s-era sci-fi spiral towers, saucer-like edifices and all, but the rest of the film might as well be happening in our 2000 as well, that is if our 2000 had looked like 1981 Ontario…but hey, depending on where you were then…
Finally, we must also acknowledge the conspicuous absence of most of the ubiquitous modern communications technology of our early 2000s, like cell phones, PDAs, and especially the internet. Given the backward nature of this America’s development, the fact that much of this film looks like the ’80s actually works to its advantage, since this is a country that hasn’t progressed much beyond the date of the original catastrophe. The computer systems used by the bad guys are vintage Atari, with colorful booping blocks and cumbersome dials, toggle switches, and knobs. In one scene, a classic Radio Shack style all-in-one computer box sits prominently in the center of a huge circular STRANGELOVE-like control center, and in another sterling sequence, an 8mm cartridge camera is used to document the proceedings; no video tape or digital technology here, folks. In fact, the only thing this film predicts inaccurately that pushes the film’s world beyond our real 2000s technology rather than behind it (apart from the laser defense systems that don’t quite work well, and a goofy “detector” used by the police) is the widespread use of electric vehicles. Now there’s an innovation that our world would need an ecological disaster to fully embrace, the odd Tesla or hybrid notwithstanding.
SOCIAL PROGNOSTICATION: So if this movie features little of the trappings of our typical future film, what is there to analyze? Oh plenty, believe me. THE LAST CHASE depicts an American society completely different from that of our own timeline, mainly because the impact of a massive epidemic coupled with an oil crisis that presumably reached crisis proportions unlike anything we witnessed here has transformed this America into a near totalitarian state. Although we see little of the day-to-day life of the citizenry (we do learn that the Native Americans reclaimed most of their land when the population thinned out), the streets are sparsely populated by pedestrians and bikers going about what remains of life in the USA. No one is allowed to own a car in this 2001 America, McDonald’s is a distant memory (how the hell would that happen?) and for some reason flowers aren’t that easy to get either (the logic of this future is truly inexplicable). There’s a sense of defeat in the air, and the government clearly has a stranglehold in a desperate plan to fight back stagnation and retain some measure of dignity in the world theater (what effect this epidemic or related events may have had on the world outside our borders is completely unknown to us). The root of all evil appears to be the Mass Transit Authority (that damn MTA!), much like FEMA was targeted in the first X-FILES feature film back in 1998.
Our hero is a drone in a colorless, meaningless system, but he has his epiphany when addressing a group of boys on a school trip; maybe we should keep an eye on him. We get some idea of the lengths to which this society will go to silence dissension when the Fall Guy – sorry, Franklyn – is called on the carpet for daring to talk about cars in front of the boys and is suspended from his job. He’s then handed an order that basically serves as a “Go Directly to Jail” card, which he will have to defy or face indefinite incarceration in a “rehabilitation center.” At this point, the time is ripe for an eloquent statement of defiance, maybe something along the lines of Patrick McGoohan’s impressive “I will not be pushed” bit from THE PRISONER. Instead, Lee simply leans back in his chair, and in his own eloquent way, says “Lady, you got too goddamn many laws.” Lee Majors: Libertarian.
IN CONCLUSION: “This little joyride he’s on is undermining the entire balance of this country!” Do you think that the future will consist of a manly man and his young sidekick taking a cross-country journey of discovery while pursued by a mentally challenged 70-year-old in a Sabre jet? Then this is the movie for you! So prescient, it’s eerie, THE LAST CHASE is the yardstick by which all other future films must be judged.
OK, of course I’m kidding. THE LAST CHASE is arguably a crime against cinema (“This could set us back to the 1980s”), and must have been produced by the Canadian film board in order to keep Chris Makepeace working until MY BODYGUARD and VAMP would launch him permanently into obscurity. Given the few seconds that pass before Coke appears in the movie, there’s a good chance the soft drink king also has some blame coming its way. I cringe to see the Six Million Dollar Man and the Penguin trapped in such rubbish, but it does show us once again that the future as portrayed in sci-fi film is always more reflective of our present day obsessions than anything else. At the tail end of OPEC and facing a future that seemed ruled by the precarious nature of our oil-based economy, deteriorating ecology, and shaky world political situation, THE LAST CHASE captures a historical moment of fear (and a pretty relatable one after a few more decades) that translates into a star vehicle for Farrah’s ex and his youthful companion. It’s hardly the most dire future we will see as this column moves along, but it may be one of the most horrific viewing experiences I’ve ever been through. Now go read something else; after all, “what do you think this is, a chicken party?”