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CAPSULE: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973)

AKA The Last Days of Man on Earth

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre, Sterling Hayden

Still from The Final Programme (1973)

PLOT: Scientific genius, billionaire playboy, rock star, and international man of mystery Jerry Cornelius (no relation whatsoever to Buckaroo Banzai, though it’s probably not coincidental that he has the same initials as Jesus Christ) searches for a computer programme written by his recently deceased father which will somehow create the new Messiah: a self-replicating hermaphrodite destined to breed the superior race which will replace mankind. A lot of confusing, post-psychedelic, very 1973 stuff happens, but of course in the end he finds it. And then he turns into a gorilla.

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: It’s dull!

COMMENTS: This movie is very difficult to see. It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD anywhere for less than $100, and since I have no intention of paying that much (or indeed anything) to watch this clunker again, I’ll have to review it from memory. However, since I did catch it on the big screen at my local arthouse cinema a couple of years ago, I’ve probably seen it much more recently than most of the people reading this.

Here’s the thing. Most difficult-to-see films are difficult to see for legal reasons; usually they’re banned, or at least highly controversial. The Final Programme is difficult to see because so few people care about it that it’s not worth releasing on DVD. But its very unavailability has given it a totally undeserved cult status, which is why the few copies on the market sell for insane prices to people who think they want them. Ladies and gents, a word in your ear. Don’t get too excited about this movie, because when you finally do get to see it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. And if you paid $100 for the privilege, you will not be a happy bunny!

The first problem with this movie is its leading man. Jon Finch is famous for starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s last (and most definitely not his best) film, Frenzy, and for appearing in a couple of Hammer horrors. He also would have been the guy whose chest exploded in Alien, if he hadn’t had to drop out due to health problems. So, a perfectly decent actor, but not exactly A-list (and by the way, he died on 28 December 2012, so RIP Jon). Jerry Cornelius is supposed to be an amoral anti-hero who combines the more interesting elements of Oscar Wilde and James Bond (and Buckaroo Banzai, who hadn’t even been invented yet), and for that, you need a lot more screen presence than Jon Finch could muster. Rumor has it that  turned down the role on the grounds that it was “too weird.” Given his performance in Performance, I can only assume that what he really meant was: ”This script sucks, and I can’t be bothered to argue.”

Michael Moorcock also thought the script sucked, and since he wrote the 1969 novel on which the film was based, he presumably knew what he was talking about. His outrageously decadent protagonist’s screen incarnation comes across as being a bit naughty and cheeky: there’s absolutely no sense that this man is either genuinely dissipated or the slightest bit dangerous. Which is especially unfortunate, given that it was only two years since A Clockwork Orange had shown us exactly what an amoral yet strangely charismatic anti-hero is supposed to be like (curiously, Patrick Magee is in both films).

Many elements of the film now considered “weird” were actually standard for any fairly expensive fantasy or sci-fi film made at that time. Yes, there’s some groovy scenery, but you’ll see much, much more of the same in Barbarella or Casino Royale (the 1967 version without Daniel Craig, obviously). But who cares how trippy the sets are if you don’t give a fig about the people standing in front of them? Also, much is also made on weird film websites of the fact that Jenny Runacre’s femme fatale Miss Brunner (definitely the real star of the film) somehow consumes her sexual partners. Well, yes, that is weird. Or at any rate, it would be if it was shown on screen. But it isn’t—it’s mentioned a couple of times, and the people Miss Brunner entices into her bedroom do not reappear in the movie, but so what? Maybe she just told them to go away! (In fact, in the source novel, this is an elaborate in-joke—the plot secretly mirrors that of one of Michael Moorcock’s other novels, so certain characters have seemingly arbitrary and irrelevant qualities. Shades of Buckaroo Banzai’s melon!)

This air of can’t-be-bothered pervades the whole movie. At one point, Jerry Cornelius announces that he’s going to fly to Spain in his private jet, and then suddenly he’s in Spain, with no footage whatsoever to convince us that he really owns a plane. A lot of scenes appear oddly under-populated, even if there really should be lots of extras milling about, as if the studio had already lost faith in the production and started cutting corners before it was even finished. And oh boy, if you haven’t read the source novel, good luck trying to figure out the plot! Especially bearing in mind that the unnecessarily complicated pseudo-scientific McGuffin was devised by a character who dies before the film starts and who doesn’t appear in any flashbacks.

Robert Fuest (who also died last year, so RIP to him, too) was an oddly unprolific director. He’s best known for The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), but its disappointing sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) did so badly at the box-office that the planned third film, Phibes Resurrectus, was never made. You may also have seen The Devil’s Rain (1975), a movie so incoherent that it was marketed on video as starring John Travolta in his screen debut because they couldn’t think of any other way to sell it, although in truth he plays a Satanic cultist whose only line is: “Get him! He is a blasphemer!” Devotees of this site may prefer to think of Rain as the movie in which William Shatner melts. I know I do. (By the way, Rain is not only far weirder that The Final Programme, but also a lot cheaper). Anyway, I can’t help observing that three out of four of the Robert Fuest movies anybody’s heard of have wildly muddled plots where absolutely anything can happen if the scriptwriter says so. Perhaps he wasn’t the ideal director for a movie based on a late sixties experimental sci-fi novel in which absolutely anything can happen if Michael Moorcock says so.

And so we come to that notorious ending. Now, I have to admit that this is very weird – Jerry Cornelius merges with Miss Brunner to become the Perfect (Girly) Man, who for some reason is a cross between Charles Atlas and King Kong. I don’t think this is meant to be funny, but it is, for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately it’s also the last two minutes of the movie, and in no way makes up for all the meandering nonsense we’ve had to plod through to get there.

Seriously, don’t go out of your way to see this film, because you’ll probably spend at least ten times as much as you would to see anything else. And then you’ll have to kick yourself really, really hard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The modishly bizarre, nightmare-logic plot is, despite its essential slenderness (not that much really happens), a bit tricky to follow, and the pace does slacken towards sluggishness from time to time. But diversions are plentiful… the psychedelically FX-heavy climax, lampooning Kubrick’s 2001 and prefiguring Ken Russell’s Altered States, concludes (the by now thoroughly wigged-out) proceedings on a note of irresistibly histrionic conceptual loopiness.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (screening)

 

(This movie was nominated for review by “Funkadelic.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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