When did science-fiction movies become any good?
Should you ever watch any science-fiction (SF) movie before 1980, given that they all generally look cheesy to our 21st century eyes?
Let’s focus these broad questions on one decade, the 1970s, and see how much fun that decade’s SF movies are to watch.
For SF movies of that decade, they struggled for mass respectability. Prior to remarkable advances in special-effects technology, SF movies before and just after 1977’s Star Wars depended on SF atmosphere—sets, props, lighting, and costumes—and an audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. And yet they lacked the complex-character-driven narratives that the movies of that decade are now famous for.
In the wake of Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, both released in the late 1960s, 1970s SF movies struggled to stay afloat, narratively and technically speaking.
On the whole, it was a poor decade for SF movies, except that the ideological groupthink that the content of these movies is bathed in helped produce two of the most influential movies yet made: Star Wars: Episode IV and Alien.
Both of these movies deal heavily with the dystopian assumptions that fueled almost all SF films in the 1970s. That is the main problem of 1970s SF movies, among a thousand others—that they got stuck in the rut of dystopian thinking. Nearly all of the movies I discuss below, and there are a host more of them that I didn’t discuss, are dismal dystopias filled with one-dimensional characters. Watching even one of these movies might induce a temporary state of severe depression in any viewer.
Basically, Hollywood and English studios in the 1970s thought that consumers wanted post-apocalyptic fare. Given the failures of the movies discussed below, and the financial success of Star Wars, consumers did not want that.
I have found that the 1970s SF dystopias are usually predicated on one of two topics: either government tyranny or environmental destruction. In the case of a few movies, sometimes they combined both.
The “government tyranny” movies tended to imitate George Orwell’s 1984, usually featuring a single man trying to fight or escape from an oppressive bureaucracy. It’s interesting that George Lucas used this type of plot in both his THX 1138 (1971)—a blatant rip-off, plot-wise, of 1984—and in Star Wars (1977).
What follows are brief reviews and comments on each movie. My hope is that there’s a cumulative effect when reading several of them, which helps guide you through the morass of bad movies made during the 1970s. You don’t have to watch them if you read ahead. Please enjoy the writing. (And in the future, I hope to add reviews of the movies I haven’t written about here.)
The Really Bad Ones
A Western in post-apocalyptic garb. The Ultimate Warrior features a compound of about 100 people, in the middle of New York City, who are braving it out in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of cannibals, rival compounds, and other various amoral “street people,” as they are called in the movie.
The leader of the main compound, played by Max Von Sydow, hires a fighter, played by Yul Brynner, to protect the compound. This is the equivalent of a small Western town hiring a gunslinger to protect itself from the bad guys who are trying to invade it.
And that is how this movie plays out—that is, as a Western. Brynner is a gunslinger without a gun, his preferred weapon being a dagger, and he stops the bad guys from invading the compound. Not much goes on beyond the movie’s 30-minute mark, except ponderous dialogue and fight scenes.
We don’t really know why this is a post-apocalyptic world, but the movie hints that nuclear war played a large part in creating this world. It’s also not clear why civilization would quickly break down to the point of cannibalism, instead of cooperation.
And here I stop to observe that so many SF movies assume that, absent a functioning government, people become raving, amoral maniacs—as if it’s the State alone that allows for a stable society to flourish. Their assumption seems to be that the State itself makes us decent people, and without it we are animalistic primitives. My bet is that it’s more likely that the opposite is the case—or at least it was in the 1970s.
This movie’s pacing is much too slow, its music as horrific as any 1970s TV movie, and it doesn’t seem to understand what post-apocalyptia can look and feel like, especially via its crummy visuals. The movie’s sets looks as if the set designers just emptied out a couple of city blocks and then added some cobwebs and broken crates, calling that a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
If you want to experience the atmosphere of this movie, just go play one of the Fallout games instead of wasting 90 minutes with The Ultimate Warrior—a movie much more boring than its title suggests.
A bad “message-movie” about environmental catastrophe, no different from propaganda, that warns us that should we continue to pollute the Earth, civilization will descend into a form of anarchy that will obliterate morality everywhere, causing us all to instantly hunt each other down, our top priorities in this kind of environment being raping and killing.
Set in England, No Blade of Grass depicts total lawlessness in the extreme. The moviesays that once the world descends into an apocalypse—with Englishmen wantonly shooting other Englishmen for no great reason—Lord of the Flies will look like an episode of “Barney.”
No Blade of Grass features a small family in England. During the movie, they travel from southern England to the north, to a rural farm. They do so just as the apocalypse breaks, thanks to a “grass disease” that obliterates the world food supply. Also contributing to the ecological apocalypse are air pollution, water pollution, nuclear weapons testing, global warming, rotting carcasses of animals and … well, the movie very obviously takes a Murphy’s-Law approach to the environmental apocalypse.
In No Blade of Grass,Everything that can destroy the environment does destroy the environment.
Along the way, the traveling family encounters rape gangs, marauding bike gangs, and gun-toting farmers who are happy to shoot anyone they can, just because they can. Anarchy in the UK!
Every scene is bad in its own way, accompanied by a lame, TV-movie-level musical score. By “bad” I mean either poorly shot, poorly acted, illogical, or some combination of three. There are occasional flash-forwards that occur only because the director wasn’t good enough to prepare the audience for these scenes when they occur a second time, in the right chronological order.
This movie also features perhaps the worst military tactics ever filmed, namely the biker gang scene. No Blade of Grass is worth watching just to laugh long and hard at that scene.
And yet, in spite of everything that goes wrong, including the annoying propagandistic messaging about environmental destruction, the world No Blade of Grass creates is compelling and genuine. It is relentless in its attempt to show how British civilization might disintegrate in a world of pure survival. I believe the movie influenced the Mad Max series and Cuaron’s Children of Men, and that influence is easy to spot.
Only watch this is if you love any post-apocalyptic movie, no matter the quality.
A satire that has no good target, DeathRace 2000 exists just to show cars hitting and killing people. This is a tremendous piece of trash, wrongly labelled a “cult-classic” in various parts of the Internet, which supposedly criticizes violence while definitely encouraging being entertained by violence. I would have rather played any Grand Theft Auto game than watch this movie; the effect would have been the same, but the game would have been far more entertaining.
Essentially, in the near-future, there’s a race across America involving plastic-looking cars, driven by sports heroes named Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (played by a young Sylvester Stallone). The drivers get points for hitting pedestrians.
The drivers are also unlikely to survive the race, which I suppose is the impetus for TV viewers to watch an otherwise long and boring drive across America.
Featured in DeathRace 2000 is an annoying broadcaster who yucks it up about the number of people that the racers hit with their cars. Perhaps this is the one accuracy of the movie: the portrayal of journalists who openly root for violence, in order to get attention and make themselves more popular.
DeathRace 2000 tries to make fun of American politics and violence in entertainment. It ends up merely reinforcing the pleasures of the issues it criticizes. It has no satirical aim because it doesn’t have any moral, theological, or philosophical grounding to it. The writers of the movie were puerile hacks. The movie watches as if cackling teenagers created it, in an attempt to imitate MAD magazine, and doing so very badly.
For unclear reasons, the tyrannical government in Z.P.G.—which stand for Zero Population Growth—bans all citizens from having children. It’s a 30-year-ban, even though the entire world is soaked in pollution. The outdoor shots are so foggy that we viewers can barely see the characters on-screen, presumably because of air pollution.
It would seem that the government in this movie would actually encourage the birth of children, given its unbelievable environmental problems. Wouldn’t people have a shorter lifespan in this world?
The women in the movie really want children. In place of children, they are forced to use creepy dolls as substitute kids. All of the dolls look like they were picked up the day before shooting at a Goodwill store.
Like a number of 1970s SF films, Z.P.G. has birth and birth-control themes, and this one features them prominently. The female protagonist in this movie wants a child. She’s not allowed to. When she asks a doctor about it—and he’s a tele-doctor, something the movie was prescient about—he hypnotizes her using neuro-linguistic programming, which is a key feature of dystopian control in Z.P.G.
The Criterion Channel, which hosted this movie as of January 2020, claims that this movie remains “chillingly relevant.” I don’t know why they said this, unless they are spinning Z.P.G. as a movie about reproductive rights, namely the right to choose an abortion.
However, Z.P.G. is about exactly the opposite of that. The protagonist in this movie uses a machine to abort her baby, with the “abort” button ominously featured on-screen and the woman definitely not wanting to have the abortion.
What I think Z.P.G. is actually talking about is, say, China’s long-time “one-child policy” — i.e., government-mandated population control. If anything, this movie leans in the anti-abortion direction.
Z.P.G. has some interesting material, but its flaws include a brutally slow pace, which makes this movie all premise and no story. The movie stars Oliver Reed, who doesn’t know what movie he’s in, as he seems to be just mailing in his performance.
A sidenote: It is hilarious that a 20th century museum is featured in Z.P.G. The two main characters are actors in a museum, and they act out scenes from the 1970s for people touring the museum, who are so thrilled to see what life was like in 1971 that they gladly put themselves on a four-year waiting list for a museum tour!
As usual, in bad science-fiction movies, all people of the future are intensely interested in the decade in which the actual movie they are in is released.
A contender for the most boring Frankenstein movie yet made.
Basically, a violent man has “machines” implanted in his brain to prevent his violence. Doctors of the near-future believe, like the doctors who conducted lobotomies in the 1940s and 50s, that some kind of brain surgery can fix a man’s bad behavior.
Of course, we get the naysayer speech before the doctors perform the big operation. The one naysayer warns us, as piously as he can, about the consequences of turning a violent man who fears machines into a machine.
The first 40 minutes of this movie depicts a brain surgery. During the surgery, the lead surgeon says that long operations are the only thing that’s both nerve-wracking and boring.
That’s true, because on film, they are just boring. The only thing saving this movie from being totally abominable are some neat shots and sequencing by director Mike Hodges. He tries, but fails, to make the surgery seem important.
After the 40-minute brain surgery, the patient escapes the hospital. He wanders around for the next hour of the movie, doing nothing much.
The point of this movie, or one of them, is that the medical establishment is a dehumanizing system that is already creating cyborgs before it actually implants “machines” into human brains. That is presumably why the brain surgery in this movie takes so long. The same point could’ve been made, however, in a twenty-minute short, and much more powerfully.
This one is based on a Michael Crichton novel. More on him below.
Zardoz has a league of ferocious defenders on the Internet. They claim that the movie is a surrealistic gem, packed with grand ideas about sex and civilization and religion.
The movie’s one advantage, over all of the really terrible science fiction (SF) movies of the 1970s, is that it strives for the high weirdness-level necessary for most great SF. Like an A.E. van Vogt or Philip K. Dick novel, every three minutes of Zardoz presents the viewer with something totally new and unexpected.
I tried mightily to like this movie. But it’s impossible to overcome the unintentional hilarity of so many of this movie’s unfortunate choices, beginning with the images of Sean Connery in a red loincloth, dashing around the screen and—midway through the movie—being attacked by a group of geriatric dancers in formal attire. Later in the movie–in an image that should be famous–you see him for no good reason in a wedding dress.
And also, the images of the giant floating head that looks like a bathtoy thrown into the air by the props guy.
And also, pretty much every scene involving the Immortals, who are the moronic hippies of the future.
Zardoz has perhaps the worst line of exposition ever spoken in a movie. It occurs just two minutes into the movie. It is spoken by the aforementioned giant floating bathtub head, which says: “the gun is good, but the penis is evil.”
Then it vomits forth guns and ammo galore from its mouth.
Zardoz is what happens when moderns try to invent a mythology absent any tradition or reference to prior mythologies. It is merely a stupid dream that no one wants to hear about, because it makes no sense, having no historical or philosophical signifiers, other than whatever ones you want to invent for it.
The director, John Boorman, has stated very clearly that he was on drugs and doesn’t know what some parts of this movie are about.
I suppose the movie is doing what contemporary far-future SF stories were, namely those by Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. It shows a futuristic society of “Immortals” who are so advanced technologically that they’ve created a hippie commune in which they use ESP to get and do whatever they want. However, the movie is set somewhere around the year 2200, and that is actually the only thing that makes this movie classifiable as “science fiction.” Otherwise, it’s a props-and-costumes fantasy.
Sean Connery is also at his worst here, unable to muster forth the necessary believability to exist in this kind of movie. (Compare him to, say, Tom Baker of Doctor Who, an actor who shows you both that he knows he’s in a stupid production filled with cheap sets and that he’s really enjoying it.)
Tarsem’s great movie The Fall quotes Zardoz amply, including the masks and the use of Beethoven’s 7th. I suppose some small good came out of the trash that is Zardoz.
Other movies in this category:
- The Omega Man
- A Clockwork Orange
- Logan’s Run
- Dark Star
- Black Moon
- The Black Hole
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
THE NOT-SO-TERRIBLE ONES
The Delos corporation has opened three simulation theme-parks for tourists: RomanWorld, MedievalWorld, and Westworld. The parks are stocked with robots who make each world come alive. It’s an expensive trip, too: $1000/day.
Tourists enjoy it for odd reasons, mainly (it seems) because they can have sex with any robot they want. The parks are basically a kind of Disney World for undersexed adults.
Then the robots go bad. They get a “disease,” or something goes wrong with their programming. They start attacking the tourists.
This is the entire movie: tourists go to a theme park with robots, enjoy themselves for awhile, then get attacked by robots.
This lack of narrative and thematic complexity is typical of Michael Crichton stories, of which WestWorld is one (he wrote and directed it). The movie features an inelegant simplicity, completely different from the captivating simplicity of better “tech-goes-wrong” SF movies, such as Alien.
Crichton tended to construct works that were all premise and nothing else. This is why, in part, he’s not respected at all by real science-fiction writers and critics. None of the movies based on his books go beyond a simple premise.
The same is true of the movies he wrote and directed, which include WestWorld. Only Spielberg made a Crichton story, “Jurassic Park,” quite appealing to the masses—that movie featuring exactly the same premise as WestWorld, which is a theme-park predicated on new tech that ends up killing its customers.
The main point of WestWorld seems to be that while rich tourists get to pretend and have fun within a consumer experience, there’s a whole “backlot” scene where the robots are adjusted and monitored by hard-working teams of scientists. This point describes all industries: they have a pleasurable exterior and a gritty interior (e.g., any fast food restaurant and kitchen).
But so what? Why should ordinary people be critiqued for enjoying the exterior world of a business? WestWorld seems to wag its finger at the tourists in this movie, who ignore the fact that the park is a façade and that other people have to slave away on their behalf, behind the scenes. (Although I am sure that the robot scientists of WestWorld are paid very well.)
Yet a pleasurable facade is what all entertainment strives to be, including this very movie!
This is a point lost on WestWorld, and I wouldn’t except Crichton to be wise enough to apply his criticism of consumers to his own creative productions. Had Crichton engaged with serious science fiction of the 1960s, even the 1940s and 1950s, he would’ve seen that this exterior/interior criticism is a trite point.
What would Philip K. Dick have done with WestWorld? In his better novels, it would’ve been just one of twenty elements within it, a setpiece, or a simulation that is part of another simulation inside another simulation wherein nobody knows what the heck is true or not.
One problem with WestWorld, and other Crichton stories, such as The Terminal Man, Congo, Sphere and even Jurassic Park, is that they are reductive “message movies” about how new technology or mysterious technologies can go wrong while they are under development or in the first stage of release to the public.
But every fool already knows that. This is no insight, even though WestWorld pretends that it is.
All of this doesn’t mean that WestWorld isn’t fun or entertaining. It’s just that it didn’t engage my brain much at all. The last 30 minutes of this movie features one of the slowest and most uneventful chase scenes ever captured on film.
An outstanding “bad-movie,” a royal piece of schlock, unintentionally funny and yet at times ingenious.
The plot is that a NYC detective must investigate several random public shootings, all connected by the fact that the killers all say that they did it because “God told them to.”
This leads our detective, a Catholic man of faith himself, to talk to a number of interesting-looking people—they all looked like they could have been cast with brief speaking parts in a Coen Brothers movie. The detective eventually discovers that the “God” influencing the killers is somehow connected to a 1951 alien abduction.
Or is it? Because while this certainly could be a science-fiction movie, you could also say that the science-fictional elements are all in the main character’s head, making this a pure detective story with some weird visuals that the main character is imagining.
There are so many inspired shots and sequences, amidst schlock and high-school-level filmmaking, and yet God Told Me To somehow touches on politics, race, sex, and religion, all at once. I enjoyed the heck out of it. A bonus was the unexpected Andy Kaufman cameo.
This could be an anti-Catholic movie, or it could be a pro-Catholic movie, but really it is just a dumb movie that is a 90-minute bit of dumb fun.
A great movie to look at and listen to, for any ten-minute stretch. Just go ahead and randomly select any section of this movie. It’s great, for a while, and then it becomes repetitive and somewhat annoying.
In its historical context, THX 1138 was a sophisticated, early 1970s SF movie that possesses aspects of the cinematic brilliance of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Godard’s Alphaville.
The problem is there’s no story and no characters. The stars of the show are the effects, visual and sound.
The plot is essentially this: man and woman stuck in dystopia and must escape.
There’s an alternate universe where George Lucas and the great sound designer Walter Murch swapped careers. I say that because they co-wrote the screenplay, and Murch’s sound effects stand out. (Murch directed Return to Oz,a movie I loved as a kid, as well as doing the amazing sound work on The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.)
As it is, THX 1138 exists to make us ask bewildering questions. What happened to Lucas’ amazing photographic eye, which is well on display in this movie?
And how in the world could the director of this movie, who shows so much brilliance, have also directed Attack of the Clones?!?
I have an irrational appreciation of this movie, so please understand that I might be completely delusional here.
Demon Seed is mostly stupid, and yet it has two great things going for it.
First, the premise is simultaneously hilarious, relevant, and chilling. Essentially, an advanced computer that runs a domestic home develops a grudge against its maker. It traps his wife within the house, making her its slave.
Because the computer controls everything in the house—the lighting, the temperature, robot servants, etc.—the woman must use her ingenuity to try to get out before the computer kills her or …
. . . Impregnates her!
Yes, the computer decides it wants something special from her: a child. This is where the movie pushes its premise over the top. The computer believes it can have a child, as it wants to possess a body, the one thing it lacks. So it attempts to have a cyborg-hybrid child with the woman.
Unlike all of the terrible movies I named above, besides Zardoz, Demon Seed doesn’t care how absurd it can get. It goes for crazy ideas, instead of mundane chase- or escape-scenes. This is always what SF movies should do: make their third and final acts as crazy-absurd as possible. If they do that, at the least they will be more enjoyable.
My caution to you is that Demon Seed is partly an excuse for the lead actress, Julie Christie, to take off her clothes. It’s definitely exploitative in that way—not exploiting her, but you the viewer and your patience for such stupidity.
However, Demon Seed, in my delusional opinion, the best of the lot of 1970s SF movies so far named.
Other movies in this category:
- Silent Running
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- Fantastic Planet
THE GOOD ONES
Little more needs to be said about this now famous horror/SF movie that spawned three sequels and dozens of imitators. The movie is very simple but well executed. It doesn’t excite my rational mind at all, but it can tingle the vast elements of the unconscious mind.
What Alien also did well was pick up on all of the dystopian themes prominent in the 1970s, using them by mostly burying them. It’s hard to spot that the “working-class” characters in this movie are railroaded by the corporation they work for, but it’s there. Whereas in other ‘70s SF movies, those themes, as I have said above, are much too much in your face.
As well, Alien famously uses all of the birth and birth-control themes evident in 1970s SF. Z.P.G., Zardoz, and Demon Seed concentrate on these themes, as does No Blade of Grass and THX 1138.
Alien takes these themes and runs with them. Impregnation, venereal disease, complications from pregnancy—all of these are important undercurrents.
In context, Star Wars is a major outlier. Episode IV: A New Hope is the one happy movie in this entire article, other than Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There’s a novel reading of Episode IV—or at least I think I’m inventing it right now—that says that the movie is actually about the state of SF film up to 1977.
Consider the movie in this new way: the rebels are a stand-in for or representative of George Lucas himself, the plucky, quasi-independent filmmaker who is bringing back the happy spirit of the older SF serials of his youth.
Meanwhile, the Empire represents the dark dominance of dystopias in SF film in general. The rebels vs. the Empire is Lucas’ desire for happy-SF to win and “blow up” the empire of dystopian SF that dominated 1970s film.
As I said, the long list of movies in this article shows how depressing, daunting, and dismal the world of 1970s SF film was. Star Wars is—in my suggested way of looking at it—about SF Film’s struggle to free itself of that oppressive empire of thought and feeling. With the rebels beating the Empire in this movie, there’s hope that SF in the future itself can be more happy, optimistic, hopeful, and generative in the future.
On the whole, although Episode IV looks somewhat simplistic and retro to our eyes, everything in it is an amazing leap beyond all of the SF movies mentioned in this article. Only Kubrick’s 2001 can claim to be Episode IV’s visual rival, in terms of effects, sets, costumes, sound, and visions of space.
I have long thought that Episode IV looks bad, especially the costumes and sets, until I watched a heap of movies from its time period. Thereby I gained new respect for Lucas’ designs in the movie.
In this reading of Episode IV, The Empire Strikes Back takes a major hit. That movie, released in 1980, returns us back to the dismal dystopias of the 1970s, using space-opera sentimentality to do so.
There’s a strong case, I think, that Empire—as good as it might be—ruined Star Wars, making it all too somber and serious
For example, once Empire gets going, Luke nearly gets killed by a monster, the heroes are all separated from each other, Luke sees dark visions about himself, Darth Vader hunts down and controls everybody, C3P0 gets blown apart, Han Solo gets frozen and nearly dies, and of course Luke figures out that he’s a close blood-relative of the most evil man in the galaxy. In the end, the Empire sort of wins. That is the end of the 1970s, and the beginning of the 1980s.
I put this here based on its reputation. In truth, I am one of probably three people in the world who (incorrectly?) like Steven Soderbergh’s version better, and in fact my entire experience with Tarkovsky’s Solaris is badly tainted by Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, which is one of my favorite novels ever, probably in my top-20. It’s basically unfilmable, I think, because of its reliance on a first-person perspective that the medium of film itself has troubling re-envisioning..
My favorite part of this movie is when Tarkovsky pans around Pieter Brueghel’s painting “The Hunters in the Snow” for five minutes. But very likely, most viewers will skip it.
Otherwise, the greatness of Solaris eludes me, and it is at the bottom of my Tarkovsky list. But he is one of the masters, so his worst is still one to pay attention to.
Other movies in this category:
- The Man Who Fell to Earth