Somewhere between 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and 1977’s “Star Wars,” something happened in the culture. Storytellers, perhaps inspired by the fizzling out of the hippie counter-culture, the still-dragging-on war in Vietnam and post-Watergate disillusionment, began to look at the future in a somewhat darker, more idiosyncratic way than had been the case before, shifting focus to recurring themes of environmental disaster, utopias gone sour, and the end of all things.
The result is one of the most distinctive and self-contained periods of sci-fi movies in the history of cinema, one where the films proved weirder, more distinctive and trippier than at almost any other time. One such example, Michael Crichton‘s curious western/sci-fi hybrid “Westworld,” hits Blu-ray for the first time this week, and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. And so we thought this felt like a good opportunity to run down 20 of our favorite — or in some cases, least favorite — odd ’70s sci-fi movies. Check out our list below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
“The Andromeda Strain” (1971)
Very much the model of the restrained sci-fi film — there’s very little eye candy on display, including the star-free cast who play the rare movie scientists who look like scientists — “The Andromeda Strain” marks the first movie adaptation of a novel by doctor-turned-novelist-and-filmmaker Michael Crichton, the author who’d later bring us the worlds of “Jurassic Park,” “Congo,” “Sphere” and “Timeline” among others (and who’ll figure several times elsewhere on this list). And while there’s an alien threat at work in the film, it’s literally a tiny one, though no less dangerous for its size. The movie, efficiently directed by chameleonic veteran journeyman Robert Wise (“The Haunting,” “The Sound of Music“) gets underway when a government satellite carrying a microscopic alien organism crashes in a New Mexico town, gruesomely killing all but two of its inhabitants, an old man and a baby. The survivors are brought to a secret underground facility where a team of scientists prepared for this kind of eventuality attempt to find out what happened, and how to stop it. While Wise’s film doesn’t include much in the way of spectacle (beyond some impressive production design from Boris Leven, who got an Oscar nomination for his troubles), it’s no less gripping for it, although it’s dry in spots. And Crichton’s background in medicine shows that, aside from the alien origins of the organism, the whole thing is terrifyingly plausible, at least until it shifts into a disaster movie in its closing stages.
“The Black Hole” (1979)
While now almost completely forgotten about, despite some idle talk about Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy“) hadling a big budget remake, “The Black Hole” is a true sci-fi oddity, for a number of reasons. Firstly – it was directed by Gary Nelson, a filmmaker whose most notable contribution to the artform seems to be the Jodie Foster version of “Freaky Friday.” Secondly, it was the most expensive movie ever produced by Disney up to that point and its first to carry a PG-rating. It was also, maybe most importantly, something of a technological breakthrough, particularly when it came to the computer-generated sequence that started the movie (at the time it was the longest in history). The filmmakers also developed a technology that would allow “panning” over a stationary matte painting, after being denied the use of similar equipment from Industrial Light & Magic. The movie, about a spaceship crew on the precarious edge of the titular gravity mass, is pretty weird too – it follows a similar “derelict space station” motif that “Alien” would share that same year – and has a stellar cast that includes a spry Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins (who gets murdered by robots in the movie’s best scene), Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux and Ernest Borgnine. The production design (by Peter Ellenshaw and John B. Mansbridge), too, is genuinely jaw dropping, as is the score, by Bond composer John Barry (that main theme kills). It’s pretty existential too (read: slow), with metaphysically knotty notions of heaven and hell sprinkled in amongst the telepathic robots. While it became the 21st highest grossing film of 1979, for Disney’s most expensive film to date, that was hardly a major victory. Critics at the time were also very mixed on it, but it’s such a strange outlier for the company, it’s worth checking out for that alone.
“A Boy And His Dog” (1975)
L.Q. Jones, a renowned character actor from dozens of westerns, saddled up as a director with a young Don Johnson, Harlan Ellison, Ray Manzarek (yes, the garrulous/nerdy keyboardist from The Doors), the dog from “The Brady Bunch” and members of the Firesign Theater for this weirdo post-apocalyptic tale of telepathy, rape and popcorn. Johnson and his shaggy pup roam the desert, looking for food and love. The telepathically talking dog, Blood (adorable, by the way), is basically in charge, and leads Johnson to easy sex in exchange for food. It’s kinda like “Knight Rider” except it’s a dog instead of a car and they aren’t busting smugglers, they’re being not-so-scrupulous scavengers. Eventually the pair are lured to an underground city where the men are sterilized and Jason Robards wears white face paint. Shockingly, once you get into the groove of the bizarre film (it does have some witty dialogue) it actually kinda works. This one is in the public domain, so you can watch the film in full on any video streaming site without feeling guilty. Ray Manzarek also contributed music to the film along with Tim McIntire and Jaime Mendoza-Nava.
“Dark Star” (1974)
Imagine taking all the dread and horror of “Alien” and replacing it with a loquacious, stoner vibe and that is, pretty much, what you get with “Dark Star.” Co-written, starring and edited by “Alien” co-creator Dan O’Bannon and directed by John Carpenter, “Dark Star” is a shaggy dog film about a low-rent crew busting their hump in space, destroying planets for The Man. The space crew workers’ ever-malfunctioning ship (no toilet paper) faces increasing obstacles, like a pesky alien mascot (really just a painted beach ball) who won’t go where he’s told and the belligerent sentience of one of their world-killing bombs. The picture’s finale features bearded space hippies trying to calm down this freaked-out “Thermostellar Triggering Device” through a dialogue of rather heavy post-grad philosophy. While the director’s later films such as “The Thing” and “Escape From New York” would feature memorable endings of their own, few films in the Carpenter canon can compare with mass death spawned by robotic Cartesian doubt. Carpenter’s early synthesizer score only makes it better.
“Demon Seed” (1977)
Science fiction perverts love to talk about sex robots, but no one wants to address the dangers of robot rape. In this strangely effective adaptation of Dean Koontz‘ “Demon Seed” by Donald Cammell (the oft-forgotten co-director, with Nicolas Roeg, of “Performance“) Julie Christie isn’t just violated, she is impregnated by an artificial intelligence that her own husband (Fritz Weaver) created (Robert Vaughn co-stars). The Proteus IV computer program has the sum of all human knowledge in it, so you know that isn’t going to end well. In classic sci-fi manner, Proteus tries to test its limits, especially after it is relegated to simple chores around the Weaver/Christie place. Proteus refuses to shut down, bunkers in the basement and mutates into a surprisingly chilling form that kinda resembles golden air conditioning ducts contorting like a Rubik’s Snake. Storywise, “Demon Seed” is trash, but it is treated so seriously and the design (not just the villain, but the science labs and early computers) are so nifty that one can’t help but get sucked in.
“Logan’s Run” (1976)
A remake of “Logan’s Run” is one of the more elusive projects in Hollywood. It’s been in the works for over a decade, with filmmakers including Bryan Singer (who got as far as pre-production back in 2006), Carl Erik Rinsch, Joseph Kosinski and Nicolas Winding Refn, not to mention what feels like a dozen screenwriters coming and going, without the film ever getting any closer to actually getting made. But there’s probably a reason that it continues to be developed; the premise has the perfect mix of great concept, and middling, dated first-time execution. Based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, it’s set in 2274, where the last of humanity live in a sealed dome city run by a computer. It’s a carefree life for the inhabitants, but with one catch: at 30 years of age, the denizens inside are vaporized, with the promise that they’ll be reborn. Logan 5 (Michael York) is a Sandman, whose job is to track down those who refuse to accept the ritual of Carousel when they reach the big 3-0, but he falls under the spell of a beautiful Runner (Jenny Agutter, who spends most of the film wearing basically nothing), and is soon out to bring the whole racket crumbling down. The concept of a world of nothing-but-youth is a killer one, but the film (from “Around The World In 80 Days” helmer Michael Anderson) never makes the most of it, preferring to be a fairly standard chase movie, with only a typically excellent Peter Ustinov (as a veteran Runner living outside the dome) giving a sense of what it would really be like. The sets and the fantastical sci-fi milieu are undeniably impressive (even when it’s dated and funny looking), but the filmmaking never really rises to the challenge. Additionally, the film is engaging in its opening (sometimes silly) sci-fi setting, but gets increasingly slow and dull when the characters reach the “real world” (Ustinov can only help so much). Perhaps most crucially, York is clearly too old for the role as it is. This is one case where a remake might be able to improve on the original.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)
Are we so sure about Ziggy Stardust not being based in reality? David Bowie does a pretty convincing job in Nicolas Roeg’s surrealist sci-fi classic of playing a stranded alien trapped on Earth and forced to become a technology mogul in order to rebuild his spaceship and send resources back to his dying planet. Bowie’s “Thomas Jerome Newton” however, gets lost in the excesses of the era (as, coincidentally, had so many of the period’s finest directors, musicians and actors) his vices eventually swallowing his ambitions and clouding his focus. Gradually his native curiosity turns into an insatiable appetite for alcohol, television and fetishistically exploring his alien pansexuality (cue one of the most fucked-up sex scenes to ever hit the screen) as he slowly, in typically Roeg-ian hypnotic fashion, falls from grace. Featuring great support from Buck Henry, Rip Torn, Candy Clark and even Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell in a cameo, Bowie’s turn, in his first lead performance, is so intense as to feel pretty definitive, though surprisingly he wasn’t the first person considered for the role. That honor goes to the late novelist/director Michael Crichton who, according to Roeg, had the requisite height, because “imagine if aliens came down to Earth, they’d actually be quite tall.” Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel may be surprisingly insular considering the picture’s global implications, but its moody, nightmarish tone and hallucinatory sequences turn “The Man Who Fell to Earth” into a hypnotic, trance-inducing experience beyond your average genre “experiment.”
“No Blade Of Grass” (1970)
“A vision of chaos and destruction that could come true. Perhaps it’s happening now!” So warns the trailer to “No Blade of Grass,” Cornel Wilde‘s British breakdown-of-society exploitation picture. Shot a few years after Wilde’s survivalist masterpiece “The Naked Prey,” “No Blade of Grass” doubles-down on the man vs. nature struggle, with a virus attacking the food supply, plunging the world into anarchy and cannibalism. An eye-patch wearing Nigel Davenport leads his family out of imploding London to the countryside, which he foolishly thinks will be safer. There he runs afoul of biker gangs and rapists. Being British, however, they are at least well-spoken in their threats. “No Blade of Grass” is a nice mix of “Day of the Triffids,” “Mad Max,” environmental panic and anti-Government paranoia (they’re keeping the facts from us, naturally.) Davenport’s tough guy paterfamilias is standard fare for Hollywood, but the British-ness of this film is enough to keep it unique.
“The Omega Man” (1971)
We’ve always advocated that Hollywood should remake bad movies with good premises and for once they listened. Warner Bros.’ “I Am Legend” is a remake of the 1960s post-apocalyptic, “Omega Man,” but if you thought the Will Smith film is lame, typically empty tentpole fodder, you haven’t seen the original. Granted, they’re almost nothing like each other just sharing a basic premise, but there are few even ironic joys in the Boris Sagal-directed version. Starring Charlton Heston as a military scientist (you know, that type that also kick-ass), the basic narratives are the same: U.S. Army Col. Robert Neville, M.D (Heston) is the last man standing on the earth. Set in 1977, a disease has wiped out most of the planet and left it an empty shell of dead bodies which leaves Neville tons of free shit to ransack as the de facto “last man standing” (or so he thinks anyhow). However, while the Francis Lawrence version saw those infected with the virus become superhuman zombie types that only come out at night, the 1960s version sees them transformed into black-hooded, white-haired albino sub-humans that spout rhetoric about abandoning the “old ways” of science, modernity, electricity, etc., in favor of living in the shadows with nothing but torches and hatred for any humans that remain. In short, the antagonists of the picture are comically lame goofballs, in shiny black cloaks whose goal in life is to kill Charlton Heston. Essentially, the “monsters” of the movie are super dated and super silly and therefore not scary, or much of any threat. Heston teams up with a jive-talkin’ afro-militant black woman, but that’s about as ironically compelling as the film gets beyond its interesting concept. For ’70s sci-fi die-hards or Charlton Heston fans (NRA members?) only.
“Phase IV” (1974)
The sole feature film directed by Saul Bass, the genius-level graphic designer behind credit sequences for Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese, among others, “Phase IV” was a much-derided disaster on release, and when seen now, is mostly viewed as a campy mess by the irony crowd (it was featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” for instance). But while it’s far from a success, it’s a fascinating film, far better than its reputation suggests, that makes one wish that Bass had had more chances to direct. Set, unlike most of these films, in the present day (essentially), it involves a group of scientists (most notably Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) investigating strange occurrences among the ant population, who seem to have evolved, developed a hive mind, and are seemingly constructing strange buildings in the desert. It’s clearly, a bonkers idea, and it doesn’t help much that Bass treats it with a straight-face, with his actors somewhat struggling as a result. But once you get past the sentient-ant premise, it’s actually quite thought-provoking, and Bass directs the hell out of it, from hugely impressive ant sequences (captured by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham), to unsettling, trippy editing. It’s become a cult classic for the wrong reasons, but it deserves a more straight-faced reevaluation these days.
The eclectic and uneven career of Robert Altman saw the filmmaker tackle practically every genre under the sun, (westerns, noirs, ‘30s gangster movies, mysteries, gumshoe dick movies) minus maybe a straight-up action film. But Altman was never interested in genre much, always placing the emphasis on more human behavior and interaction, so it’s not a surprise his ill-fated attempt at sci-fi with “Quintet” didn’t exactly work. Set in a wintry, post-apocalyptic future where a new ice age has ravaged Earth, “Quintet” stars Paul Newman (they would collaborate only twice – both collaborations were less than stellar) as a man named Essex, a survivor in a barren, unflaggingly frozen wasteland, who gets drawn into a mysterious game called “Quintet” after being attacked and nearly killed by a gambler. The game, it turns out, is a kind of role playing game, but if you’re killed in the game, you’re also murdered in real life. (Someone uploaded a PDF of the game’s “rules,” part of the promotional materials, online. Read them here.) While Altman does a great job of sustaining an atmosphere and mood of dreadful unpredictability (though arguably this just means smearing the camera with gauzy vaseline the entire time), there are long, quiet, arguably agonizing, stretches of “Quintet” where nothing really happens (released two years after “Star Wars,” and the same year as “Alien,” you can see why genre fans were also unresponsive). Co-starring some fantastic international stars that probably asked themselves what they were doing in this film (Fernando Rey, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson), “Quintet” is undeniably a fascinating blip on Altman’s filmography, and a precursor to more widely accepted things like “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games.” Newman’s performance, too, is a tightly coiled one, all wild nerves and raw instinct. Too bad about the languid polar ice-cap pace. Bonus weirdly futuristic points go to the film’s shooting location: the site of the Montreal Expo 67 World’s Fair.
Ultraviolent roller derby…that’s a hell of an idea for an exploitation picture. But, wait, is this movie actually… something more? Starring James Caan at the peak of his fame and directed by Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” and later “A Soldier’s Story” and “Moonstruck”) it is evident from the opening notes of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that “Rollerball” has nobler aspirations than the shocks of a futuristic spiked glove in your face. While the “extreme sports” action is brutal, there’s also some remarkable world-building on display. Nations have been replaced by goods-specific corporations (our team is Energy,) manipulative computers hold all historical records and society is kept in check with the bread and circuses of a complex, bloody roller skate-based sport (hey, why not?) A central sequence featuring a debauched party and a flame thrower works almost as its own one-act play, and the carefully framed modernist architecture gives everything an eerie, sanitary feel. That is, of course, until individualist Jonathan E (Caan) refuses to tamp down his natural inclination toward excellence: then the whole contrived dystopia collapses under the might of his viscous roller skating prowess. If you are looking for a clip of all the best brutal “Rollerball” moments, why not watch the one set to the tune of AC/DC‘s “Hells Bells,” right?
“Silent Running” (1972)
Douglas Trumbull is one of the most renowned visual effects artists on the planet. He created the VFX for Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” helped out with “Star Wars,” and his special effects credits are long and deep (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Blade Runner,” “The Tree of Life“) running nearly six decades deep (he most recently did some spectacular macrobiological effects and visuals for Shane Carruth‘s “Upstream Color“). But as a director on his own? Hmmm, not so much. Set in the far, far future, Earth has become an inhospitable wasteland where no plantation or natural food grows. The SS Valley Forge is on a space mission where it’s growing 4 lush forests in gigantic geodesic domes containing some of the botanical specimens left on the planet. Crunchy botanical scientist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is happy tending to his forest of rabbits, trees, vegetation and eagles until a directive from Earth arrives telling all on board abandon the project and get back home toute suite. Deeply upset, having spent eight years tending to these domes, Lowell rebels, eventually snaps, killing one of the officers on board and then sabotages the other men tasked with blowing up the geodomes. Hijacking the freighter and faking his death to get Earth Mission command off his back, Lowell grows into a mad scientist type who renames two R2-like robots on board as Huey and Dewey and teaches them to play cards and how to pot plants (no, really). Fairly ridiculous from the get-go, “Silent Running” only gets more silly and laughable as Lowell’s descent into madness continues. A eco-friendly science-fiction film obviously (the message is as subtle as a jackhammer), sadly there are about two great moments in the film and one of them is the title sequence over incredibly beautiful and expressive macro photography of vegetation, flowers and amphibian creatures (the rest of the movie looks as if it’s lit like the “Buck Rogers” TV set). Perhaps the best/worst unintentionally funny element of the film are the hippie-dippie space folk songs song by Joan Baez (watch one particularly hilarious one here). While “Silent Running” isn’t very good, there’s a lot of ironic humor value on top of being strangely watchable, for all its ridiculous qualities.
Tarkovsky’s follow-up to “Andrei Rublev” is rarely mentioned in a sentence without the word “2001” cropping up at the same time. But, aside from being a thoughtful, spiritual, meditatively paced science fiction film, based on a novel by one of the genre’s greats (Polish writer Stanislaw Lem), they have little in common: as J. Hoberman once pointed out in The Village Voice, the film in fact bears more resemblance to another critical darling, Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Vertigo.” There are no gadgets or CGI to be found, just people, in the story of Kelvin, a psychologist sent to investigate bizarre happenings on a space station that orbits the ocean planet Solaris, only to be greeted there by a manifestation of his late wife, who killed herself years earlier. For all of its fearsome reputation and running time, it’s a simple tale of grief and lost love, albeit one spiced up with sci-fi questions of identity, and the nature of humanity. Hari, Kelvin’s wife, is constructed from neutrons, but has all the memories, thoughts, and feelings of her deceased counterpart — does that not make her just as human? It’s a devastating tale (Hari’s second suicide attempt is truly wrenching), and arguably Tarkovsky’s most deeply felt story. There’s an argument to be made that Steven Soderbergh‘s 2002 remake is the superior film — at almost half the length, it’s a tighter, more focused picture, that doesn’t lose anything truly essential — but to cut down the original would be madness: as in all of his work, the best moments, like the languid, Earth-bound opening, or the stunning zero gravity sequence, are near-transcendent. Soderbergh would later state he was adapting the novel, not remaking the film “Solaris,” and compared Tarkovsky’s picture to a “sequoia,” while his was “a little bonsai.”
“Soylent Green” (1973)
Let’s get this out the way. Yes, Soylent Green is people, something that long ago joined “Psycho” and “Planet of the Apes” as famous twists probably spoiled for you by jokes on “The Simpsons” long before you saw the movie. Though in retrospect, even the original trailer hints at its twist pretty heavily. Based on Harry Harrison‘s novel “Make Room! Make Room!,” the film is set in a run-down, hugely overpopulated New York of 2022 (something that feels eerily plausible as it inches closer), where the starving population get by on a mysterious foodstuff known as Soylent Green. But when a director of the Soylent Corporation (the great Joseph Cotten) is murdered, NYPD cop Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is put on the case, discovering, with his “human library” pal Sol Roth (the final performance from Edward G. Robinson), a wide-reaching conspiracy with the ultimately shocking secret that much of the planet have been unwittingly turned into cannibals. Like many of these picks, Richard Fleischer‘s film is something of a mixed bag. Its theme of environmental disaster, overpopulation and corporate skulduggery are just as resonant, if not more so, than they were forty years ago, but the look and feel of the film hasn’t dated especially well. There’s a lovely performance from Robinson (who died twelve days after he wrapped filming, and told Heston of his terminal cancer just before filming his own death scene to get a better performance out of his co-star), but Heston’s a bit of a blank slate in the lead. And while its meld of science fiction and “Parallax View“-style paranoid thriller is a smart one, the script (by Stanley R. Greenberg, who has few notable credits otherwise) is fairly mediocre. Not a painful watch by any means, but with the film’s secret so widely known by now, hardly a necessary one.
While “Solaris” is probably Andrei Tarkovsky’s most well-known film because of its genre associations and its 2002 remake, the post-apocalyptic setting of “Stalker” holds just as many genre trappings, but is arguably more successful (the filmmaker himself asserted as much). Set in a world that appears to be a post-nuclear-Russia (but this is only loosely implied), the film chronicles two men’s journey into the Zone — a strange, mystical, abandoned place guarded by barbed wire and soldiers, which houses a room which allegedly contains the opaque utopia of ones innermost hopes and dreams. Not bounded by the laws of physics and containing inexplicable and invisible dangerous, the Zone can only be navigated with the help of a Stalker — an individual with special mental gifts who risks government imprisonment for taking the desperate, or the curious, into this forbidden area. Against his wife’s wishes, one particular Stalker accompanies a writer in an existential crisis and a quiet scientist into the zone, where, as the three men spiral down into the depths of the building each one of them faces moral, psychological, existential, philosophical and even physical questions and conflicts. As enigmatic and mysterious as any of Tarkovsky’s pictures, like in “Solaris,” the vague sci-fi-ish elements give it enough narrative to make it one of his most engaging pictures, yet it never compromises in grappling with the metaphysical and spiritual themes that haunt all of his work. Marked by tactile sound design, gorgeous brown monochrome sepia tones and a dilapidated atmosphere both decayed and waterlogged, it’s almost a miracle that “Stalker” came to pass, considering Tarkovsky worked for a full year shooting outdoor sequences with a different cinematographer, recording footage he eventually burned. One could argue the picture is a heart of darkness-like voyage into the unknown, albeit a much more surreal and metaphysical picture than Joseph Conrad’s story ever intended.
“The Terminal Man” (1974)
Somewhat in the mould of “The Andromeda Strain” in its real-world-science take on slightly fantastical elements, “The Terminal Man” saw Michael Crichton‘s fiction come back to the screen five years after the earlier film, to even more mixed results. The Hollywood debut of “Get Carter” helmer Mike Hodges, the film stars an intriguingly against-type George Segal as Harry Benson, a genius computer programmer who suffers from seizures that cause him to act violently, leading to the death of two people. He volunteers to have a tiny computer implanted in him that’s meant to control these behaviors, but in fact, he enjoys being calmed down so much that he starts instigating more violent seizures in order to experience it more often. Poorly received on release (Hodges feuded with Warner Bros over the final cut), the film’s actually aged better than many on this list: Hodges’ direction demonstrates again why he’s rather underrated, Segal gives one of his most atypical and impressive performances, and the downbeat, thoughtful tone gives a very different spin to the cyborg genre than we’ve generally seen elsewhere. The film runs out of steam towards the end, and it’s decidedly flawed, but it’s something of a hidden gem of this era of science-fiction. It was also reportedly something of a favorite of Terrence Malick. The filmmaker, whose “Badlands” premiered the same year, was moved to write a letter to Hodges to say how much he’d liked it.
“THX 1138” (1971)
The George Lucas who directed the “Star Wars” prequels is almost unrecognizable as the filmmaker who made “THX 1138,” the bleak, sterile, and yet deeply felt sci-fi that marked his feature film debut, and which might still stand as his best movie. Billed on release as “the love story filmed on location in the 21st century,” it stars Robert Duvall as the title character, an inhabitant of a futuristic city who, like the others, is kept in a state of compliant numbness by mind-altering drugs, by authorities who’ve also banned sex and love among them. His roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) stops taking her medication, and swaps THX’s out too, and the pair suddenly find themselves feeling emotion, and falling in love with each other, something that brings them to the attention of their rulers. While the film might strain under the weight of its IMPORTANT METAPHORS, it also cannily predicts the Prozac-numbed generations to come, and the story is satisfying and powerful, not least thanks to world-building that’s as impressive as anything Lucas did with “Star Wars.” And his direction — modernist, off-kilter, inspired — is a reminder that his skills as a filmmaker can often be undervalued. Avoid the 2008 Director’s Cut, which in true Lucas fashion, adds unnecessary CGI, and not much else. But watch the original version, and it’s a reminder that if Lucas does ever return to more avant-garde films, as he’s long promised, it’ll be an event far more exciting than “Episode VII.”
Sometime in the not distant future the latest fad for the travel industry is theme vacations. And no, we’re not talking Cruise ships full of excrement, it’s the future, and so entire worlds can be replicated by the use of high tech and lifelike robotics. And so the company Delos is profiting by their new three-tiered vacation resort that promises replications of three eras of history, the Wild West (Westworld), European medieval times (Medieval World) and the Roman Empire (Roman World). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin star as two bachelors who take some well-needed R&R in Westworld. The whiskey is flowing, the whores are willing and the lifelike gunslingers are programmed to ensure they’ll lose at the first sign of a draw. However, scientists working round at the resort start to notice problematic circuitry and one robot (played by a super creepy Yul Brynner) starts to malfunction and then outright rebel — he’s the original relentless Terminator, much scarier than Arnie or Robert Patrick, simply because he’s looks much more like a pedophile cowboy. Soon all the worlds are thrust into chaos when the symbiotes begin killing the guests much to the chagrin of the scientists behind the curtain unable to invoke a total shut-down on the resort. Directed and written by author Michael Crichton — people tend to forget on top of being the author of bestsellers you see in airports, he was a fairly successful film director in the ‘70s and ‘80s –“Westworld” is silly in concept and dated, but engaging and watchable, which is sometimes much more than some of the follies of this era can’t boast.
While John Boorman’s career was never completely impeccable, the man who delivered one deconstructed crime classic (“Point Blank”) and one horrifying thriller that would do for the deep backwoods South what “Jaws” did for the water (“Deliverance”), John Boorman would stumble hard with this cult-beloved, but hilariously strange sixth feature-length effort, “Zardoz.” What does Boorman do with the carte blanche cache earned from the hit that was “Deliverance”? Blows it on a sci-fi picture that starts off with a floating-head prologue from a magician narrator, before a gigantic stone god head descends upon a planet of savages, proceeds to barf up rifles and tells the heathen “exterminators” to go forth and destroy all the peon “brutals” on Earth (the stonehenge deity also gives them this pearl of wisdom: “the gun is good. The penis is evil”). Set in the post-apocalyptic Earth of AD 2293, “Zardoz” centers on a hirsute and Zapatta-moustached exterminator (Sean Connery) who sneaks into the aforementioned Godhead and is accidentally sent to the Vortex, a realm that houses a secret cabal of immortal gods known as Eternals (headed up by ice queen Charlotte Rampling) that are exploiting the masses with this fraudulent “Zardoz” floating head deity and scare tactic. “Wizard of Oz”-style, Connery’s pony-tailed and scruffy chested hero then sets out to reveal their grand scheme. Written, produced and directed by Boorman, this picture was actually a pet project of his, and it might have landed him in permanent director’s jail if it weren’t for the successful “Excalibur” in 1981. Admittedly, the kaleidoscopic visuals, ambitious metaphysical textures and bizarro ending of the last act are deeply impressive — as if Kubrick dropped a little LSD — but ultimately, “Zardoz,” while ironically enjoyable, is indisputable messy; a headscratching and often times unintentionally funny misfire. Still, it’s a total camp classic too and in many ways, a must-watch.
Honorable mentions: There is still plenty more to mine from the decade, but there’s only so much time to dig into it all. “Futureworld,” the sequel to “Westworld,” is worth tracking down purely for curiosity sake; “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” is a flat out classic, and as such didn’t quite merit “oddball” status. Other movies we kicked around but just didn’t have a chance to get to included “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Trog” starring Joan Crawford, “The Thing with Two Heads” with Ray Milland (the ’70s sci-fi movie seemed to be a familiar home for classic era Hollywood stars), Woody Allen‘s “Sleeper” (excellent, but oddball for different reasons), “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Stepford Wives.”