Review

Mr. Payback

On one hand are the true movie innovations: talking pictures and Technicolor. On the other hand are the tent-show gimmicks with names like Smell-O-Vision, Emergo, and Sensurround. Mr. Payback (Sony New Technologies, PG-13), a new interactive short produced by New York's Interfilm Inc. in association with Sony, lands somewhere in the middle, not far from 3-D and Cinerama. Judging from this film, interactive movies have the potential to pull the medium in new directions, but that potential will probably be merrily stomped into oblivion by the carny barkers bringing it to market.

What's an interactive movie? If you go into one of the 44 specially equipped U.S. theaters showing Mr. Payback, you'll see that there's a joystick attached to the arm of your seat, right where you usually put your Diet Coke. The joystick has three buttons: yellow, red, and green. At various points in the movie, the audience votes on which of three plot tangents, color-coded along the bottom of the screen, to follow. The option that racks up the most points wins. Multiple votes count, as does trying to sway your fellow voters by yelling at the top of your lungs, so if you're the type who glares at the guy unwrapping a candy bar in the next row, you'll want to stay home.

But if you're looking for a Saturday night party, an interactive movie isn't a bad bet -- imagine The Rocky Horror Picture Show retooled for hopped-up channel surfers. I can see teenagers jumping at the chance to carry their weekend revelry over into the multiplex. Hey, they do it anyway. This just keeps it to one theater and lets the rest of us enjoy Nobody's Fool in peace.

Except that no one -- repeat, no one -- is going to go to interactive movies if they remain as horribly written, dreadfully acted, and cretinously plotted as Mr. Payback. The 20- to 25-minute film was written and directed by Bob Gale, who, with his directing partner Robert Zemeckis, wrote the Back to the Future films, which Gale also coproduced. Zemeckis is up for an Oscar for Forrest Gump. Gale is in no such danger.

The title character is a genial android vigilante played by Billy Warlock, who suggests a lightweight version of Michael J. Fox (a redundancy, I know). One of the three story branches involves a college student who is the victim of sexual harassment by a stuffy female dean. She later handcuffs Mr. Payback and pokes him with a cattle prod (or paddles or whips him, depending on the audience tally). Eventually, if the crowd votes for the ''humiliation'' option, the dean is dressed in S&M doggy bondage gear and led around on a leash.

I feel it necessary to stress at this point that I am not making this up.

The other two plots aren't as bizarrely offensive, but they're still mighty crass. In the story line that has Mr. Payback aiding a black businessman fired by a racist (Christopher Lloyd), the victim couldn't care less about moral restitution -- he just wants the cash. Again, the audience I watched this with opted to humiliate the bad guy and was treated to the sight of Lloyd, in blackface, dressed up as a French maid.

Despite Interfilm's claim that this tripe is aimed at audiences under 25, the company's really shooting for the kiddie crowd. But the little joystick junkies in the row ahead of me weren't tickled by the kinky denouements; they just shrugged them off as weird and lame. They did relish the idea of being able to decide a character's fate with cool thumbs-up/ thumbs-down aplomb but grew frustrated when they realized, after a few screenings, that all three plots followed the same strict scene outline. In short: They came, they saw, they went home and played Doom.

Do interactive movies have a future? Well, if someone applies genuine imagination to the choices and comes up with story arcs more challenging than a fifth-rate Ace Ventura rip, I could see them becoming a solid fad. It would certainly be fun to see what a stylist like Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino might do with the form. Even Interfilm's next project, a short feature about bike messengers called Ride for Your Life, looks as if it might be worth an interaction or two. Mr. Payback, unhappily, is lacking the one joystick button it needs most: the one that says off. The technology: C+ The movie: F

Originally posted Mar 10, 1995 Published in issue #265 Mar 10, 1995 Order article reprints