Idaho Transfer (1973)
This is a weird ass movie. It seems like two middle-tier Hollywood types (Peter Fonda and Keith Carradine) were driving through southern Idaho one day, perhaps on the way to some bong festival in Montana, and stopped to spend the night in a National Park campground. When they woke up the next morning, they looked around at the ample natural beauty and said, "Damn! We should make a movie here!" Now, it just so happened that they had a movie camera and some film in the back of their VW bus, and a few stacks of cash. So, they just went around to all the other campers in the campground and said, "Hey, you dudes want to be in a movie? Great! We start principal photography in 30 minutes. Just wear what you have on, but comb your hair, ok? Just meet us over at that VW bus and we'll assign you a part. A script? Hmm...no, but that's not important right now." A couple of days later, they had a few reels in the can and were back on the road, heading back to Hollywood now with their new movie. They did their editing one night in a corner booth of an all-night diner in Oregon, voice-over post-production while crashed on some dude's couch in Sacramento, and had it all wrapped up and done by the time they pulled off Interstate 5 in Los Angeles. A few months later, once all the legal details and fine tuning had been finished, the movie was released to theaters. See, and you thought filmmaking was a difficult process. Silly you. And you know what? Not a bad little film, I'd have to say, despite the weak acting and the often confusing directorial style. Certainly more watchable than many of the "mainstream" movies I've seen lately.
And now on to our show...
Two things before we start...
First off, I guess I should note right here my problem with our film's director, Peter Fonda. I know that he has done some great work over the years, staring in Easy Rider, Ulee's Gold, Escape From LA, Futureworld, and The Wild Angels, and I'm sure he's a nice guy and gives lots of money to charities and all that. Unfortunately, back in 2000 he had a starring role in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, which my four-year old son made me watch like 50,000 times. In this movie, Peter Fonda mails in the most lackluster, disinterested, too-bored-to-care performance I have ever seen. Everyone around him, from the little kids to the dog to Alec Freakin' Baldwin was really trying hard, really trying to give the millions of kids in the audience a good show. But Peter Fonda was just putting stamps on every scene he was in, dragging down every shot with his near-asleep reads and less-than minimal effort. He was out-acted by an animated train engine for god's sake! After about the 32,000th time I watched this movie, I began to develop an intense burning hatred for Peter Fonda, enraged that he actually got a paycheck for this. So, when I was looking into Idaho Transfer for my next review, I knew I couldn't help but be negatively influenced by his association with the movie. I have to fight down an irrational hatred for this movie because I hate him. Sorry.
May you burn in hell, you hack...
And secondly, I normally try and work some actor bios into my reviews, but here it's going to be difficult. Other than established actor Keith Carradine, for fully 22 out of the 24 listed cast members this was their very first experience with acting. And of those 24 young men and women, only three of them ever went on to act in anything else in their lives. The other 21 went back to their LSD and their Led Zeppelin albums.
Anyway, we open out in the lava beds of the Craters of the Moon National Park in southeastern Idaho, a desolate wasteland of barren rock fields and scrub trees. We see two young people, a boy and a girl in their late teens, out in this wild territory. They're conducting some scientific tests on the local rattlesnake population (!), which consists of catching, measuring, tagging and releasing them.
"Ow! Ow! Fucking stop that! Ow! My agent told me they were going to have a stunt snake do this scene! Ow!"
We follow the girl as she finishes her paperwork, packs up her clipboard and walks a bit down to an area of lava rock over a rise. There, seemingly placed at random, is a metal grate covering a brushed stainless steel box set about twelve feet into the ground. The box is a deep rectangle, about four feet wide and seven feet long. Inside is just a simple padded bench, a small metal box, and a console of sorts on one wall with a few colored buttons and lights that looks like an eight-track player.
High tech, baby.
The girl climbs down into the box, and as we watch, she takes off her necklace, watch, and hiking boots and puts them into the metal box. She then...takes off her pants? Well, she's a very pretty girl, and has some great legs, but this is a bit strange.
Even stranger is when she sits on the bench, flips a series of switches on the console and the screen begins to wobble and shimmer and tint amber. Suddenly, the girl disappears into thin air! Cosmic, man!
Zip zap poof, and the girl is now sitting on an identical bench, in front of an identical console, only this time in a large open garage-like room. Yes, we have just witnessed "matter transfer" (thus the movie's title). Not only that, but that first scene out in the lava beds was 56 years in the future! Time travel, dudes!
We're now at the "Institute", as we will call it, a complex located in the small city of American Falls, Idaho, on the edge of the Snake River Plain, known for its wild natural beauty and cool rock formations. The Institute is currently working on a super-duper super-secret science project. "The Project", as we will call it, appears to be privately-funded by unnamed corporate (and maybe academic) concerns. Ask anyone publicly and they will tell you that the Institute is working on a machine to transmit matter from one place to another, essentially a Star Trek transporter. No one but the people at this isolated Idaho complex know of the time travel thing. It seems like that came as a surprising side effect of the matter transport tests, and they're keeping it secret until such time as they need to go public.
During the first time travel tests, they managed to open a stable portal to a specific time and a specific geographic point. The time is a late fall day in August exactly 56 years in the future (so, 2027ish) and the place is about 11 miles northish of the Institute, out in the nearby lava beds. The future point is located about ten feet underground (thus the deep-set steel box we saw in the beginning) and thankfully the actual time travel box is larger than this.
There are some quirks to time traveling this way, however. You can't wear anything metal on your body or it will fuse with your skin (thus having to take your boots and watches off), though you can transfer metal objects in the separate box. I don't know about the no pants thing, I really think that's just an excuse to have the pretty girls strip down to their panties all movie. [Editor Pam: Most women's bras have metal hooks and metal slides to adjust strap length, so the moviemakers missed an opportunity to have the actresses strip down even more. And what about fillings in the teeth? When this movie was made, they would have contained metal.] Strangest of all, it seems that anyone "much over 20" cannot time travel safely, "something to do with the kidneys". This means that the Institute has to recruit young boys and girls in their teens to do the actual time traveling. They have gathered quite a large group already, all very smart and intelligent kids. This also allows Peter Fonda to use a bunch of totally unknown kids as his cast, probably paying them with pot and pizza.
In this 2027 future, the explorers found that the entire world has been depopulated. They looked in all directions, and checked all possible radio frequencies, even walked down to Aberdeen and American Falls, but nothing was ever heard or found. The question for the Institute then was "why?". So they started sending regular teams of boys and girls to do tests (like on the snakes) and experiments to see what happened and why. So far, they have no answers as to what happened to the rest of humanity, but they suggest that it might have been some man-made calamity.
The plan is to gather up a bunch of young people and send them off into the future, to bypass the catastrophe and rebuild the human race. This is still in the early stages as our movie opens, as they're still probing the area and checking the fauna.
Anyway, the girl (whose name is Isa) goes to see her father (whose name is George), who's also the head of the Institute. They chit chat a bit, and George tells Isa that he has to go down to Denver soon to do some fundraising and appease some government officials. They occasionally have important visitors, who they give a tour of the Institute to, but never let on about the time traveling widget. He hints, however, that this trip is different as the government seems to be asking a lot of questions lately.
By the way, the actor playing George is one of the three people in the cast who actually acted after this movie (though nothing special). Ted D'Arms went on to have a spotty career of bit parts and background extras in mainstream movies such as 1982's Drugstore Cowboy.
George also tells Isa that her little sister Karen is here, having come to join the Institute. Isa is happy for this (it's unclear, but it sure seems like the sisters have not seen each other for several years at least, maybe more) and her father instructs her to acclimate her sister to the Project and the Institute and take her for a time trip. We don't know why Karen is now ready to join the Project, perhaps she reached an age where it was felt she could handle the stress.
So Isa goes to see her sister Karen, who's in the Institute's infirmary having her metal braces taken out. Karen is indeed a lovely young girl, well-built with long brunette hair and shapely legs. She looks like she could be on the OC or One Tree Hill or something, all California surfer babe. She's also like 16, which makes my drooling over her illegal and icky. Sorry!
Isa then drives Karen out to the lava beds to acquaint her with the land she will be visiting in the future. This is Karen's first time out in the wilderness and she's amazed at how desolate and alone it is.
Craters of the Moon National Park.
As Isa and Karen drive back to the Institute in their big white Chevy Blazer, they stop to pick up two hitchhikers, an older scruffy man and a straggly blonde chick. This couple is just out wandering around the Northwest, living the carefree life and enjoying nature, free love and certainly copious amounts of recreational drugs. We get several Meaningful Looks from Karen and Isa, depressed that sometime in the future these easygoing friendly people will be dead. They drop the hitchhikers off after a bit, and then drive on to American Falls.
So, Isa and Karen now go to the Institute's time travel room, which is a pretty bare garage set with white concrete walls and floor (we saw it once before). The time travel mechanism (the bench and console) is linked by thick power cables to a wall-mounted power unit (a nuclear reactor?) [Editor Pam: I can't tell. It might just be one of those unspecified Power Sources that turn up so often in science fiction movies.], which is carefully calibrated to remain stable. It seems that finding a stable future point was something of an accident, and they're unwilling to tinker with the machines for fear of losing their connection to the future. Isa walks Karen through the entire process (which we saw earlier, but here, narrated by Isa, really seems spooky and cool). Karen appears a bit nervous, but excited to try it out.
Isa showing Karen how to transfer (nice legs).
The two sisters make their first jump together, holding on tight to each other in their underwear (stop it, I know what you're thinking, sicko...). Karen takes traveling through time better than I would, that's for sure. They get out and wander around the lava beds of 2027 for a while, checking on a few snakes and whatnot. They chat a bit about the future, and how Isa wants to have kids once they all transfer out here. Karen is clearly an emotionally wounded animal, having been in a halfway house for a while, being raped there and developing a distrust of people. They also talk about the two hitchhikers and their sadness in not being able to tell them about the future. The two young actresses do a pretty good job here, reading some fairly heavy lines.
Walking back to the camp, Isa slips in the loose scree and falls, smacking the back of her head on some rocks. Ouch! Isa is clearly in trouble here, suffering from a concussion and probable internal bleeding, fading in and out of consciousness. Karen has a fair amount of difficulty dragging her back to the transfer box, getting her pants off, and getting them both into the correct position.
They both zip back to the present, where Karen runs around the hallway outside the time travel room, but finds no one. Where is everyone? Maybe while in the 2027 world it was daytime, in the present time it's the middle of the night and everyone is sleeping? Rushing back into the room, she finds her sister Isa now dead, having puked and presumably choked on it. Ick, did not need to see that. Thank you, Peter Fonda, thank you.
Her already fragile mind snapped, Karen immediately goes over to the bench, sits down and zips herself back to 2027. She has decided to escape her pain by running very far away from it.
We cut now to a few months or so on. Karen is still in 2027, having decided to stay here instead of facing her sister's death. The work of the Institute continues, however, and Karen's father sends letters to his daughter via other boys and girls. Karen doesn't want to read them and just wants to sit by herself and mope.
Ok, Karen is a spoiled bitch. No two ways about it. Sure, her sister died, fine, but her father also lost a daughter and now his only other child won't even talk to him. Karen needs to see that she's not the only one suffering pain and loss right now, and maybe she should try and be supportive for her father.
Hmm...ok, a quick edit there. Apparently, the government has decided to shut down the Institute. We never learn the official reasons, but we can assume that they want to put the matter transfer project (remember they don't know about the time travel effects) in the hands of the military. This is 1973, and The Man had his fingers in everything.
We see the adults (including George) either taken away "for questioning" or disappear. The kids, however, react quickly, gathering up all the supplies they can find and transferring into the future. In the end, there are 13 boys and girls who make the jump to 2027 to evade capture by the government. Despite the dangers (which later prove to be fatal), two of the adults also transfer to the future to be with the kids. Their leadership in the beginning might be the only thing that keeps the group from fragmenting, though they both die of kidney hemorrhaging later.
While all this is going on, Karen is still moping around, keeping to herself (and wandering around in her shirt and panties!) even as the rest of the kids arrive and set up a large camp. At some point, Karen decides to go on her own back to the Institute to gather up some supplies for her private exile. She wanders around the empty halls for a bit and then goes to the bathroom to wash her clothes. In the mirror we get a few seconds of Karen's bare breasts (!), the only frontal nudity in the movie (well, the horrid pan-and-scan cropping might have cut some other shots out). Again, since she's like 16, I feel the need to turn myself in to the police just for watching that scene.
Don't look at those! Seriously, you are going to hell.
As she heads back to the transfer room with a few rolls of toilet paper (gotta have that in the future!) she runs into a boy named Ronald. Ronald came back from the future to get Karen and take her back. It seems Karen doesn't know about the takeover by the government and she's in danger here. Indeed, they just barely manage to avoid capture by a sentry before transferring back to the future. From here on, she will be a part of the general group, though will eventually abandon them again when she feels the time is right.
Ronald will be one of the main characters for the rest of the movie. He's a tall, outdoorsy sort of kid, with an atrocious bowl-cut hairdo and big plastic framed glasses. While clearly attracted to Karen (go figure) he will resist the urge for the rest of the film, and indeed proves to be one of the most level-headed of the kids. He's played by Kevin Hearst, in his only credited movie role.
Back in the future, the kids find that their choices suddenly become very limited when they discover that the power to the transfer machine has been cut off in the past. Clearly, the government has shut down the Project, unaware of the kids now stranded in the future. Some of the kids freak out at this, while most of them accept the challenge of this new world. Remember, the plan was for them to all be here eventually, so this is just an unforeseen advance in the Project's timeline.
After some debate, they decide to head west for Portland, Oregon. The exact reasons are not said, but probably because Portland is the closest port city to Idaho and they felt that the coast offered a better chance of finding survivors. They also have to get out of the mountains before the winter snows begin to fall. While having basic camping gear, they're clearly unprepared for a winter in the Rockies.
For some unknown reason, the kids break up into three groups. One small group of three will stay here with the transfer box, a larger group will travel down the Snake River, and a pair of kids will walk overland and link up with the river group at the Bruneau Dunes State Park south of Mountain Home. This last group is Ronald and Karen, who set off across the lava beds headed southwest.
"Bye, now! Don't forget to write!"
The small group that stays with the transfer box (perhaps hoping that it will be reactivated at some point) consists of Arthur, Leslie and some other random girl. Leslie is only notable because she goes nutso later.
Arthur is played by 24-year old Keith Carradine (here looking like a low-rent Casper Van Diem-like beefsteak with long shaggy hair and muscled arms) who would of course go on to be the most successful of all our actors. I've been watching him this year as Wild Bill Hickock in the HBO series Deadwood (great show, just don't let your kids watch it...).
But we don't see a lot of Arthur's group, or the river group for that matter, as much of the middle third of the movie focuses on Ronald and Karen's lonely trek across southern Idaho, from the lava beds to the Bruneau Dunes. Along the way we get to know more about these two, and we can't help but admire Ronald, and really detest Karen. While Ronald always keeps his focus and concentrates on the future and their survival, Karen constantly whines and sulks and pouts and generally makes a pain of herself. She's never happy, always a downer and doesn't seem to be carrying her share of the weight, either. She bugs him about everything and every night tries to get him to make love to her! Only the knowledge that they may be the last remnants of humanity keeps Ronald from tossing her into the Snake. I wouldn't have been so patient.
Ronald and Karen out hiking.
Along the way, they find some evidences of the still-unnamed catastrophe. We see a few dilapidated houses, some rusty and dust-covered cars and finally an abandoned train. The hundred-car train contains uncounted numbers of skeletons in plastic bags (though we don't see them, only hear Ronald's description), presumably victims being shipped somewhere inland when the train crew was overcome. This is one of the only clues we have to the nature of the disaster, suggesting a viral plague or something equally sudden. I'm telling you right now, people, be afraid of the Asian Bird Flu. Seriously.
Ronald checks out the train.
So, Ronald and Karen eventually reach the Bruneau Dunes (after swimming across the Snake in their underwear) and set up camp. They wait a few days for the main group, which is running late. Just as they begin to get nervous, fearing that something befell them, the main group shows up.
And they have brought a woman with them, a woman from this future! It seems that along the way they found a group of second and third generation survivors, all under the age of 30. They have regressed back to a Stone Age existence, living hand to mouth and wanting little more. While depressing, at least there are survivors in this new world, which gives them hope for something better on the coast.
Local survivor woman.
Karen now announces to the group that she thinks she is pregnant with Arthur's love child! It seems she missed her period and she can just feel the baby inside of her. Karen's joy is squashed flat, however, when they tell her the Big Secret. It seems that the process of transferring leaves you permanently sterile (a fact that only recently was discovered by the adults right before the Project was shut down). Karen is crushed, and goes off to herself to mope and cry. Ronald tries to get her to return to the group, to help them all carry on and find a better future. She just wants to be left alone and wallow in her own self-pity. Karen is really pissing me off.
This girl really doesn't like wearing pants, it seems.
So, once again, Karen shows us to be a selfish bitch. She sneaks off from the camp in the early morning, taking a pack and numerous valuable water bottles. It even looks like she takes one of their few boats to travel up the river. She's going back to the transfer box to be with Arthur, for some reason, and she doesn't care what happens to the rest of them. So off she goes, traveling all the way back to the lava beds (I guess she's smarter than I thought, being able to find her way back without a map!) and eventually finds the old camp.
However, what she finds is not what she expected. Arthur is dead, as is the other girl, both killed by Leslie, who has gone crazy out here in the wilderness. Leslie and Karen have a bloody fight, with punches, rocks and knives (!), and Karen takes refuge inside the transfer box (the hatch locks from the inside apparently).
Leslie and her big knife.
Down in the box, with the insane Leslie incessantly pounding on the hatch with a rock, Karen begins to go a little crazy herself. Then she suddenly notices the power light on the console! For some reason the power to the unit is now back on. Stripping down again (this girl spends half this movie nekkid) she hits the buttons.
She reappears back in the Institute in 1973, surprising a technician eating his lunch. The Institute has been taken over by the government and the military, though from the man's reaction, they still don't know about the time travel properties of the machine. Suddenly confronted by a half-naked bloodied girl, the man runs from the room to get help. Karen locks the door behind him, and then eats his sandwich! Bitch!
This is probably the best staged shot of the entire movie, with the guy's amazed look and Karen's blase stare over her shoulder at him. Might let Peter Fonda live for now...
She has a plan, you see, though not a very well-thought-out plan. She wants to change the settings on the machine so that she can go back (forward) in time to a point before the crazy Leslie chick killed her true love Arthur. The problem, of course, is that she has no idea how. So, with the arrogant blind faith of a teenager, she just starts turning knobs and tweaking gauges on the reactor control panel, hoping that she gets it right. This is not going to end well...
Excuse me, Karen, but can you even spell "temporal mechanics"?
She then transfers again, but as you might have guessed, she blew it. Instead of appearing before Arthur died, she appears at a time perhaps as much as a decade (or likely more) past that time. No one is here, the skeletons of Arthur and the others have long since rotted away and nothing remains of the camp but rusted-out water bottles.
She stumbles around a bit, and then...hmmm...that is really strange. A futuristic automobile pulls up, looking like a Detroit concept car with a wide steel flared body and thick tires. A well-groomed man dressed in a silver jumpsuit gets out, picks up the near-comatose Karen, and sticks her in the trunk.
Git in the trunk!
As they drive away, we listen to the family inside the car talking. It's a bit confusing, but it seems like either these future folks eat "savages from the wild frontiers" (ripping off Soylent Green, nice job, Peter Fonda) or they use them to "power their cars" somehow (like human batteries, ala The Matrix, perhaps?). All this lame talk is supposed to hit home how environmentally ignorant we all are (in 1973) and how if we don't respect Mother Earth and eat granola the world is going to end. I guess, but it just seems a muddled way of ending the movie.
Bonus! Some handy statistics for you:
2: Number of teenage girls we see in their underwear (I'm going to jail).
1: Number of teenage boys we see in their underwear (I'm going to therapy).
0: Number of cigarettes smoked by our cast (kudos).
3: Number of dead people we see (plus most of humanity).
[Editor Pam: Good movie, except for the very confusing ending. Leslie's statement that everything was getting used up isn't enough to figure out why so many people died. Are we to assume it was a widespread famine? If so, why wrap the bodies in plastic and start to ship them by train, only to abandon the train? What little evidence we have seems to point to disease as the cause of the loss of people. And how would Leslie know, anyway? There's no hint that the world in the 1973 time frame was approaching some sort of environmental crisis that would kill off vast numbers of people. I assumed Leslie went nuts because she couldn't get back to whoever was so important to her. She doesn't seem to accuse Karen of anything, and she couldn't know that the security guards saw her and learned about time travel and matter transfer. I'm assuming that they didn't already know, because if they did, they probably wouldn't have been so surprised when somebody turned up at the transfer point. Of course, when Leslie said that everything was getting used up, she might have just meant that she was afraid that Arthur and Jennifer were eating too much of the food.
If some people are collecting others to power their cars, could the retarded survivors be what's left of normal people after they've been used in the cars?
Or if the "survivors" were damaged as the result of whatever killed so many people and are being used to power cars of the future, what could have caused the damage, and why are they wandering around in the middle of nowhere?
Are they actually being kept in herds somehow? Otherwise, you couldn't count on coming across somebody when you're driving and start to run out of juice. Wouldn't it make more sense to keep them penned up in easily accessible locations? And wouldn't it be better to make sure they get some amount of care, since they seem to be necessary to run cars of the future, and leaving severely handicapped people to wander in the desert is guaranteeing that you'll lose a lot of them?
Or could Karen being put in the trunk of a futuristic car be only a fantasy of her deranged mind, not reality?
Personally, I suspect the filmmakers didn't have an ending in mind when they started the movie, and they tacked on the environmentally-conscious ending because it sounded good and they couldn't think of anything that made more sense. Anyway, it's worth watching, even with the less-than-clear ending. You can pass a lot of time trying to figure out how the world got from 1973 to where it was at the end of the movie.]
Written in October 2005 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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