In the far-off future, mankind is in a state of decay, but a group of scientists believe they have discovered a way of moving humanity onto its next level - to create an immortal. Adventurer Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch) gets involved because his recently deceased father worked out a formula to help the final programme, and it's on a microfilm hidden in the vaults of his mansion. But Jerry's brother won't let anyone get at it...
This science fiction weirdness was based on one of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, adapted by the director Robert Fuest, and in its attempt to show the far off future, it looks very much of its time rather than chillingly prophetic. Watching it is rather like being at a party where all the cool people hang out, but make no concesssions to including you in their clique; in its own arch manner, it comes across as resembling a late sixties episode of The Avengers, complete with guest stars, that has taken itself very seriously. Well, up to a point.
Fuest, who had cut his teeth directing that classic television series, also operated as a designer on the film, and it looks great. In one scene, a whole room full of pinball machines is a giant pinball machine itself, complete with women roaming around in huge clear balls. The Cornelius mansion is packed with deathtraps for the unwary, complete with coloured poison gas and a chess puzzle that opens a door onto the inside of a large inflatable. The locations are well chosen, from a vast plain in Lapland to a desolate London to an abandoned castle; all this gives the proceedings a distinctive look.
Jerry himself is a playboy and a Nobel prize-winning scientist who dresses in natty suits, frilly shirts and wears black nail varnish. He has a penchant for drinking and driving, eating chocolate digestives (if you were in any doubt about his nationality) and popping recreational drugs; the only person he cares about is his sister (future Superman II Ursa, Sarah Douglas), and she has been locked away in the mansion by his drug addict brother (a very sleazy Derrick O'Connor). Finch certainly looks the part, and his clipped delivery sounds the part, but he's not much more than a futuristic James Bond here.
That said, he does have a curious vulnerability that leads to a streak of self-preservation his smooth patter may not entirely help him out with. But mankind has become predatory and selfish as civilisation draws to a close, and almost everyone is out to exploit everyone else. Boffins' representative Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre) goads Jerry into helping her find the microfilm so she can realise her ambition of the next step in the evolutionary ladder, and along the way she "absorbs" victims like some kind of vampire. The only pioneering work appears to have been made in the pursuit of better weapons, apart from those three scientists' work with keeping the brains of geniuses wired up to a supercomputer.
There's a danger of The Final Programme being so self absorbed itself that it is difficult to follow what exactly is going on. In the scenes near the end, where all is explained, the dialogue is so heavy with jargon that the nature of the experiment verges on the obscure. Then, unexpectedly, it turns frivolous, with a comedy brawl (Finch's lines are pretty funny here) and a curious payoff to defy your expectations. It's clear the result was not one that was intended, but the way it shuts down any hope for the sake of a bleak joke - not in the book, and one reason Moorcock hated the film - was kind of daring. Or deliberately stupid. Defiantly strange, but not without entertainment value, The Final Programme is an example of the kind of science fiction they don't make any more, part hippy hangover, part Me Decade send-up. Music by Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause.