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20 Oddball Sci-Fi Films Of The 1970s

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 7, 2013 at 1:30PM

Somewhere between 1968's “2001: A Space Odyssey” and 1977's “Star Wars” something happened in the culture. Storytellers, perhaps inspired by the way the hippie, counter-culture was fizzling out, combined with the still-dragging-on war in Vietnam, and post-Watergate disillusion, began to look at the future in a somewhat darker, more idiosyncratic way than had been the case before, with recurring themes of environmental disaster, utopias gone sour, and the end of all things.
23

Dark Star
"Dark Star" (1974)
Imagine taking all the dread and horror of “Alien” and replacing it with a loquacious, stoner vibe and that is, pretty much, what you get with “Dark Star.” Co-written, starring and edited by “Alien” co-creator Dan O'Bannon and directed by John Carpenter, “Dark Star” is a shaggy dog film about a low-rent crew busting their hump in space, destroying planets for The Man. The space crew workers' ever-malfunctioning ship (no toilet paper) faces increasing obstacles, like a pesky alien mascot (really just a painted beach ball) who won't go where he's told and the belligerent sentience of one of their world-killing bombs. The picture's finale features bearded space hippies trying to calm down this freaked-out “Thermostellar Triggering Device” through a dialogue of rather heavy post-grad philosophy. While the director's later films such as “The Thing” and “Escape From New York” would feature memorable endings of their own, few films in the Carpenter canon can compare with mass death spawned by robotic Cartesian doubt. Carpenter's early synthesizer score only makes it better.

Demon Seed
“Demon Seed” (1977)            
Science fiction perverts love to talk about sex robots, but no one wants to address the dangers of robot rape. In this strangely effective adaptation of Dean Koontz' “Demon Seed” by Donald Cammell (the oft-forgotten co-director, with Nicolas Roeg, of "Performance") Julie Christie isn't just violated, she is impregnated by an artificial intelligence that her own husband (Fritz Weaver) created (Robert Vaughn co-stars). The Proteus IV computer program has the sum of all human knowledge in it, so you know that isn't going to end well. In classic sci-fi manner, Proteus tries to test its limits, especially after it is relegated to simple chores around the Weaver/Christie place. Proteus refuses to shut down, bunkers in the basement and mutates into a surprisingly chilling form that kinda resembles golden air conditioning ducts contorting like a Rubik's Snake. Storywise, “Demon Seed” is trash, but it is treated so seriously and the design (not just the villain, but the science labs and early computers) are so nifty that one can't help but get sucked in.  

Logan's Run
"Logan's Run" (1976)
A remake of "Logan's Run" is one of the more elusive projects in Hollywood. It's been in the works for over a decade, with filmmakers including Bryan Singer (who got as far as pre-production back in 2006), Carl Erik Rinsch, Joseph Kosinski  and Nicolas Winding Refn, not to mention what feels like a dozen screenwriters coming and going, without the film ever getting any closer to actually getting made. But there's probably a reason that it continues to be developed; the premise has the perfect mix of great concept, and middling, dated first-time execution. Based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, it's set in 2274, where the last of humanity live in a sealed dome city run by a computer. It's a carefree life for the inhabitants, but with one catch: at 30 years of age, the denizens inside are vaporized, with the promise that they'll be reborn. Logan 5 (Michael York) is a Sandman, whose job is to track down those who refuse to accept the ritual of Carousel when they reach the big 3-0, but he falls under the spell of a beautiful Runner (Jenny Agutter, who spends most of the film wearing basically nothing), and is soon out to bring the whole racket crumbling down. The concept of a world of nothing-but-youth is a killer one, but the film (from "Around The World In 80 Days" helmer Michael Anderson) never makes the most of it, preferring to be a fairly standard chase movie, with only a typically excellent Peter Ustinov (as a veteran Runner living outside the dome) giving a sense of what it would really be like. The sets and the fantastical sci-fi milieu are undeniably impressive (even when it's dated and funny looking), but the filmmaking never really rises to the challenge. Additionally, the film is engaging in its opening (sometimes silly) sci-fi setting, but gets increasingly slow and dull when the characters reach the “real world” (Ustinov can only help so much). Perhaps most crucially, York is clearly too old for the role as it is. This is one case where a remake might be able to improve on the original.

The Man Who Fell To Earth
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976)
Are we so sure about Ziggy Stardust not being based in reality? David Bowie does a pretty convincing job in Nicolas Roeg’s surrealist sci-fi classic of playing a stranded alien trapped on Earth and forced to become a technology mogul in order to rebuild his spaceship and send resources back to his dying planet. Bowie’s “Thomas Jerome Newton” however, gets lost in the excesses of the era (as, coincidentally, had so many of the period’s finest directors, musicians and actors) his vices eventually swallowing his ambitions and clouding his focus. Gradually his native curiosity turns into an insatiable appetite for alcohol, television and fetishistically exploring his alien pansexuality (cue one of the most fucked-up sex scenes to ever hit the screen) as he slowly, in typically Roeg-ian hypnotic fashion, falls from grace. Featuring great support from Buck Henry, Rip Torn, Candy Clark and even Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell in a cameo, Bowie’s turn, in his first lead performance, is so intense as to feel pretty definitive, though surprisingly he wasn’t the first person considered for the role. That honor goes to the late novelist/director Michael Crichton who, according to Roeg, had the requisite height, because “imagine if aliens came down to Earth, they’d actually be quite tall.” Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel may be surprisingly insular considering the picture’s global implications, but its moody, nightmarish tone and hallucinatory sequences turn “The Man Who Fell to Earth” into a hypnotic, trance-inducing experience beyond your average genre “experiment.”

No Blade Of Grass
"No Blade Of Grass" (1970)
“A vision of chaos and destruction that could come true. Perhaps it's happening now!” So warns the trailer to “No Blade of Grass,” Cornel Wilde's British breakdown-of-society exploitation picture. Shot a few years after Wilde's survivalist masterpiece “The Naked Prey,” “No Blade of Grass” doubles-down on the man vs. nature struggle, with a virus attacking the food supply, plunging the world into anarchy and cannibalism. An eye-patch wearing Nigel Davenport leads his family out of imploding London to the countryside, which he foolishly thinks will be safer. There he runs afoul of biker gangs and rapists. Being British, however, they are at least well-spoken in their threats. “No Blade of Grass” is a nice mix of “Day of the Triffids,” “Mad Max,” environmental panic and anti-Government paranoia (they're keeping the facts from us, naturally.) Davenport's tough guy paterfamilias is standard fare for Hollywood, but the British-ness of this film is enough to keep it unique.

This article is related to: Features, Robert Altman, Logan's Run, Andrei Tarkovsky, John Boorman, George Lucas, Nicolas Roeg, Douglas Trumbull, Saul Bass, Feature


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