Series note: As Futureworld is a "later chapter" to the story begun in Michael Crichton's Westworld, it is imperative that you watch Westworld before this film.
Set a number of years after the events of Westworld (1973), Futureworld concerns two competitive reporters, Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), who have been invited to cover the reopening of Delos, the "virtual reality" amusement park that went haywire in Westworld. Browning broke the story about the previous mishap, and he's particularly skeptical about the revamped park. Of course, being a sci-fi/thriller film, much of his skepticism is justified.
Director Richard T. Heffron did a lot of work for television both before and after he directed Futureworld, so it is not surprising that the film often has more of a made-for-television "atmosphere" than its predecessor. Delos has been revamped so that there are new lands--including Spa World (similar to today's actual "destination spas") and of course, Future World, where guests take a simulated rocket flight to a simulated space station where they engage in recreational activities such as simulated space walks and non-simulated hobnobbing at the bar. Westworld has become a ghost town (and it seemed to me that this dilapidated state should have been capitalized on as "Ghost World"--that's where I would have chosen to spend my high-priced vacation--but Heffron and his scripters didn't bother). The production design is a bit slicker than it was in Westworld, even if the locations aren't as pleasant (there is no desert--I'm a big fan of deserts). It also looks a bit higher budget, but the impact isn't greater because of the made-for-television feel.
Still, Heffron often transcends that limitation, and there are occasional sequences, such as Ballard's dream, which Browning and a handful of technicians vicariously enjoy (it partially involves a nudity-free sex fantasy) from a remote monitor, that are unusual in their surrealism. Much of the dream is as a silent film, and it features a nice cameo from Yul Brynner, who was the chief villain in Westworld. There are also a number of impressive "industrial" sets--full of piping, cables, large machinery and such, in which Heffron sets a number of exciting action sequences, one remarkably prescient of the climax chase in Total Recall (1990).
Because of the film's intimate connection with Westworld, it's helpful to make a number of comparisons between the two that help explain how Futureworld holds its own (almost, I only rated it a point lower) to its infamous brother.
Both films are largely satirical (in a more formal, less humor-oriented sense of that term), a caricature of many different facets of society, from amusement/recreation to folly, and in the case of Futureworld, more ominous machinations. Delos is a satire of Disney World and similar theme parks, where we can spend leisure time playing roles, fantasizing that we're someone else, in some other time.
Whereas Westworld presented its satire of Disney-like escapism on a more surface level, Futureworld is concerned with the reality under the public façade. Westworld presented a few moments of the behind the scenes reality--technicians attending to computers, maintaining robots, fretting about anomalies--but the bulk of Futureworld consists of Browning and Ballard on a figurative journey to the bowels of Hades, where they'll eventually attempt to "unmask" the devil and destroy his perpetration of hedonistic illusion.
As it should sound, Futureworld is much more sinister in some ways. Not that Westworld wasn't wonderfully disturbing, but the dilemma in that film arose through relative innocence, with man attempting to better himself and his environment, only discovering too late that his manipulations were backfiring. In Futureworld, the innocence is gone. The Frankenstein-like, God-emulating manipulation of the world has been realized, and through conceit, the powers that be behind Delos figure they can improve not only upon nature, but the artificial control of nature that failed in Westworld, especially utilizing the services of behind the scenes technicians who are now almost exclusively robots.
The villainous motivation behind of all this, which extends far beyond Delos, has an attractive grayness. The aim is still to improve the world, but at a cost of human life. But is it? Supposedly, human life is being replaced at the same rate, the replacements ostensibly being identical biologically, except that they have a different set of beliefs. Although the exact mechanism of all of this is a bit vague (as it needs to be--any attempt at a scientific explanation would probably be less plausible then just saying " . . . and then a miracle occurs"), the plot points fueled by the idea broach a number of very interesting philosophical questions.
If you haven't seen the film yet, some of what I'm saying will seem itself a bit vague, but I'm purposefully presenting it that way to avoid "giving the film away", while still enabling comments on it. Rest assured that the plot is fairly transparent and easy to follow --this is a good script, and Heffron did a fine job directing it so that it brings up serious issues at the same time it provides more than a fair amount of suspense and touches of humor.
A lot of the film succeeds because of good performances from Fonda, Danner and a few others. Fonda and Danner have to effectively play a couple different roles, sometimes making a clear distinction, sometimes purposefully blurring the same, which they accomplish with skill. They also have to undergo a couple somewhat bizarre transformations that aren't explained very well, such as one from rivals to lovers, but somehow they manage to make even that convincing.
This is a fine sequel to Westworld. It isn't essential viewing, but Westworld certainly is, and if you've experienced that film, you may as well see what happens next.