Although British production designer-turned-director Robert Fuest won lasting affection from the genre-cinema community by making a pair of stylish and weird Vincent Price thrillers, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1973), the rest of his oeuvre is spotty. For instance, the sci-fi thriller The Final Programme should have been Fuest’s magnum opus, because he served as writer, director, and designer, adapting the bizarre narrative from UK sci-fi scribe Michael Moorcock’s novel of the same name. Alas, the lighthearted eccentricity that makes the Phibes movies so enjoyable works against Fuest here. Although it’s plain the picture was at least partly envisioned as a satire, Fuest’s script is so confusing, overwrought, and silly that it’s hard for viewers to grasp the basic chain of events, much less what any of the strange things happening onscreen are supposed to mean. The Final Programme has a certain gonzo energy, and many scenes explode with dynamism in terms of inventive cinematography and resourceful production design. Yet the sum is less than the parts.
The story’s unlikely protagonist is Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who behaves and dresses like a spoiled rock star, wearing flamboyant outfits and boozing 24/7. After Jerry’s father dies, Jerry is approached by various parties interested in an experiment that Jerry’s father left unfinished, so Jerry is pressured to surrender microfilm hidden in the family estate. Meanwhile, Jerry has learned from his spiritual advisor (Hugh Griffith) that the world is going to end soon, so Jerry plans to amuse himself by blowing up the family estate with napalm. Hence the peculiar scene of Jerry visiting an arms dealer in a giant room decorated like the inside of a pinball machine and filled with go-go dancers rolling around in massive ball-shaped bubbles. Another random subplot involves Jerry attempting to free his sister (Sarah Douglas) from captivity, because she’s held hostage by a third sibling (Derrik O’Connor), who keeps the sister drugged. This situation occasions a gunfight between Jerry and his brother, during which the combatants use space-age needleguns instead of regular pistols.
Jerry also becomes involved with a covert organization headed by people including the cannibalistic Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), since the organization needs Jerry’s help for an experiment (or, in the movie’s parlance, “programme”) designed to create a new life form that can replace humankind. And if you’re not already bewildered, there’s also a kicky scene featuring a crazed ex-military officer, Major Wrongway Lindbergh (Sterling Hayden), who sells Jerry an antique plane for the proposed napalm strafing.
None of this makes sense, and Fuest utterly fails to situate the viewer with a clear understanding of the story’s circumstances. Is this the distant future or the near future or simply an alternate reality? Are Jerry and the other scientists inane or visionary? Is the whole thing a send-up of trippy sci-fi, or a serious speculative story with a whimsical attitude? Best not to worry about such questions. Watched casually, The Final Programme presents a string of distracting vignettes, some of which are funny (e.g., the climactic battle, during which the “hero” pathetically shouts, “Help! I’m losing!”), and some of which are astonishingly stupid (notably the goofy final scene). FYI, The Final Programme was released in the US as The Last Days of Man on Earth, which promises a lot more large-scale excitement than the movie actually delivers.
The Final Programme: FUNKY