I’ve been reflecting on science fiction films recently in preparation for a future interview to be posted here. Years ago it was an encounter with science fiction, later fantasy films, and eventually horror, that produced a lifelong interest in the fantastic. For some reason two sci fi films from the 1970s have been on my mind, and with the discovery of a few items related to each on YouTube to spur my memory I thought I’d comment on them.
While the 1950s are usually considered as one of the high points for sci fi films in light of those cinematic gems that addressed American fears of the bomb, communism, and cultural conformity, other decades have much to offer in this genre as well. Some of the highlights of 1970s sci fi include Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), The Andromeda Strain (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), The Stepford Wives (1975), Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (remake) (1978), and Altered States (1980). (For those wondering why Alien  is not on my list, although it is highly regarded in my thinking, it is more properly classified as a horror film set in space rather than a sci fi film.) Two additional sci fi films in this genre worthy of mention are Westworld and Logan’s Run. These films are still rewarding cinematically, and offer fodder for reflection.
Westworld (1973) was the second of Michael Crichton’s novels to be turned into films. The first was The Andromeda Strain, but this second novel adaptation saw the author’s imprints on the screenplay and film direction. The storyline is set in the near future where advances in robotics have permitted the creation of a theme park with three themes of the Old West, medieval Europe, and ancient Rome recreated and available for guests to enjoy and explore in a living fantasy. Think Disneyland for adults with no childlike connotations. Theoretically the robots, which look almost perfectly human with the exception of minor flaws in appearance, are programmed in such a way as to prohibit the harm of humans. However, the robots eventually begin to suffer a series of behavioral problems which eventually expand into a systematic failure resulting in all of the safety features being overridden, and along with it, the injury and death of park vacationers.
As the title indicates, the film focuses on the Old West fantasy scenario, particularly in the form of Richard Benjamin’s character as an urban vacationer, and a robotic Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. The first few interactions between Benjamin and Brynner are fairly routine in terms of cowboy shootouts resulting in the death of the villain dressed in black. But once the robotic system breaks down, Benjamin is in a fight for his life as he seeks to escape the Gunslinger hunting him with advanced senses of automated sight and hearing.
Although this film does not appear to be discussed much in film criticism that addresses sci fi, it has been influential in popular culture with several episodes of The Simpson’s engaging in parody of the film, and horror and sci fi director John Carpenter claiming the Brynner’s Gunslinger was the inspiration for the Michael Myers character in Halloween.
Westworld is a film worthy of fresh visitation, if not a remake. Like Crichton’s later novel and book, Jurassic Park, it addresses our anxieties over science and technology run amok. With the major advances in robotics and issues surrounding the trans-human, the issues raised by Westworld would seem even more timely in the 21st century.
Logan’s Run (1976), is another significant sci fi film from the decade. This film is based upon a novel authored by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. It too is set in the future, but unlike Westworld, this film presents a postapocalyptic, dystopian future where life involves living life to its fullest in fulfillment of almost any fantasy but with a serious catch: due to overpopulation lifespans are limited to thirty years. As these citizens of the future near their thirtieth birthday they are to report to authorities, and many do so with the hope of receiving renewal and extension of life beyond year thirty. However, as might be expected, not everyone is pleased with the idea of execution at such an early age, and those who do not report become runners who are hunted by authorities. One of the main characters is one of these authorities, a Sandman, played by Michael York. Although only twenty-six, his lifeclock is changed by the system to appear as if he is thirty, and he is turned into a runner so that he might find the rumored Sanctuary for those runners escaping death.
In my view, Logan’s Run is not as good as Westworld, nevertheless it is still a good film. It too touches on cultural and social themes that are of interest to a twenty-first century audience, even more so than for those of the closing decades of the twentieth century when the film was originally released. The aspects of the story arch that touch on apocalypticism, overpopulation, and the definition of old age are of continued interest in our time, and Logan’s Run provides the “othering” and critical distance necessary for us to reflect upon them.
In 2007 Ridley Scott expressed his dismay at the state of science fiction films and wondered whether they have gone the way of the Western. But is sci fi dead? As the continued relevance of these two classic sci fi films indicate, it is not the genre that has passed into irrelevance, it is the lack of imagination and creativity on the part of filmmakers and storytellers in the late modern period that has contributed to sci fi’s malaise. Perhaps films like these can provide inspiration for new sci fi epics that capture our imagination and challenge our thinking.