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Friday, 6 November 2015

Firebird 2015 AD (1981)

Director: David M Robertson
Stars: Darren McGavin and Doug McClure

It’s always dangerous for science fiction movies to name the years in which they’re set, unless of course they’re Back to the Future Part II, in which case people will wait years for viewing parties ‘in the future’ of the movie. This one doesn’t just name the year, it flaunts it in its very title, which is especially arrogant. It turns out that its vision of the future (now our present) isn’t entirely outrageous, as this 1981 film built on the energy crisis sparked by the Iranian revolution two years earlier to set up a US in which gasoline is banned but ten states allot supplies anyway in defiance of federal orders. I applaud such an ecological subtext underlying the plot but laugh at the idea that the government would come for our cars. That’s a wild right wing paranoia fantasy to rank right below the one that has the United Nations coming for our guns, but hey, if they believe that, it doesn’t stretch the imagination too much to grasp that they might buy into this one too. Maybe this movie is doing the rounds in survivalist bunkers underneath Montana.

While the film came out in the early eighties, the stars are all seventies mainstays. Darren McGavin, who many might remember from A Christmas Story, still two years away, is still firmly camped out in my mind as Carl Kolchak in the original version of The Night Stalker (let’s forget the remake), which racked up two TV movies and twenty episodes by 1975. Here, he’s a burner (someone who drives illegally), who rebuilt an entire Firebird from black market parts and keeps it in an abandoned mine in the middle of the desert. On the other side of the law is Doug McClure, who spent the second half of the seventies dominating the fantasy genre in pictures like The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core and Warlords of Atlantis. He runs a government department here, who ride around the desert on dirtbikes looking for burners to kill. They’re terrible shots, as they show by utterly failing to take down a burner with machine guns at point blank range. However they do have a psycho nutjob on staff who thinks he’s an Indian but can still aim.

McGavin is Red, for no apparent reason, and he’s a well adjusted sort of lawbreaker. We can’t forget that he’s a lawbreaker, even if he’s obviously the hero of the story, because his son keeps reminding him. ‘It’s against the law!’ he cries. ‘You’re wasting limited resources!’ Why his son is even there, we have no idea, because the kid’s mother kept him out of his dad’s life completely until the moment he stumbles onto his underground lair and is immediately recognised. Yeah, continuity is not this film’s strong suit. Folk wear helmets, they they don’t, then they do again. Even the colour of their overalls changes on the fly, which is so unlikely a continuity error that it makes us wonder if the filmmakers knew it about all along and just hoped we didn’t notice, like the famously flimsy tombstones in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Naturally we’re with Red, as McGavin is his usual endearing self and Red breaks the law for reasons as wildly antisocial as racing his friend Indy around Silvermine county for imaginary championships and gas.
Certainly we’re never on McClure’s side, even before we find out that his character’s name is McVain and he’s a lawman who’s going beyond the law. Mostly it’s because everything we see is in complete isolation from civilisation and so we can’t buy into the importance of what’s going on. Sure, Washington DC gets a few mentions here and there, but we never actually go there; we spend the entire film driving around the middle of nowhere, which turns out to be Canada rather than the US, the stark landscapes we see being Drumheller, Alberta, better known as Dinosaur Valley. Even if we buy into the ecological grounding for the story, with nothing on screen whatsoever to back it up, there’s no reason for us to buy into the DMC, the enforcers of the government’s policies, doing what they do here. Maybe back in the cities, where millions of cars make a serious dent in the gasoline supply, but never out here where there are more DMC agents than burners. What good are they possibly doing? They’re wasting more gas than they could ever save.

To be fair, there’s dissent in the ranks. The token chick in McVain’s DMC team questions the legitimacy of their work and highlights the bill coming up in Washington that might put them out of business entirely. It would appear that the DMC aren’t supposed to be actually killing people, but McVain is more interested in protecting his insane brother, Dolan, the one who strips off on the top of mountains, daubs himself up in warpaint and whoops and hollers like a stereotypical Native American from a hundred years earlier. Fully half the team seem to be eager rapists and McVain himself has an unhealthy obsession with the Firebird for no reason to which we’re ever made privy. There are even suggestions that the DMC may ambush an important senator working on repealing these laws, just to keep themselves in business. This hamfisted approach gets quickly annoying, because there was no reason at all to make this good guys vs bad guys. It wouldn’t have been difficult to paint both sides in shades of grey. It might have been harder not to!

Some of this is fun. I liked the general idea of the film, with its amiable ‘55 year old juvenile delinquent’ as an endearing lead. McGavin is a lot of fun and he works well with both George Touliatos, as Indy, and especially Mary Beth Rubens, as Indy’s tomboy daughter, Jill. They don’t get many scenes together, as she’s shuffled off quickly into a routine romance angle with Red’s son Cam, but she sure works better with Red than Cam. Given that Cam is intensely annoying for the entire picture, that’s perhaps a given, but it mostly isn’t his fault. This was the first screen appearance of Robert Wisden, who didn’t act again for another four years, but he’s gone on to a successful career in film and especially on television, with his last film role being as Richard Nixon in Watchmen, at the other end of the budget scale to this film! I wonder if I enjoyed this, as bad as it is, because all the good guys are so nice. Red and Indy and Jill are just really nice folk, the sort you’d want your car to break down in front of. They’re feelgood characters.
Unfortunately they’re stuck in a really bad film and it’s bad for a whole lot of reasons. There’s the false advertising, the picture really not being ‘One Big Exciting Blast of Speeding and Exploding Cars!’ as the tagline would have it. There are a few scenes where people drive around the desert a lot but only one exploding car until the finale, which does have a number of explosions but is so poorly constructed that we don’t really care. There’s the horrendous characterisation, which affects the DMC team and Cam the most, but really touches everyone in the entire movie. Not one character is really believable and no-one has any grounding in reality; only Jill has any connection to the world at large and that’s just by having a job which she apparently doesn’t show up to. Nobody’s motivation makes sense, especially McVain, who must have been a real puzzle for Doug McClure. I think he just gave up trying in the end and just picked up his paycheck, because there was nothing of any substance for him to really connect to.

With the technical side capable and the actors generally decent, if often struggling with the material, the problems all come down to the script. There were three writers credited, which is three more than might have been expected. Barry Pearson had written a number of films before this, but apparently poured all his imagination into his other 1981 credit, the underrated Bloody Birthday. Maurice Hurley debuted here as a writer, though he had directed Lance Henriksen in a snowmobile movie almost a decade earlier; he went on to write a lot of television, including shows as well regarded as The Equalizer and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Biff McGuire is far better known as an actor, mostly on television but also in movies as important as The Phenix City Story, The Thomas Crown Affair and Serpico; his only other writing credits were for a couple of TV episodes back in the fifties. Why these diverse talents came together to foul up this script, I have no idea but it’s a textbook example of how not to write a feature film.

It starts with an interesting idea but never follows up on it. It sets up a social science fiction story which unfolds far away from society. It raises a number of intriguing questions but refuses to answer them. No plot strand is ever followed up, let alone wrapped up. Characters change motivation at the drop of a hat. Nothing ever makes any sense. In fact, while we’re enticed by Darren McGavin into breezing along with Red, we can’t ignore how nothing makes sense and the stupidity of it all eats at our brain until we begin to think about how wrong the script is and then we’re lost. The more you think about this, the more the whole thing just falls apart. The story really wants to be about a bunch of patriotic ‘terrorists’ saving a senator from the clutches of a renegade DMC team, but it doesn’t even raise that particular subplot for over an hour, then, literally as it begins to actually happen, the end credits roll and the film’s over and done. Those three screenwriters drove their script off a cliff and all we hear is McGavin’s laughter.

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