Rolling Stone has picked the 50 greatest sci-fi films of the 1970s, an era that influenced virtually every science fiction film since, and they’ve picked Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece “Alien” as the best of the best. A panel of contributors that included Noel Murray, Eric Hynes, Tim Grierson, Criticwire Editor Sam Adams and Bilge Ebiri have done an excellent job of mixing mainstream hits, foreign imports and cult objects. The full list is here, but these films made the top ten:
1. “Alien” (Ridley Scott)
2. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (Nicolas Roeg)
3. “A Clockwork Orange” (Stanley Kubrick)
4. “Solaris” (Andrei Tarkovsky)
5. “Star Wars” (George Lucas)
6. “Zardoz” (John Boorman)
7. “Silent Running” (Douglas Trumbull)
8. “Phase IV” (Saul Bass)
9. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Steven Spielberg)
10. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Philip Kaufman)
Here’s what Tim Grierson had to say about their number one pick, a Criticwire Classic:
Outside of “Jaws'” prolonged tease that leads to its money-shot shark reveal, no Seventies spectacle builds its dread and anticipation toward one scene as beautifully as director Ridley Scott’s extra-terrestrial horror. (No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the alien’s violent explosion from Kane’s stomach is deeply, profoundly upsetting.) Before we get to That Scene, “Alien” is merely one hell of an office drama in space — a submarine thriller set among the stars. Then it morphs into a haunted-house chiller dropped into the cosmos, creating unbearable tension from the film’s close-quarters locale. At the movies, outer space was once a source of wonder, curiosity, adventure — after Alien, it was a new canvas for our nightmares, a place where no one could hear you scream.
It’s hard to argue too much with that pick, a perfect encapsulation of Ridley Scott’s career-long interest in mortality that remains frightening years later because it treats each death with weight. It’s also a film that jump-started Hollywood sci-fi and action cinema’s interest in strong female leads while simultaneously putting most of its imitators to shame, as few action heroines are as demonstrably intelligent, pragmatic and vulnerable as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.
It’s not the only blockbuster on the list: “Star Wars” made the top five, while the original “Superman” also made the list. Still, my personal favorite, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” gets a great write-up from Eric Hynes:
When was the last time you watched the first fruit of Steven Spielberg’s post-“Jaws” harvest? Did you remember the extended, door-slamming scenes of marital discord between Richard Dreyfus and Teri Garr? Did you remember how long Spielberg delays the big reveal? Did you remember how easily Dreyfuss agrees to board the spaceship? Unlike 1977’s other sci-fi blockbuster, “Star Wars,” the secret to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s” greatness is how it takes the time to immerse us in a swirl of Seventies paranoia and Reader’s Digest-derived mysticism before blowing us away with a Manhattan-sized mothership. Four decades after Orson Welles warned of marauding Martians, Spielberg gave us a wholly friendly alien visitation, complete with oh-hey totally harmless abduction of a toddler, frenzied keyboard-based attempts at communicating, and a luminescent, kind-eyed species of being that has the rare power to tame Francois Truffaut.
Joining the blockbusters in the top ten is the wonderfully strange Saul Bass directorial debut “Phase IV,” which gets a write-up from Criticwire’s own Sam Adams.
The only feature directed by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass concerns a colony of hyperintelligent ants intent on taking over the world, but it’s less a creature feature than the equivalent of taking mushrooms with a bunch of hip myrmecologists. As the ants trap a group of scientists in their isolated desert lab, it becomes clear they don’t want to wipe out humanity so much as (literally) colonize it — an idea played out over the film’s recently rediscovered ending, a heady montage that gives “2001’s” “Beyond the Infinite” a run for its money.
Slightly less well-known cult objects make the list as well. Noel Murray brings attention to “Colossus: The Forbin Project”:
Fourteen years before “The Terminator” (and only two years after HAL refused to open the pod door), there was another, lesser-known tale of a supercomputer seizing control of the world and trying to eradicate humanity. Smug engineer Dr. Charles A. Forbin, who convinces the U.S. Defense Department to let his “Colossus” control the country’s nuclear arsenal, then watches in horror as his creation goes over his head and starts communicating with the Soviet’s own electronic brain. Scientific cockiness drives the story: As a representative of humanity’s best and brightest brainiacs, the doctor builds a machine smart enough to realize that mankind is teeming with arrogant jerks like himself — all of whom need to be purged in the name of peace.
Finally, Bilge Ebiri writes that the Charlton Heston vehicle “Soylent Green” isn’t the camp classic that some might guess from the film’s frequently-spoiled ending.
Forget the shrieking, infamous, now-iconic climax for a second. Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is actually less a sci-fi melodrama than it is a moody noir – more “Blade Runner” than “Planet of the Apes.” It takes place in a very lived-in, ragged New York City, where population growth and climate change have turned the city into a wasteland where people are forced to live like animals. (To be fair, when it comes to NYC, that’s always been the case.) Charlton Heston – back then, still the kind of actor who might have appeared in a film with such a strong environmental message — is the detective whose investigation of a top executive’s murder leads him to uncover some uncomfortable truths about the generic foodstuff that everyone is eating. The overall tone is one of melancholy rather than sci-fi wonder, and the film’s cynicism is hard to shake.