The Austin Chronicle

Forward to the Past With Future '38

By Richard Whittaker, May 16, 2017, 11:40pm, Picture in Picture

Finding a lost milestone of Thirties sci-fi cinema is always going to raise questions. When it comes to time-travel masterpiece Future '38, Jamie Greenberg is coy about exactly where the missing print was hiding. "Sometimes I say Hollywood attic, sometimes I say Hollywood vault. I guess I really should get my story straight."

It's OK. If you feel like calling shenanigans about some missing genre classic, you'd be right. Future '38 (which receives its Texas premiere on May 17 as part of Other Worlds Austin's year-round programming) is Greenberg's deliciously goofy homage to Hollywood's golden era of two-fisted heroes, screwball comedy, Nazi spies, and, of course, the glorious possibilities of science!

Essex (Nick Westrate, Turn: Washington's Spies) has been sent into the far-flung future of 2018 to recover an essential material necessary to head off the growing threat of those terrible ratzis! Aided and sometimes abetted by hotel owner Banky (Betty Gilpin, Nurse Jackie, the upcoming GLOW), can he save the future, or will Hitler's nephew get his hands on the one thing that can rewrite history: formica!

Future '38 wasn't the film that Greenberg intended to make, as he'd spent a year researching a bizarre and completely unrelated corner of Cold War history. He said, "I really went down the rabbit hole, probably because I couldn't work out, did I want it to be really historically accurate, or did I want it to be silly and absurd?" After months of trying to turn his research into a script, he said, "I looked down at my pad of demented scrawls, and thought, 'This project is killing me. There's got to be an easier way.'"

So he put aside his huge stack of notes, his DVDs, and research materials from the Library of Congress, picked up "a fresh, virgin yellow notepad," and rewrote his own future. That's when the idea struck him. "Everybody loves time travel, and time travel is most interesting when you go into the future, because you get to project this putative world."

Initially, that idea was off-putting, because building Earth in, say, 2118, is an expensive endeavor for a low-budget filmmaker like himself. But what if the future he wrote about was not our future, but that of the past? He said, "We all have those moments when you look around and say, 'Holy god, we're living in the future now.' That little slab of glass in your pocket, as the cliche goes, is more powerful than the computers that sent our astronauts to the moon. We really live in The Jetsons."

So Future '38 is his homage to the cinema of the Thirties and Forties, with its bang-crash dialogue, the delicious spiky sparks between Gilpin and Westrate, and a 1938 filmmakers' "idea of what they imagine our time to be, and the little joke underlying the movie is that they got a lot of it right." Working women! Cell phones (admittedly, still with an operator, played by SF icon Sean Young)! Even a cameo from none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson, who calls it "a movie that gets time travel right."

That's a claim that makes Greenberg laugh, since the only explanation of temporal mechanics in his film involves throwing a baseball. Yet he had nothing but praise for Tyson, who often makes film fans grind their teeth with his physics fact-checking on movies. Greenberg said, "He said to me afterwards, any project that has any science, even if the science is from a whimsical point of view, he will consider promoting, and I was just amazed how he swung from the rafters."

Other Worlds Austin presents Future '38 with writer/director Jamie Greenberg in attendance, Wed., May 17, 7:30pm, Flix Brewhouse, 2200 S. I-35, Round Rock. Tickets at

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