‘Futureworld’ – A Look Back at the First Movie With 3D CGI
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Back in 1973, there was a movie called ‘Westworld’ about a futuristic amusement park for adults. There was sex. And guns. And there was lots and lots of blood. And if customers had enough cash, they would be shipped to a wild, wild west playland populated by gunslinger robots. It’s sorta like ‘Fantasy Island,’ but with Josh Brolin’s dad instead of the impeccably dressed little guy. Of course, things turned bad by the end of the movie. They always do when there are robots around.
The film made enough money that a sequel was released three years later. But ‘Futureworld’ is no ‘Westworld.’ It’s not even ‘Waterworld.’ But in 1976, the first-ever 3D computer-generated image in a movie appeared onscreen for a brief moment in ‘Futureworld.’ Little did anyone who paid $4 (or whatever people were paying to see movies back then) to watch ‘Futureworld’ know that it was firing the first shot in a cinema revolution that’s still reverberating today.
‘Futureworld’ stars Peter Fonda (seven years removed from ‘Easy Rider’ and any semblance of a career) and Blythe Danner (whose most notable contribution to the movies was giving birth to Gwyneth Paltrow). They play reporters following a scoop: Turns out that the robot malfunctions in ‘Westworld’ (which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, some of which unspool during ‘Futureworld”s opening credits) were just the tip of the iceberg. This was back when reporters, following ‘All the President’s Men,’ were treated like rock stars . . . or something close to it. Fonda even dresses like one.
The sinister corporation behind the adult-themed parks (there’s also a medieval one, which looks like something out of the flimsiest renaissance fair ever staged) swear they cleaned up the bloody mess from the first movie. But Fonda — tipped off by a dead guy with a huge file of newspaper clips about corporate wrongdoings — knows better. (The above trailer puts some of this in perspective, if you care to spend a few minutes with it.)
So he and Danner begin investigating Futureworld . . . which looks an awful lot like a suburban ’70s dwelling, complete with shag carpeting and period stairwells. They’re sorta upfront about what they’re doing (remember: reporter = rock star back then, so they didn’t hear “no” very often). So there’s no need for them to mingle with the resort’s other, filthy-rich customers, including one horny dude who can’t wait to get it on with some sexy robots. Soon, Fonda and Danner find out what’s really going on here. And it’s way more devilish than what was going on in ‘Westworld.’
This three-minute trailer tells you everything you need to know about the first movie:
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Like a lot of ’70s movies, ‘Futureworld’ comes with a conspiracy theory. In fact, it’s pretty much a post-Watergate thriller with sci-fi undertones (and a poker-playing robot named Clark who doesn’t have a face). But right there, about an hour or so into the movie, is a scene where Fonda and Danner watch how the robots are made. And right there is the first time that 3D CGI was ever seen in a film.
And like video-game pioneer Pong, this early attempt at rendering a human head on a computer looks primitive to audiences used to George Lucas’ various reworkings of ‘Star Wars’ over the years or those blue things in ‘Avatar.’ But historically, it’s a movie milestone and the shape of a future to come — a future way more awesome than the one depicted in ‘Futureworld.’
Not bad for a movie that ends with a looong scene in which a robot version of Fonda chases the human Fonda in one of those pipe-filled basements that seemed to be the setting of every other chase scene from the ’70s. And it’s especially not bad considering the filmmakers shoehorned in Yul Brynner, the Oscar-winning bald actor who played the menacing gunslinger robot star in the first movie, for a dream sequence that pretty much comes out of nowhere. This ended up being Brynner’s last film; he died in 1985 of lung cancer (he became a heavy smoker when he was 12 years old).
Let’s take a short break here to watch one of the most disturbing PSAs ever, which undoubtedly brought otherwise enjoyable TV viewing down to a totally bummer level back when it regularly aired:
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In addition to the historical significance of the computer-sculpted head that revolves onscreen for less than a minute, ‘Futureworld’ features a 3D computer-graphic image of a hand that belongs to somebody just as important to the direction movies would take over the next decades: Ed Catmull, a computer scientist who digitally scanned his hand for a short film he had made a while earlier. A decade later he was named Pixar’s chief technical officer after Steve Jobs founded the company. Today, he’s the company’s president, as well as president of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Also worth noting: The robots are referred to by their model numbers in ‘Futureworld’ — the 500 series, the 700 series, things like that (and because this is the ’70s, we learn which models are equipped for sexytime and which aren’t). Shades of the Terminator movies — especially 1991’s CGI masterwork ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ — are recalled here as the various duties of the robots are explained (again, we learn more about their sexual habits than what else they’re actually capable of doing).
Unfortunately, that’s about it as far as ‘Futureworld”s innovation goes (has any movie not lived up to its title as much as ‘Futureworld’?). There were glimpses of this cool, new futuristic world in ‘Westworld,’ which was basically a western with sci-fi elements tossed into the corral. And ‘Futureworld’ probably should have promised more. But as a relatively cheaply made follow-up to a movie that’s become a mostly forgotten cult item over the years, it was pretty much doomed from the start (Houston subs for many of the locations — if that tells you anything).
So, even with all of its shortcomings — frankly, it’s not a very good movie, and a mostly boring one at that — ‘Futureworld’ is an important piece of movie history. Without it, CGI classics released over the next four decades may never have left the software stage. Think about it: no ‘Star Wars,’ no ‘Jurassic Park,’ no ‘Toy Story,’ no ‘Matrix’ and no ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ There wouldn’t even be ‘Fight Club.’ And who wants to live in a future world like that?