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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Last Days of Man on Earth

Robert Fuest, produced, directed and wrote the screenplay version of the mid-60s novel by Michael Moorcock, The Final Programme. This ran in the UK in late '73, then in American early in '74, so it's a fitting place to start a review of 1974's sci-fi films. When it ran in America, it was retitled as The Last Days of Man on Earth (LDME, for short). The American version trimmed several of the scenes. Jon Finch stars as Jerry Cornelius. Jenny Runcare as the bossy Miss Brunner.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Caveat: -- Moorcock's story was not so much a plot as a framework for wordsmithing and commentary. Fuerst's film version dabbled heavily in fragmented, pop art, psychedelic style of the late 60s. The "plot" given here is not so much what the movie was about as just the shape of that framework.
Jerry Conrelius attends the funeral (pyre) of his father, who was an esteemed scientist. An associate of his father, a Dr. Smiles, says that his father left some microfilm back in his mansion which was vital to their ongoing project. Jerry's evil brother Frank has control of the house. Jerry agrees to take in the scientists and the scheming Miss Brunner, mostly to save his sister, Catherine, whom Frank is keeping drugged. They get int, despite many booby traps and defenses, although Jerry accidentally kills Catherine. Miss Brenner thinks she has Frank over a barrel (drug withdrawals) and forces him to give her the microfilm. Frank was faking and runs off with it. Miss Brenner figures out that Frank has fled to Turkey. She recruits Jerry to take her there and find him. They eventually do. Frank and Jerry have a protracted gun babble with air-dart pistols. Jerry eventually kills Frank. Miss Brunner asks Jerry to come to Lapland with her. There, she's been working on his father's project: DUEL -- a super computer into which has been fed all human knowledge. Once in Lapland, Jerry learns that the Final Programme is to feed all the info in DUEL back into a human brain. No one brain can handle it, so part of the project is to merge two bodies, two brains, into one new General Purpose Human Being. Miss Brunner is one half. Jerry has been brought along to be the other half. In the solar radiation chamber, the two are merged. What emerges is one caveman who says he's the new messiah. His parting words, "A very tasty world." The End.

Why is this movie fun?
LDME reeks of 70s hipsterism -- that vague flamboyant phase between the hippy era and disco.

Cultural Connection
Art Film & Rebellion -- Fuest was not a particularly avante garde director, but tried his hand at "designing" an artsy film. There is a blend of the lack of structure, or continuity, etc., as artistic rebellion against the "staid" rules of traditional cinema. Fuest mixes in "psychedelic" colorful visuals. He also directs his main character (who is more anti-hero than hero) to be haughty and disdainful of all authority. Jerry is the arrogance of youth, despising anyone and everyone who tries to tell him what to do. As such, the rebellious art-film style fits the character, which fits the times it was released in.

Based on the Book -- Fuest based his screenplay on the 1969 novel, "The Final Programme" by Michael Moorcock. As is almost always the case, the written form can do things which film simply cannot. Fans of the book appear to be divided on Fuest's film version. Some love it and think it does a good job. Others denounce it as a travesty, nothing at all like the book. Moorcock himself was not pleased with Fuest's adaptation. Fans of Moorcock's books have noted that the Jerry Cornelius character, other characters and plot tropes show up in other writings by Moorcock, most notably, the Elric series.

Dystopic Undertones -- Somewhat incidental to the "plot" are suggestions that the world (as we know it) is on the verge of collapse. Several times, the Professor Hira character talks of the impending "end of the age." Snippets of radio stories or details suggest that order is breaking down, though almost everyone remains oblivious to it. Jerry himself comments that: "The end of the world has been going on for years, but everyone has been so bloody busy watching the commercials that they haven't noticed."

√úbermensch -- The "Final Programme" itself was the attempted creation of a super human. Unlike Neitzsche, who imagined man "evolving" into this super status, Moorcock fancied that science could zap one up if it had a super enough super computer. Several times in the story, this new person is lauded as the new messiah. This has an amusing irony to it, in that Neitzsche fancied that God was dead. Instead, mankind would elevate itself into deity. This calls to mind the Bible verse which says that "every knee shall bow." Even secular, humanist, ego-centric man recognizes the role of a messiah -- they just imagine theirs to be just like themselves. Adding to the irony is that in the final scene, "super" Jerry is a caveman. Progress?

Sexual Obsession -- Perhaps typical of the later 60s and the "Sexual Revolution," Moorcock seemed obsessed with sex, of all types. Jerry and Catherine: incest. Jerry and Hira, homosexual. Miss Brunner and Jenny: lesbian, etc. In fact, the big selling point Miss Brunner uses on Jerry, to convince him to do the body-melding thing, is that it would create a "hermaphrodite" being that could self reproduce. The whole point of this vaunted final computer program was to create a being which could have sex with itself. It seems questionable whether this is "progress" that science needs to pursue.

The Best Brains -- In an apparent nod to that 50s sub-genre of the "brain movie," Fuest gives viewers several brains in aquarium tanks. They're hooked up by tubes. They bubble and pulsate. The intent was probably parody or self-parody, but it was also very 50s.

Super Micro Computer -- Super computers were typically shown as massive things. Think the Krell underground city in Forbidden Planet or the usual roomful of blinky lights and spinning tape drives. Moorcock and Fuest may have intended their supercomputer, DUEL, to be humorously ironic. It was a plain box about the size of a photocopier. 70s audiences may well have chuckled. Yet, it turns out to have been prophetic, given how small computers have been getting.

Bottom line? LDME is not a particularly easy film to watch, owing to its artsy free-form style and numerous unexplained elements. In this, it's rather akin to A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse Five. Those films at least took themselves seriously. LDME seems always on the verge of self-parody, which diminishes the overall effort. There are some interesting sci-fi elements, but they are a scant few raisins in a large bowl of bran flakes.


Venger Satanis said...

Nice review. I haven't seen this, but your description intrigues me. Plus, I like weird, older movies that are fun to watch sincerely while pointing out the ridiculous aspects. Thanks!

Ystafell Gynghori said...

Robert Fuest was an underrated genius, as his work on the 'Dr.Phibes' movies and 'The Avengers' television series will testify.

penga said...

I agree a poor adaption of the book