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Art always imitates life, so what are we to make of the 1970’s, known as the “second golden age of filmmaking”?
From an American film perspective, subject matter came from a sense of cynicism and paranoia following Vietnam, a rise in urban crime, civil unrest, environmental concerns, and the impeachment of president Richard Nixon.
And thanks to looser restrictions on content, filmmakers could explore these themes unsparingly, particularly in the arena of science fiction.
The first half of the decade saw notable entries in the politically themed ‘Planet of the Apes’ film franchise, along with Stanley Kubrick’s examination of sex and violence in 1971’s ‘A Clockwork Orange.’
So let’s examine some of the more underrated sci-fi films from 1970-75 that expressed concerns over threats that still resonates in present-day.
We have to go back. This is your last chance to return with us. You have nowhere to go. You cannot survive outside the city shell. We only want to help you. This is your last chance…
Before ‘Star Wars’ made him a household name, George Lucas made another entry into science fiction with ‘THX-1138.’
But its complex themes and unorthodox plot proved hard to market, making it a box office flop that’s taken decades to be reevaluated for its considerable merits.
Robert Duvall stars as a the title character, living in an underground world where sex is outlawed and workers are fed state-sanctioned mood altering drugs to make them subservient slave laborers.
But after he stops taking his medication, and engages in a romantic relationship, he finds himself on the run from a brutal robot police force. Can he escape and find the freedom he’s been denied for so long?
While ‘THX-1138’ is much darker and abstract than ‘Star Wars,’ it shares its themes of humanity triumphing over soulless technology and it deserves more notoriety than inspiring the name for Lucas’s THX sound system.
What a beautiful way to die – as a falling star…
Like fellow USC alum George Lucas, ‘THX-1138’, ‘Dark Star’ began life as a student film from aspiring director John Carpenter.
The feature film incarnation told the story of a group of bumbling 22nd century “space truckers,” whose mission is to destroy inhospitable planets that block the route to worlds more conducive to human colonization.
But their mission is in jeopardy when the ship malfunctions, making way for a sentient bomb that threatens to destroy the ship and an attack from a hostile alien (that looks suspiciously like a beach ball).
The film is an odd mix of sci-fi horror and absurdist comedy, resulting in a film hard to categorize but even harder to forget. And just wait ‘til you hear the country theme song!
And if the idea of a blue collar space crew, “used future” production design, hostile aliens and a computer named Mother sounds familiar, take note: Writer Dan O’Bannon would reuse these elements when he wrote the script for Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic ‘Alien.’
There is no more beauty, and there’s no more imagination. And there are no frontiers left to conquer…
Botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is the safe keeper of a space station greenhouse, preserving near extinct plant life and animals for future generations.
After being ordered to destroy his habitat to make way for commercial transport, he rebels, forcing him to battle his crewmates while leaning on his robots to help him keep his cargo thriving while hurtling through deep space.
The film has a pronounced ecological message, with Dern giving a memorable and moving performance.
And the special effects by Doug Trumbull (who also directed) are impressive for its era, establishing a career that would later include work on ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture.’
All this adds up to a unique sci-fi film that offers a message of harmony with nature in the face of technology that still needs heeding today.
Ravenous Invaders Controlled by a Terror Out in Space Commanded to Annihilate the World!
The sole directorial effort from Bass (best known as the title sequence creator for films like ‘Psycho’ and ‘North by Northwest’) was a novel take on the killer insect film craze.
A team of scientists discovers that ants have inherited alien intelligence, enabling them to creative massive structures and form an aggressive army capable of fighting humans.
When the scientists discover they can communicate with the ants using code, they realize the ants’ plans for world domination. Can they stop them before they carry out their threat?
What really sells the film is Bass’s impeccable art design and psychedelic editing style, making ‘Phase IV’ a unique sci-fi film that’s immensely charming despite it’s goofy premise.
The gun shoots death, and purifies the earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth and kill!
One of the weirdest films of any decade, ‘Zardoz’ is a fever dream from the mind of John Boorman (‘Deliverance’, ‘Point Blank’, ‘Hope and Glory.’)
In it, Sean Connery (wearing one hell of a strange outfit) plays Zed, a warrior living in 2093, Ireland.
He and his human brethren are referred ruled by the “immortals,” a superior race that rule Earth with Zardoz, a floating deity who encourages warfare by supplying humans with weapons in exchange for food.
But Zed questions Zardoz’s rule, and goes off to investigate the truth behind the Immortals, leading to a very hallucinogenic vision of the future and a battle for freedom from oppression.
‘Zardoz’ production design and oddball plot, make it a visual feast which also offers food for thought with how religious zealotry has the ability to inspire war with our fellow man.
Breeding is an ugly thing…
Don Johnson stars as Vic, an amoral teen Lothario roaming post-apocalyptic 2024 America with his dog Blood, who has telepathic powers, which helps him locate women for Vic in exchange for food.
After the duo discover an underground village, Vic is forced to abandon Blood, becoming enslaved to impregnate the female populace via artificial insemination before being executed once his role is complete.
His path to survival, and to find Blood, is strewn with uneasy and disturbing consequences for all involved.
Based off the works of sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison, ‘ A Boy and His Dog’ is a bizarre and unsettling film that employs elements of black comedy to explore disturbing themes that would be hard to watch otherwise.
While it’s not a film designed for mass appeal, it’s a cult classic perfect for the adventurous sci-fi fan.
He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism…
This sci-fi horror film from director David Cronenberg (‘The Fly,’ ‘Dead Ringers,’ ‘A History of Violence) is the queasy tale of a bodily parasite developed by a deranged scientist that wreaks havoc on a Canadian apartment complex.
The organism is spread like an STD, turning victims into zombie-like creatures compelled to spread the contagion through violent sexual encounters.
After resident physician Roger St. Luc discovers the threat, he frantically tries to stop it before it spreads outside the community.
‘Shivers’ helped cement Cronenberg as the “body horror” auteur, resulting in queasy viewing that explores our obsession and repulsion with sexual desire and the fear of disease.
As one can see from the films I’ve highlighted, the sci-fi films from 1970-1975 were a far cry from the more innocent escapism ushered in from the likes of Spielberg and Lucas later in the decade that would dominate the 80’s and every decade since.
This was the final era where filmmakers held the reigns of Hollywood, allowing for more personal and thought-provoking films not dependant on focus groups and massive budgets.
It speaks to their staying power that many of the concerns these films presented have yet to be fully addressed, making them as timely and relevant as ever.
I’ve also listed some honorable mentions of more well-known sci-fi films below that are essentials of the genre. .
But now it’s your turn: what are your favorite sci-fi films from that era? Be sure to tell me in the comments!
And keep your eyes peeled for my second installment that will examine science fiction films from 1975-1980, where I’ll further examine how films like ‘Star Wars’ would change the film industry forever.
Honorable Mentions: ‘The Omega Man,’ ‘Soylent Green,’ ‘Solaris,’ ‘Rollerball,’ ‘Westworld’, ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’
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Great list! Here are some others: Serious SciFi: The Andromeda Strain (1971), Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970), The Terminal Man (1974); Gonzo SciFi: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
The Andromeda Strain is so good! Agreed on Beneath the POTA being so bizarre! As for the other two you mentioned…I need to seek those out :). Glad you enjoyed the list!
Colossus and Terminal Man (another Crichton adaptation) are terrific.
Some other good/bad entries from this period include Westworld (from a script by Michael Crichton, famous for Yul Brynner’s role as the gunslinger robot), Soylent Green (Edward G. Robinson’s final film, and a great performance), and Rollerball (the titular battle royale is great, brutal fun).
Yes ‘Westworld’ is a classic! Very intrigued to see what HBO does with the televised adaptation. And ‘Soylent Green’ is wonderful as well: I also like to think of it as Charlton Heston’s post-apocalyptic trifecta alongside ‘The Omega Man’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ :)!