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Four Groovy Flicks from the '70s Wayback Machine
© Jayme Lynn Blaschke
February 11, 2006

I was born in September of 1969. Less than a month earlier, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Sea of Tranquility aboard the lunar lander Eagle. Quite literally, I have never lived in a world where humans have not walked on the moon. That's something of a heady thought for someone whose main calling in life is to write science fiction.

So you can forgive me, perhaps, for lapses in which I assume the universe revolves around me, and that my perspective is analogous to that of others. It's not. I know that, but sometimes my conversations with student members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society at Texas State University — which I serve as an advisor — drives that point home harder than most. Most of the students in the club have never lived in a world sans Star Wars. Whoo. That's something to consider, since Star Wars altered the perception of cinematic SF for not just my generation, but also those that came before and after.

Believe it or not, science fiction did exist in theaters before Star Wars. And while many of those films were as mind-numbingly dumb as modern films such as The Core, a surprising number of films could actually be described as "good" were produced in the 1970s before wookiees and droids turned the genre into adventure-laden special effects showpieces.

These days, thoughtful SF with more brains than budget is scarce, Gattaca being one of the rare recent exceptions. But in the decade of the '70s, creative risks were at least attempted, and if the films fell short of the intelligence of the fiction of the day, at least they were trying to do something more than just put the biggest pretty explosions on the screen.

The following are four landmark SF films fans of the genre should make a point of seeing — if only to better appreciate the potential of science fiction on the big screen.

Silent Running
(1972, Rated G)

Believe it or not, there was a time when studios actually made films that were rated G. Good films, too, that didn't shy away from controversial themes. Silent Running is perhaps the most ambitious and visionary of these.

Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, an asocial crewman of the deep-space cargo vessel Valley Forge, in charge of maintaining the last surviving forests from a dying, pollution-ravaged Earth. When the corporation that owns the Valley Forge decides that more profit lies in destroying this sole surviving biosphere than in preserving it, Lowell turns mutinous with the help of two drones nicknamed Huey and Dewey.

Directed by Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running is in no way, shape or form subtle in its message. The environmental/conservationist stance is wielded like a club, bludgeoning the audience into submission. And it's not the fastest-paced movie ever made. Despite that, this film possesses a quiet, elegant grace. The drones are brilliantly conceived and nearly steal every scene they're in — never has Hollywood even approached their innovative design since.

The verisimilitude is downright eerie, as the interiors of the Valley Forge were filmed in the converted bowels of a decommissioned aircraft carrier. The Valley Forge model itself proved so striking that it was a featured member of Battlestar Galactica's rag-tag fugitive fleet both in the 1970s and again in the 21st century remake.

The special effects are no less impressive. Trumbull worked on the visual effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and early on in production developed Saturn imagery which was never used in that film. Instead, Saturn is put to great use here, the beauty of space portrayed in stark contrast to the ugliness of humanity's worst instincts.

Dark Star
(1974, Rated G)

I still wonder sometimes how a film managed to earn a G rating when it was obviously intended for an audience of stoners. Dark Star is easily one of the strangest, trippiest SF films ever committed to celluloid.

The first effort by director John Carpenter, Dark Star was originally a student film expanded to feature length on a shoestring budget. The cheapness shows through in this rough and unpolished film, but then again Carpenter has never been known as a slick and polished director.

The Dark Star is a ship on a 20-year mission through the galaxy, seeking out unstable planets and destroying them. Supposedly this makes the universe a safer place for future colonists, but that's beside the point. The planet-killing bombs are sentient, and so happy about their destructive talents they may well have been refugees from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books, had said Hitchhiker books been written a decade earlier.

The captain was accidentally killed early on by a radiation leak and is kept cryogenically frozen, which he's none too happy about. And the crew has picked up a bizarre alien life form that looks like the love child of Bigfoot and a beach ball, and which may or may not be sentient.

Strange, funny and one of the most oddball science fiction films you'll ever see, Dark Star benefits from a wealth of ideas and a willingness to try anything without fear of failure.

A Boy and His Dog
(1975, Rated R)

Post-apocalyptic subjects have always been a favorite for SF films simply because they're best-suited to low-budget productions — something Kevin Costner forgot when he filmed The Postman. Usually post-apocalyptic films takes the obvious, violent route, a la The Road Warrior, but sometimes they come up with something off-the-wall and original, like A Boy and His Dog.

Filled with black humor, this film is based on the original Harlan Ellison short story about an over-sexed young man named Vic (played by a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson) trying to survive on a devastated Earth. His only companion is the faithful Blood, a shaggy mutant dog who's not only smarter than Vic but telepathic and caustically sarcastic to boot.

When they come upon a utopian enclave filled with nubile young women willing to let Vic have his way with them because he's fertile, well, Blood smells a rat. Vic smells something entirely different, because, well, the movie is rated R, after all.

While the movie is uneven and somewhat slow early on, all things are forgiven whenever Vic and Blood are on the screen together. The interplay between the two is pitch-perfect, with Tim McIntire doing excellent voicework to turn the implausible character of a telepathic dog into the hero of the film. The plot devolves into standard dystopian fare, but the self-centered duo of Vic and Blood, steadfastly refusing to play by the rules and making some quite shocking decisions, elevate this film to a keeper.

Logan's Run
(1976, Rated PG)

Loosely adapted from the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan's Run holds up remarkably well despite the dated 1970s-future design elements. In the 23rd century, the Earth is a far cry from the peaceful prosperity of Star Trek. Instead, a utopian society has arisen in which the populace spends most of its time in hedonistic pursuits within high-tech domed cities.

The only catch: Once a citizen turns 30, they must enter the Carrousel, a sort of reincarnation roulette wheel-abattoir-spectator sport all rolled into one. Some citizens, quite naturally enough, don't want to die at 30, and so become "runners" who are subsequently hunted down by the euthanasia brigade amusingly known as the Sandmen.

Logan 5 is a Sandman who is very good at his job. When rumors surface of a runner haven known as Sanctuary, the powers-that-be artificially age Logan's implanted life crystal to 30 and force him to go deep undercover, fleeing his fellow Sandmen even as he seeks Sanctuary with the intent of destroying it from within.

While the utopia/dystopia plot is once again pretty standard fare, the execution of the concept is beyond reproach. Michael York's Logan is a conflicted character defined by shades of grey. Jessica 6, played by Jenny Agutter, is somewhat wooden and little more than a plot device, but her entrance is the definition of "male fantasy." Farrah Fawcett is suitably vapid in a small role as a medical technician in a cosmetic surgery center. Roscoe Lee Brown steals the show as Box, an icy robot with a pack rat complex, and the great Peter Ustinov makes the most of his time as the "Old Man" living in the ruins of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Logan's Run is an action film at heart, and the plot keeps moving at a steady clip without sacrificing much intelligence or talking down to the audience. The ideas tossed up on the screen are thought-provoking and fun in an abstact way, giving viewers a glimpse of what Minority Report could have been had Spielberg not chickened out and opted for a Hollywood ending instead of Philip K. Dick's original, mind-twisting conclusion. The film's ending diverges wildly from that of the Logan's Run novel, and is ultimately more traditional Hollywood in execution than the rest of the film, but the odd quirks thrown in elevate it above standard fare.

Filled with modest but effective special effects, unexpected twists and occasional flashes of nudity that would never fly in a PG film in today's prudish climate, Logan's Run remains one of the best example of '70s science fiction. Watch it — or any of these films — and see that over-the-top CGI effects and a soaring John Williams score aren't necessary for an entertaining glimpse of the future.

Former RevolutionSF Fiction Editor Jayme Lynn Blaschke played the third drone 'Louie' in Silent Running, but he left the group before they hit it big.

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