FANTASIA OBSCURA: Not Even John Ritter Could Save This Futuristic Look at 1998 America

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, when you’re desperate for money, you’ll try anything for a laugh…

Americathon (1979)

(Dist.: Lorimar Pictures/United Artists; Dir.: Neil Israel)

Americans can react to the interesting times they’re in by expressing fear for their country’s future like no one else.  Worries about pacifism leading to vulnerability gave us Men Must Fight.  Fears of collectivists taking over led to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  And as we saw last week, fear of enfranchising the Baby Boomers would give us the nightmare found in Wild in the Streets.

So you can imagine that the dark days of the late 1970s would give us…  a horrifically unfunny comedy?

It’s the far-off year of 1998, after the United States suffered the effects of a “peak oil” event and President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech was met with a mob that lynched him and half his cabinet. From there, the country went into free fall; the only folks who did worse were the United Kingdom, which became the 57th state, and the USSR, which was wiped out by the capitalist powerhouse China.

In the intervening years that the intro covers, the country sold off a lot of assets and downsized to the point where the president conducts business from a run-down condominium in Marina Del Ray.  There, President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) rides a wave of popularity based on his sunny disposition, as he embraces many of the positive mindset mantras that came out of Southern California at the time (making Roosevelt a stand-in for then-Governor Jerry Brown), staying mellow in the face of impending economic collapse.

Amthn01

Part of the president’s plan to date is to stay calm and borrow heavily from the country’s richest man, Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), who became rich on fads for footwear that turned Native Americans into a prosperous slice of the country. Birdwater, at one point, decides that enough is enough, and calls due his $400 billion loan.

The threat of default panics most everyone, but is secretly seen as an opportunity by presidential advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) to hand the country over to the United Herab Republic, a conglomeration of Israel and the Arab world that working together control a state that runs from Casablanca to Singapore via Stockholm.

Desperate, the government turns to media studies professor Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert), who is also narrating the action in the past tense (voiced in those instances by George Carlin) which makes the film a look back at the past from even further forward from 1998. Asked to help set up the televising of a raffle to help raise funds, McMerkin suggests instead that a telethon be held to raise the funds in the thirty days Birdwater has given the country to pay him back.

Possibly inspired by such broadcasts as Jerry Lewis’ at-the-time-annual MDA telethon and the “America Goes Public” telethon held in 1972 by the Democratic Party to pay back debts incurred in previous election cycles, the film was based on the 1976 televised play “Gothamathon” written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman of Firesign Theater.

In expanding it out for a film production with a (relatively) bigger budget, the screenplay that director Israel wrote with Michael Mislove and Monica Johnson went big not only in its scope but its outrageous predictions as well. Many of these were just swings at the fences that managed years later to look prescient, such as China becoming a capitalist powerhouse, Vietnam becoming a tourist destination, and the rise of the worst aspects of reality television; their overall batting average, however, was still pretty low in the aggregate as far as telling us what the future held.

Also pretty low was the quality of the writing, along with some of the acting used to unfold the script. Even decent work by Ritter and Harvey Korman as emcee Monty Rushmore, trying to revitalize his flagging career first before saving his country, can’t overcome some dreadful work by the likes of Zane Buzby playing Vietnamese “puke rock” singer Mouling Jackson and Allan Arbus and David Opatoshu as Herab Republic agents trying to force an American default; their performances as broad stereotypes a few steps over the line into offensive territory didn’t earn a lot of laughs then and have just not aged well at all.

Amthn05In terms of performances, the big surprise regards the musical contributions.  We have Elvis Costello playing a fictionalized version of himself doing bits of “Crawling to the USA” in an appearance that feels like a real-life version of the movie cameo scene from That Thing You Do!, while we get Meat Loaf playing a non-singing role as daredevil Roy Budnitz, who invigorates the crowd watching the pitch-fest with a duel with America’s last working car.

The film also boasts a main theme written and performed by the Beach Boys, “It’s a Beautiful Day,” which to put it mildly doesn’t make it into a lot of “best of” compilations of their music.

The film itself never got a lot of love, either.  Roger Ebert savaged it when it came out, one of the few looks at it that bothered to offer more than just a dismissive hand wave. And as most of the cast and crew went onto acting and producing in television other projects for decades after wrapping production and tried to forget being involved with it, the film’s guesses at our future got badly undercut as Carter was replaced not by Chet Roosevelt but Ronald Reagan, which took things on a much different path.

No, the movie was no Marooned.  If anything, Sturges’ space rescue potboiler actually had better jokes…

NEXT TIME: Things go to the dogs as we return to those women problems over at Universal…

About James Ryan 117 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…