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Good Sci-Fi Movies (1965-70): A Heady Mix of Experimentation

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Marty Schecter itcherThe late Sixties were psychedelic and trippy, filled with sexual freedom, racial politics, the Viet Nam war, and the Age of Aquarius. This backdrop formed the perfect cultural mix for a far-out, politically-minded and soulful Sci-Fi renaissance. Sci-fi filmmakers took chances they never dreamed of before. Whether it was the art-house experimentation of Jean-Luc Godard, the sexual titillation of Roger Vadim, or the B-movie horror schlock of William Castle, the common theme seemed to be cultural weirdness. ~ Martin Schecter

An Odyssey through Space, Time and Sexual Liberation

Some of the most iconic and bizarre sci-fi movies of the Twentieth Century were born out of the heady mix of experimentation and sci-fi that exploded in the late Sixties. While not everyone would think of these experiments as successful, one of them – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – would come to define the very genre of modern sci-fi filmmaking.

Two things especially – Kubrick’s 2001 and the three-year run of the TV Series ‘Star Trek’ (which employed the best sci-fi writers of its time) – would change the nature of what had heretofore been a B movie genre to one of the most respected film and TV mediums to work in, paving the way for future generations of Terminators, Star Wars, and yes, more “Star Treks.”

But Kubrick wasn’t the only serious filmmaker to take a whack at the genre in the late 1960s. Both Godard and Truffaut developed their futuristic visions, and directors such as Roger Vadim, William Castle, and Franklin Schaffner used sci-fi as a means to explore the contemporary issues of sexual, racial, and societal change. These were movies that challenged audiences, pushed boundaries, and exploded on the screen with colorful images and mob-driven violence.

No one knew what Kubrick’s acid-trip of a third act intergalactic light-show meant. But in 1968, it didn’t seem to matter; restless youth would hang out smoking dope in the back of the theater while fathers and sons in the front talked about the latest moon launch.

1968 also saw the on-screen antics of apes taking over the plane, sino-Asia working on a mind-bending spy scheme, and Jane Fonda floating half-naked on plastic balloons. These seemed on par for the course in a year when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the first men orbited the moon, the country was put on the defensive in the war in Vietnam, and women started protesting the Miss America Pageant.


Innovative Sci-Fi Movie Recommendations

‘Alphaville’ (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

The acts of men carried over from past centuries will gradually destroy them logically. I, Alpha 60, am merely the logical means of this destruction…

If you truly want people to think you’re weird, suggest that the family watch this movie together at your next Thanksgiving gathering. After five minutes, only you and your little goth cousin will be left in the living room – and even he will be staring at you worriedly.

If you think having an impossible-to-follow hallucinogenic plot line, characters with multiple identities, and overlapping story-lines isn’t enough, this thing is also in black and white with French subtitles. So, what I’m saying is… this is the movie that takes the record for Cinema Obscuritée.

Godard was a genius of a film-maker: here, he recreates Paris as an exotic, futuristic trip where detective Lenny Caution winds his way through a city controlled by a computer. Like Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’, this film too is a puzzling, hypnotic, film-school riddle, one that plays with the tropes of detective stories and the earliest German expressionist sci-fi like ‘Metropolis’. His movie tries to identify the soul in the seat of modernity. Not a taste for everyone, but neither is it something to be missed.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ (Francois Truffaut, 1966)

These are all novels, all about people that never existed, the people that read them it makes them unhappy with their own lives. Makes them want to live in other ways they can never really be…

Truffaut’s domestic drama of a sci-fi anticipates the TV-addicted dystopias like ‘The Truman Show’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ by several decades. For Truffaut (as it was for Bradbury, author of the original novel), books are the remedy to the mindlessness induced by TV, and a book-burning fireman named Montag slowly has his consciousness raised as he starts reading the books he’s supposed to be burning.

Arguably, since the book it’s based on is better than the movie, it seems just a tad ironic that a film director making a movie about book burning would cast television as the enemy of a social consciousness (then again, maybe it was self criticism).

Nevertheless, Truffaut doesn’t shy from his subject and we get a straight-on agitprop about the media as the opiate of the masses. Though this futuristic society has more in common with “Peyton Place” than “Star Trek,” watching Montag have his literary awakening should give any hardcore movie fan a twinge of guilt for not curling up with a good book instead.

‘Barbarella’ (Roger Vadim, 1968)

You’ve exhausted its power! It couldn’t keep up with you! This is incredible! What kind of girl are you? Have you no shame?

The film that gave pop-band Duran Duran its name and Jane Fonda her infamous start, is psychedelic, polymorphously perverse, and all-out bizarre. The set decoration is what you might imagine seeing if a clown truck crashed head-on into Studio 54 on a Saturday night. Barbarella flies through space on what seems to be an oversized plastic sex toy, gets pursued over ice by cannibalistic children, and outwits outer-space baddies by having sex with them. 

Trying to summarize or explain the plot of this movie is like trying to predict the course of the random bubbles of goo floating to the top of a lava lamp. The basic premise is similar to those latter repeated in Flash Gordon or Mom and Dad Save the World: Barbarella has to escape the clutches of the cartoonish evil empire of Sogo, the perpetually stoned society on the planet she lands on.

Various absurdities and male and female fondlings ensue. She eventually befriends a sexy angel called Pygar who wants to help her but has problems…um…getting it aloft. She fixes his ails by…you guessed it…having sex with him. She eventually gets placed in something that must have inspired Woody Allen’s orgasmitron from Sleeper and outsexes that too. This movie would definitely make more sense if watched aided by some psychoactive substances…or aphrodisiac.

‘Project X’ (William Castle, 1968)

The West will be destroyed in 14 days. Repeat, 14 days…

Speaking of substances: if, for a moment while watching this movie, you suspect that someone has slipped you a tab of Window Pane – or at the very least, that the writers were on acid when they conceived of this wacky head-trip of a futuristic spy thriller – you can be forgiven such an impression.

Set in 2118, the frozen body of a secret agent with the improbable name of Hagen Arnold (why they insist on using both his first and last name every time they refer to him is just one of the film’s inexplicable quirks) must be re-animated in order to put him on a farm – I’m not kidding here – and make him believe he’s a bank robber from 1968 so that mad scientists can read his hidden thoughts using their burbling go-go-disco contraptions and decode a mad plot by sino-Asia to infect the West with a super virus.

If only Castle’s pacing and dialogue weren’t so painfully wooden (the film is a contender for a rousing Mystery Science Theater 3000 heckling), the screen-chewing of veteran 60s character actors like Henry Jones and Harold Gould might have achieved some truly trippy brilliance. After all, instead of filming under water, the director creates animated snorkeling sequences lifted from a Jonny Quest cartoon, promises a Fu-Manchu villain bent on destroying Western civilization, and populates strange corners of the movie with a disembodied killer evil brain wave something like a ruby colored black-lit tornado.

To top it off, the brain-reading machinations end with an actual brain in a briny green bubble-bath of techno babble. You might struggle to get through the tortuously pointless bank robber nonsense throughout the interminable middle of this film, but the psychedelic beginning and ending make it a truly wacked-out ride.

‘Planet of the Apes’ (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man…

Who doesn’t love repeating that Charlton Heston zinger? When the film came out, it may have unintentionally called to mind the 1967 Newark and Detroit riots and the racial tensions seething in Americas cities. As a science fiction fable of what might happen if mankind let its passions get the better of it, it was both nod at a world slipping out of our fingers and an alternative that put the white Charlton Heston, a stranded astronaut Taylor, in the shoes of an enslaved, brutalized, and justifiably angry race.

Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell as the human-sympathizing chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius, turn in evocative performances that elevate the movie from mere schtick, and give this original more originality than any of the Apes that come after (in either the 70s or the 2000s). Dr. Ziaus, a practical but ruthless orangutan scientist who seems to want to help Taylor, but has motives of his own, underscores the failure of logic to ensure a just society. 

In what’s now become a stock cliché of sci-fi movies and spoofs alike, the final shot of a half-buried Statue of Liberty was a drive-in movie jaw-dropper of its day. We may be a bit aped out by now, but watch this movie with fresh eyes and it will deliver.


2001 – A Future That’s Come and Gone

The late Sixties were an age when sci-fi directors could go wild on screen and capture alien and future societies with imaginative flair. Kubrick’s 2001 set the bar for a vision of man’s place in the unknown, but there were many lesser known films exploring other psychedelic mysteries of existence. Enjoy them, because like the Sixties, it will never happen again.

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