Perhaps the most seminal movie of the 1960s was 2001 A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece set in a futuristic world where taking a Pan Am flight from LA to New York (who’s to say the airline won’t come back one day?) is just as easily replaced by the same flight from Earth to a gently gyrating space station in orbit, fittingly populated by people like Leonard Rossiter and wonderfully crafted carmine space sofas. The moon is but a short trip away, as it would seem is time itself, with man as primate struggling in front of an alien monolith that propels evolution millions of years into the future. Symbolised by the bone, at that moment it becomes a majestic space edifice glittering in its phallic triumph of evolutionary achievement above the jewelled arc of the Earth’s surface in the blink of an eye. Our evolution is advanced further by the discovery of another, or the same one, on the moon’s surface in tandem with a similar behemoth orbiting Jupiter, hence the mission of discovery thereafter. It is this mission and the intense confinement of a trip into uncertainty that results in extreme paranoia, phobia and a Greek tragedy of misunderstanding and murder.
Other than the astonishing effects and sets shot in London, along with the unforgettable pirouette of a titan space vehicle and an approaching craft set to the Blue Danube by Johann Strauss Jr, the greatest impact of the film is the flawed psychosis lethally displayed in an artificial life form manning the exploration ship, the HAL 9000. HAL is the perfect tuning fork for man’s achievements, his intelligence, technical expertise and chillingly clinical ability to kill. He is such a successful mirror of everything we are, it – he – has inherited our self-same universal characteristic flaws of poor judgement, paranoia and ultimate hostility. He not only has crossed into the dark side; he is an anodized, gleaming mask of maleficent destructiveness, ultimately terrifying in the psychotic placidity of his appearance and total lack of inflexion in a soulless voice. He is the archetypal psychopath, one created through seemingly inescapable ‘logic’ – via that red eye we judge ourselves through an unremitting lens of our own failings.
Kubrick adapted the screenplay with British writer Arthur C Clarke from Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. The film’s title was taken from Homer’s epic The Odyssey because, as Kubrick says, for the ancients “the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation.” The film was a pioneer in the portrayals of space science and visual art, human existence in the future, the use of minimal dialogue and extreme plot ambiguity.
However, the most iconic science-fiction films of the era were a 1968 release that took in most of the 70s and spawned a TV series, books and two remakes in the 21st century, with others set to come today. So pivotal were they that the first outing was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress by being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In a (belated) supreme irony, Charlton Heston, purveyor of the National Rifle Association, produced and starred in The Planet of the Apes, the seismic first film of the series. Heston, vehemently anti-racist, accompanied Martin Luther King on the 1963 Civil Rights march on Washington and personally picketed a segregated theatre at a time when taking such a stance might have harmed his career.
He played the leading astronaut, Taylor. Of his character, Heston said: “he has very limited expectations for man as a species… And the irony of a man so misanthropic that he almost welcomes the chance to escape entirely from the world, finding himself then cast in a situation where he is spokesman for the whole species and forced to defend their qualities and abilities – it was a very appealing thing to act!”
Taylor, a white man, is accused of illiteracy and being a savage. His identity is thieved as he is thrown into rags then stripped naked as though he was in some kind of antediluvian market place, even being accused of smelling. The historical parallels are immensely evocative though the themes of humankind’s arrogance, mass-scale technological abuse and unfettered human expansion at the expense of the planet and each other are highlighted. The stunningly apocalyptic impact of the finale has entered the lexicon of popular culture even to this day.
The sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, if anything, took the existential tone to another level to the extent that Heston felt two films was enough and insisted his character was responsible for the cataclysmic destruction of the entire Earth. He was adamant it was essential to preserve the integrity of the first two films from the corrosive effects of the plague of the ubiquitous sequel. During the progress of the film there are attacks on the concept of organised religion (the Lawgiver’s stigmata and subsequent defilement and the upturned crucifixes on the cavern doors where the astronaut is tortured by sonic violation) while the mutants, the deformed surviving representatives of the past, serve the anti-Christ of unfettered greed and the dehumanising effects of rampant technology involving the rape of the planet and each other. The two average sequels are followed by the extraordinary Conquest of the Planet of the Apes which is nothing short of a sci-fi biopic of the Black Panther movement in America. The apes here are humanity’s pets, slaves in the books of most people, and as they become increasingly radicalised they are tortured, placed in pens, hosed down, beaten, insulted and destroyed with impunity. It is Roots without censure and it’s more than surprising it’s failed to make more of an impact on contemporary culture, unlike the first still-deserving outing. The end is a diplomatic yet understandable mish-mash and may partly explain, along with the hard-hitting subject matter, its graveyard slots in the schedules on the rare occasions it’s actually shown.
Heston’s The Omega Man berates us about the perils of science unchained and the existential futility of a man once again representing a society he deplores. Its urban wasteland is memorable however and its interracial endings are hammily noteworthy. More sinister is the slow-burning but largely unknown Soylent Green, 1973, also with Heston, whose final apocalyptic revelation warns of consumerism gone mad when we realise that for people to save themselves from a world they have drained of resources and largely ruined, they have to consume their own dead. Made during the same period, and indicative of the richness and depth of the genre at the time, the Russian outing Solaris is a startling and in-depth study of consciousness. Clooney’s remake is effective but lacks the grinding paranoia of the original.
The Andromeda Strain ,1971, was an adaptation of the Jurassic Park author’s book of the same title. Refreshingly cast – no pretty people, no ripped, overinflated steroid biceps – Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) directs a compelling tale of an ordinary bunch of scientists, played by Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid, incarcerated in suffocatingly claustrophobic conditions underground, racing against the clock undertaking planet-saving research into a recently discovered, highly toxic pathogen that literally threatens life as we know it. An unknown plague has wiped out the desert town of Piedmont, New Mexico. The scene, brief but memorably apocalyptic, subtly evokes poignant recognition with US A-bomb testing on artificial towns in Nevada except here the sea of bodies aren’t grinning test dummies but real people whose blood is anhydrated dust. Despite the clunky computers, the interiors are eerily believable – as is the slow-burning dash for scientific results. The initial apparent solution, nuclear devastation, is instead the fission ‘nursery’ that will exponentially propagate the virus to planetary levels and the perils of atomic obliteration are there for all to see. But it’s far more sublime than that, even taking into account its realistic portrayals of ‘real events’ practically devoid of action and metal tearing car crashes – the film delves into the paranoia of the human psyche and warns of biological war and the almost malodorous consequence of insular thinking that absolutely prevails in many societies, religions and nation states today. It’s an unsung masterpiece that still easily holds its own, even to the best of them, in terms of plot and relevance.
Another partially known curiosity was George Lucas’ first outing in a dystopian Brave New World with the major difference that in his vision people are modified through state-supplied narcotics to neuter them from sex and emotion. Released in 1971, THX 1138 was a commercial flop but has since gone on to gain moderate cult status.
The highly unique 1972 release Silent Running goes a long way to singlehandedly undermining the assertion that there is little meaning or point to the genre in general. In an astonishing prediction made before the environmental movement had become so massively mainstream, this film is hell-bent in its warnings of the dire repercussions of the systematic despoiling of the globe. The world has been so abused, vegetation has died out completely – all that’s left are some priceless gardens in giant domes floating in the vacuum off the rings of Saturn. Monitored by a group of human workers and robots, the heartless order comes through to destroy these malachite jewels in the heavens because they are uneconomical and worthless. Bruce Dern, one of the workers and admittedly someone you’d avoid on the night train, cannot face executing the order which would in effect eradicate the last vestiges of Earth’s habitats so he instead executes his workmates to preserve the imperilled ecologies before they are extirpated for ever.
Dark Star is a little-known rough diamond shot in 1974, produced by John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, about a spatial version of a mine destroyer but the targets are unstable planets that threaten human colonisation. Driven mad by routine and boredom, the film is an intelligent and comical study of the slow deterioration of the mind, set in claustrophobic and utterly unstimulating environments. Set against the vastness of the infinite they are ants crawling along a sterile and futile path to an ultimate insanity before being essentially butchered (or perhaps saved) by an AI bomb as bananas as them. Infected with Cartesian Doubt, a systematic process of being sceptical about the truth of one’s beliefs popularised in Western philosophy by René Descartes, who doubted all beliefs in an effort to determine which ones could be believed in, the planet-busting bomb becomes terrifyingly non compos mentis and self-ignites leaving only one survivor who… well you’ll have to watch it yourself. Odd it most certainly is and bereft of budget too, but the turgid existence of the incarcerated may chime unfortunately with many.
Another low-budget and extremely strange flick A Boy and His Dog, 1975, is based on a short story and is Don Johnson’s first break as a leading actor. Set, as was becoming the fashion, in a world devastated by a nuclear war, Johnson’s character Vic is a young man with no morals who hunts women as sexual objects with the use of his telepathic dog Blood who he feeds in return. He is captured by an even more dysfunctional and avaricious underground society who milk his seed as a glorified ‘farmyard’ stud. Despite its decidedly limited production resources, it is memorable for the comical relationship between the man and his talking pooch and its biting portrayal of human power play and the disposable nature of society where even people, especially women, are consumed like throw-away products in a world devoid of morality. It has its own cult status and is disliked equally as much but it made enough of an impression to be the inspiration behind the 1979 classic Mad Max set in an equally broken world where people are just as disposable but only if action and handy crashes are involved. A Boy and His Dog is more cynical and ‘everyday’ and, arguably, this unsanitised approach is perhaps more disquieting.
Commercialism, alienation, decadence and corruption are the main themes of Nicolas Roeg’s landmark dip into the genre with his 1976 release The Man Who Fell to Earth starring a suitably ‘out-of-it’ David Bowie as the alien who visits Earth in a bid to save his planet which is dying from a cataclysmic water shortage. He becomes a wealthy industrialist but by assimilating himself with the process of making enough hard cash to build a rocket to transport him back, is himself assimilated in the hard-nosed corporate, often amoral, world of business, human nature and politics. As the spaceship is built, his soul degenerates to a hedonistic morass ultimately ruined by misplaced relationships and alcoholism.
Like the Native American tribes of the past facing the explosive growth of an invader’s territory, he is both innocent to and unprepared for the corrosive destruction of liquor and is rendered powerless to the all-powerful hunger of the state. By the time the state abuse is over (Guantánamo Bay it is not, but the underlying concept of detention without charge and indefinite stay are eerily prescient) the ‘man’ he once was is finished. He is nothing more than a shell, a super-rich hobo with nowhere to go as his family are now all dead. Ultimately the film is a surreal triumph helped by stunning visuals, an original score and Bowie himself who freely admitted:
“It was a pretty natural performance … a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams (of coke) a day. I was stoned out of my mind.”
But like A Clockwork Orange the subversive message of a state gone mad abusing both its powers and some of its people surely has climactic, even bitter resonances with men in orange suits in an Iraqi cooler or the more subtle e-surveillance programmes like PRISM, or GCHQ’s Tempora programme where again the individual appears little more than a witless bystander in their own illegal privacy penetration.
Similar corporate themes are explored in Rollerball where human life takes second place to sport and the massed entertainment of millions in a super-arena of the future where the sportsmen are as likely to maim and kill each other a la days of yore in the Roman Coliseum as compete. It’s a handy gimmick that not only sucks the profits from the willing teats of the more than willing economy but also takes the populace’s minds off overcrowding and large scale corporate corruption. Sound familiar?