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‘Future ’38’ (review)

Produced by Joanna Bowzer, Daryl Goldberg,
Jonathan Gray, Adam Yeremian
Written and Directed by Jamie Greenberg
Starring Betty Gilpin, Nick Westrate,
Robert John Burke, Ethan Phillips,
Sean Young, Tom Riis Farrell, Ilana Becker,
Sophie von Haselberg, Tabitha Holbert


Writer/director Jamie Greenberg’s Future ’38 is a flawed but fun treat for film buffs.

Famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson introduces the film, claiming it’s a lost film from 1938 that portrays time travel realistically.

What follows is a fast-paced, affectionate spoof of old Hollywood explorations of the future and its predicted technology, á la Things To Come and Just Imagine.

Nick Westrate is just right as Essex, a man recruited by the US government to travel through time to the year 2018 to obtain a weapon that will ensure Hitler’s defeat.

This opening in 1938 is black and white; once Essex arrives in the future, the movie pulls a Wizard of Oz and turns to Technicolor.

The film’s retro imaginings of what gizmos and services will be available eighty years hence run the gamut from inspired to just plain silly, but to Greenberg’s credit, the gags are hurled almost non-stop, and many more stick than not.

The representation of cell phones is quite amusing: they come equipped with detachable microphones, like a Candlestick phone from the thirties. The caller then requests to be connected by the telephone operator, who appears on the phone’s screen (and is played quite well by Sean Young, who seems to be having fun).

Once he arrives in 2018, Essex almost immediately meets Banky, a va-va-voom hotel manager played by Betty Gilpin. Gilpin not only looks like a thirties starlet, she nails the thirties-era, neurotic, screwball comedy heroine type. Her back-and-forth, snappy patter with Essex, replete with wacky, amusing slang, is the real backbone of Future ’38.

In what is basically a gimmicky parody, it came as a pleasant surprise that the relationship between the two leads eventually becomes genuinely touching. There are a few time travel gags near the end of the film that are cute and even sweet, and the denouement, while not entirely unpredictable is also sweet and a bit melancholy.

Film buffs should also enjoy the aping of thirties-era film’s special effects, such as obvious rear-screen projection and some clever wipes.  These, like everything else in the film, are handled with genuine affection.

The prejudices of the era are sent up as well, with characters such as the Jewish thug named Matzoh and Essex’s innocent surprise that Banky allows a black woman to stay at her hotel.  What’s impressive is that Greenberg presents these critiques with honesty and wit, without detracting from Essex’s likability or lapsing into tastelessness.

I described Future ’38 as flawed, but fun.  Really, the only flaw I found is a potentially large one, depending on one’s point of view: this supposed “lost film” has obviously been shot digitally, with post-production scratches and grain.

Clearly the film is a lark and isn’t trying to convince anybody of its authenticity. But pains were obviously taken in every department – dialogue, costumes, set design, casting, etc. – to mirror the sensibilities of a thirties-era film, so the digital photography is a bit of a letdown.

I’m assuming the reason is budgetary and, truth be told, the film is so enjoyable that I let it slide after a while.  Still, it’s kind of a bummer.

That said, I highly recommend Future ’38, especially to film buffs.  It’s not a laugh-a-minute knee-slapper like, say, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, but a more gentle and amusing entertainment with terrific dialogue and a sweet and funny relationship at its core.


Future ’38 will screen at The Slamdance Film Festival on Thursday, January 26th.  Click HERE for ticket information.

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