‘Future '38’: Film Review | Slamdance 2017

Courtesy of Slamdance Film Festival
Pulp science-fiction.

Nick Westrate and Betty Gilpin star in writer-director Jamie Greenberg’s ode to B-grade sci-fi flicks, which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival.

If Ed Wood and John Waters somehow adopted a baby and raised them to make a film in modern-day midtown Manhattan, the result could be something like Future ’38, an ultra-kitschy and mildly entertaining spoof on classic B-movies, screwball comedies and our technology-driven society. Winner of an audience award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, this low-budget labor of love could find a minor cult following on the fest circuit and in select midnight screenings, with psychotropics strongly recommended before each viewing.

A faux TV-movie show introduction by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson — who claims that this is “finally a movie that gets the science right” — sets the stage for a wacky trip into the past and future, in a parody that plays like something seen in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, albeit with more throwaway one-liners.

The movie we’re watching is supposedly “one of the first color pictures” made back in 1938, and writer-director Jamie Greenberg (Stags) gives it a 1.33 aspect ratio and Technicolor three-strip color grade, with the opening scenes done in retro-looking black and white.

We’re on the brink of World War II and a young man named Essex (Nick Westrate) is hired by the U.S. government on a secret mission to take down the Nazis. The plan, if you can believe it, is to travel into the future — via a time machine composed of two industrial fans and a mixing bowl — and recover an isotope that, when it matures 80 years from then (so in 2018), will be as powerful as the atomic bomb.

If that sounds ludicrous, then you pretty much get the gist of Future ’38, which indulges in pure movie pastiche for most of its 76-minute running time. When Essex arrives in the future, he finds himself in a New York City (more specifically, around the Columbus Circle area) that looks a lot like ours with a few major adjustments. Basically it’s the contemporary world remixed from a 1930s perspective, so when someone sends a text message there’s actually a guy on rollerskates to deliver it by hand. Or when you use the internet, it’s an old clunker of a machine that you need to speak into a la Siri, and that gives you answers in long strips of ticker tape.

Greenberg gets some mileage off these gags — as well as off Blade Runner co-star Sean Young, cameoing here as an old-time iPhone operator — though they can grow repetitive in stretches. Meanwhile, he sets up a screwball-style love story between Essex and a hotel clerk, Banky (Nurse Jackie’s Betty Gilpin), where they say lots of archaic zingers to each other (“We’re just a little slug-nutty”), keeping the pun-count high from start to finish. There are also evil Germans and a Jewish mob whose boss is named Matzoh (Hillel Meltzer). And yes, someone says “Hide the Matzoh” at one point.

Such exercises in nostalgia have their limits, and Future ’38 can suffer at times from kitsch overkill, even if the playful tone and committed cast make it a fairly pleasant romp to sit through. (Gilpin is particularly convincing in her role and would make for a decent Lana Turner in a future biopic.) Tech credits are purposely low-fi in a fun way, with Greenberg using the latest in digital filmmaking to simulate the bygone celluloid processes of yesteryear.  

Production company: Big Jack Productions
Cast: Nick Westrate, Betty Gilpin, Robert John Burke, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg, Ilana Becker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sean Young
Director-screenwriter: Jamie Greenberg
Producers: Joanna Bowzer, Daryl Goldberg
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Roslyn Greenfield
Director of photography: Alan McIntyre Smith
Costume designer: Michael Bevins
Editor: Jamie Greenberg
Composer: Robert Miller
Casting director: Eve Battaglia
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Beyond)

76 minutes