In 1973 Peter Fonda was a few years over thirty, way too old to travel into the future and survive the trip, at least according to Idaho Transfer, the second of the three films he’s directed. His directorial debut was a moody Western, The Hired Hand (1971). His third film, Wanda Nevada (1979), starred Fonda and a fourteen-year-old Brooke Shields in the titular role. (Judging from the trailer, it was equal parts wacky and zany.) Idaho Transfer, Fonda’s middle child, is a post-apocalyptic time travel story that tries to make the most of an obviously meager budget but suffers from being too frequently inexplicable. It’s heavy on atmosphere, light on acting, and the screenplay – like Karen, its randy female lead – could use a little love.
We join the story with Karen’s older sister, Isa (sounds like “Lisa”), who has been working with her father and a dozen or so other scientists – almost all of them in their early twenties – on a secret project involving time travel and generally saving the world. Isa explains the plot best, “See, Dad and Lewis are tryin’ to get it together to secretly transfer a lotta young people into the future, bypass the eco-crisis or whatever it is. Start a new civilization.” (In Idaho Transfer, to travel in time is to “transfer,” hence the title.) This is really all you need to know. (Except that Isa really says “echo-crisis,” which I found extremely confusing for ten or fifteen seconds.)
Actually, there are all sorts of other things that you need to know, or that the one-time screenwriter, Thomas Mathiessen, feels the need to tell you. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other things he doesn’t find important enough to say anything about, things that would really help to understand the story and why these people do some of the things they do.
Here are some things we know (and the things we don’t know about these things we know):
Time travel is rough on the kidneys and lethal for “anyone much over twenty.” (Thus indicating the target demographic for this movie. As the saying (sort of) goes, don’t trust anyone much over twenty.) Time travel is also rough on other parts of the anatomy that are pretty essential to planet re-populating. But since that’s one of the movie’s big reveals, I won’t go into more detail.
The mechanics of this particular time machine make it dangerous to use while wearing anything heavy or metal of any sort, including zippers, so a transfer invariably involves taking off one’s pants. Again, Isa really puts it best: “Rule number one, lock the door. Rule number two, take off your clothes.” (To which Karen replies, “Sounds familiar”!) It’s hard not to be cynical about this specific plot point. In a movie this slow, colorless, and depressing, there is something to be said for girls without pants cuddling up to each other and vibrating forward in time. What is that something? If you want anyone to watch this movie, someone’s going to have to take off her pants.
Because one travels in time without pants, there is a “material projection compartment,” which is essentially a time machine for inanimate objects. Fair enough.
For some reason the time machine is located, in the present, in a large and well lit room in a research facility somewhere in (you guessed it!) Idaho. After transfer – roughly fifty years into the future, "It's not like you can sit down and dial a date, y'know." – the time traveler ends up in a closed, underground compartment some eleven miles away. Perhaps this has something to do with the rotation of the earth over the time that’s elapsed between departure and arrival, but it’s more likely that the rectangular metal port set into the volcanic rock of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon just looks much, much cooler. (And it does!)
There's another thing you need to know. There's no delicate way to say it.
Karen was raped. Before joining her sister and her father for this secret mission (and having her braces removed – I guess to more clearly establish her age – by Dr. Lewis in an examination room decorated with anatomical charts and a Frankenstein poster), Karen was at “the clinic,” where she was raped by some guy named Paul. We learn this in one of the movie’s many scenes of conversational exposition. Isa asks, “Still a virgin?” To which her younger sister nonchalantly replies, “No. I thought they told you about that. I got raped.”
(The acting in this movie, btw, is as a rule stiff and emotionless. This scene is no exception. Actually this “scene” is a voiceover that plays on top of an extended shot of a pickup driving down the highway. Because the delivery is so deadpan, and because the voices of the two actresses are so similar, it’s frustratingly hard to figure out who is saying what.)
Anyway, Karen was raped. I wish I could tell you why this important. What I can tell you is that, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that Karen is positively desperate to procreate. This girl’s biological clock is ticking, loud! When the whole group of young scientists ends up together in the future, post-apocalypse, they decide to break up into three groups – mostly without reason...something, something, before it gets cold, something, something – and Karen sets off with the gangly, bespectacled, mop-topped Ronald, who exists primarily to rebuff her repeated advances. I mean, she tells this guy – effectively the last man on earth, alone with a teenage girl who quite literally can’t keep her pants on, time travel or no – “Ronald, you can do anything you want, y’know”!
But Karen doesn’t just want action. She wants a baby. This will figure into the aforementioned big reveal. To be fair, it’s also a completely logical pre-occupation for a movie about population decimating ecological disaster. But it goes nowhere, except perhaps to contribute to Karen’s descent into frenzy, then isolation, then...
The end? For such a dour film, its end (and Karen’s end) comes as a bit of a surprise. Like the calibrated-to-blow-your-mind tag at the end of an episode of The Twilight Zone, the end of Idaho Transfer comes out of nowhere. It’s probably better than we could have hoped for, based on what the story was setting up for itself, but it is apropos of absolutely nothing, save and except the movie’s cynical outlook on the viability of the human race.
Despite all that, one of the things this movie does really well is atmosphere, due largely to a snail’s pace, a lot of severe natural beauty, and a perfect (and perfectly dated) score by Bruce Langhorne. Langhorne was a fixture in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the sixties. Actually, he’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” immortalized in Bob Dylan’s song of the same name, and he played on a number of albums by Dylan, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, and others. His score for Idaho Transfer is spare and moody, relying on electric guitar and a tasteful assortment of synths to set a pensive and doleful futuristic mood. There is in Langhorne’s music more than a little taste of the sort of mid-seventies nostalgic sound that would be later resurrected and immortalized by Boards of Canada, Tycho, and other artists. It’s Langhorne’s score, more than anything else, that makes Idaho Transfer worth watching.