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Future ‘38 is a fake vintage sci-fi movie set in 2018, and a missed opportunity

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The faux-recovered film is a great cinematic conceit, and retro-futurism is a perpetually compelling aesthetic. So Future ‘38, which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival this week, ought to be a fantastic movie. It’s an independent film written and directed by Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego TV series writer Jamie Greenberg, starring a small cast of experienced but relatively low-profile actors. In the introduction, celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a cameo appearance to laud this obscure 1938 movie that predicted the future with eerie accuracy — actually, a modern production in the style of a ‘30s screwball sci-fi comedy.

Sadly, the rest of the film never lives up to this premise.

What’s the genre?

Retro-futuristic science fiction romantic comedy.

What’s it about?

In 1938, the US military develops time travel capabilities and a substance with incredible destructive power — but only if it’s aged by 80 years. So they place it in a safe and send one man into 2018 to find and recover it, thus preventing World War II before it begins. He shows up in future New York and promptly runs into a plucky female hotel owner, a vengeful descendent of Adolf Hitler, and a bunch of bewildering new technology.

Okay, what’s it really about?

This gets sort of complicated. Primarily, Future ‘38’s premise is “wouldn’t it be fascinating if an 80-year-old sci-fi movie accurately predicted the existence of smartphones, texting, and the internet, but only as updated switchboard networks or telegram services?” Secondarily, it’s “what if a modern team of filmmakers reimagined 2018 through ‘30s comedy conventions?” Tertiarily, it’s “oddly anachronistic blowjob jokes.”

But is it good?

There are a few excellent ideas in Future ‘38, including the main conceit I mentioned above. The movie’s tone echoes that of Futurama, which was also a love letter to retro-futurism. But the filmmakers can play with the fact that it’s ultimately fiction within fiction, not a “real” world based on classic sci-fi tropes. And one scene perfectly blends screwball romantic banter with time travel, which is a great sentence to type.

But none of the film’s ideas are fully realized. The low-budget aesthetic is a distractingly mismatched mashup of retro-futuristic props — like a wall-sized computer that answers internet searches with paper telegraph strips — and literally modern clothes or gadgets like iPhones (which people use with separate telephone receivers.) The dialogue isn’t snappy enough to feel like a classic early comedy, but it’s not deliberately bad enough to be parody, either.

This becomes a bigger problem when the film tries to address ‘30s social mores, like the era’s sexism and anti-semitism. A future mafia run by stereotypically greedy jews, for example, could only work as a joke about the fictitious creators’ blind spots. But Future ‘38 doesn’t develop its film-within-a-film conceit enough to do this, so the humor falls flat.

There are a lot of things I wish Future ‘38 had ended up as. It could be a straight-faced but surreal early film homage, like Guy Maddin’s Seances. It could be a brutally funny genre parody, like the ‘80s horror spoof Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. It could focus on developing its mis-imagined future, like a story William Gibson once considered writing — about an obscure sci-fi author who foresaw every piece of 21st century technology, but failed to understand how people would use it.

As it stands, I still enjoyed Future ‘38, but mostly by pretending it was a 2098 parody of a 2017 version of a 1938 comedy set in 2018.

What should it be rated?

Non-compliant with the Hays Code due to vulgarity and suggestiveness, sympathy for criminals, and picturizing another country’s prominent people in an unfavorable light.

How can I actually watch it?

There are no distribution specifics, but as a quirky low-budget indie project, it seems likely to show up on-demand sometime this year. For now, just queue up Futurama.