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Monday, November 11, 2013
Reader Top Ten: The Ten Greatest Science Fiction Films of the 1970s?
This month, for the Reader Top Ten, I want to return to the science fiction genre, and visit a beloved age of filmmaking: the 1970s.
In particular, I want to know the answer to one question. What are your selections for the ten best science fiction films of the 1970s?
Personally, I love this decade of science fiction films, in part because of the overwhelming schizophrenia. Half of the decade is downer dystopian-ism, and the other half is Star Wars swashbuckling. Which trend wins out?
Send me your lists at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, and I will post them throughout the week, before presenting the final tally on Sunday. I’ll accept reader lists through Friday night.
Again, number one choices are weighted three points, and number two choices are weighted two points, so make your lists accordingly!
In total honesty, I’m returning to the 1970s for two reasons. First, it’s my favorite era in terms of science fiction film, as I suggested above. And secondly, I happen to have a book out on the subject that I’d like to draw your attention to.
So -- in addition to compiling your own list -- please think about supporting my work in print. My books are the very things that make this blog -- and daily posting -- possible. So if you enjoy the blog and are a regular visitor, please think about supporting the book, in either print or even cheaper e-book.
Sorry for the hard sell, but every now and then, it’s a part of the job!
Now, here are my choices for the top ten greatest science fiction films of the 1970s, and my explanations for why they made the cut:''
10. No Blade of Grass (1970)
This is an absolutely brutal and blunt apocalypse movie of the 1970s. The film confronts what a world-wide famine would mean to cities, families, and individuals, and descends into bloody violence and sexual degradation. The film periodically flashes forward -- in bloody red color -- to scenes of life getting worse and worse for the desperate survivors. Also, to my delight, the movie boasts absolutely no tact whatsoever. The director vividly cross-cuts images of children starving in Asia with satisfied restaurant diners gorging themselves on gourmet food in London. In some ways, this film is even more hardcore than 1979’s Mad Max.
09. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
There were a lot “computers go crazy” movies in the 1970s, including Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Westworld (1973) and Demon Seed (1977), but Star Trek: The Motion Picture gazed at the future of machines and imagined not only fear and domination, but the possibility of human/machine unions. Derided in its time as slow and derivative, the film from Robert Wise is actually a full-throated exploration of the in-vogue theory of Singularity; of the total joining of machine and man. This idea plays out in not only the main plot-line, but in terms of character arcs. Kirk is in love with a machine (the Enterprise), Spock wants to be a machine, and then realizes that without human emotions he would face only “emptiness,” and finally, V’Ger -- the ultimate machine -- requires humanity to “imagine” an after-life beyond the universe. Forget that you’re watching a Star Trek movie here, and simply experience a “human adventure” about a possible future where man and machine might co-mingle, to the benefit of all, and you start to see how The Motion Picture is one of the decade’s most forward-looking and visually spectacular films.
08. Soylent Green (1973)
This dark, despairing dystopian effort revolves around a world in which global warming and over-population combine to create Hell on Earth. A detective, Thorn (Charlton Heston) becomes involved in a murder investigation that threatens to uncover a dark secret about the Soylent Corporation. From the opening montage -- which increases speed and intensity until it suggests the idea of humankind spreading across the surface of Earth like a virus -- to a touching scene of an old man selecting death over a life in Hell, Soylent Green is visually daring, and thematically prophetic. In many ways, this underrated film stands as a clear noir predecessor to Blade Runner, and one – surprisingly – of roughly equal quality.
07. Silent Running (1972)
This landmark environmental science fiction film about a man who kills his fellow man to save the Earth’s last forest proposes two ideas that we assume contradict each other, but don't, actually. These are, A: that the last forest should be saved, and the film’s hero, Lowell (Bruce Dern) is right to save it. And B: that it is wrong for Lowell to kill his crew mates to save the forest. Both A and B are true, and exist side-by-side in the film. Lowell accomplishes a good...very badly, in other words. Life is often this complex, but movies rarely are. Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running asks viewers to countenance the story of a man commits a “good,” but at too a high a personal and moral price to live with. In a sense, this is one of the most moral science fiction films ever made. Lowell Freeman tries to balance nature, but unbalances his own life in the process…
06. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by director Philip Kaufman primarily concerns shape and form, and the myriad ways that human beings misperceive shape and form, and thus make unwarranted assumptions that fit pre-conceived notions about those qualities. The film itself depicts an invasion of alien “pod people” -- essentially sentient plants -- who secretly replace human beings while they sleep in a vast 1970s liberal metropolis, San Francisco. But unlike its 1950s predecessor, which was either an indictment of communism or an indictment of McCarthyism depending on your personal Rorschach, the remake plays meaningfully against the unmistakable backdrop of an increasing divorce rate in the United States and the ascent of the so-called “Me Generation.” This film is witty, terrifying, and vetted with stunning visuals. The casting of Leonard Nimoy as an emotionless alien is a brilliant joke, and once that creates a real tension with his familiar role as Mr. Spock.
05. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Mankind enters the “future age” of ascendant science in director Robert Wise’s impressive techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, and the film ultimately proves that technology and scientific know-how can battle a deadly space “bug” to a stand-still. Accordingly, Wise and his film itself -- an adaptation of a Michael Crichton best-selling book -- seem to worship at the feet of machinery, medicine, and science, not to-mention provide a reverent near-religious litany of techno-talk. In this world, ordering up a computer test is more like quoting Scripture. The film’s assessment of mankind, however, may seem less gracious. Here, mankind’s failings get in the way of progress, slow-down the process of stopping Andromeda, and nearly destroy the entire world. The film’s final message, diagrammed in a computerized “601 Error” is that machines are ultimately only as good as their users. Serious-minded, suspenseful, and presented with an almost kitchen-sink/documentary feel, The Andromeda Strain is an incredibly impressive film, to this day.
04. Solaris (1972)
On the surface, the open-ended, Russian science fiction epic Solaris concerns mankind’s reckoning with an alien world, and its coruscating, planet wide ocean. Scrape the surface, however, and the Tarkovsky film revolves around humanity’s total inability to meaningfully reckon with something truly alien, something truly unlike us. Humanity’s steadfast inability to understand something “different’ is a result of a peculiar brand of selfishness, Solaris suggests. When mankind gazes upon any object or person, people see only echoes of themselves and their own lives, their own experiences. Thus, human beings are intrinsically self-centric beings. This notion is expressed in a line of dialogue in the film which suggests “We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.” So where many science fiction films concern first contact with alien life forms, Solaris concerns, intriguingly, our through un-readiness for such a meeting.
03. Superman: The Movie (1978)
Although blockbuster superhero films have come and gone since Superman: The Movie in 1978, the Richard Donner film remains the best film of its type yet produced. This grand assertion is due in part to the film’s layered visual symbolism, which intentionally and methodically equates the life-time journey of Kal-El/Superman with that of a messiah, or Christ figure. Also, the 1978 Superman speaks meaningfully about its historical context: the Post-Watergate Age of the mid-1970s. Specifically Superman is offered up to audiences as a positive role model, a kind of wish-fulfillment alternative for a country that appeared mired in partisanship, bickering, and corruption. Superman’s promise that he would “never lie” to Lois Lane (and to us) reflects this deep, burning national desire during the mid-1970s for a restoration of belief and trust in our elected leaders. In terms of structure, Superman: The Movie, is similarly unsurpassed because of the film’s remarkable and epic three act, biographical structure, which actually permits for intense focus on the hero rather than the villain, an absolute rarity in a genre which has distinguished itself largely, by spotlighting ever-kinkier, ever-more perverse antagonists.
02. Alien (1979)
I have come to believe that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) better represents the “vibe” of the 1970s than just about any other science fiction film of the decade (well, save for one…). If the crew in Alien is recognizable as truckers in space or blue collar workers in the final frontier, then the alien is utterly unrecognizable -- even incomprehensible -- on first reckoning. A great deal tension arises in the film from the conflict between these two poles: of total recognition, and total lack of recognition. The alien’s constant shifting, its universal state of flux, seems to reflect the anxieties of a decade that witnessed three presidents in ten years, and upheavals in Vietnam, Iran, and on the home-front. An overwhelming fear in the 1970s was that we didn’t know what,-- or from where, --something else was going to hit the country as it was trying to get back up on its feet again. Would it be another oil crisis or “shock”? Stagflation? Another political upheaval? A nuclear reactor meltdown? Alien pitted the average Joe -- the everyday American -- against a multi-headed hydra, a threat that was always in transition.
01. Star Wars (1977)
I suppose this selection is a predictable one, but the hell with it. Star Wars is a phenomenon, and a cultural touchstone, but the important thing is that it is also a great movie. The tremendous joy of Star Wars, even today, after all the imitations and knock-offs, originates from George Lucas’s incredible ability to ground his otherworldly “space opera” world in a reality that is immediately recognizable to all of us. For instance, underneath the flashy lasers and colored light sabers, or the strange aliens and robots, the film boasts this driving, human feeling of yearning, of almost anticipatory anxiety. Star Wars’ lead character, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gazes up at the night sky of Tatooine, and he wonders what awaits him. Where will he go next? When does his life really begin? When does he finally get to grow up and chart his own destiny? What is he supposed to believe in? Lucas grounds the viewer in Luke’s personal “coming of age” story, yet that’s far from the only grounding the director accomplishes here. Without explaining in significant terms a layered or complex back-story, Lucas crafts in Star Wars a lived-in world which nonetheless points to previous adventures, and to a larger universe beyond the main narrative. It’s such a big (and yet consistent…) place, in fact, that it almost can’t all fit within the boundaries of the movie frame. Thus at times, it almost seems as if Lucas didn’t make up his universe at all, or build it all from scratch. Rather, it’s as though he took a camera in-hand and actually traveled to a galaxy far, far away, filmed what he witnessed there, and brought that footage back for the rest of us to enjoy.
My choices for runners-up (and which might have even made the list on another day…) are: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Logan’s Run (1976), Mad Max (1979) and Stalker (1979).
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