In the 1960s, elements of decay and division in society, especially U.S. society, were becoming more obvious, and 1960s sci-fi reflected this. (1)
The 1960s were a fertile ground for many movie genres. The decade saw a number of fine traditional westerns, as well as the advent of the iconoclastic, bombastic spaghetti western, sweeping epics (like Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid), the final heyday of the big-budget musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), the James Bond spy craze, etc. The Hammer Studios' horror boom was in full swing, the WWII spectaculars went from strength (The Great Escape) to strength (The Dirty Dozen), Disney still was cranking out some classics (like 101 Dalmations) and Gidget and the Beach Party movies catered to the younger crowd.
One genre that didn't exactly flourish, though, was the science fiction film.
Much like the decade itself, the 1960s were a transitional period for the science fiction film. The decade started out pretty much as a continuation of the 1950s, with most Hollywood sci-fi reduced to fun but generally cheap and cheesy kiddie or teenage monster fare, like The Leech Woman, The Angry Red Planet, The Manster and The Brain that Wouldn't Die. By the end of the 60s, though, the social upheaval, chaos and malaise of the post-JFK assassination, counter culture, Vietnam War-era world were beginning to seep in, eventually leading to the slew of serious minded, downbeat sci-fi films in the early to mid 1970s, such as The Andromeda Strain, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Soylent Green, A Boy and His Dog, and Silent Running, to name just a few.
In between were a handful of Hall-of-Fame sci-fi films, which clearly show this gradual transformation from more juvenile fare into darker territory. Below is my list, in chronological order, of what I consider to be the 10 best films of this type to come out of that decade, along with a few worthy runners-up. While films like The Birds and Night of the Living Dead could be legitimately classified as science fiction, albeit in a fringe sense, to me they fall more clearly in the horror genre and so I chose not to include them here, as good as they undoubtedly are.
George Pal's lush Victorian time travel adventure started the decade off with a bang. Certainly a simplified version of H.G. Wells' original novel, focused as it is on the time-hopping aspects and rousing adventure, the movie version of The Time Machine still carries enough philosophical underpinnings to help raise it above general matinee fare. Rod Taylor as "George" (the "G" in H.G.) cuts rather a manly figure for a movie scientist, and it's the energy and vigor of his performance, plus the effective special effects and handsome production, that make this one a classic.
The Morlocks were easily one of the best-realized of movie monsters up to that time, and the finale, where Taylor fights off hordes of the cannibalistic beasties to save Yvette Mimieux's Weena, is thrilling stuff. Most haunting, though, is the final scene, where George's gentle friend Filby (Alan Young) deduces that our hero has returned back to the future, and that he took three books with him. "Which three books would you have taken?" Filby musingly asks the housekeeper. And many a viewer has surely contemplated that question, long after the final curtain music has faded.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Val Guest's literate and scary version of a classic "what if?" scenario is not only a terrific and tense science fiction film, but one of the best depictions of a working newspaper committed to film. (The movie was filmed in actual Fleet Street offices, with real life editor Arthur Christiansen playing himself, adding greatly to its verisimilitude).
Edward Judd is the troubled reporter hero, Janet Munro is his love interest, and Leo McKern (before his fame as Rumpole of the Bailey) plays the cynical voice of reason. The set up of the central premise, that nuclear tests have shifted the earth slightly upon its axis, resulting in increasingly scorching temperatures that could lead to the planet's destruction, and resulting chaotic fallout, is very realistically depicted, with a typical Brit stiff-upper-lip lack of histrionics. Judd and Munro manage to make their burgeoning relationship interesting and believable (and believably sexy; check out the post-shower scenes of the sultry Munro, clad only in a brief bath towel, happy for a chance to escape her squeaky-clean image from Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People).
Ray Milland starred in and directed this sharp, surprisingly hard-edged look at what might transpire if an atomic bomb was dropped on Los Angeles. As soon as the radioactive shit hits the fan, Milland's Harry Baldwin grabs his family (including wife Jean Hagen, teen daughter Mary Mitchell and son Frankie Avalon), rifle and whatever survival goods he can scrounge together and heads for the hills. The movie radically underestimates the likely spread of radioactive fallout, but seems spot on in its depiction of the rapid collapse of civilized behavior, as Milland must fend off various looters, killers and rapists. The film ends on a cautiously optimistic note, but still leaves a nasty little aftertaste of all-too-believable human savagery. Milland really impressed me in this film; I had never really pictured him as a hardass before, but he's one tough hombre here, not in a showy, chest-thumping way - just a cold, quick-thinking and ruthless pragmatist willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1963)
Judging by the standards of the time (and the usually lax lip-service to scientific fact paid by Hollywood), Byron Haskin's cult classic goes to great pains to plausibly depict the adventures of astronaut Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and his clever simian pal Mona, as they try to survive, shipwrecked on the cold, cruel wastes of Mars. Despite the cutesy title, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a class act all the way. The stark Death Valley locations, strikingly photographed by Winston C. Hoch, help create a palpable, otherworldly atmosphere. Ib Melchior's script is, for the most part, smart and lacking in false dramatics, and Mantee makes for a likeable, resourceful hero. The movie dips a little in its second half, as it introduces its alien "Friday" (Vic Lundin, in a bad wig) and veers away from its gripping survivalist opening into more overt space opera. Still a heck of a lot of fun, and a firm favorite among science fiction buffs for its overall sober, at times reverent approach.
I've already written at length about this effects-heavy blockbuster here; suffice it to say that, despite its questionable science, this is easily one of the most memorable - and memorably opulent - of all 60s sci-fi films.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Packed with more mind-bending ideas than any half-dozen other genre pictures, and easily one of the best films ever to come out of Hammer Studios, this big-screen version of Nigel Kneale's highly influential TV series remains generally faithful to its original source and is all the better for it.
Prof. Bernard Quatermass is called in to investigate when workers digging a new tunnel for the London underground unearth a strange spacecraft and the corpses of its inhuman crew, which turn out to have startling implications for the rest of humanity.
"Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction refers to 1968 as "the single most important year in the history of SF cinema." (2) One of the seminal classics released that year was Planet of the Apes. The film, while a marked departure from Pierre Boulle's satirical novel, is a still-potent brew of action-adventure and social commentary. John Chambers famous make-ups, Charlton Heston's bare-chested, snarling heroics, convincingly alien desert locations, Jerry Goldsmith's freaky, atonal score, and a pithy script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, complete with its oh-so-famous Twilight Zone-esque sting in the tail, all combine to make Planet of the Apes a genre masterpiece. The movie still thrills and fascinates today, and astronaut Taylor's story arc is compelling, as we follow him from misanthropic cynic at the beginning, to the lone voice in defense of humankind in the face of a "world gone mad," Apes-ruled society, to an enraged, anguished howl of disbelief, all trace of pride in his own kind stripped away, by the fade out. Endlessly parodied, endlessly watchable.
Other than the fact that Pan-Am is now defunct and not providing shuttle service to the Moon (alas), the film hasn't aged a jot. The incredible special effects still stand up as among the best and most realistic in movie history. The ultimate fate of astronaut David Bowman might still carry a whiff of pretentiousness about it, but it's unquestionably a film not afraid to take a leap into the unknown and ambiguous...a rare feat in filmic sci-fi. There are too many jaw-dropping moments of pure, technical filmmaking genius to name, but one of 2001's highlights, for me, is the lengthy, deliberate section detailing Heywood Floyd's journey to the Moon, complete with futuristic stewardesses and in-flight meals sucked through a straw in zero G. Some films deserve their reputations as one-of-a-kind, envelope-pushing experiences. 2001 lives up to its hype, and will still be enthralling - and maddening - audiences for decades to come.
Other notable sci-fi films from the 60s include The Damned (These Are the Damned) and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (both 1963), Crack in the World (1964) and Dalek's Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966).
Did I leave any of your favorites off my list? Let me know in the comments.
Source Note: (1) and (2) taken from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.