Friday, August 22, 2014

Three from the Seventies

Lately I've been on this kick of watching sci-fi movies from the seventies. Being a child of the eighties, I grew up on Terminator and Robocop, and have never seen most of these. I started with The Planet of the Apes (which is 1968, I know, but close enough) and then Soylent Green (1973), which I reviewed here. Strangely, this is one of my most visited posts. Anyway, I've gone through a few more lately, including The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1972), Westworld (1973).

The Omega Man. Wow. I thought this one was really great. Based on the novel I Am Legend (more recently made into a film starring Will Smith), the premise is that biological warfare has wiped out practically the entire human race, except for one man, an Air Force doctor (Charlton Heston) who managed to inoculate himself during the catastrophe. He's the Omega Man.

The movie opens with Heston's character driving down a perfectly silent, empty L.A. street. There's something mesmerizing about these first scenes depicting his utter isolation in the quiet earth. Then he spies motion in a building, and opens fire.

For there are a few other survivors, but they're are all infected with the virus. Instead of killing them it's turned them into psychotic nocturnal albino mutants. They call themselves the Family, and live a communal, quasi-religious lifestyle under the leadership of a former news anchor. They dress like Dominican inquisitors, and their only purpose in life is to destroy all vestiges of the old culture and learning that brought about the downfall of man. Every night they assail the Omega Man's fortress-like townhouse, whose interior has a really cool, seventies-style ante-bellum décor going on. The Omega Man divides his time between playing chess against a statue and throwing firebombs out the window at the Family.

Every time he gets into a fight with the Family, this funky seventies music starts playing. It's just really awesome. And Heston is great at playing the cynical, self-confident a-hole with a penchant for snappy one-liners. Eventually he finds this enclave of people – children, mostly – who have the virus but haven't yet turned into psychotic nocturnal albino mutants, though this could happen at any moment, especially when the plot seems to call for it. They rescue him from execution when he's captured by the Family, and there's a great chase scene with him and Lisa, played by the lovely Rosalind Cash, together on a motorcycle. The seemingly ice-cold Lisa eventually warms up to him. Complications ensue. The finale is luridly dramatic and unsubtle as can be, complete with religious imagery, but still quite powerful.

All in all a pretty neat movie, and one I'm surprised I hadn't heard more about. I guess people find it dated. There are a lot of references to the Black Power movement, Woodstock, etc.  And the music, as I said, is pretty funky. Maybe it comes of being more a fantasist than a scientifictionalist, but things like that never bother me. The more authentically period the piece is, the better. My only real complaint with the movie is that the lighting is pretty bad in some interior scenes.

Silent Running. And then there's Silent Running. Silent Running is...special. It opens with a throaty Joan Baez song, and close-ups of critters sitting in moss like at the beginning of a Gnomes cartoon. A goofy-looking guy with unkempt hair comes into view, wearing something like a Franciscan habit made from terrycloth bathrobes, cuddling a bunny rabbit and talking to it in soothing tones.

In the future, it seems, man has stripped the earth of all biota, preferring to live in sterile, climate-controlled comfort. The only living forests exist in spaceborne biodomes owned by American Airlines hovering (for some reason) in the vicinity  of Saturn. (Why would the fleet fly into a gravity well like that?) Our very special friend lives and works aboard one of these with three other guys. He lives the life of a Carthusian. The other guys entertain themselves by crushing flowers and teasing him. He responds by blowing up at them and delivering impassioned monologues about nature and organic food. Maybe it's just that I'm a horrible person, but I find these tirades delightfully hilarious. Actually, I suppose it's because I was a lot like him when I was a kid, and would fly into passions in the defense of flowers and insects from the other boys.

The biodomes look exactly like life-size versions of model railroad forests, which I suppose is appropriate, because the models they use for exterior shots are clearly...model railroad forests. (The movie is directed by Donald Trumbull, who did the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. People say the effects for this movie are just as good, but I don't see it. The models are very model-looking, and space backgrounds just look like blown-up photos pasted to the wall behind the ships.) These forests are inhabited by rabbits, leopard frogs, red-eared sliders, squirrels, and garden snails. Basically, the kinds of animals you can obtain for cheap from any biological supply house or pet store, or see in Central Park.

When the crew is inexplicably ordered to destroy all the domes, our friend goes berserk and murders his three companions. He then fakes his death and takes off with the ship. At one point he has his robot drones bury the body of his friend in the garden, and delivers this bizarre, tearful eulogy to the camera he's using to watch their progress. (I guess he's too queasy to do the dirty work himself.) For a while he lives the simple life with his drones, who he names Huey, Dewey, and (posthumously) Louie. These are played by quadruple amputees in little metal boxes.

"This is actually one of nature's greatest gifts!!!"
Eventually our friend notices that the plants are dying. Panicked, he racks his brain for the cause. He consults books, but to no avail. What could be wrong??? Then a chance communication with a rescue ship gives him the answer: it's really dark way out there in space! Of course! Plants need sunlight to live!!! He then sets up some really bright lights. Problem solved. (They're seemingly incandescent bulbs, which can't be used to grow plants, but no matter.) All along I'd kind of been hoping it was all the processed food his crewmate had consumed, his decomposing body releasing the chemicals into the soil, but no dice.

So, one of the things I find strange about this movie is that, for all its tree-huggery, it actually shows an extremely superficial acquaintance with nature. It's like it was made by those granola hipsters who drive tiny cars plastered with self-congratulatory bumper stickers but don't really know the least thing about the real wild or spend any time outdoors aside from the city park. The syrupy Joan Baez ballads just top it off. Being a pretty ecologically aware guy myself, I was kind of disappointed with this.

So, if you like unintentional sci-fi hillarity, or are a granola hipster who drives a tiny car plastered with self-congratulatory bumper stickers, give Silent Running a watch.

Westworld. This is, of course, the famous precursor to Jurassic Park, written and directed by Michael Crichton. Unsuspecting tourists travel to a theme park "where nothing can go wrong." Things go wrong. Death ensues.

Here the park features hedonistic re-creations of the Old West (West World), ancient Rome (Roman World), and the Middle Ages (Medieval World), each peopled by lifelike androids. For a thousand bucks a day you go there and do what you like. This includes seducing lovely robot-damsels, which, to me, is about as appealing as romancing a bowling shoe, but, you know, different strokes for different folks.

The main plotline is about a pair of guys who spend their time in West World. One has been there before, and inhabits his gunslinger role with self-confident gravitas; his naïve newbie friend is less certain of himself, and more enthusiastic. What's cool to me is that when the robots start running amuck, as we knew they would, it's the experienced one who gets killed right off the bat, and his newbie friend who manages to survive.

I really enjoyed this one. You can tell Terminator took a lot from it, especially the sequence when our hapless tourist is being pursued by the relentless Gunslinger robot (played by Yul Brynner, who reprises his role from The Magnificent Seven). In comparing it with Jurassic Park, I find it less a cautionary tale and more a story about the consequences of unbridled self-indulgence. In this it fits in well with all those disaster movies they made in the seventies. The theme park is clearly based on Disney World (which opened in 1971) with its animatronic robot rides and vast network of secret tunnels for workers and technicians. As I hate Disney World, I thought this was great.

Next on the to-watch list is Logan's Run. What I really want to see is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I'm having trouble renting it. I may just have to buy a copy.


  1. Great reviews on the movies of my childhood. I'm glad someone's still watching them. Even they failures have more ideas going on (even if wrongheaded) than most current sci-fi films.

    A sci-fi fan in the seventies had to watch whatever he could find no matter how hippy-dippy bad it was. My wife and I have been going through a bunch of these via Netflix over the last year or so as she's never seen most of them.

    I like Soylent Green wrong prognostication aside, for the design and the basic noir/mystery plot. The book is very different and has, if I remember right, a strong anti-Catholic element.

    I think you're spot on with The Omega Man. I like it a lot (my mom introduced it to me on tv) but I so prefer the book.

    My wife and I just watched Silent Running. I grew up with it and have a soft spot for the robots but not much else. My wife's take was it similar to yours.

    Westworld I haven't seen in years but remember it as a being pretty awesome.

    I actually saw Logan's Run in the theater so it has a special place in my heart, but again I really prefer the book (which is utterly bonkers).

    I won't say a word about Body Snatchers until you've seen it.

    1. Yeah, these are all very new to me. What I like most about them, compared to a lot that's come since, is the sense of earnestness you get when you watch them. That's true of Silent Running, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, and the rest. Nowadays filmmakers seem a lot more cynical -- just trying to find the right buttons to push to get people to spend money and come back for a sequel.