Back to the Future

on August 25, 2008 by Steve Simels
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Al Gore 's 2007 agit-prop documentary An Incovenient Truth may have won an Oscar, but if you think it's the first important cinematic treatment of the global warming issue, you may have to think again. That honor, it turns out, just might have to go to the quite ahead of its time dystopian sci-fi fantasy L.A. 2017, directed by a then wet-behind-the-ears Steven Spielberg .

If you're not remembering that one off the top of your head, don't feel bad; the film in question was actually an episode of NBC's Sunday night long-form anthology show The Name of the Game which has rarely aired since its network premiere on January 15, 1971 and (to our knowledge) has never been available on home video. I myself had only a sketchy memory of the thing (I recall it as superb, but who knows after all this time?) until beyond-the-call-of-duty reader GWPDA sent me a copy of an ultra-rare paperback novelization of the show by its screenwriter Philip Wylie at more or the less the same time I chanced upon this unofficial trailer a Spielberg fan/editor had recently posted over at YouTube.

A little backstory: The Name of the Game, which ran from 1968 to 1971, was a 90 minute drama --- an unusual length for an American show at the time -- which rotated between three characters working at a large magazine company: CEO and publisher Gene Barry , crusading reporter Tony Franciosa (for People Magazine, a few years before Time Warner started a real one) and Robert Stack as the editor of Crime Magazine. The extremely young Susan Saint James starred as the editorial assistant for each of the leads, who occasionally crossed over into each others' shows, though all three never appeared onscreen simultaneously. The show was wildly uneven, but there were a couple of brilliant episodes, including A Hard Case of the Blues , with Stack investigating a murder in the orbit of a tough-mama blues belter based on Janis Joplin (played, heartbreakingly, by the underrated Sharon Farrell ).

L.A. 2017 scripter Wylie is best known today as the co-author of the sci-fi classic When World's Collide, but back in the day he was considered a fairly significant American novelist and thinker and having him contribute a script to TNOTG was kind of a big deal. The story he came up with, as mentioned up top, is rather luridly prescient (the phrase "greenhouse effect" appears on page seven of the novelization, and the early plot centers on a bunch of sinister right-wing corporate types trying to quash public awareness of the attendant global warming). In the film --

Publisher Gene Barry is driving to a conference on ecology and tape-recording an essay for his magazine when he falls asleep at the wheel and crashes. When he wakes up, it's fifty years into the future and he's in a blighted post-apocalyptic landscape. Before he knows it, men in weird looking hazmat suits drag him down to an underground complex run by the new "mayor" of Los Angeles ( Barry Sullivan ). It turns out that global warming has unleashed toxic algae that killed almost all life above ground; what's left of mankind is hunkered down in subterranean bunkers where they're ruled by a cold-blooded corporate dictatorship (there's lots of free love if you have the right genes, but other than that it's brutally fascist). At the end, it's all revealed to be a cautionary dream -- or is it?

Spielberg, displaying a technical inventiveness beyond his years (and the show's limited budget) wrings every thrill possible out of the story; he staged the scenes of the underground complex at the Hyperion treatment plant in El Segundo, and the scenes of the toxic surface world were shot (through eerie yellow camera filters) in the fall of 1970 in a part of the western San Fernando Valley recently destroyed by a wind-driven firestorm (ironic, obviously). He also managed to get better than you'd expect performances from an interesting cast, including Edmond O'Brien and the aforementioned Sharon Ferrell.

Two other points worth noting: As you can see from the trailer, there's a hilarious scene with a bunch of now geriatric 60s hippies playing some godawful psychedelic rock crap as if nothing had happened in the intervening years (and if you've seen what's left of the Jefferson Airplane in a club these days, it's appallingly on the money). Also, you may recall that 2017 is the year the aforementioned Al Gore has suggested may be our last chance as a species to prevent the enviromental meltdown dramatized in the show. A word to the wise, one supposes.

In any case, later in 1971, Spielberg directed the even better made for TV thriller Duel, which was the highest rated TV movie of the year (and a theatrical hit in Europe); that led to the gig helming Jaws, and from there to one of the most interesting (ongoing) careers in contemporary American cinema history. L.A. 2017, however, still languishes in the Universal vaults (that trailer up top was apparently edited from an ancient VHS copy somebody taped off the air); if anybody reading this knows any studio brass over there, I think it would be something of a public service if you could nudge them into a DVD release of the thing. C'mon Universal -- it's Spielberg, it's global warming, and what are you waiting for?

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