We’re living in a golden age of sci-fi, with both blockbuster movies and TV shows leaving their mark on pop culture. There are a lot of these movies and shows, and they’re often immaculately designed and obviously expensive. But the most important aspect of this new generation of science fiction — from movies like Inception to TV shows such as Westworld — is just how deep and twisted their plots run. Today’s science fiction is often a veneer, dressing up stories about how we live now with the futuristic or fantastic. And while the genre is as old as film itself, the new generation can trace its back to an unlikely source: the 1992 film Freejack, a box office bomb with a surprisingly long legacy.
The film stars Emilio Estevez as a race car driver named Alex Furlong who is suddenly snatched from the seat of his car right before it crashes. Furlong is transported to the apocalyptic future of 2009, a toxic and overpopulated world in which lifespans have decreased as droves of irradiated refugees shuffle around the increasingly depleted resources of the world’s biggest cities. Healthy bodies simply don’t exist anymore, so the wealthy hire time-traveling mercenaries called bonejackers” to cherrypick strong bodies from the past, which are then transported to the future-present to serve as living, breathing repositories for the digital consciousness of the rich.
Furlong escapes before the corporeal transfer can be completed, making him, in faux 2009 parlance, a “freejack.” He is forced to go on the run from a ruthless corporate bounty hunter named Vacendak, played strangely enough by Mick Jagger, who acts like he’s a guy doing his best Mick Jagger acting impression. Furlong must find his way to safety by tracking down his old girlfriend, Julie (Rene Russo) whose telecom magnate employer (Anthony Hopkins) just might be (and, surprise, definitely is) at the center of it all.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the movie before. It’s currently unavailable to stream on Amazon or iTunes, though you can snag a used DVD for about $5. But its obscurity belies its importance . What critic Janet Maslin called in her original New York Times review “an overabundance of gimmicky details,” can now be seen as prescient. Little details about identity and agency in a digital future would go on to be seen in the themes in any number of beloved modern sci-fi blockbusters, from the aforementioned works by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, or the thinking-person’s sci-fi favorites like Looper and Black Mirror.
Freejack was mostly overlooked, ironically enough, because of the era in which it was released. Studios in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s couldn’t figure out how to make sci-fi hits without relying on star power. It’s the reason why you get Arnold Schwarzenegger in fare such as Total Recall or Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. For his part, Estevez is mostly forgettable, though he did have some spotlight left from his years in the Brat Pack. Obviously, though, that wasn’t enough.
There were a few comparable sci-fi outliers that came out around that time — see 12 Monkeys, Dark City, andeXistenZ — but we wouldn’t really get much weighty sci-fi of this ilk until 1997, with its odd couple one-two punch of Gattaca and Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Even then, it was mostly spectacle and star power that dominated the box office, in the form of films such as Jurassic Park and Independence Day.
Freejack never comes up even in modern conversation, possibly because it never used bogus buzzwords to sell people on the idea that it was cutting edge; Johnny Mnemonic, The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity, and Hackers all fit that profile much better. And Freejack’s premise, with its undercurrents about the over-reliance on digital humanization even in a pre-internet age, is woefully undeveloped. It’s almost as if the film needed one of its leather-clad, Jagger-led mercenaries to blip in from the future to give it the brainy confidence it needed.
Instead, what could have been an action packed exploration of how individuality will become interchangeable in the future becomes a standard-issue chase movie that could have taken place in any time period. If you ever wanted to see Mick Jagger chasing Emilio Estevez all over what is supposed to be New York City but is most obviously Atlanta or some metropolitan stand-in, then Freejack is your movie.
And yet, dig deep enough, and it’s all there, and elements of its story are being rehashed in countless current ways on the big and small screen. And now it’s one half of a fantasy: Maybe one day we’ll all get plucked out of the troubled present and into the future.