The Final Programme, released in the US as The Last Days of Man on Earth, is a defiantly strange film, a mixture of dystopian sci-fi, comedy, spy spoof, thriller and satire. The plot defies most attempts at a coherent explanation, but a rough attempt at a simple outline is possible.
At some time in the near future, a brilliant, Nobel Prize winning scientist, Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), his late father's rival (Patrick Magee), bisexual femme fatale Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), and a trio of long-suffering scientists (Graham Crowden, George Coulouris and Basil Henson) are among those involved in the search for a valuable microfilm and the creation of The Final Programme. The latter is a scientific experiment to create a new superhuman, an androgynous being merged from a male and a female subject. The two participants have already been chosen, with Miss Brunner as the female.
The supporting characters include Cornelius's faithful old retainer John (Harry Andrews), his sister (Sarah Douglas), his villainous brother Frank (Derrick O'Connor), a strange assassin (Ronald Lacey), a philosophising Hindu Professor (Hugh Griffith) and a cigar-chomping American arms dealer, Major Wrongway Lindbergh, played by Sterling Hayden, in an agreeably eccentric turn that is presumably a nod to his role in Dr Strangelove (1964).
The geopolitical background of the story is never explained, although it has led to the destruction of the Vatican and the Americans destroying most of Amsterdam. Whatever it is that's happening in the world is suggested by bits of dialogue and the occasional striking visual, like Cornelius walking through abandoned patches of London with derelict cars piled up around him.
The Final Programme is based on the 1968 sci-fi novel by Michael Moorcock, the first of a series of four books featuring Jerry Cornelius. Dystopian sci-fi wasn't that rare in the cinema of the early seventies, from A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Soylent Green (1973) via The Omega Man (1971). There was also a degree of weirdness in '70s sci-fi films, but few were quite as weird as The Final Programme.
The film was written and directed by Robert Fuest, who cut his teeth directing episodes of the surreal spy series The Avengers, and later made two tongue-in-cheek horror films, The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972). His film and TV work showed Fuest to be adept at making fantastical stories on restricted budgets and should give you an idea of the slightly askew world of The Final Programme.
Fuest was a set designer who turned to television directing and he has an eye for an unusual location, something useful in a low budget futuristic film like this. He also takes a “designed by” credit on the film and treats us to a range of unusual sets and locations including a human pinball arcade, a house stuffed with high-tech booby traps and a secret Nazi submarine bunker. At times, the film feels a bit like a mash-up of The Avengers and Doctor Who with added sex, drugs and general weirdness. There are also some James Bond overtones, with international travel, helicopters, jet planes, hidden labs and secret bases.
Fuest seems to have plundered Moorcock's book for the strangest and most visual elements (within his budgetary limits), but narrative coherence was obviously not his main concern. The film flops around all over the place, occasionally shooting off in random directions, or veering off to include jokes, pop culture references and eccentric characters. It incorporates elements of black comedy, '70s counter-culture, pop art and satire. Its default attitude is arch, with one eyebrow raised, and it refuses to take its story or its characters seriously. It also has that slightly curdled feel of some early '70s films, the result of the morning after the supposedly carefree sixties. There are a lot of satirical digs at TV, the establishment, consumer culture and the allegedly unwoken masses. “I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end. I thought I'd go home and watch it on television”, Cornelius tells us at one point.
Other than Fuest's visuals, the best part of the film is Jon Finch as Cornelius, a part that was allegedly offered to Mick Jagger. Cornelius is a sort of playboy scientist and dandy, with a genius level IQ and a penchant for chocolate biscuits. He wears a frock coat, has long, tousled locks, wears black nail varnish, and flies a helicopter and a Phantom jet plane (the budget can stretch to a helicopter, but we never actually see the jet). While Cornelius looks the part, he's also clumsy and just as likely to lose a fight as win one, yelling out to his female companion in the middle of one fight scene “Help, Miss Brunner! I'm losing!”
Jon Finch gives the best performance in the film and his characterisation and offbeat line readings account for a fair amount of its appeal. He is probably best known now for the Hitchcock film Frenzy (1972) and Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1972), but here he shows a lighter side and an unexpected talent for comedy. Finch was a reluctant film star, which led to him turning down a number of high profile roles. He was also the original Kane in Alien (1979), before health problems forced him to pull out during filming and he was replaced by John Hurt. As an up-and-coming British leading man of the 1970s, he was also considered to play James Bond and would have made an interesting choice. Some sources claim he was offered the part in Live and Let Die (1973) but turned it down.
Michael Moorcock appears to have approved of Finch's portrayal of Jerry Cornelius, but he was unhappy with the rest of the film. That was a sentiment he shared with the critics, who slated it, and the public, who ignored it. According to Moorcock, on its British release it was the top of a double bill with the Hong Kong film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) and, when the latter appeared more popular, The Final Programme was switched to the bottom of the bill. In the US it was re-cut, shorn of around 11 minutes and retitled The Last Days of Man on Earth. The film's commercial failure meant that no one else showed much interest in adapting any of the other Jerry Cornelius stories. It didn't do much for Robert Fuest either. He made only two more films, an American horror, The Devil's Rain (1976), and a soft porn film, Aphrodite (1982).
The Final Programme just doesn't work in many ways, and yet there's something about it that's appealing anyway. Its eccentric touches, its occasionally striking bits of design and its sheer uniqueness as an oddball, dystopian sci-fi comedy-drama-fantasy-thriller-spy satire. It's got Cult Film written all over it, but I'm not sure if the cult has shown up yet. It's not a film I would enthusiastically recommend to many people, but if you're looking for something different, then this is definitely it.
The Final ProgrammeYear: 1973
Genre: Sci-fi, Comedy, Drama, Thriller
Director: Robert Fuest
Cast Jon Finch (Jerry Cornelius), Jenny Runacre (Miss Brunner), Hugh Griffith (Professor Hira), Patrick Magee (Dr. Baxter), Sterling Hayden (Major Wrongway Lindbergh), Ronald Lacey (Shades), Harry Andrews (John), Graham Crowden (Dr. Smiles), George Coulouris (Dr. Powys), Basil Henson (Dr. Lucas), Derrick O'Connor (Frank), Sarah Douglas (Catherine), Sandy Ratcliff (Jenny), Julie Ege (Miss Dazzle), Gilles Millinaire (Dmitri), Mary Macleod (Nurse), Dolores Del Mar (Fortune teller), Sandra Dickinson (Waitress)
Screenplay Robert Fuest, based on the novel by Michael Moorcock Producers John Goldstone, Sandy Lieberson Cinematography Norman Warwick Production designer Robert Fuest Editor Barrie Vince Music Paul Beaver, Bernard Krause
Running time 89 mins Colour Technicolor
Production company Gladiole Films, Goodtimes Enterprises Distributor Anglo-EMI Film Distributors (UK), New World Pictures (US)
US Title: The Last Days of Man on Earth