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It's time for "Punitive Damages," everyone's favorite segment of the game show Payback Time, where scumbags get what's coming to them. Today's scumbag is one Diane Wyatt, a college dean who's sexually harassed one of her students. Presented with three categories of "paybacks," the student looks to the audience for advice on which to choose. Shouts rise from the crowd, and the student chooses the "Favorite Things" category. Our host, Mr. Payback, and his assistant, Gwen, explain that Wyatt's favorite thing is cleanliness, so curtains open to reveal Wyatt -- in undergarments only -- inside a dunk tank. Three oil drums loom above the tank; one contains nothing, and the other two are filled with shit in one form or another. Inside the tank, there's a control box with three buttons that correspond to the oil drums -- Wyatt must choose which oil drum gets dumped on her before a timer runs out. The audience goes wild....

Sound like a great game show? Well, Payback Time isn't a game show; it's part of Mr. Payback, the first in a new medium of entertainment: the interactive movie. And the audience doing the hooting and the choosing of what the characters will do aren't on-screen, they're ticket holders at Sony Memorial City, the only Houston theater presently set up to use the Interfilm Theatrical Exhibition System, the technology behind interactive moviegoing.

The Interfilm system consists of on-screen computer graphics ("the Bridgeplane," in techno-babble) and three-button pistol grips mounted to the armrests of the theater's seats. The pistol grips are what lets the audience interact with the movie; during key sequences, plot options color-coded to the pistol grip's buttons are displayed on the Bridgeplane, which overlays the lower part of the movie screen. The viewer presses the button of the option he'd like to see, and once the votes are tallied, the movie proceeds with whichever option got the most support. The audience is required to interact almost every two minutes, so those thinking about a trip to the restroom should probably hold it.

Like in a video game, the audience accumulates points during the course of the movie; at the end, if the score is high enough, a bonus scene is played. In addition to displaying points earned after interactive sequences, the Bridgeplane periodically provides random facts, helpful information and sarcastic comments. However, unlike interactive computer/video games that use live action footage, the interactive movie flows continuously; there are no noticeable breaks at the interactive junctions. And regardless of what choices are made, the movie lasts for 22 minutes (unless the bonus scene is added, which ups the time to 26 minutes). Points aside, there's really no right or wrong path to choose; the options are all variations on the same basic plot.

For all its creative technology, Mr. Payback suffers the problems that most "firsts" encounter. The potential of interactive movies may be vast, but Mr. Payback is rather crude and limited. It has the look and feel of a syndicated TV show. There's a manufactured-sounding announcer who narrates the film's beginning as the credits roll by -- you're almost waiting for the commercial break to follow. The picture is even squared-off like a TV screen rather than having the rectangular format common to most movies. And while this is a Hollywood project, Payback seems to be operating on a low budget, especially where its special effects are concerned.

Written and directed by Bob Gale, who co-wrote and produced Back to the Future, Payback has a cheesy plot that, were it not for some adult subject matter and language, would seem geared for children. ("Mommy, what's an enema?" one child in the preview audience asked.) Regardless of what choices the audience makes, the plot of the film goes like this: Mr. Payback -- cyborg hero for hire -- accepts a client's case, meets the scumbag who has done something truly dreadful to the client, gets thrashed by the scumbag, goes on a reconnaissance mission for evidence against the scumbag and finally kidnaps the scumbag for the Payback Time game show. (The bonus scene is a trip by Warlock and Gwen to a "Non-interactive Film Festival.")

Due to its nature, Mr. Payback has only two constant characters: Payback (Billy Warlock) and his assistant, Gwen (Holly Fields). In creating the film's hero, Gale cybernetically enhanced Back to the Future's Marty McFly. Warlock plays a rather bland underdog. Granted, he doesn't have much to work with, but that's no excuse; Fields has even less to work with as Gwen, yet she manages to pull her part off with considerably more charm.

About the only redeeming performance other than Fields' comes from Christopher Lloyd, who plays a racist, gourmet-food eating bastard -- quite a departure from his standard lovable goofball typecasting. During Payback Time, there's some entertaining cameo appearances by stars such as Cheech Marin and Ice-T, which should have parents leaving the theater with their children in tow, if they haven't left already.

Mr. Payback would have been better if its creators had made a choice themselves -- whether to make the movie adult-oriented or child-oriented. As it stands, Mr. Payback is too offensive for kids and too dumb for adults. Considering the potential of interactive movies, Mr. Payback isn't very impressive. But then again, Pong -- the amoeba of video games -- was pretty lame, too.

Mr. Payback.
Directed by Bob Gale. With Billy Warlock, Holly Fields and Christopher Lloyd.

Rated PG-13.
22 minutes.

 
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