I’ve been following along with Filmspotting’s ’70s Science Fiction Marathon. I’ve followed along with several of their marathons before, and other marathons I’ve been pretty familiar with before they did their thing, and as marathons go, this one has actually been somewhat disappointing. There’s still one movie left in the marathon, but from what I’ve seen of it, I don’t think my opinion will change much. Still, there were some surprises and bright spots here too, and I took the opportunity to check out some other 70s SF movies I’d been wanting to see. Here’s the marathon so far:
- The Omega Man (1971): Things kick off on a campy note with this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s brilliant novella I Am Legend. Like every other adaptation of the book, this one completely misses the point, though that doesn’t seem to matter. I suppose there’s some social commentary here, but the real reason to watch this (assuming you want to) is to revel in its campy glory. Since the story concerns the last human on earth, these movies always have to come up with some plot device that will allow the main character to talk… in Will Smith’s recent version, he talked to a dog. In The Omega Man, Charleton Heston talks to a bust of Ceasar. He also looks at himself on a closed circuit video feed and comments “Hi, Big Brother, how’s your ass?” And he talks to a dead car dealer too: “How much for a trade-in on my Ford? Oh, really? Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard…” Heston’s delivery of lines like this is priceless. The villains are completely different than the book or other movies (I still can’t figure out why people don’t want to make the villains vampires like the book… instead, we get “The Family” in this movie, which are diseased humans, and the CGI monsters of Will Smith’s version). Unfortunately, there’s not much to love about this movie. It’s worth a watch, but nothing very special. **
- The Andromeda Strain (1971): Based on Michael Crichton’s book of the same name, this movie follows the outbreak of an alien organism on earth and the team of scientists who investigate it. It’s essentially a science procedural (and I’m having trouble thinking of another example… at least, another example that is as rigorous) mixed with a thriller. The first act sets the stage and immediately starts ratcheting up the tension (particularly good use of audio here), then the movie settles down at the Project Wildfire base where the scientists begin their investigation. Surprisingly, this part of the movie works really well, even though the majority of this section portrays the tedius repetition of the scientific process as they try to figure out the organism through slow, methodical, systematic steps. Some have complained that this section was a little too long, but I loved it. I don’t see much of a difference between this any any number of other procedurals that follow other subjects like medicine, law, or police. Indeed, while watching this movie, I thought of All the President’s Men, a film that stresses the tedious minutiae of journalism instead of the sensationalism of the results. Anyway, the one area of the film that doesn’t work as well as it could is the ending in which one of the scientists seeks to disarm the automatic nuclear detonation device. It’s a standard action movie cliche (complete with lasers!), and it plays as such. I guess it’s not terrible, but it’s out of place in a movie that was primarily concerned with intellectual thrills. There were a lot of things I really liked about this movie. Robert Wise’s direction is well done, and I think a large part of the film’s solid pacing is due to his work. The set design, particularly of the Project Wildfire base, is utterly brilliant. And the no-name actors do a good job. There’s an effective undercurrent of paranoia and distrust of authority that works really well. Incidentally, this movie was recently remade into a 4 hour mini-series… and it’s absolutely awful. Everything that was good about the original film is missing from the mini-series, and the things they added were absurd and ridiculous. Bad acting, bad writing, bad science – it runs the gamut of badness. Don’t waste your time. The orginal is riveting entertainment, and one of the better science fiction films I’ve seen. ***1/2
- Silent Running (1972): Due to a poorly explained plot point, plants and trees can no longer grow on earth, so humans create a giant nature reserves in space. But the ships are expensive and in demand, so the companies that run them decide to jettison the forests. And for good measure, let’s nuke them too! But one of the crew members goes renegade and attempts to escape with the last of the forests. Making it look like an accident, he gets away with it for a while, but eventually he understands how stupid this movie is. I mean, he realizes the error of his ways. This is one of those movies I kept thinking to myself, but why?. Earth is no longer capable of sustaining plantlife, but why? Humans create nature reserves in spaceships, but why? The reserves are to be destroyed, but why? And so on. I just didn’t buy the setup. It’s actually more entertaining than I’m making it out to be, in large part because it’s visually interesting. Director Douglas Trumbull worked on special effects for 2001, the aforementioned The Andromeda Strain, and would go on to do effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. There are several sequences in this movie that must have influenced George Lucas when he made Star Wars. The acting is, uh, a bit over the top. Bruce Dern bears most of the load, and not so well. Still, his relationship with the little robots on the ship was kinda interesting, but ultimately unfulfilling. In the end, I didn’t much like this one. **
- Soylent Green (1973): I think the biggest surprise of the marathon was that I enjoyed this movie. A Chuck Heston film that depicts a future in which the Earth is overpopulated and food is rationed. The Soylent corporation provides artificial foodstuffs, and their most recent variation, called Soylent Green, is quite popular. Heston investigates the murder of the President of the Soylent corporation and eventually finds out the disturbing secret behind Soylent Green. Again, surprisingly good stuff here. Not great (my enjoyment is probably a matter of lowered expectations), but solid and entertaining. I kinda bought into the setting of the story, something that didn’t happen with a couple of other movies in the marathon. Of course, the infamous ending is almost funny at this point (should I even bother with hiding the “surprise?” I guess I am, but if you don’t know, go watch the film and let us know what you think. I’d like to get the perspective of someone who didn’t know the ending.) and again, Heston’s delivery is priceless (on par with his Planet of the Apes meltdown). Decent stuff. ***
- Logan’s Run (1976): After a horrible war, survivors are holed up in domed cities that care for their every need… with one catch: Life must end at 30. There’s a possiblity of “renewal” at an event called Carousel, but many people attempt to escape when they turn 30. These “runners” are hunted down and killed by “Sandmen” (basically police). Logan is a Sandman who gets caught up in a scheme to find “Sanctuary” outside of the domes, and he has to become a runner. I’ve heard a lot about this movie, and I have to say that it was really disappointing. It’s got an interesting idea at its core, but it doesn’t explore much of it and instead wants to use it as an excuse for action scenes and a big chase. Unfortunately, the action and the chase are rather tame, and the details of the plot are rather dumb. There are lots of things this film could have explored, like the reality and implications of faith (people seem to cling to their illogical and destructive beliefs with religious fervor) or how a society becomes brainwashed, but it seems that you’re just supposed to accept those things without thinking about them. One other thing that was constantly ruining the immersion of the film was the bad special effects (the models were particularly jarring). This wouldn’t matter so much if the film had a better story or even better action sequences, but as it is, it just detracts from the film. Ultimately, I’m a little confused as to why this movie has a decent reputation. *
- Bonus Film! Solaris (1972): Andrei Tarkovsky’s brooding, thoughtful masterpiece about a psychologist (named Kris Kelvin) who travels to a space station on the planet Solaris where mysterious things are happening. The oceans of Solaris are thought to be a host to some sort of intelligence, and the psychologist eventually succumbs to madness brought on by the appearance of his long dead wife. This film went a little above my head. It’s not an easy film to watch. Its slow and deliberate pacing demands a thoughtful examination of the ideas presented within, and Tarkovsky’s visual flare embues the film with a trippy, dreamlike quality. Tarkovsky is quite effective at establishing atmosphere. For instance, when Kelvin arrives at the station, the film becomes saturated with a tremendous and disturbing sense of dread. It perhaps lingers on some shots too long and could have otherwise used some pruning. It also gets to be a little on the pretentious side as it explores the human condition. Then again, it’s examination of the human condition is what makes it a good film. This is the sort of movie that doesn’t seem to reveal itself with only a single viewing, so my thoughts are a bit tentative here. There’s a lot to chew on, and I haven’t quite gotten there yet. For now, let’s say that it’s a thoughtful, if difficult, science fiction film. ***
Coming up next on the list:
- The Man Who Fell to Earth: I’ve seen various portions of this movie and was not impressed. I’m not sure I’ll get to this one, but if I do, I’ll have pretty low expectations.
- THX 1138
I think the biggest trouble I have with some of these films is that I don’t buy the world they’re set in. Both Silent Running and Logan’s Run had serious logical issues in their setups that prevented me from becoming immersed in the story. Other films might have had their issues, but were at least internally consistent and their plots moved forward somewhat logically. Suspension of disbelief is important in SF movies more than most (because they’re speculating about much more than most other films), so when something ridiculous appears onscreen, it’s hard to swallow. Anyway, there were definitely some bright spots in the marathon and most of the films are certainly worth a watch. I’m looking forward to the remaining films, though I’m still a little wary of a couple of them.