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20 Oddball Sci-Fi Films Of The 1970s

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 7, 2013 1:30 PM
20 Comments
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"The Omega Man" (1971)
We've always advocated that Hollywood should remake bad movies with good premises and for once they listened. Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend" is a remake of the 1960s post-apocalyptic, "Omega Man," but if you thought the Will Smith film is lame, typically empty tentpole fodder, you haven't seen the original. Granted, they're almost nothing like each other just sharing a basic premise, but there are few even ironic joys in the Boris Sagal-directed version. Starring Charlton Heston as a military scientist (you know, that type that also kick-ass), the basic narratives are the same: U.S. Army Col. Robert Neville, M.D (Heston)  is the last man standing on the earth. Set in 1977, a disease has wiped out most of the planet and left it an empty shell of dead bodies which leaves Neville tons of free shit to ransack as the de facto "last man standing" (or so he thinks anyhow). However, while the Francis Lawrence version saw those infected with the virus become superhuman zombie types that only come out at night, the 1960s version sees them transformed into black-hooded, white-haired albino sub-humans that spout rhetoric about abandoning the "old ways" of science, modernity, electricity, etc., in favor of living in the shadows with nothing but torches and hatred for any humans that remain. In short, the antagonists of the picture are comically lame goofballs, in shiny black cloaks whose goal in life is to kill Charlton Heston. Essentially, the "monsters" of the movie are super dated and super silly and therefore not scary, or much of any threat. Heston teams up with a jive-talkin' afro-militant black woman, but that's about as ironically compelling as the film gets beyond its interesting concept. For '70s sci-fi die-hards or Charlton Heston fans (NRA members?) only.

"Phase IV" (1974)
The sole feature film directed by Saul Bass, the genius-level graphic designer behind credit sequences for Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese, among others, "Phase IV" was a much-derided disaster on release, and when seen now, is mostly viewed as a campy mess by the irony crowd (it was featured on "Mystery Science Theater 3000," for instance). But while it's far from a success, it's a fascinating film, far better than its reputation suggests, that makes one wish that Bass had had more chances to direct. Set, unlike most of these films, in the present day (essentially), 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, and it doesn't help much that Bass treats it with a straight-face, with his actors somewhat struggling as a result. But once you get past the sentient-ant premise, it's actually quite thought-provoking, and Bass directs the hell out of it, from hugely impressive ant sequences (captured by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham), to unsettling, trippy editing. It's become a cult classic for the wrong reasons, but it deserves a more straight-faced reevaluation these days.

“Quintet” (1979)
The eclectic and uneven career of Robert Altman saw the filmmaker tackle practically every genre under the sun, (westerns, noirs, ‘30s gangster movies, mysteries, gumshoe dick movies) minus maybe a straight-up action film. But Altman was never interested in genre much, always placing the emphasis on more human behavior and interaction, so it's not a surprise his ill-fated attempt at sci-fi with "Quintet" didn't exactly work. Set in a wintry, post-apocalyptic future where a new ice age has ravaged Earth, "Quintet" stars Paul Newman (they would collaborate only twice - both collaborations were less than stellar) as a man named Essex, a survivor in a barren, unflaggingly frozen wasteland, who gets drawn into a mysterious game called "Quintet" after being attacked and nearly killed by a gambler. The game, it turns out, is a kind of role playing game, but if you're killed in the game, you're also murdered in real life. (Someone uploaded a PDF of the game's "rules," part of the promotional materials, online. Read them here.) While Altman does a great job of sustaining an atmosphere and mood of dreadful unpredictability (though arguably this just means smearing the camera with gauzy vaseline the entire time), there are long, quiet, arguably agonizing, stretches of "Quintet" where nothing really happens (released two years after "Star Wars," and the same year as "Alien," you can see why genre fans were also unresponsive). Co-starring some fantastic international stars that probably asked themselves what they were doing in this film (Fernando Rey, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson), "Quintet" is undeniably a fascinating blip on Altman's filmography, and a precursor to more widely accepted things like "Battle Royale" and "The Hunger Games." Newman's performance, too, is a tightly coiled one, all wild nerves and raw instinct. Too bad about the languid polar ice-cap pace. Bonus weirdly futuristic points go to the film's shooting location: the site of the Montreal Expo 67 World's Fair.

“Rollerball” (1975)
Ultraviolent roller derby...that's a hell of an idea for an exploitation picture. But, wait, is this movie actually... something more? Starring James Caan at the peak of his fame and directed by Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” and later “A Soldier's Story” and “Moonstruck”) it is evident from the opening notes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that “Rollerball” has nobler aspirations than the shocks of a futuristic spiked glove in your face. While the “extreme sports” action is brutal, there's also some remarkable world-building on display. Nations have been replaced by goods-specific corporations (our team is Energy,) manipulative computers hold all historical records and society is kept in check with the bread and circuses of a complex, bloody roller skate-based sport (hey, why not?) A central sequence featuring a debauched party and a flame thrower works almost as its own one-act play, and the carefully framed modernist architecture gives everything an eerie, sanitary feel. That is, of course, until individualist Jonathan E (Caan) refuses to tamp down his natural inclination toward excellence: then the whole contrived dystopia collapses under the might of his viscous roller skating prowess. If you are looking for a clip of all the best brutal “Rollerball” moments, why not watch the one set to the tune of AC/DC's “Hells Bells,” right?

"Silent Running" (1972)
Douglas Trumbull is one of the most renowned visual effects artists on the planet. He created the VFX for Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," helped out with "Star Wars," and his special effects credits are long and deep ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "Blade Runner," "The Tree of Life") running nearly six decades deep (he most recently did some spectacular macrobiological effects and visuals for Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color"). But as a director on his own? Hmmm, not so much. Set in the far, far future, Earth has become an inhospitable wasteland where no plantation or natural food grows. The SS Valley Forge is on a space mission where it's growing 4 lush forests in gigantic geodesic domes containing some of the botanical specimens left on the planet. Crunchy botanical scientist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is happy tending to his forest of rabbits, trees, vegetation and eagles until a directive from Earth arrives telling all on board abandon the project and get back home toute suite. Deeply upset, having spent eight years tending to these domes, Lowell rebels, eventually snaps, killing one of the officers on board and then sabotages the other men tasked with blowing up the geodomes. Hijacking the freighter and faking his death to get Earth Mission command off his back, Lowell grows into a mad scientist type who renames two R2-like robots on board as Huey and Dewey and teaches them to play cards and how to pot plants (no, really). Fairly ridiculous from the get-go, "Silent Running" only gets more silly and laughable as Lowell's descent into madness continues. A eco-friendly science-fiction film obviously (the message is as subtle as a jackhammer), sadly there are about two great moments in the film and one of them is the title sequence over incredibly beautiful and expressive macro photography of vegetation, flowers and amphibian creatures (the rest of the movie looks as if it's lit like the "Buck Rogers" TV set). Perhaps the best/worst unintentionally funny element of the film are the hippie-dippie space folk songs song by Joan Baez (watch one particularly hilarious one here). While "Silent Running" isn't very good, there's a lot of ironic humor value on top of being strangely watchable, for all its ridiculous qualities.

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20 Comments

  • David Payne | July 15, 2014 10:22 PMReply

    When I was a kid back in the 70s in England I remember the BBC showing a sci-fi film about which I can only remember one thing. In the film were a number of adults, male and female, and they were on a mission to go into deep space. At the beginning of the film they launched and approached the speed of light. As they did so this was represented not just by light phasing but also by showing their faces distorted (as if driving a convertible and incredible speeds with no windshield - lots of pummelling of the face). Beyond that I don't remember anything about the film but the next day at school us kids re-enacted the face distortions by pulling back our faces and making all manner of weird facial expressions.

    Does anyone know this film? I've been searching for it but have come up with nothing so far. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!

  • 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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