In a World... where oppressive MegaCorps rake in billions of ill-earned dollars while treating their workers like slaves... a Toronto production company decided to adapt one of John Varley's Eight Worlds short stories into a Made-for-TV Movie.
Finding financing from New York PBS station WNET and somehow acquiring Raúl Juliá as the lead along with Linda Griffiths, one of Canada's top stage actresses, they unleashed a production called Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. A low-budgeted affair, shot on video and making heavy use of chromakey (early green screen) special effects, it was the third (and last, due to not being able to get funding for any more) in a series of films by PBS that were adapted from literary works of science fiction. The first two were 1972's Between Time and Timbuktu, an adaptation of several Kurt Vonnegut stories, and 1980's The Lathe of Heaven, based on the Ursula K. Le Guin novel of the same title.note
In a future that is only marginally more dystopian than the present, Aram Fingal is a bored programmer working for Novicorp, and earns his superiors' ire by "scrolling up cinemas" at work, particularly Casablanca. The solution, of course, is "prophylactic rehab," a two-week (or two days, depending on the scene) vacation in which his consciousness is "doppelled" into a wild animal at a nature preserve. Under the supervision of Computech Apollonia James, Fingal experiences life as a decrepit old baboon until the animals on the preserve get trashed on ripe fruit and place his temporary body in danger, prompting him to activate an escape clause.
Unfortunately, a little hellraising kid screwed around with the label on Fingal's body, so the technicians supervising his little adventure have no idea where it is. Once this news leaks out via an industrial spy, the all-powerful Novicorp chairman orders that Fingal's mind be stored in the HX368 supercomputer, which runs everything from finances to the weather. Meanwhile, the technicians race to hunt down Fingal's body, since he only has a few hours real time before his mind starts to break down without it.
At first Fingal creates a simulation of a typical work day, but he quickly grows bored and starts boinking a simulacrum of a hot co-worker. Once cybersex loses its charm (and greatly annoys Apollonia, who finds herself falling in love with him), Fingal builds his own version of Casablanca, complete with a Rick character that is his own digital double. Apollonia warns him not to cause too much trouble, but our Fingal is a little rebel, and starts messing around with Novicorp finances while inside the HX368, also causing catastrophic weather disasters around the globe in a fit of whimsy. Soon the Chairman is dispatching his own electronic agents to kill Fingal, while Apollonia sides with the renegade programmer as she tracks down his body.
At a final showdown at Rick's bar, Fingal "interfaces" with the mainframe, orders the Chairman into a month of compulsory rehab, redistributes Novicorp shares to the downtrodden employees, and makes new Casablanca-themed identities for himself and Apollonia as he vows to fight the system. It's like if someone combined Fight Club, 1984 and The Matrix...
This short story provides examples of:
- Easy Sex Change: One of the staples of Varleyverse; people are actually considered a bit weird if they don't at least try out both genders at least once, and it only takes a few hours to complete. So Fingal's really, REALLY lucky he got his body back unchanged...
- Hard Work Hardly Works: Zig-zagged. To pass the time, Fingal takes a computer programming course. Since time is accelerated for him, it takes only hours in the real world, but felt like six months of effort to him.
- Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: "Only a retard would want to be a medico!" Medical science has advanced to the point where it's actually very easy to fix up people's bodies. End result: amazing surgeons are treated with the same regard as greasy auto-mechanics, and paid about as well.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: In the short story, they told Fingal that they were searching for his body all over the world, at various doppelling institutes, for six months, when really they were searching for his body at the one institute for six hours. But had he ever realized that because he was in the computer he was experiencing time dilation, he would have Gone Mad from the Revelation and broken everything. (The 1984 elements were not present in the story, and the company was really just trying to be helpful.) This element was somewhat in the film with the "Cube Time/Fingal Time" display, but never really discussed.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Villainy: The biggest change between the story and its adaptation is the treatment of Novicorp. In the story, Novicorp (aside from Apollonia) is barely a factor in the story, and to the extent they are they're trying to locate Fingal's body before he becomes trapped in the cyber world. In the movie version, Novicorp is a nefarious, corrupt Evil, Inc., whose Chairman seeks world domination and tries to kill Fingal, albeit the latter only after Fingal openly rebels against them by breaking into restricted files.
- And You Were There: Not only is Fingal trapped in a Virtual Reality, but Apollonia and the Novicorp Chairman are in there as well, fighting to save/kill him respectively.
- Apocalyptic Log: Apollonia sees a report describing the danger of a CompuTech staying in contact with a decaying Identity Cube. The tech is seen staring vacantly into the camera, having had their brain fried. Or possibly just having drunk a 40-oz. of Steel Reserve.
- The Artifact: Some of the things that make no sense in the movie are leftovers from the short story that aren't as well explained or just dropped in. For example, Appolonia appearing as Venus is basically because in the simulation, she was only able to really appear to Fingal through bizarre phenomena, and after he accidentally reroutes a bunch of finances by screwing with things she gets through to him in the most direct way possible: divine intervention. With this aspect removed, her appearance as Venus comes off as her making a joke.
- The Burlesque of Venus: Appolonia randomly appears to Fingal in the simulation by descending from heaven dressed as Aphrodite (complete with giant seashell). She intones the advice, "Thou shalt not screw around with things thou dost not understand."
- Captain Obvious: A lot of Apollonia's narration consists of stating stuff that's blatantly obvious, and recapping things that we've seen just moments ago. Even Mike and the Bots get annoyed by this pretty early on.
- Chroma Key: Used for most of the special effects. Since the movie was not actually shot on film, and was instead videotaped, this results in lots of pixelation artifacts in the footage (though given a large portion of the film takes place within the computer, this actually is appropriate).
- Contemplate Our Navels: Taken quite literally in one scene:Apollonia: Listen to me, Fingal. Your navel's very deep. I can't even see to the bottom of it! And if you fall in, I can't guarantee to pull you out!
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Novicorp's Fat Chairman, who is willing to allow Fingal to die for no apparent reason (and ignoring the fact that Fingal's death, attributed to Novicorp's product, would likely send the company into fiscal ruin). Of course, once Fingal starts screwing around with HX368, all bets are off.
- Creepy Child: Marco. He's probably meant to be a horny young teenager, but the way he fondles a woman's unconscious body, insults the staff, and messes around just for fun, makes him seem more like a hellspawn.
- Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Appolonia mentions that Fingle has an amazing talent with computers. Indeed, considering he managed to do all this with minimal training, one wonders what Fingle would have been able to do if The Chairman decided instead to hire Fingle as a programmer or a security expert (or other more nefarious Novicorp-sponsored positions that are surely there) and then trained him to do things properly. Heck, if he'd simply give Fingle the OK to watch movies at home in his off-hours, a lot of grief might have been avoided.
- Cyberspace: The HX368, while not the internet, is seemingly connected to just about everything.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Apollonia chews Fingal out for wasting his imagination on a "one-handed exercise."
- Dangerous Forbidden Technique: The Computer/Identicube Interface becomes this once Appolonia watches a video on it and learns that it is highly possible for the person inside the Identicube and the person manning the computer to lose their minds, rendering them vegetables.
- Deus ex Machina: The climax, wherein Fingal "interfaces" to defeat the Chairman... none of it is explained or built up at all, so it just comes off as this.
- The Ditz:
- Tooby the "Short-Bus Techie" as he's called, speaks with an odd cadence as if he has a mental problem, at least over the two-way. He speaks normally in person, but whether the actor was trying to simulate a bad connection over the two-way or simply forgot he was supposed to be reading his lines like that isn't known.
- The Medico who talks with Appolonia in a few scenes also comes across as rather ditzy.
- Dystopia: A milder example. It's implied the world is run by three Mega Corps (TransCorp, LexiCorp, and NoviCorp) who control everything from the economy to the weather. However, all it takes is for one corp to leak one mistake from another for the media to near-instantly bankrupt that corporation, showing that they're not invincible institutions, and the physical/financial standard of living appears to be pretty good. The chairman gives the heroes plenty of chances before resorting to evil, and their escape to open up a small bar at the end is treated like an unquestioned happy ending, not a life as fugitives. In fact, if the kid never switched Fingal's card (a kid who's traditionally mischievous without draconian repercussion), nothing bad would have even really happened in the story. Its strongest dystopian feature is the suppression of human empathy, creativity, individualism and other social concerns, symbolized by the ban on viewing "cinemas".
- Everything Is Online: This is how Fingal, trapped in the HX368, is able to muck around with virtually every single computer system in the world.
- Fat Bastard: The Novicorp Chairman.
- Future Food Is Artificial: With a name like Flavo-Fibes, you just know they taste like plastic.note Not to mention Reconst, a drink whose name just screams "I'm made of faecal matter!" note
- Go Mad from the Isolation: After what from his perspective are weeks or months stuck with only projections of his own mind for company (and after he gets bored living out his sex fantasies, obviously) Fingle hacks the computer his personality is stored in and starts screwing with the company and entire planet just for something to do.
- G-Rated Drug: "Marula Fruit" (called "maruba" in the film, for some reason), which apparently makes the animals used by the doppelers drunk. note
- Indecisive Parody: Accounts for most of the more bizarre moments, for example the Creepy Children who almost get mustard on someone's exposed brain.
- Informed Flaw: The dystopian nature of the world isn't established too well. Yes, the chairman of a mega-corp effectively runs the world and entertainment options for the average person are limited. However, no one besides Fingal seems to really mind and there is no indication they're being brainwashed or controlled into feeling that way.
- On the other hand, when an employee is caught goofing off instead of doing his job, he's not suspended or fired, he's sent for "compulsory rehab" to change his behavior. We're also told that, if he doesn't essentially have his mind reprogrammed, he won't be allowed to get a job anywhere. No one seems troubled by this form of punishment, which suggests that mental reprogramming is very common and may in fact have been used on his acquaintances to make them more compliant as well.
- Inherently Funny Words: The filmmakers seemed to think it was "anteaters." It's the only explanation for the constant anteater bashing. In the real world viewers thought it was constant use of the words "Fingal," and "doppel," which the MST3K crew gets a lot of mileage from in their treatment of the movie.Mike: I don't want to bungle or bobble the Fingal doppel.
- Slavin, who is more concerned the Fingal incident might cost his promotion than a routine doppel possibly costing a man his life.
- The Novicorp chairman was ready to just let Fingal die rather than spend the money storing him in the HX368 and searching for his body. It's only when he's told the backlash against the company could bankrupt it that he changes his tune. Slightly.
- Misapplied Phlebotinum: In this future world, they apparently have the technology to remove someone's mind and transfer it to other bodies, and nobody is using it for immortality or life-saving procedures. Instead it is being used to place people's minds into animals for brief periods of time because they got a bad performance review at work.
- In the other stories set in the same universe, Varley describes this being done routinely. The tension of the story comes from the problem that the process for doppelling between bodies normally uses a storage unit not designed for long-term storage of a personality; when Fingal's body turned up missing when they went to copy him back, just letting the unit sit would quickly result in the image turning to garbage, 'killing' him (based on other stories in the universe, he would have had an archived copy he could be restored from, although many people blow off making regular backups, even though everyone was entitled to an annual backup and as many more as they wanted to pay for, so his last backup could have been years out of date). They had to hook Fingal's memory unit into the Novicorp computer to keep it active so it wouldn't start degenerating. None of this appears in either the short story or the film, so it's one more of the unexplained aspects of the world of the film.
- The Mole: Apollonia's shift replacement Djamilla is apparently a Lexicorp spy, since she breaks the story of Fingal's misplacement to the public.
- Named by the Adaptation: In the original short story, we never learn Fingal's first name. Various other minor characters have names in the movie version, too, and Apollonia's last name is now James instead of Joachim.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed:
- Remember kids! You can't have Casablanca references without a Peter Lorre impersonator!
- And the Chairman's persona in the simulation copies Sydney Greenstreet's character from the same film.
- A Marlene Dietrich expy sings "Falling In Love Again" from The Blue Angel - in Rick's bar.
- Finally, we have Raul Julia himself Acting for Two as he impersonates Humphrey Bogart as Rick.
- One Nation Under Copyright: Much is made of the powerful Novicorp and its rival Lexicorp; the only mention of actual governments is an offhanded reference to the British Parliament.
- The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Or, in this case, "IY479" (the name of the computer, HX368, with each character incremented). It gets worse. Once the Chairman learns Fingal knows the password, he changes it to something extremely stupid:
- Fingal: Wait a minute! Why didn't I think of that before. Its so simple. Reverse the access code. He probably thought I'd never try something so simple.
- Playful Hacker: Fingal just wants to watch old movies when he should be working.
- Pragmatic Villainy: In a scene deleted from the MST version, The Chairman decides to immediately terminate Fingal and send his family a telegram and a bouquet, but he's talked into retrieving Fingal instead when Appolonia points out that letting someone die as a result of doppelling would shake consumer confidence in NoviCorp's products so severely that it could bankrupt the company.
- Running Gag: Anteaters are mocked with regularity.
- Screw Yourself: As Apollonia says when Fingal has sex with a simulated version of a coworker (from his own head, mind), "Now he's started playing around with himself!"
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: Although the actual kiss comes sometime after the slap, the mood does go romantic immediately after the slap.Apollonia: Fingal... I want to do the right thing... I'm just not sure what that is...
- This is lampshaded when shown on MST3K, as after Apollonia slaps Fingal after he tells her that she wasn't "his kind of woman", Crow retorts "Well, now you kinda are..."
- Small Reference Pools: Fingal's Casablanca simulation comes complete with a Peter Lorre character who hangs around for almost the whole movie before he helpfully sacrifices himself to buy time for Fingal. In Casablanca, Lorre's character Ugarte is a One-Scene Wonder who shows up, gives Rick the Macguffin and then dies off screen. Likewise, in Casablanca the Sydney Greenstreet character (who the Chairman is expying here) is actually a sympathetic one—he tells the Lazlos to go to Rick for the letters of transit, and buys Rick's bar from him at a lavish price so he can join the resistance. The film seems to muddle a lot of details of Casablanca with those of Maltese Falcon.
- Though as there is also a Shout Out to The Blue Angel in the bar, it's possible Fingal just likes old movies in general and is blending several together, with Casablanca just the most prominent.
- Stalker with a Crush: Felicia, a co-worker with whom Fingal is smitten, thinks of him as this. She's pretty much right about him too, especially given how he treats a VR Simulation of her later in the movie.
- Stock Footage: The part of Daisy the Baboon will be played by the James Uys nature documentary Animals Are Beautiful People. The first twenty seconds or so of the opening credits to Casablanca appear frequently in the film.
- Stop Trick: Used on occasion whenever something/one appears or vanishes from the VR simulation.
- Unbuilt Trope: The film is not very well made but it's way ahead of its time regarding virtual reality stories. What appears cliche to anyone who's seen The Matrix was much fresher in 1984, cheesiness aside. Likewise, with its themes of basing a virtual reality environment on someone's favorite pop culture, and going "inside" a movie, it is effectively the precursor of Ready Player One (2018). May also constitute Early Installment Weirdness for its entire genre.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom:
- All it takes is one Bratty Half-Pint switching some patients' tags around to nearly cause The End of the World as We Know It.
- Fingal's saying, "Here's looking at you, kid," to Appolonia somehow screws up some of the programs in the HX368. The first time he accesses it on purpose he inadvertently (and unknowingly) causes a series of severe weather events around the world.
- Video Inside, Film Outside: Thanks to the Daisy footage coming from an old documentary.
- Viewer-Friendly Interface: Complete with what looks like a 72-point screen font.
- We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: "Reconst," "flavo-fibes," "identicubes". "Medico," surprisingly, is an informal term for doctor or med student recognized by Microsoft Word and Firefox.
- What the Hell, Hero?:
Appolonia: If this one-handed exercise is all you can think of to do with your life, you're a very little man, and I'm very disappointed in you!
- Appolonia gives Fingal a thrashing when she catches him using his "powers" to have virtual sex with the image of a co-worker.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: When Apollonia appears as a Messenger from God, she speaks in a hybrid of anachronistic English and modern slang.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: Although several days (maybe even months, according to onscreen graphics) seem to pass within Fingal's simulation, only a few hours pass in the real world. This is, in fact, a plot point: they have only eight hours to find Final's body before the computer will no longer maintain his personality.
- Your Mind Makes It Real: "It was eerie, watching Fingal create his own reality simulation around him! Especially since he didn't even know he was doing it!"