Week 13 — Idaho
Most actors in Hollywood, at some point in their career, have the itch to try their hand at directing. In the best case scenario, the tendency for an actor to want to sit in a tall chair with their name written on the back of it and yell “Action!” resulted in what many people consider to be one of the greatest films ever made — Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Additionally, actors like Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) and Mel Gibson (Braveheart) have won Oscars for their work behind the camera. Other actors have given up the acting gig, realizing that their true talent is giving rather than following direction (Ron Howard, Rob Reiner). Actors turned directors have a special talent: they know what it’s like to be a performer based on their own experiences on film and, because they have this connection to their performers, they have the ability to bring out the best in a film’s cast. Because of this, it’s not surprising that many films directed by actors or ex-actors are very character driven. It’s called playing to your strengths.
Actor Peter Fonda has directed three films so far during his career in Hollywood. Fonda’s brief career as a filmmaker in the 1970s began with The Hired Hand (1971), an obscure Western. It ended with Wanda Nevada (1979), an odd and pretty much forgotten film about a drifter — played by Fonda — and an orphan — played by 13-year-old Brooke Shields — on a hunt for an abandoned gold mine in 1950s Arizona. However, the strangest film on Fonda’s resume is 1973’s Idaho Transfer.
Idaho Transfer is a sci-fi post-apocalyptic time travel movie set and mostly filmed at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Arco, Idaho. It’s pretty obscure for a number of reasons, the least of which being that it’s just … odd.
First of all, the movie features mostly non-professional actors. Established thespian Keith Carradine has a short role, but the film’s primary stars are an unknown cast of teenage actors and actresses for whom this film is their sole screen credit. It’s no stretch to imagine the teenagers that appear in the movie are simply whomever Fonda happened to have access to.
Possibly due to its inexperienced actors, the movie has a somewhat disconnected feel. In one review I read of the film, it was described as if Fonda happened to be driving through Idaho, stumbled on Craters of the Moon National Monument, decided right there and then that it would be a great place to shoot a movie, proceeded to take out a movie camera and shoot said movie. For the record, Craters of the Moon is an amazing location for a film.The 750,000-acre monument gets its name because central to the monument is an area called the Great Rift, a 72-mile long crack in the earth’s crust — a volcanic sea that is absolutely other-worldly.
Kelly Bohanon and Caroline Hildebrand play sisters Karen and Isa Braden in the film. The characters are among a group of young people who have been trained as scientists and are deeply involved in under-the-radar time travel experiments at a research facility on the Idaho plains. This — the idea of teenagers as scientists involved in such a potentially world-changing project — is strange, of course, but the movie explains that it’s been determined that only people under the age of 20 can travel through time. Anyone older suffers fatal kidney damage. It’s a necessary evil, but inconsequential anyway, since none of the teenagers act like teenagers in this movie.
As the movie goes on you learn that some of the teenagers are setting up permanent encampments in Idaho Future. The movie explains that scientists have predicted an environmental disaster of some sort and that the teenagers are being sent to the future so that they can rebuild society after Mother Nature wipes it out. All of this is being done without the United States government’s involvement, by the way, because the government is The Man and The Man is to be damned. While government scientists visit the research station occasionally, they believe that the experiments being done involve minor teleportation — not time travel. They’d never understand, of course, the importance of the Idaho Transfer Project. They’d think setting up a future civilization made up of too-smart-for-their-own-good teenagers would be a ludicrous idea. At least the one advantage of having a bunch of horny teens charged with ensuring the future of the human race is there’d be no problem when it came to the whole “repopulating” aspect of the mission.
In Future Idaho, Ida falls into a rock pit and is accidentally killed by her sister Karen when Karen tries to transport her back to Present Idaho. I’m not totally sure how she dies. The movie really doesn’t explain it. It’s possible she was not properly seated in the time travel capsule when she moved backwards in time, as the film goes out of its way to show her slumping over before moving through time.
The time traveling device, by the way, consists of a machine attached to what looks like a weightlifting bench — as you can see in the above still. The time traveler must take off their pants and straddle the bench before engaging the device. Considering the majority of people shown traveling through time are young, nubile teenage girls, this isn’t in the least bit sexually-suggestive. I would hate to think that Peter Fonda’s motivation in making this ultra-low budget film was to get 15-year-old girls to take their pants off — but part of me can’t help but wonder.
Before Ida dies, she proceeds to vomit what looks suspiciously like watery diarrhea. It’s totally gnarly. Click here to see for yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. As a result of her sister’s death, Karen is distraught. She ceases to cooperate with her fellow junior scientists, totally contradicting what I said earlier about the teens in this movie not acting like real teens. (“Karen. Is. Blank.” she tells the rest of the group, in a brief bit of third-person digressing.)
It’s not long before the government winds up catching wind of what is really going on in Present Idaho and comes crashing down on the project. Before they can shut it down permanently though, the last remaining teenagers transport themselves to the future — where the entire group is now presumably trapped.
The teens try and make the best of the change in circumstance. Some of the group begin a hike to Portland, Oregon. They encounter a group of retarded people who survived the environmental holocaust because … I seriously don’t remember — magical … retarded … powers. I don’t know.
Karen — who is part of the group traveling to Portland — convinces herself that she is pregnant with the child of Arthur (Keith Carradine) only to be told later that time travel has an unintended side-effect: it makes you sterile. Bummed out that she won’t be a mommy — ever — Karen travels back to Idaho, where she discovers a horrible scene. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, only to say it’s pretty effective. At the very least, it’s a just reward for anyone who showed they had the endurance to make it through the last hour or so of the movie without turning it off.
I didn’t hate this movie, but it could be because I went into it expecting it to be horrible. Still, it’s not something I’d recommend.
FIrst off, the quality of the picture on the 2003 Westlake Entertainment, Inc. release of this movie — the version available through Netflix — is horrendous. You can see for yourself by the graininess of the screen captures included in this column. Judging from other pictures I’ve seen posted on the web, all of the existing copies of this film are VHS-quality, which is no surprise as the movie only got a limited release in 1973 and it wasn’t until decades later that it reappeared on home media. For now, second-generation VHS quality is the best you’ll get. I don’t expect Criterion to be releasing a remastered version of this movie anytime soon. This makes it hard to judge the film’s cinematography. Since the Craters of the Moon National Monument is such a visually impressive locale, I’ll assume at one time this was at least an interesting movie to look at.
The story isn’t half bad. It’s well-paced, there are enough twists and turns to keep you interested for the most part. Not to mention obvious parallels can be drawn between the environmental crisis talked about the film and modern concerns about global warming.
The acting and dialogue are probably the movie’s lowest points. The actors look bored and it’s hard to blame them considering the lifelessness of the dialogue. There’s little to no character development. Karen mentions at one point that she was raped while living at a halfway house, but that’s about it — that line, in particular, she delivers so casually that it’s unintentionally hilarious. Between the bad acting and the bad script, the teenagers in this film come across as completely forgettable. That’s unforgivable, coming from Fonda — a man whose biggest claim to fame is portraying one of the most memorable screen characters of the 1970s in Easy Rider‘s Captain America. Fonda, an actor, should have been able to get a little more out of his performers than the average director — even if they are “non-professional”. He fails and ultimately it’s the film’s downfall.
I’ve seen movies shelved for years for being too controversial or too ahead of the times. Idaho Transfer is one of the rare few movies that was shelved because it is just not very good. Hardcore 1970s film devotees might want to give this a look. For the rest, Idaho Transfer is a time capsule that should have remained buried.
Idaho Transfer on YouTube
* The complete movie split up into eight parts. Apparently taken from a source in the UK, where it goes by the alternate title of Deranged – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8