REVENGE OF THE HERDS

While Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump racks up the nominations, let's pause a moment to take a look at the latest project of Zemeckis' old buddy Bob Gale, his writing partner on Used Cars and the Back to the Future films. Mr. Payback, which Gale wrote and directed for Sony New Technologies and Interfilm, Inc., is being publicized as "the first interactive movie." It opened in the Valley last week.

To the title character of this roughly half-hour opus, life ain't no damn box of chocolates. He's a pretty-boy avenger, part man and part robot, who takes revenge on meanies who have done dirt to the powerless. The film, shot originally on 35mm but projected (adequately) from laser disc, offers the audience various courses for the plot to take--which wrong the hero will redress, the form that villain's comeuppance will take, etc.--on which they vote via three buttons attached to the arm of the theatre seat, where the drink holder properly ought to be.

The technology by which these choices are programmed is impressively seamless--there's never a pause in the flow of the action. As a movie, however, Mr. Payback is embarrassingly stupid and childish. About the most that could be said for it is that it makes a fairly populist definition of injustice. The major villains aren't the straw-man thugs of cop movies, but establishment rats--one is a crooked city councilmember, one a racist businessman, one a wicked college dean who forces her female students to appear in pornography.

You get the idea of the sensibility here. At the first of the two screenings which I sat through, the villain chosen was the dragon-lady dean; because she was deemed a "bitch," her ultimate payback was to be walked on a leash by the young woman she had harassed. The second time through for me, the racist pig (Christopher Lloyd) was made to eat his own vomit. The audience also scores (and spends) points for the choices it makes, and my first time through our score was sufficiently high that we were rewarded with a "bonus scene." How fortunate for us--it involved Mr. Payback (Billy Warlock) going to the movies, where he ends up farting in the faces of a couple of obnoxious talkers nearby.

The obvious technical sophistication aside, none of this is really new, in spite of the hype. The publicity value of audience input in movies has been experimented with since at least 1932, with The Phantom of Crestwood. This murder mystery was presented as a radio serial, without a final chapter, before it was released as a film, and the public was encouraged to send in ideas for a solution. In Clue, the lame 1985 screen version of the board game, there were three sets of clues and solutions, which varied from screen to screen.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, B-movie impresario William Castle tried all manner of gimmicks to involve the audience. With The Tingler, he wired certain theatre seats to give the audience a mild shock, simulating the title monster's jolt. With 1961's Mr. Sardonicus, the audience was offered a "Punishment Poll," which decided whether the title fiend would be spared. Although it's said that no lenient ending was ever shot (who was going to vote to let the SOB off the hook?), this could still be seen as a crude forebear of Mr. Payback--technically crude, that is; as drama, Mr. Payback makes even Mr. Sardonicus look Sophoclean.

It's difficult, though by no means impossible, to imagine Mr. Payback doing a lot of repeat business. The novelty seemed to wear off pretty quickly even for the Beavis and Butt-head look-alikes with whom I saw the picture, although they did enjoy being allowed to scream and carry on in a movie theatre with impunity. Of course, just because this film is idiotic doesn't mean that in the future, somebody might not bring aesthetic intelligence to this technology. Even if this happens, though, and even if it proves more than a fad, entertainment of this sort must at some level remain more gimmick than art.

Futurists have been insisting for years that interactive media will be the next wave. They're probably right, but what they don't seem to understand is that all movies (all good ones, at least) are at some level interactive--all storytelling in any form is. Sometimes it's overt and ironic, like the formalized audience "script" of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. More often it's perniciously corporate, like the prerelease meddling done to films (usually the tacking on of happy endings) based on the whining of test audiences.

But most often, like every time a bad guy is hissed or a hero cheered, audience participation is spontaneous. This is the best kind of interactivity that a movie audience can have--to say "tell me a story," and to engage the choices made in someone else's imagination, is more challenging and rewarding than pushing any button can ever be.

 
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