The optimism of the 1960s died hard in the 1970s, at least in science fiction movies. From Bruce Dern’s homicidal astronaut hippy in Silent Running, to Charlton Heston learning he wasn’t the last man on earth in Omega Man, to the 30-year-life-limit in Logan’s Run, 1970s science fiction movies all had one central theme in common: dystopia. Even George Lucas’ Star Wars gave us a world with over-the-top evil ciphers pursuing and seeking to destroy naive, good-hearted ciphers.
Catching some of these films on the late show on TV, their warts and foibles and shortcomings are on full display. With that said, I would take the special effects in Star Wars or Silent Running over 99.9 per cent of CGI (computer generated imagery), which directors of today use so heavy-handedly.
There’s no getting around it, contemporary mainstream movies look like investments, not cinema. There was a ranginess, a fearless creativity and vision at work in films made in the 1970s, particularly in the science fiction of that era. Sure, the storyline of Soylent Green doesn’t make much sense, but it immerses us into a world we all know is coming – tremendous over-population, choking pollution, a widening chasm between the affluent and the poor. The film itself has a brownish-orange tinge that appears like smoke, demonstrating the poisoned air the inhabitants of that futuristic world live in. The highlight of the film is aged actor Edward G. Robinson. Soylent Green was Robinson’s final film – he died not long afterward – and his performance is quite moving, particularly in the end of the film.
Omega Man hardly has a leg to stand on, what with the fallacy of its title proven shortly into the movie – that Robert Neville (played by Charlton Heston) is not the last man on earth – but it ardent campiness wins the day. Will Smith’s update to the story, I Am Legend, may be more slick and effects-filled, but I’ll take Omega Man over it every time. Robert Neville’s existence among the mutant survivors of germ warfare that destroyed the world is precarious and oozing with genuine suspense. The appeal of this film is primarily nostalgic, but it moves at a very good pace and has more than a few solid performances.
Logan’s Run was a visionary film in its day. Taking the credo of the 1960s “Never trust anyone over 30,” and turning it on its head – no one is allowed to live past the age of 30 – the film gives us a grim, yet compelling look at what life might be like in the year 2274. It’s post-apocalyptic, of course, with the survivors living in a domed city. Michael York is fantastic as Logan 5, the elite police officer whose job it is to locate those who refuse to be executed at the age of 30, and see that they go to their proper end. As with most sci-fi movies of this era, Logan 5 finds his humanity and begins working against the system he once blindly obeyed.
Another film of note from this era is THX-1138, George Lucas’ first feature film. It stars Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance, and is a very understated, seemingly slow-moving film, but the young George Lucas really imbued the movie at once with a numbing, gray static life of its inhabitant, and the burgeoning beat of life that slowly rises in Robert Duvall’s character, THX-1138. Unfortunately, if you see the updated, re-released version on DVD, it comes complete with all of Lucas’ CGI meddling with the original – and I believe, superior – special effects. There’s something almost poetic, though, about modern technology impinging upon a beloved, old-school science fiction movie.