Rick: "There's nothin' more boring than playin' it safe, Fingal."
I seem to have spent my entire life watching parodies of, and homages to, the movie Casablanca.
Earlier this year I finally got around to watching the classic itself - twice - and liked it. Now therefore seems like a good time to start re-checking out a few of those tributes in other productions, and to find out whether there was much more under the surface that had passed me by first time around. These will include Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Profit And Loss and Sledge Hammer! - Play It Again, Sledge. I have broader reviews for this blog of each of those series, so I don't intend to write about either of those episodes specifically.
Tonight however, the first VHS up was this 1983 Canadian TV SF romcom starring Raúl Juliá in a dual role as world-weary bar owner Rick, and futuristic office worker Aram Fingal.
In the future, Fingal has a dead boring job using a computer, which he endures by sneakily wasting company time illegally downloading movies to watch. Wow, so far this vision of the future is spot on!
To punish him for this transgression, the company's shrink compels him to spend 48 hours in the body of a baboon. While this might sound to us like a somewhat left-field solution to employee motivation, in this version of the future it's fairly normal, except that most other citizens can afford more desirable animals to moonlight as. Noone ever says what becomes of the baboon's mind during all this - perhaps the hospital nurses have to cajole Fingal's body down from swinging around the light fittings or something - unless the simiant is in fact virtual reality.
Anyway while Fingal's monkeying around getting chased by elephants and the like, the company manages to mislay his body, and it's only now that they realise for the first time that they have no procedure in place for storing his consciousness after the 48 hours are over. D'oh!
However, computer controller (and looker) Apollonia James (Linda Griffiths) comes up with the answer - no, not pop him into a different baboon, but instead store his consciousness on the company's main hard drive, which also happens to serve most systems on the rest of planet Earth.
This goes pretty well as first, as Fingal subconsciously generates a virtual reality version of his home, work and movie life to flit between. As you can probably guess, his favourite movie is Casablanca, so it isn't long before he finds himself at Rick's bar (here called The Place), being encouraged by the owner to hack into the computer he's currently stored upon and make a few sweeping changes to better the real world.
Needless to say, different factions in that real world suddenly find themselves following him into VR too, either to stop him, or save him…
I guess that there are really three things that have changed in my perspective between watching this in the mid-1980s and today in 2012:
1. As indicated above, I've now seen Casablanca. As a result, I can report that the representation of Rick's bar here - as 'The Place' - looks to me pretty identical to in that film. It's a relief that the programme-makers of the day didn't attempt to shoot this in black and white or anything, as I think it would have subtracted from its credibility as a location within Fingal's computer-generated world.
Rick is only really realised here as a look and an accent. His dialogue is hardly at all reminiscent of the film, and indeed there is no attempt made to in any way revive the guy's character. He serves only to drive Fingal's motivation, and remain passive to his choices.
However the same cannot quite be said of Louis Negin as Pierre - the Signor Ugarte character. He's just like watching the original, although he survives longer here, and is more passive to Fingal because it is in his slimy nature to be so.
Overall, I found the Casablanca element to be very well played here. It services the plot well, and in no way distracts from it. Full marks for that!
2. Another change in my perspective is simply that of fashion. As with my recent completion of viewing The Running Man, I am amazed at how the more extreme a 1980s production's attempt to look futuristic, the more 1980s it looks here in the actual future. In its day, Overdrawn At The Memory Bank enthralled me twice on the UK's Channel 4, but now looks about as dated as it's possible for a TV play to look. The miniscule budget doesn't help.
3. Attitude - both the production's, and my own.
The production's attitude is one that modern TV seems to have lost. Whenever anything bizarre happens in this - such as Fingal's adventures as a baboon - the whole tone here is so matter of fact. Today they'd drench it in music and make the character gasp in awe at the wonder of it all, as though they'd never heard of this thing called artificial reality before. But no, in Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, everyone just gets on with what they're doing, and you are expected to as well. Excellent.
Sadly, my own attitude has also lost something in the intervening decades. As a teen I understood every twist and turn of this plot. Today it seemed so all over the place that my eyes were closing towards the end. It's probably because I like to think that I pay a bit more attention to storylines now. Oh well.
Perhaps the final irony (to date) though has to be that this story about a man downloading movies to watch at work, is itself available on YouTube.
And perhaps the crueller irony is that the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version is up there too.
So one day another Fingal may dream of losing himself in this fictional movie world from yesteryear… or is that me?
(available on VHS here)