Film Review: Future '38

A swell idea harnessed to leaden style and execution, sci-fi comedy 'Future ’38' doesn’t take off.
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No less a scientific and celebrity eminence than affable astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson appears at the outset of Future ’38 to offer lighthearted assurance that this film has cracked the code of correctly dramatizing temporal and spatial displacement: “Finally, a movie gets time travel right.”

As with many of the venerable scientist’s lofty assertions, audiences might be inclined simply to take Tyson’s word for it, and venture forth into Future ’38 expecting a sci-fi spoof that at least is attentive to known laws of physics. The film, written and directed by veteran “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” scribe Jamie Greenberg, gets one thing about time travel right, by spinning a few nifty plot twists from the perpetual time loop created when Essex (Nick Westrate), an agent from 1938, is sent into the future to save the world.

What the film gets wrong are a host of other stylistic and substantive elements intended to sell the novel idea that this time-hopping yarn isn’t just about a gent from ’38 who arrives in 2018, but that the film itself was made in 1938, and only recently rediscovered. A genuine product of the fictional Metro-National motion picture company, Future ’38 purports to represent an RKO-style, B-movie sci-fi picture with a screwball-comedy twist.

Westrate more or less holds up his end of the bargain. He’s convincing as the wide-eyed time-traveler who can’t wrap his head around the advances he encounters in the 80-years-ahead future that he’ll shape, depending on the success or failure of his mission. In the bustling New York City of 2018, Essex meets and teams up with a wisecracking love interest, Banky, portrayed with tart charm by Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s “GLOW”). The two leads form a romantic pairing that doesn’t crackle or pop with comic zing, per se, but does prop up the story, which gets no lift from the script’s flat one-liners and labored innuendoes. (“You must not go down much,” Essex tells Banky. “Oh, I go down,” she replies. They’re talking about finding Delancey Street, and it’s not funny or sexy.)

Among the broad, hit-or-miss ensemble, individual performances have moments, but the group high-wire act of ’30s players portraying screwball sci-fi in the future just doesn’t play. Gilpin’s buzzy Banky fares best, but even her rhythms land closer to ’90s sitcom than Rosalind Russell. As for period realness, that award would go to Sean Young as phone operator Mabel, the film’s ersatz ’30s conception of a futuristic, uber-helpful assistant who resides inside your videophone. That is, she’s a spin on Siri that amounts to a decent joke, visually and via the characters’ interactions with Mabel, who often just lingers on her screen, listening as she does.

The attempts made via design to approximate the look and sound of ’30s filmmaking are B-movie cheesy, without being cheesy enough to be entertaining as such. The costumes are especially misjudged, as they do not in a fun or inventive fashion denote a ’30s sensibility applied to dressing up the future. Likewise, the production design leaves most of the concept’s inherent comic potential unfulfilled. Oddly, though, Greenberg and crew do produce a final shot that’s framed, lit and performed perfectly to simulate the look of a 1930s Hollywood comedy. And there is a good joke about something called a chronotard, which hints at the perhaps better bad-taste version of this material that remains to be imagined by the 21st-century John Waters, if such a savior of screen humor exists.

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