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984: PRISONER OF THE FUTURE was the pilot for a Canadian television that never went to series but was instead released as a TV movie in 1982. Having watched it twice now, I can understand why it was never picked up but I also want to be clear that I respect what they were trying to do. Buried somewhere in the poor direction, poor editing, and poor script is a story with the potential to have made for an interesting show. With a budget and proper filmmakers behind the scenes, this could have been a cool dystopian science fiction drama. Instead it's a bit of a mess with the occasional flicker of interesting material. It drops you right in the middle of the story from the very beginning. When we first meet our protagonist Tom Weston (Stephen Markle), he's locked in a nondescript prison cell. He's been assigned a prisoner number (984, obviously) and his only socialization from comes prisoner #30 in the cell next door. It's obviously sometime in the future because the guards are some sort of robot on wheels with glowing red laser eyes (also, it's stated plainly in the title) but otherwise there's little to see because the entire film looks as if it was shot in an abandoned warehouse. There's nothing but brick walls and concrete floors, and I'm pretty sure the prisoner intake flashback scene was shot on the loading dock. I found myself distracted by this obvious fact but, to be fair, I'd have been willing to forgive the low budget location restrictions if the movie had been executed better.
Weston is some sort of political prisoner, I think. The events leading to his incarceration are revealed in flashbacks over the course of the movie and exposition comes from Weston's interactions with the giddily psychotic warden (Don Francks). Here lies my biggest problem with PRISONER OF THE FUTURE; thanks to the poor editing, direction, and script (and the less than stellar audio transfer on my DVD copy), I was left completely baffled at the constant nonsensical backstory information. I believe he's a political prisoner who has been imprisoned for crimes committed against something called the Movement. I thought the Movement was a resistance faction but apparently they might actually be the ones in charge. The warden seems determined to squeeze a confession from Weston but Weston holds strong that he has no idea what's going on. He seems 100% convinced that he's been wrongly accused but the warden hits him with evidence that Weston's friends and associates (and mistress?) were all co-conspirators. But then I got the impression from some of the flashback sequences that Weston was actually in trouble for refusing to commit atrocities in the name of the Movement. So was he imprisoned because he refused to play ball with the baddies? At this point, I'm still unclear. Director Tibor Takács and screenwriters Peter Chapman and Stephen Zoller seem to have forgotten that, for the audience to care about our hero, we really should know and understand what he's going through. Since I have no concept of where he stands in all this, I have a hard time sympathizing. Is he a criminal? Or a victim?
PRISONER OF THE FUTURE is a pretty rough watch but I'll give it credit for trying. Unlike a lot of the Z-grade movies I've made myself suffer, at least Takács and cinematographer Alar Kivilo try to get creative in how they shot it. Rarely is the camera locked down while we're forced to watch the same static frame while characters rattle off dialogue. The camera does its part in trying to tell the story and for that it gets some respect. PRISONER OF THE FUTURE may be a lame TV movie but it's giving it an effort. Sadly the cinematography is one of the few positive notes I've got on the movie. But not the only one. I still love the robot guards and my interest piqued whenever they were on screen. There was an especially cool bit in the finale where they're pursuing Weston and flailing at him with karate-chopping action figure skills. The whole use of torture and brainwashing to break the prisoners was pretty cool (we see the effects of it on prisoner #1170, who goes from smarmy businessman to sniveling wimp over the course of his stay) and we get an interesting reveal at the end about Weston's imprisonment that I would've like to delve into further. I'm guessing that would've been the ongoing thread if this ever went on to become a full-fledged series. Really, that's the most frustrating part of this movie. It doesn't get truly interesting until the very last few minutes but by then it's too late and the credits are rolling. I can't really imagine where 984: PRISONER OF THE FUTURE could've gone with a full series run and I'm left to wonder if it was doomed from the start, but using this confusing mess of a movie pilot probably wasn't starting them off on the right foot anyway.
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