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The latter half of the 1970s marked a slow movement away from the overriding pessimism that had permeated America and much of the globe. Disgraced president Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, and the decade-long Vietnam War conflict ended in 1975.
Click here for Good Sci-Fi Films from 1970-1975
In the aftermath, many baby boomers retreated from politics, experimenting with sex, drugs, and pop culture trends, resulting in the “Me Decade”: a period of self-indulgence that celebrated individual pleasure above a greater sense of community.
Cinema reacted in kind, exploring the emotional fallout of the era, both personal and political, while injecting a new sense of optimism and discovery.
That optimism came from George Lucas, who created a new mythology with ‘Star Wars,’ while wowing audiences with groundbreaking special effects, rekindling both an interest in space exploration and humanistic principles.
This, along with Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ whetted the public’s appetite for “blockbuster” spectacle-based films including ‘Alien’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ and ‘Superman: The Movie.’
Let’s explore lesser-known sci-fi films from 1975-1980, some clearly inspired by Lucas’ space opera with others still grappling with the dark underpinnings of an unstable era.
In this gritty sci-fi horror film, NYPD detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) discovers a rash of random killings by disturbed individuals who claim “god told them to” commit their evil acts.
Soon, Nicholas discovers Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), a mysterious cult leader who has the power to control minds. As his investigation continues, Nicholas unravels Phillips’ true identity, which is entangled in his own troubled childhood, leading to a bizarre and inspired conclusion.
‘God Told Me To’ references the 70’s emergence of disturbed cult leaders like Jim Jones and serial killers like Son of Sam, making it one of the more thought-provoking B-films of its era.
It also features the film debut of Andy Kaufman, and even inspired a scene in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’.
Our galaxy is split into two warring factions: our own and the one ruled by the evil Count Zarth Arn from the League of the Dark Worlds…
While this cult classic can be seen as a shameless ‘Star Wars’ knockoff, its sugar rush charms are undeniable.
Intergalactic smugglers Stella Star (Caroline Munroe) and Akton (Marjoe Gortner) embark on a mission to destroy a superweapon from the villainous Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell).
Sure, it sounds like a barebone plot, but what makes ‘Starcrash’ noteworthy is its unbridled over-enthusiasm. The effects are cheap (but have a weird Ray Harryhausen-esque charm), a robot sidekick has a Texas drawl for no apparent reason, and even David Hasselhoff shows up.
This makes ‘Starcrash’ both derivative yet inspired, classed up by a cameo from Christopher Plummer and a score by James Bond composer, John Barry.
There’s an entirely different universe beyond that black hole. A point where time and space as we know it no longer exists. We will be the first to see it, to explore it, to experience it!
Another film that capitalized on the ‘Star Wars’ phenomenon, this Disney film deals with the crew of the spaceship USS Palomino (led by Robert Forster) who discover the long-lost USS Cygnus.
After boarding the vessel, they discover a mad scientist, Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), flanked by a robot army that has one goal: to pilot his ship through a black hole.
Soon, the Palomino crew realizes they are being held captive, as Reinhardt has no plans of being dissuaded by his questioning guests.
‘The Black Hole’ is one of the darkest and strangest films Disney has ever made, full of psychedelic imagery, and anchored by veteran actors including Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine, although the robot characters V.I.N.CENT and Maximilian steal the show.
Even if its scientific aspects don’t hold water, it’s a fun thrill ride that all diehard sci-fi fans should see.
My name is H.G. Wells. I came here in a time machine of my own construction. I am pursuing Jack the Ripper, who escaped into the future in my machine…
This effervescent tale focuses on the fictional accounts of ‘War of the Worlds’ author H.G. Wells, who in 1893 designs a time machine to take him to a future utopia.
But before he can depart, Jack The Ripper (David Warner) uses it to escape the authorities. Wells’ follows him to 1979 San Francisco to end his reign of terror, while falling in love with a local banker (Mary Steenburgen) in the process.
Perhaps the most lighthearted film based on an infamous murderer, ‘Time After Time’ is an engaging time travel caper, with an element of women’s lib thrown in for good measure.
It’s use of humor and suspense would also influence the ‘Back To The Future’ film franchise.
Katy, I know you know something that was in that package, now tell me what it is and I woun’t bother you anymore…
‘The Visitor’ is a truly wacky tale of an extraterrestrial warrior (played by John Huston) who sets out to stop a murderous child possessed by Satan.
Filmmaker Giulio Paradisi decided to borrow from 70’s box-office juggernauts including ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Omen’ and ‘Close Encounter,’ splicing their plots together into an inspired fever dream that even exceeds ‘Starcrash’ for inspired lunacy.
Another element that elevates it above shoddy exploitation is the film’s supporting cast, with Hollywood veterans including Shelly Winters and Glenn Ford.
And its visual palette is one for the books – mixing cosmic outer space sequences with earthbound scenes of psychotic birds, and an over-the -top laser light show is just scratching the surface.
You’ll never be the same after you see this oddball film that has finally been rescued from obscurity, ready to thrill lovers of cult cinema the world over.
So the end was terrible, even for the good people like my father. So the purpose of all our suffering was just more suffering…
In this adaption of Paddy Chayefsky’s novel, William Hurt plays psychology professor Edward Jessup. In an attempt to reach a new state of consciousness, he experiments with psychotropic drugs in sensory deprivation tanks.
But soon, his plan backfires, and his mind and body begin transforming in mind-boggling and unsettling ways. Can he retain his sanity, or is he too far gone in his drug-fueled state?
Director Ken Russell ramps up the psychedelic aspects in this trippy tale that acts as an exploration of Baby Boomer drug culture, while adding a dash of satire to the mix, resulting in a one-of-a-kind 80’s oddity.
As the 70’s ended, it marked a paradigm shift from adult personal films to an era of populist, big budget spectacles spawned by Lucas and Spielberg.
The 1980s would offer a new brand of science fiction that would emphasize special effects to immerse viewers in alien worlds that were both family friendly (‘E.T’, ‘ Flash Gordon,’ ‘The Empire Strikes Back’) to more violent adult fares (‘Blade Runner,’ ‘The Road Warrior,’ ‘The Thing,’ ‘Terminator’).
This fit perfectly into a decade that saw the rise of arcade games, action figures and flashy fashion, while also allaying the era’s fears of a nuclear attack and an overreliance on technology.
Big franchise films designed for huge box office numbers dominated the 80s and every decade since, making the success of ‘Star Wars’ a bittersweet one, even if sorely needed in 1977 and beyond.
So, that concludes my look at good science fiction films from 1975-1980. What would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments.
And be sure to check out my list of honorable mentions below!
Honorable Mentions: ‘Capricorn One’, ‘Damnation Alley’, ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’, ‘Logan’s Run’, ‘Somewhere in Time’, ‘Quintet,’ ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ ‘Alien,’ ‘Flash Gordon,’ ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ and ‘Superman II’.
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