"A majority of the SF films of 1969-1979 were downbeat and even gloomy, and even in the adventure films their heroes were hard-pressed just to survive, let alone survive cheerfully."
Early in 2013, I indulged in a little movie buff list making, briefly discussing what I thought were the 10 best science fiction films of the 1960s. Somewhat to my surprise, that piece has proven to be pretty much the biggest hit-grabber on this blog. So it seems a no-brainer to roll right on to the next decade. With the decline of the old-school studio system and the rise of the new jack, maverick independent directors, intent on stripped-down realism and politically-minded, morally complex scripts, the early 1970s ushered in a sort of second "Golden Age" of movie making. This adventurous focus spread to all genres, and it could be argued that more serious, thought-provoking, idea-based science fiction films were released in that short span of 10 years than in all the 30-plus years before or since. Not everything you'll find on the below list can be said to be groundbreaking in comparison to the rich world of written SF, but certainly, when it comes to cinematic sci-fi, the 70s were a fertile ground indeed. Coming hot on the heels of several turbulent years of political unrest and growing paranoia and distrust of the government, 70s sci-fi reflected this unease and pessimism, with a string of films that combined visual flair with a bleak, dystopian power. These films are even more remarkable from the vantage point of today, when Hollywood studios seem straitjacketed in "play it safe" mode, churning out blockbuster after blockbuster full of dazzling F/X but generally devoid of originality or deep thought.
Readers will note that, in the following list, Star Wars is conspicuous by its absence; this is not due to any particular dislike of that fine film or its two sequels (number me among those who like to pretend that the prequel trilogy doesn't exist). I think the original Star Wars is a hoot, a brisk, joyous and wonderfully inventive ode to Universal movie serials like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and their comic book, space opera counterparts. Nor can one discount the massive effect George Lucas' magnum opus would have on the marketplace, both financially and creatively - along with Jaws, single-handedly heralding the rise and subsequent dominance of the summer blockbuster. But for all this, Star Wars, to my mind at least, is not strictly science fiction. Sure, there are spaceships, aliens and ray guns galore, but deep down it's chiefly an epic fantasy, a swashbuckling Campbellian "hero's journey" tale, and stands in direct contrast to the majority of sci-fi films of the decade, which, to varying degrees of success, manage to fit the mandate of "proper" science fiction: to be truly idea driven, speculative fiction. Lucas' own THX-1138, while also not on my personal Top Ten (I find it visually striking but dull), certainly qualifies as a strong contender thematically, and is completely in line with the sort of serious, "true" sci-fi films of the day I want to highlight here.
So bottom line re: the original Star Wars: Great film. Love it. Not on this list. Feel free to vehemently disagree with me and take me to task in the comments below. Now, on with the list, starting, in chronological order, with:
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
"What I am began in man's mind, but I have progressed further than Man."
The idea of a supercomputer the size of a college campus, buried under a Colorado mountain, gradually taking over the world, sounds like old hat nowadays, post The Terminator and The Matrix...yet everything about Colossus - The Forbin Project was ultra cutting edge in 1970. This is a really terrific, largely overlooked movie, a cautionary fable of man's hubris coming back to bite him in the ass. James Bridges witty, intelligent screenplay (based off a 1966 novel by D.F. Jones) is a model of escalating dilemmas and power shifts, consistently plausible as well as persistently human, especially in its depiction of the supercomputer's chief designer, Prof. Charles Forbin (excellently portrayed by Eric Braedon). Forbin and his team worked for years to make Colossus as self-sufficient as possible, with the plan that it would act as a self-defense system for the U.S. It soon becomes clear that Forbin's group built Colossus far too well, as it instantly makes contact with the Soviet's own supercomputer counterpart, Guardian. The two soon merge into one identity, and instigate a series of bold, calculated moves designed to wrest control of the planet from its' human creators.
Joseph Sargent's inventive direction, plus cleverly crafted, expansive sets (augmented by glass matte paintings by old pro Albert Whitlock) and state-of-the-art (for the time) use of computers, screen graphics and light displays, keep the movie's visuals lively and interesting. Despite the increasingly dire situation, there's plenty of opportunity for sardonic asides and amusing moments, the highlight being Colossus' close surveillance of every aspect of Forbin's life and movements, and Forbin's ingenious attempt to maintain contact with the President and his staff via a demand for bedroom privacy in an (initially) feigned sexual relationship with his comely colleague, Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark). This is the realistic, take-no-prisoners era of 70s filmmaking, however, and humanity's best gamesmanship eventually proves no match for Colossus' supreme intellect. The suavely handsome, German-born Braedon makes for a winning lead, remaining wry and unflappable until the very end. (In the 60s, under the name Hans Gudegast, he starred opposite Christopher George in The Rat Patrol; he was also the hateful baddie in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and would go on to a lengthy career as a regular on the daytime soap, The Young and the Restless.) Aside from Braedon and Clark, the rest of the cast is composed of competent character actors like William Schallert, Marion Ross and Gordon Pinsett. Keep an eye out for a small bit by beloved scene stealer James Hong as one of the scientists. The omnipresent Hong is still active today, most recently seen in 2013's R.I.P.D.
Colossus: The Forbin Project is in all respects superior stuff, the best kind of speculative fiction, clearly thought out to its logical conclusion, stylish and engrossing throughout, and deserves to be far better known.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
When a satellite crashes to Earth in a small southwestern town, unleashing some sort of killer outer space contagion that wipes out nearly all the inhabitants, four elite scientists are summarily dispatched to a remote underground laboratory, as part of a top secret governmental task force code named "Operation Wildfire." There are only two sole survivors to offer possible clues: a crying baby and an alcoholic old man. Will this hand-picked, crack team of experts be able to identify the alien pathogen and find a cure in time before it spreads to infect all humanity?
Adapted from Michael Crichton's bestseller, The Andromeda Strain is a rare sci-fi film that insists on following a methodical, rigorously scientific approach, yet it never veers into boring or overly talky territory, thanks to crisp direction by Robert Wise, a taut script steeped in factual jargon but never losing sight of the crucial human element throughout, and an adept cast made up not of star names but instead talented character actors like Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid and David Wayne. Reid especially is a refreshing presence - not the usual buxom, doe-eyed starlet often pegged to play a female scientist in most Hollywood productions, her grumpy, frumpy, chain-smoking Dr. Ruth Leavitt is instantly authentic, coming off as a real scientist. This authentic feel is the film's ace in the hole...everything feel 100% real, each turn of the plot scarily plausible. The opening scenes, as the scientists investigate the corpse-strewn, devastated small town, are effectively eerie, the bodies sprawled out, limbs akimbo, stricken down in the middle of their usual daily activities (an especially chilling shot: when one of the team makes an incision on the wrist of one of the victims, their blood pours out as a sort of dry, red sand. Ick.) Special mention must go to the striking sets and production design, as well as the special effects (to which Douglas Trumbull, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, contributed).
There was a TV miniseries remake a few years ago which was pretty dire; as is usually the case, the original version is the one to go with.
The Omega Man (1971)
I discussed this highly entertaining, post-apocalyptic thriller at length previously on this blog. The second (and to my mind, most successful) of three attempts to bring Richard Matheson's seminal sci-fi vampire novel, I Am Legend, to the screen, The Omega Man has plenty of dated 70s blaxploitation trappings but is nevertheless a visually impressive and exciting "last survivors of a biochemical holocaust" tale. This was part of the great Charlton Heston trifecta of downbeat sci-fi films, along with Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green - a memorable one-two-three punch on any actor's resume. It's hard to think of a more iconic choice for "last man on Earth" than big, granite-jawed Heston, and it's a lot of fun watching him zoom around the deserted, litter-and corpse-strewn streets of Los Angeles in a red convertible, machine-gunning homicidal albino mutants. The bleak tone is totally in keeping with the 70s norm, though this time we're left with a definite note of hope for humanity's future.
Silent Running (1972)
The aforementioned F/X guru Douglas Trumbull stepped into the director's chair for this one-of-a-kind film, about a caretaker on a spaceship carrying the last remnants of the dying Earth's forests. The unsubtly-named Freeman Lowell (played with conviction by Bruce Dern) spends all his time in the greenhouses, along with his robot drone helpers, Huey, Duey and Louey, and feels a far greater kinship with his plants than with his fellow astronauts. So when orders come in to destroy the greenhouses, Freeman takes drastic steps to protect these botanical treasures...
Silent Running is yet another example of politically-charged, cautionary 70s filmmaking, managing to make a strong pro-environment statement without devolving into a windy diatribe. It's nice to see Dern playing a sympathetic figure for a change, and he does a nice job depicting a good man driven over the edge by desperate circumstances. The F/X shots of the spaceships are gorgeously realized (Trumbull apparently was assisted by several eager beaver, low-paid college students, including John Dykstra, who would go on to be a key player in creating the effects for Star Wars). The final shot - of the biodomes serenely sailing off into deep space, the precious plants within left in the eternal care of the surviving little drones - is a haunting one. Pity about all those Joan Baez vocals infesting the score, though.
Soylent Green (1973)
"Soylent green is PEOPLE!"
The final sci-fi film starring Charlton Heston, this one mirrors Planet of the Apes in its big twist having entered popular culture in the years since its release. But even if a first-time viewer today is aware of the twist, it doesn't diminish the impact of this claustrophobic, all-too-believable vision of a overpopulated Earth, a majority of its people reduced to abject poverty, living on doorsteps, in hallways, and in the streets. Through this world of food riots, pollution and violence strides Detective Thorn (Heston), who soon finds himself up way over his head in the midst of a sinister governmental cover-up, when he investigates the murder of a high-ranking official in the Soylent Corporation (an effective cameo by a mournful Joseph Cotten).
I wrote about Soylent Green before here, focusing mostly on the soulful performance of Edward G. Robinson as Sol, Thorn's roommate and researcher; it was Robinson's last role before succumbing to cancer. The rest of the cast is strong as well, but in the end it's the strength of the story (based off the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison), plus Richard Fleischer's direction, creating such a nightmarishly plausible future world, that makes it so great.
Michael Crichton strikes again, this time with an even more ingenious premise: a futuristic theme park that uses fully-functional (ahem) androids in a sort of ultimate adult Disneyland for patrons to live out their wildest fantasies. Broken up into different sections like "Roman World," "Future World," etc., Crichton's film follows two buddies (James Brolin and Richard Benjamin) whose vacation in the Westworld section of cowboys, saloons, whores and shoot-outs suddenly turns into a nightmare, as the robots begin to malfunction and what was once merely pretend "playing cowboys" turns into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between Benjamin and an implacable, homicidal android gunslinger (played with great, poker-faced menace by Yul Brynner, dressed nearly identically to his role as the lead in the The Magnificent Seven.)
This was Crichton's first job directing a big screen film, and he does a nice job adapting his own work, giving the film plenty of time and room to breathe before things go totally pear-shaped. This slow build-up helps flesh out this future world, as we alternate between tourists enjoying the fruits of the high-tech theme park and the back-stage technicians who are there to keep everything running smoothly. Small glitches lead to a complete system failure, the tension ratchets up, and then, finally, with a shocking twist, all hell breaks loose. From then on out, the movie plays like a low-key, but very effective, dry run for The Terminator.
Westworld is a first-rate execution of a terrific premise, and it's a surprise that it's taken so long for remake-happy Hollywood to return to the well (there's currently a new HBO version in development). The film did well enough to garner an OK sequel, Futureworld, which Crichton had nothing to do with, but the original film still holds up not only as a thriller, but as a thoughtful analysis of the dangers and delights of humanity's potential use, and abuse, of robot technology.
Phase IV (1974)
I reviewed this eerie, dreamlike sci-fi chiller a few years ago here. Legendary movie titles designer Saul Bass made his lone foray into directing with this film, an odd, unsettling and visually arresting piece of work depicting a couple of scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) grappling with a new breed of hyper-intelligent ants. Trippy and mindbending in that typically 70s way, Phase IV is both firmly of its era but also curiously timeless. It's the type of film that, once seen, is hard to describe, and even harder to forget.
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
"Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste."
Gifted character actor L.Q. Jones (perhaps best known for his supporting work in several Sam Peckinpah films) not only co-wrote the screenplay but directed this caustic take on a short story by famed tyro SF writer Harlan Ellison. The film follows the adventures of a young man, Vic (Don Johnson), and his telepathic canine companion, Blood, trying to survive in a hostile, post-apocalyptic land that was once the American midwest. A typical 18-year-old male, Vic is constantly on the lookout for a particular sort of female companionship, and aided by Blood (who disparagingly calls Vic "Albert"), tracks down a likely target, Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton). The rapacious Vic eventually saves Quilla from even more rapacious mutant raiders, and Quilla rewards him with sexual favors aplenty...all part of a ploy to lure him down into her subterranean homeland of Topeka, one of the subterranean cities of "Downunder," a strange, surreal society living in a climate-controlled biospheres deep underground. Topeka is presided over by Quilla's father (Jason Robards, in clownish make-up). Downunder is lacking in robust males to perpetuate the species with its host of fertile femmes, and Vic is the prime candidate to get the job done...which sounds an ideal situation to Vic until he learns that their plan to accomplish this isn't through old fashioned flesh-to-flesh methods, but will be, shall we say, heavily machine-assisted. Vic eventually escapes and returns with Quilla to the surface, is reunited with his canine best friend, Blood...but as the saying goes, three's a crowd. Who will Vic prove loyal to in the end? Hint: it's all in the title.
A Boy and His Dog works best when it stays above ground, the shenanigans Downunder coming off way too bizarre for the movie's good. But the scrappy, gritty tone, especially the sardonic telepathic commentary from Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), makes this one well worth watching. Reportedly, the notoriously belligerent Ellison was generally pleased with Jones and producer/co-writer Alvy Moore's adaptation, only taking violent exception to the final line of the film, which delivers a cruelly black-humored, twist-of-the-knife ending to this rough-edged tale of end-of-the-world survival.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Ah, how I miss the young Steven Spielberg, what I consider the "real" Steven Spielberg. Back in the mid 70s and early 80s, he was the wunderkind magic man of the movies, popping out a string of supremely entertaining, crowd-pleasing, expertly crafted hits that set the blockbuster template for years to come. Nowadays, he seems mired in po-faced, worthy, technically-proficient movies that seem overly calculated and lacking that old spark...they just don't set the pulse racing like his earlier pop masterpieces like Duel, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark - shoot, even the overly twee E.T. is pretty magical. Close Encounters... displays all of the young Spielberg's acute sense of wonder and mastery of film technique. In many ways, with its hopeful, uplifting message and visual razzle-dazzle, it seems to belong more to the 80s, but what keeps this examination of face-to-face first contact between Earthlings and benign aliens grounded is the very 70s low-key, naturalistic acting and realistic dialogue. (And whatever happened to Melinda Dillon? She's so good here...as is Francois Truffaut, in a rare credited appearance as an actor-for-hire.)
Admittedly, some of Richard Dreyfuss's frenzied antics with his family (including an overly shrewish Teri Garr), as he hurls dirt through the kitchen window, compelled by visions to build a sculpture of the Devil's Tower on his dining room table - tend to drag the movie down somewhat on repeat viewings. But the overall tone of mystery and awe that the director and his team bring to the expertly realized "encounters" - especially the thrilling final third of the film - set this film firmly atop the "friendly alien" heap.
We finish of the list, and the decade, with another seminal, highly-influential work - Ridley Scott's Alien. This was Scott's second film, after The Duelists, and he brings his clinical eye for composition and beautiful images to what is, essentially, the ultimate monster-on-the-loose flick. With its sleek, slimy, non-humanoid look and fully-worked out life cycle, H.R. Giger's concept and design of the alien life form is arguably the most effective - and certainly among the scariest - in cinema history. This is one ferocious, nigh unkillable big screen beastie, and it's so skillfully brought to life, it never seems like a mere special effect, or just another guy in a rubber suit. At all times, this alien seems like a real, honest-to-God - and extremely frightening - living thing. Even more skin crawling is the "body horror" aspect of the film; the infamous "chest bursting" scene still retains its gross out factor, three-plus decades later. The actors are all a fine ensemble of working class types, from the natural leaders (Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit), working class schlubs (Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright) and reserved scientists (John Hurt, Ian Holm), and the fly-on-the-wall, bickering dialogue between these people who've been stuck together out in space for far too long a time rings true to life. While in the long run I prefer James Cameron's propulsive, gripping Space Marines sequel, Aliens, over Scott's colder, more formal, deliberately paced original, there's no denying its queasy power.
And there you have it. Apologies to all those other sci-fi films that didn't make the cut but nonetheless made the 70s so memorable, from the Planet of the Apes sequels (Beneath, Conquest of and Battle For, respectively, all, to varying degrees, worth checking out); to the silly but enjoyable romp Logan's Run; to all manner of dystopian flicks ranging from A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball, Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth), Mad Max and No Blade of Grass; to the far-out spectacle of a red diaper wearing Sean Connery in John Boorman's Zardoz; not to mention the likes of The Stepford Wives, Dark Star, The Crazies, Blue Sunshine, Solaris, and Slaughterhouse Five.
All in all, it was quite a time for quality sci-fi storytelling. Sadly, it's highly doubtful we'll ever see its like again.
Source Note: (1) excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, St. Martin's Press, 1995 Revised Edition.
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