CAPSULE: OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Williams

FEATURING: Raúl Juliá, Linda Griffiths, Donald Moore, Maury Chaykin

PLOT: Computer technician and cinephile Aram Fingal gets a forced vacation from his body as punishment for poor productivity; when the conglomerate loses his body, they transfer his mind to the mainframe, where Fingal wages war within the company in an effort to be restored.

Still from overdrawn at the memory bank (1983)

COMMENTS: The impulse to make Overdrawn at the Memory Bank was borne out of a good idea. At the dawn of the 80s, someone at PBS noticed the revolution in science fiction entertainment that had exploded upon the scene in the wake of Star Wars, and saw a lane for the public broadcaster in adapting some of the more literary works of the genre. The first attempt, a low-budget, high-concept take on Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, was an unexpected success. Thus emboldened, producers turned their attention to a John Varley short story about an office drone who finds himself trapped inside the mainframe of a supercomputer. And that is where all the good vibes surrounding this project ran out.

The film that resulted, captured on video and exemplifying the 80s in all its chroma-key glory, was a notorious bomb, remembered today primarily because of its appearance in an episode of.” That’s unfortunate, because while the production is undeniably poor, the idea at its center is still intriguing.

The basic story feels like a more optimistic riff on a theme of , with his ongoing interest in unknowable reality and the helplessness of the individual against colossal and uncaring forces. In addition, the burgeoning revolution in personal computers (which had  been named by Time Magazine as “Machine of the Year” only months before) was making the yet-unlabeled landscape of cyberspace into a more accessible backdrop for storytelling. Like the previous year’s Tron (with which Overdrawn’s plot is surprisingly similar), this is an early attempt to see the inside of a computer as a stage for intense drama.

It is here that this film’s producers run up against the gulf between aspiration and resources, which is in this case immense. The most successful science fiction manages to make the unreal seem real. Overdrawn comes nowhere close to clearing that hurdle. We’re barely two minutes in before the video toaster credits and synth-heavy score kick in, bringing a vibe that is just so very, very 80s. What follows is a parade of scenes set amidst re-dressed modern architecture, pages and pages of technobabble-laced dialogue, and multiple examples of green-screen special effects that seem to have come directly from the Action News Weather Desk. The production is SO much more ambitious than the abilities of the filmmakers can support, and it ends up coming across like some sort of fan film from another place and time.

The movie does have an ace up its sleeve, though: star Raúl Juliá. A famously talented actor, he’s a game performer and pulls off a much better Humphrey Bogart impression than a Shakespearean actor from San Juan has any right to accomplish. But his presence ends up working against the project. Every opportunity to help him fit in better is bypassed. Did his name have to be the decidedly Eastern European “Aram Fingal”? Might the actress playing his mother not have looked quite so Scandinavian? Could he have been a passionate fan of Zorro or Rudolph Valentino, rather than try and make him fill the shoes of Rick Blaine? (The attempt to replicate the setting of Casablanca—one of the most beloved films in the history of cinema—only accentuates the production’s shortcomings.) On the other hand, it’s possible that Bogie himself could not have pulled off an internal monologue delivered over stock footage of a baboon. But Juliá was clearly not the guy to overcome that particular hurdle.

Most of what makes Overdrawn at the Memory Bank odd is the spectacle of seeing such lofty concepts presented in such a lo-fi manner. But while it’s an amusing sight, it renders any attempt to take in the story on its own terms utterly impossible. What was inspired seems silly and what already looked dated is now ridiculous. This account is closed for insufficient funds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Those who complain about how bad the effects are, or how they have a hard time sorting out all the complexities of the plot, or how little sense this or that element makes, are missing the point here:  this film should not exist.  It’s strange, it has far too many ideas, it’s complicated, it actually adapts a story by a real science fiction writer, it’s way too ambitious for the money they had, and for goodness sake, it’s a science fiction film on PBS! No one would ever have made something like this. And yet they did…  Anything this strange deserves to be seen.” – Mark Cole, Rivets on the Poster

(This movie was nominated for review by “Michael,” who argued “The movie is terrible, but is also so weird and unique as to be entertaining.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)  

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