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20 Oddball Sci-Fi Films Of The 1970s

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com 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.
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Solaris
"Solaris" (1972)
Tarkovsky's follow-up to "Andrei Rublev" is rarely mentioned in a sentence without the word "2001" cropping up at the same time. But, aside from being a thoughtful, spiritual, meditatively paced science fiction film, based on a novel by one of the genre's greats (Polish writer Stanislaw Lem), they have little in common: as J. Hoberman once pointed out in The Village Voice, the film in fact bears more resemblance to another critical darling, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." There are no gadgets or CGI to be found, just people, in the story of Kelvin, a psychologist sent to investigate bizarre happenings on a space station that orbits the ocean planet Solaris, only to be greeted there by a manifestation of his late wife, who killed herself years earlier. For all of its fearsome reputation and running time, it's a simple tale of grief and lost love, albeit one spiced up with sci-fi questions of identity, and the nature of humanity. Hari, Kelvin's wife, is constructed from neutrons, but has all the memories, thoughts, and feelings of her deceased counterpart -- does that not make her just as human? It's a devastating tale (Hari's second suicide attempt is truly wrenching), and arguably Tarkovsky's most deeply felt story. There's an argument to be made that Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake is the superior film -- at almost half the length, it's a tighter, more focused picture, that doesn’t lose anything truly essential -- but to cut down the original would be madness: as in all of his work, the best moments, like the languid, Earth-bound opening, or the stunning zero gravity sequence, are near-transcendent. Soderbergh would later state he was adapting the novel, not remaking the film “Solaris,” and compared Tarkovsky’s picture to a “sequoia,” while his was “a little bonsai.”

Soylent Green
"Soylent Green" (1973)
Let's get this out the way. Yes, Soylent Green is people, something that long ago joined "Psycho" and "Planet of the Apes" as famous twists probably spoiled for you by jokes on "The Simpsons" long before you saw the movie. Though in retrospect, even the original trailer hints at its twist pretty heavily. Based on Harry Harrison's novel "Make Room! Make Room!," the film is set in a run-down, hugely overpopulated New York of 2022 (something that feels eerily plausible as it inches closer), where the starving population get by on a mysterious foodstuff known as Soylent Green. But when a director of the Soylent Corporation (the great Joseph Cotten) is murdered, NYPD cop Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is put on the case, discovering, with his "human library" pal Sol Roth (the final performance from Edward G. Robinson), a wide-reaching conspiracy with the ultimately shocking secret that much of the planet have been unwittingly turned into cannibals. Like many of these picks, Richard Fleischer's film is something of a mixed bag. Its theme of environmental disaster, overpopulation and corporate skulduggery are just as resonant, if not more so, than they were forty years ago, but the look and feel of the film hasn't dated especially well. There's a lovely performance from Robinson (who died twelve days after he wrapped filming, and told Heston of his terminal cancer just before filming his own death scene to get a better performance out of his co-star), but Heston's a bit of a blank slate in the lead. And while its meld of science fiction and "Parallax View"-style paranoid thriller is a smart one, the script (by Stanley R. Greenberg, who has few notable credits otherwise) is fairly mediocre. Not a painful watch by any means, but with the film's secret so widely known by now, hardly a necessary one.

Stalker
"Stalker" (1979)
While “Solaris” is probably Andrei Tarkovsky’s most well-known film because of its genre associations and its 2002 remake, the post-apocalyptic setting of “Stalker” holds just as many genre trappings, but is arguably more successful (the filmmaker himself asserted as much). Set in a world that appears to be a post-nuclear-Russia (but this is only loosely implied), the film chronicles two men’s journey into the Zone -- a strange, mystical, abandoned place guarded by barbed wire and soldiers, which houses a room which allegedly contains the opaque utopia of ones innermost hopes and dreams. Not bounded by the laws of physics and containing inexplicable and invisible dangerous, the Zone can only be navigated with the help of a Stalker -- an individual with special mental gifts who risks government imprisonment for taking the desperate, or the curious, into this forbidden area. Against his wife's wishes, one particular Stalker accompanies a writer in an existential crisis and a quiet scientist into the zone, where, as the three men spiral down into the depths of the building each one of them faces moral, psychological, existential, philosophical and even physical questions and conflicts. As enigmatic and mysterious as any of Tarkovsky’s pictures, like in “Solaris,” the vague sci-fi-ish elements give it enough narrative to make it one of his most engaging pictures, yet it never compromises in grappling with the metaphysical and spiritual themes that haunt all of his work. Marked by tactile sound design, gorgeous brown monochrome sepia tones and a dilapidated atmosphere both decayed and waterlogged, it’s almost a miracle that “Stalker” came to pass, considering Tarkovsky worked for a full year shooting outdoor sequences with a different cinematographer, recording footage he eventually burned. One could argue the picture is a heart of darkness-like voyage into the unknown, albeit a much more surreal and metaphysical picture than Joseph Conrad’s story ever intended.

The Terminal Man
"The Terminal Man" (1974)
Somewhat in the mould of "The Andromeda Strain" in its real-world-science take on slightly fantastical elements, "The Terminal Man" saw Michael Crichton's fiction come back to the screen five years after the earlier film, to even more mixed results. The Hollywood debut of "Get Carter" helmer Mike Hodges, the film stars an intriguingly against-type George Segal as Harry Benson, a genius computer programmer who suffers from seizures that cause him to act violently, leading to the death of two people. He volunteers to have a tiny computer implanted in him that's meant to control these behaviors, but in fact, he enjoys being calmed down so much that he starts instigating more violent seizures in order to experience it more often. Poorly received on release  (Hodges feuded with Warner Bros over the final cut), the film's actually aged better than many on this list: Hodges' direction demonstrates again why he's rather underrated, Segal gives one of his most atypical and impressive performances, and the downbeat, thoughtful tone gives a very different spin to the cyborg genre than we've generally seen elsewhere. The film runs out of steam towards the end, and it's decidedly flawed, but it's something of a hidden gem of this era of science-fiction. It was also reportedly something of a favorite of Terrence Malick. The filmmaker, whose "Badlands" premiered the same year, was moved to write a letter to Hodges to say how much he'd liked it.

THX 1138
"THX 1138" (1971)
The George Lucas who directed the "Star Wars" prequels is almost unrecognizable as the filmmaker who made "THX 1138," the bleak, sterile, and yet deeply felt sci-fi that marked his feature film debut, and which might still stand as his best movie. Billed on release as "the love story filmed on location in the 21st century," it stars Robert Duvall as the title character, an inhabitant of a futuristic city who, like the others, is kept in a state of compliant numbness by mind-altering drugs, by authorities who've also banned sex and love among them. His roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) stops taking her medication, and swaps THX's out too, and the pair suddenly find themselves feeling emotion, and falling in love with each other, something that brings them to the attention of their rulers. While the film might strain under the weight of its IMPORTANT METAPHORS, it also cannily predicts the Prozac-numbed generations to come, and the story is satisfying and powerful, not least thanks to world-building that's as impressive as anything Lucas did with "Star Wars." And his direction -- modernist, off-kilter, inspired -- is a reminder that his skills as a filmmaker can often be undervalued. Avoid the 2008 Director's Cut, which in true Lucas fashion, adds unnecessary CGI, and not much else. But watch the original version, and it's a reminder that if Lucas does ever return to more avant-garde films, as he's long promised, it'll be an event far more exciting than "Episode VII."

Westworld
"Westworld"  (1973)
Sometime in the not distant future the latest fad for the travel industry is theme vacations. And no, we're not talking Cruise ships full of excrement, it's the future, and so entire worlds can be replicated by the use of high tech and lifelike robotics. And so the company Delos is profiting by their new three-tiered vacation resort that promises replications of three eras of history, the Wild West (Westworld), European medieval times (Medieval World) and the Roman Empire (Roman World). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin star as two bachelors who take some well-needed R&R in Westworld. The whiskey is flowing, the whores are willing and the lifelike gunslingers are programmed to ensure they’ll lose at the first sign of a draw. However, scientists working round at the resort start to notice problematic circuitry and one robot (played by a super creepy Yul Brynner) starts to malfunction and then outright rebel -- he’s the original relentless Terminator, much scarier than Arnie or Robert Patrick, simply because he’s looks much more like a pedophile cowboy. Soon all the worlds are thrust into chaos when the symbiotes begin killing the guests much to the chagrin of the scientists behind the curtain unable to invoke a total shut-down on the resort. Directed and written by author Michael Crichton -- people tend to forget on top of being the author of bestsellers you see in airports, he was a fairly successful film director in the ‘70s and ‘80s --"Westworld" is silly in concept and dated, but engaging and watchable, which is sometimes much more than some of the follies of this era can't boast.

Zardoz
"Zardoz" (1974)
While John Boorman’s career was never completely impeccable, the man who delivered one deconstructed crime classic (“Point Blank”) and one horrifying thriller that would do for the deep backwoods South what “Jaws” did for the water (“Deliverance”), John Boorman would stumble hard with this cult-beloved, but hilariously strange sixth feature-length effort, “Zardoz.” What does Boorman do with the carte blanche cache earned from the hit that was “Deliverance”? Blows it on a sci-fi picture that starts off with a floating-head prologue from a magician narrator, before a gigantic stone god head descends upon a planet of savages, proceeds to barf up rifles and tells the heathen “exterminators” to go forth and destroy all the peon “brutals” on Earth (the stonehenge deity also gives them this pearl of wisdom: "the gun is good. The penis is evil"). Set in the post-apocalyptic Earth of AD 2293, “Zardoz” centers on a hirsute and Zapatta-moustached exterminator (Sean Connery) who sneaks into the aforementioned Godhead and is accidentally sent to the Vortex, a realm that houses a secret cabal of immortal gods known as Eternals (headed up by ice queen Charlotte Rampling) that are exploiting the masses with this fraudulent “Zardoz” floating head deity and scare tactic. “Wizard of Oz”-style, Connery’s pony-tailed and scruffy chested hero then sets out to reveal their grand scheme. Written, produced and directed by Boorman, this picture was actually a pet project of his, and it might have landed him in permanent director’s jail if it weren’t for the successful “Excalibur” in 1981. Admittedly, the kaleidoscopic visuals, ambitious metaphysical textures and bizarro ending of the last act are deeply impressive -- as if Kubrick dropped a little LSD -- but ultimately, “Zardoz,” while ironically enjoyable, is indisputable messy; a headscratching and often times unintentionally funny misfire. Still, it’s a total camp classic too and in many ways, a must-watch.


Honorable mentions: There is still plenty more to mine from the decade, but there's only so much time to dig into it all. "Futureworld," the sequel to "Westworld," is worth tracking down purely for curiosity sake; "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers" is a flat out classic, and as such didn't quite merit "oddball" status. Other movies we kicked around but just didn't have a chance to get to included "Slaughterhouse Five," "Trog" starring Joan Crawford, "The Thing with Two Heads" with Ray Milland (the '70s sci-fi movie seemed to be a familiar home for classic era Hollywood stars), Woody Allen's "Sleeper" (excellent, but oddball for different reasons), "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "The Stepford Wives."

Anything else we missed? Anything overrated or underrated here? Sound off below. -- Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton, Jordan Hoffman, Drew Taylor

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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