DIRECTED BY: Peter Fonda
FEATURING: Keith Carradine, Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand
PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.
COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?
With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.
At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.
“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)
Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):