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
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.
(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.
(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
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.
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
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.
(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
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.