20 Oddball Sci-Fi Films Of The 1970s

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by Oliver Lyttelton
March 7, 2013 1:30 PM
19 Comments
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Somewhere between 1968's “2001: A Space Odyssey” and 1977's “Star Wars,” something happened in the culture. Storytellers, perhaps inspired by the fizzling out of the hippie counter-culture, the still-dragging-on war in Vietnam and post-Watergate disillusionment, began to look at the future in a somewhat darker, more idiosyncratic way than had been the case before, shifting focus to recurring themes of environmental disaster, utopias gone sour, and the end of all things.

The result is one of the most distinctive and self-contained periods of sci-fi movies in the history of cinema, one where the films proved weirder, more distinctive and trippier than at almost any other time. One such example, Michael Crichton's curious western/sci-fi hybrid "Westworld," hits Blu-ray for the first time this week, and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. And so we thought this felt like a good opportunity to run down 20 of our favorite -- or in some cases, least favorite -- odd '70s sci-fi movies. Check out our list below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.

"The Andromeda Strain" (1971)

Very much the model of the restrained sci-fi film -- there's very little eye candy on display, including the star-free cast who play the rare movie scientists who look like scientists -- "The Andromeda Strain" marks the first movie adaptation of a novel by doctor-turned-novelist-and-filmmaker Michael Crichton, the author who'd later bring us the worlds of "Jurassic Park," "Congo," "Sphere" and "Timeline" among others (and who'll figure several times elsewhere on this list). And while there's an alien threat at work in the film, it's literally a tiny one, though no less dangerous for its size. The movie, efficiently directed by chameleonic veteran journeyman Robert Wise ("The Haunting," "The Sound of Music") gets underway when a government satellite carrying a microscopic alien organism crashes in a New Mexico town, gruesomely killing all but two of its inhabitants, an old man and a baby. The survivors are brought to a secret underground facility where a team of scientists prepared for this kind of eventuality attempt to find out what happened, and how to stop it. While Wise's film doesn't include much in the way of spectacle (beyond some impressive production design from Boris Leven, who got an Oscar nomination for his troubles), it's no less gripping for it, although it's dry in spots. And Crichton's background in medicine shows that, aside from the alien origins of the organism, the whole thing is terrifyingly plausible, at least until it shifts into a disaster movie in its closing stages.

"The Black Hole" (1979)

While now almost completely forgotten about, despite some idle talk about Joseph Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy") hadling a big budget remake, "The Black Hole" is a true sci-fi oddity, for a number of reasons. Firstly – it was directed by Gary Nelson, a filmmaker whose most notable contribution to the artform seems to be the Jodie Foster version of "Freaky Friday." Secondly, it was the most expensive movie ever produced by Disney up to that point and its first to carry a PG-rating. It was also, maybe most importantly, something of a technological breakthrough, particularly when it came to the computer-generated sequence that started the movie (at the time it was the longest in history). The filmmakers also developed a technology that would allow "panning" over a stationary matte painting, after being denied the use of similar equipment from Industrial Light & Magic. The movie, about a spaceship crew on the precarious edge of the titular gravity mass, is pretty weird too – it follows a similar "derelict space station" motif that "Alien" would share that same year – and has a stellar cast that includes a spry Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins (who gets murdered by robots in the movie's best scene), Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux and Ernest Borgnine. The production design (by Peter Ellenshaw and John B. Mansbridge), too, is genuinely jaw dropping, as is the score, by Bond composer John Barry (that main theme kills). It's pretty existential too (read: slow), with metaphysically knotty notions of heaven and hell sprinkled in amongst the telepathic robots. While it became the 21st highest grossing film of 1979, for Disney's most expensive film to date, that was hardly a major victory. Critics at the time were also very mixed on it, but it's such a strange outlier for the company, it's worth checking out for that alone.

"A Boy And His Dog" (1975)

L.Q. Jones, a renowned character actor from dozens of westerns, saddled up as a director with a young Don Johnson, Harlan Ellison, Ray Manzarek (yes, the garrulous/nerdy keyboardist from The Doors), the dog from “The Brady Bunch” and members of the Firesign Theater for this weirdo post-apocalyptic tale of telepathy, rape and popcorn. Johnson and his shaggy pup roam the desert, looking for food and love. The telepathically talking dog, Blood (adorable, by the way), is basically in charge, and leads Johnson to easy sex in exchange for food. It's kinda like “Knight Rider” except it's a dog instead of a car and they aren't busting smugglers, they're being not-so-scrupulous scavengers. Eventually the pair are lured to an underground city where the men are sterilized and Jason Robards wears white face paint. Shockingly, once you get into the groove of the bizarre film (it does have some witty dialogue) it actually kinda works. This one is in the public domain, so you can watch the film in full on any video streaming site without feeling guilty. Ray Manzarek also contributed music to the film along with Tim McIntire and Jaime Mendoza-Nava.
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19 Comments

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 15, 2014 9:38 PMReply

    I love "Rollerball." I own it. I even own William Harrison's "Rollerball Murder" short story collection, which includes the story the film is based on (among other bizarre tales).

    The first time I watched it, I was nearly moved to tears near the end when Jonathan realizes he can't trust anyone -- that even the love he once had may never have belonged to him in the first place.

    The remake is an abomination, like something risen from the Pet Sematary. That's all I have to say about that.

  • JSF | March 12, 2014 2:25 AMReply

    Good list. You should probably check out THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES and DOOMWATCH. I love almost every film on this list. I greatly prefer them over the more popular action-oriented sci-fi fantasy that tends to be popular nowadays.

  • aquarius1271 | March 12, 2013 8:38 AMReply

    I really think you did great injustice to Silent Running. It is wonderful. Otherwise, wonderful article.. I am obsessed with those 70s sci-fi films and have watched many of them more than once..

  • FromThereToHere | March 29, 2014 3:05 AM

    "Silent Running" is one of my top five favorite sci fi movies. It makes me cry each time every I watch it. Especially the ending credits when they reprise the Joan Baez theme song. Maybe it's a generational thing.

  • spassky | March 16, 2014 4:16 AM

    very much agreed. "Silent Running" is fantastic.

  • The Black Hole | March 11, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    A buddy and I watched The Black Hole about a year ago, having both seen it as children. It was horrible, especially when considering that Alien came out the same year.

  • weetiger3 | March 10, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    I'm surprised by how few of those I haven't seen and by how many I've seen multiple times. (I'm permanently scarred by Zardoz.)

  • scrnwrtr17 | March 10, 2013 5:39 AMReply

    I suppose because its release date was very early in 1980 that "Saturn 3" doesn't count. But man, was that film truly bizarre and difficult to watch. I suppose Kirk Douglas can be forgiven since his resilience in hanging on to this mortal coil is impressive, but Harvey Keitel?

  • FatWelles | March 9, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    the 10th Victim?

  • JKing | March 9, 2013 3:16 AMReply

    Deathwatch!

  • Christopher | March 9, 2013 1:25 AMReply

    "...it involves a group of scientists (most notably Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) investigating strange occurrences among the ant population, who seem to have evolved, developed a hive mind, and are seemingly constructing strange buildings in the desert. It's clearly, a bonkers idea..."

    Excuse me? It's the most interesting idea in the whole damn article.

  • chris | March 8, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    What about Idaho Transfer!?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idaho_Transfer

  • Calvin | March 8, 2013 10:46 AMReply

    All valid films, but you're selling Silent Running far too short. It's a gorgeous film, regardless of your political standpoint. I can't think of anything 'cringeworthy' about it. Charming and wonderful 70s sci-fi, please go see it if you haven't already.

  • FromThereToHere | March 29, 2014 3:08 AM

    Absolutely. There's a certain snarkiness to this article, and most especially about this movie.

  • zatopek | March 7, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    Soderbergh's Solaris doesn't lose anything essential? Oh, boy. The stupidity of these comments makes my brain hurt.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 15, 2014 9:42 PM

    I was equally moved by both versions, but Soderbergh's is shorter and friendlier to repeat viewings (the Cliff Martinez score really helps).

  • zatopek | March 7, 2013 6:35 PMReply

    "Demon Seed is trash" because of what?

  • Todd | March 7, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    Nice list. Only thing that comes to mind is "Mad Max", which was pretty oddball for its day.

  • TheoC | March 7, 2013 2:08 PMReply

    Great Stuff

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