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Final Programme, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 June 2001
Science fiction writer Michael Moorcock is highly regarded, partly because of his series of novels about hip scientist Jerry Cornelius, but so far, 'The Final Programme' is the only Jerry Cornelius novel to be filmed. Moorcock hates the results, and it's hard to blame him.

Director Robert Fuest (pr. fyoost) was coming off both of the Dr. Phibes movies, and several years on 'The Avengers' TV series; rather disastrously, he brought the send-up approach of both the Phibes movies and the TV series to his adaptation of the Moorcock novel. The Phibes movies and 'The Avengers' tend to work quite well because, for the most part, their plots are standard genre stuff; we know the conventions, we know the structure. It doesn't matter if we can't take them seriously most of the time -- they're deconstructing clichés.
But with 'The Final Programme,' we can't get a grip on the material. The plot is anything but familiar, but Fuest maintains this joking aren't-we-cute approach from beginning to end, tossing in pointless chunks of satire (like Sterling Hayden's character) that don't relate to the story or even to the style of the rest of the film. He seems to have some kind of idea of spoofing some elements of '2001: A Space Odyssey,' but that doesn't work, either. At the end, we can see what happens, but WHY that happens, and what it all means, Fuest doesn't bother to explain.

The story lacks cohesion, too. Sometime in the near future, Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch, quite good) attend the cremation of his late father in Iceland, then returns to England. He is evidently in love with his sister, and hates his brother Frank (Derrick O'Connor), though what we're to make of any of this is left vague and undetermined.

He becomes involved with the mysterious Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), who literally absorbs her lovers -- again, why this should be goes unexplained. She and some other strange figures (George Coulouris, Graham Crowden and Basil Henson) want "the final programme,' a computer program that will allow them to proceed with a huge, mysterious project that involves creating a hermaphrodite that will embody all of the knowledge of Earth. The creature will be, we're told, "a new Messiah, born of the age of science."

And THAT has something to do, though again we don't know what, with predictions by smiling Professor Hira (Hugh Griffith) that the world is about to come to an end. The movie doesn't even establish if the world is on the brink of destruction; at the irksome end, nothing much seems to have changed.

In fact, in its initial U.S. release, this movie was trimmed by distributor Roger Corman and called 'The Last Days of Man on Earth.' This DVD represents the first release of the original cut in the United States.

Jon Finch was in his very brief period of stardom at this point, making 'Frenzy' and Polanski's 'Macbeth' around the same time. He's very good as dashing, ironic Nobel laureate Jerry Cornelius, with his stylish clothes, mane of black hair and black fingernails. Like the film, he's trapped between seriousness and artificial high camp; he's good in both departments, but they never coalesce in his performance, or anywhere else. The movie retains its relentlessly, tiresomely smirky tone throughout.

There are a few amusing cameos; Sterling Hayden, in his flowing Amish-like beard and orange glasses, gives a ripe, fruity performance like nothing else he ever did. Usually viewed in intense, goggle-eyed closeups, Hugh Griffith is both cute and creepy. Patrick Magee, as usual, is sardonic and a little scary, at least before Runacre swallows him.

Like Finch, Runacre herself tends to hit precisely the tone of a given scene; it's not her fault that the tone eventually becomes grating. She and Finch engage in some very Peel-and-Steed-like repartee which, as much about the film, is neither here nor there.

'The Final Programme' has a strong cult following, prompting Anchor Bay to release this DVD. And in terms of film history, it's good that it is now available in the form Fuest preferred. But those who come to it unprepared are likely to be puzzled, even annoyed. The commentary track by Fuest and Jenny Runacre isn't likely to help; moderator Jonathan Sothcott can't seem to get the otherwise chatty Fuest to address the film as we're watching it. Over an early sequence, when he might have addressed, say, the casting or the performances, he goes on at great length describing the appearance of a room in which he met investors in the film. Over the bizarre ending, which involves an ape-man who does a Bogart impression, when Fuest might have said something useful and appropriate, he's talking about almost everything else.

There were quite a few of these heavy-handed "psychedelic" movies around this time, beginning, probably, with 'Barbarella,' but including films as different as 'Modesty Blaise,' 'Casino Royale,' the Beatles' 'Magical Mystery Tour' and 'Smashing Time.' 'The Final Programme' is very much an artifact of its time.

One element of the movie that does work very well is Fuest's brilliant production design: the movie looks simply terrific throughout. He uses giant washes of color for some sequences, simple but effective flats for others; one scene takes place inside a giant pinball machine made of inflatable plastic. If someone else had written the script (several tried), 'The Final Programme' might actually have been as good as it keeps promising to be. But it's basically a failure, though not without interest.

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