Why it’s daunting: If the ’50s were science fiction’s rock ’n’ roll period, and the ’60s were its psychedelic phase, then the ’70s were when SF finally went emo. The genre was always uniquely equipped to reflect a particular era’s hang-ups and anxieties, and the early ’70s found science-fiction films grappling with some doozies: war, technology, hedonism, authority, freedom, and the environment. Oh, and sex. Gone were 1950s Cold War allegories and 1960s escapism. In their place were cerebral, angsty films that wallowed in visions of post-apocalyptic societies gone to seed. Dystopian views of the future were nothing new, but the ’70s proved to be especially ripe for this particular kind of science-fiction navel-gazing. Ushered in by late-’60s pictures like Planet Of The Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the era saw the proliferation of dozens of likeminded dystopian films—from A Boy And His Dog to Logan’s Run—before finally falling out of vogue late in the decade, all thanks to a scruffy little space opera called Star Wars. Lacking the narrative zip and polished special effects of today’s blockbusters, ’70s sci-fi can seem plodding and dated to modern viewers, and between that pacing, the grim subject matter, and all the pontificating about heady themes, films in this category often look like particularly dire ways to spend 90 minutes.
Where to start: Logan’s Run (1976)
Why: Logan’s Run’s main conceit is certainly its most famous—everyone in its society gets zapped to dust in an elaborate ceremony known as “Carousel” on their 30th birthdays—but there’s a lot more on the film’s mind than preemptive euthanasia. Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by fantasy-lifers William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the film touches on many basic ’70s dystopian themes: humanity’s reliance on technology; the price of vanity and hedonism; overpopulation; and dodgy special effects. In the 23rd century, a society of blissful, jumpsuit-clad Eloi types weather out a post-apocalyptic storm inside a domed, underground metropolis. An all-seeing computer controls every aspect of daily life—food, recreation, reproduction, and fiery execution—and the populace lives only for pleasure. Logan 5 (Michael York) is a straitlaced keeper of the peace (a “Sandman,” in the film’s parlance) charged with hunting down defectors (“runners”) who choose not to play by the computer’s “30-and-out” rule. The groovy but sinister world Logan inhabits—and later abandons, after meeting a runner named Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter)—is one where casual sex is the norm, and concepts of parenthood and monogamy are patently absurd. Indeed, Logan’s Run sees the future as something of a fully automated, futuristic key party. (Logan, moments after meeting Jessica: “You’re beautiful. Let’s have sex.”)
For all its aspirations to be a whiz-bang adventure story, the film is remarkably weighty, and wonderfully of its time. That’s partly due to its nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, which places it squarely in the ’70s. Methodically staged by British director Michael Anderson, the film is paced light-years away from the action-oriented zip that defined Star Wars just one year later. It’s also a terrific showcase for the era’s practical, sometimes clunky special effects. The miniatures of the underground domed city are especially delightful, even though they’re only one red trolley away from the opening credits of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Though thoroughly enjoyable, Logan’s Run is far from perfect. It’s a strangely paced, episodic film, with extended detours to a tripped-out orgy, an ice cave lorded over by a maniacal robot, and a futuristic plastic surgeon’s office staffed by Farrah Fawcett. The film’s final third is even more problematic. During an extended sojourn through the ruins of Washington D.C., Logan and Jessica happen upon a doddering old coot (played by Peter Ustinov) who teaches them a thing or two about age, freedom, and cats. But the film still succeeds in spite of these tangents, and creates a fully realized world that can shoulder timely issues like sex and freedom, and still make time for some gloriously handmade effects sequences.
Next steps: Science-fiction films of the late ’60s and early ’70s would look distinctly different without Douglas Trumbull, the visual-effects pioneer behind everything from 2001 to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, not to mention Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. Trumbull assumed the role of director for the first time in 1972 for Silent Running, a terrific ’70 dystopian film, and a fine example of the lone-guy-going-nuts-on-a-space-station sub-subgenre. (See also: Solaris.) An idealistic botanist named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) tends to Earth’s last remaining plant life aboard a thankfully Pauly Shore-free bio-dome orbiting Saturn. After orders are given to destroy the dome, Freeman hijacks it and sends himself drifting out into space, with only his precious plants and three service robots for company. The film’s eco-friendly politics are more than a little on the nose, but Dern’s crazed performance and some terrifically detailed (and obvious) miniature work elevate the film to a wonky, wide-eyed masterpiece. Perhaps the only thing that makes Silent Running truly daunting is the alarming number of Joan Baez songs on its soundtrack.
Though the 2002 Rebecca Romijn-starring remake is best forgotten, the original Rollerball (1975) is a quintessential ’70s dystopian mope-fest. Sure, it’s a film about a fast-paced, roller-skating-based blood sport, but it’s also a remarkably thoughtful—and sometimes plodding—treatise on celebrity, freedom, and violence. James Caan is fine as the brooding, put-upon sports star, but the film is at its best when it focuses on the chilling turn from Paper Chase star (and future Naked Gun driving instructor) John Houseman. And don’t forget about the debauched after-party where guests get to blow up trees.
Better yet is 1973’s tale of killer androids run amok, Westworld. Written and directed by a 30-year-old Michael Crichton, the film is more or less a dry run for Crichton’s own Jurassic Park, except with fewer raptors and more Yul Brynner. James Brolin and Richard Benjamin star as visitors to a futuristic theme park that offers up three android-populated areas: MedievalWorld, RomanWorld, and the titular WestWorld. In a twist that unwittingly pre-dates the Hostel films by a few decades, visitors are allowed to get busy with the robots, and even kill them. Things go predictably awry, however, when Brynner’s Gunslinger android goes on a real-life killing spree. It’s a technological cautionary tale in the best possible sense: dark without being grim, and pointed without being preachy.
A poorly received but equally enjoyable sequel, Futureworld (1976), followed three years later, further exploring the darker side of technology, not to mention the timely issue of human-on-android humping. Helmed by TV director Richard T. Heffron, the film is the Lost World to Westworld’s Jurassic Park. It even contains a Brynner cameo. It gets a big boost, however, from a nifty story twist, Peter Fonda’s cockeyed charisma, and Blythe Danner’s stone-cold foxiness. It also boasts a final shot where Fonda gleefully flips the bird to the staff of the ill-fated resort, making Futureworld the proud owner of one of the silliest kiss-offs in science-fiction history.
Where not to start: For all its acclaim, George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) is somewhat obtuse and one-note, and can be a slog to sit through. Like other early Lucas joints, it looks and sounds great, but can’t fully shake its origins as a gussied-up student film. Good thing Lucas got his groove back six years later, and effectively torpedoed the slow-paced, dystopian science-fiction subgenre. Goodbye introspection; hello Wookies.