I managed to make myself sit down and watch the rather turgid Logan’s Run today which was an exercise in patience. (Watch it here). I don’t know what is going to feature in my nightmare’s tonight, Michael York’s rather spiffing English accent (he didn’t have to change much for Basil Exposition) or Jenny Agutter’s excruciating acting (I swear they must have been holding flash cards with emotions written on them next to the camera – although if that’s the case they must have only had two cards, concerned and frightened)
In the film there was a scene with a mad robot called Box in which the hero and his girl have to defeat him to escape the horrible fate of being frozen alive. Now Box was obviously designed to be the cutting edge of movie robots at the time and I’m sure the audience was suitably impressed when he rolled on. I’m sure that for the next few months after that, probably up to and including Christmas 76, excited boys and terrified girls ran around the house holding miniature versions of Box the mad robot. That is until a little film called Star Wars came out the following year and two robots completely and utterly conquered the cultural universe.
C3PO and R2-D2 are now firmly established in cultural history. Box? nah … whereas the two Star Wars robots didn’t even need to be changed for the prequels Box just comes across as a bloke in an upside down silver trash can on wheels.
This got me thinking a bit about sci-fi movies which have had a serious impact over the years. If one starts in the 60′s (Sorry 1950′s fans of The Blob – although I will say that Forbidden Planet was quite good – the height of 1950′s scifi special effects) the first big one has to be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the first movie which for me established the parameters of a realistic look into space. Some of the special effects near the end were classic 60′s light show but the overall package was revolutionary.
In the 70′s the three big ones were Star Wars, Star Trek: The (I know Wrath of Khan is widely considered to be much better) and Alien. Star Wars raised the bar permenantly for scifi. Although fake looking soundstage sets continued to be used for years to come, to really appear gold standard you had to go for the full immersive effect where you successfully manage to disconnect the audience from their perception that this was artifice. Star Trek and Aliens continued this new found vigour for spectacle but in obviously different directions.
The 80′s continued the Star Trek franchise (5 has been buried in the mental equivalent of a nuclear waste containment facility) and finished the Star Wars original trilogy to great effect. For a new and original viewpoint though Blade Runner certainly did the trick. It was I think the pinnacle of dystopian scifi movies for a number of years, certainly until a certain movie in the late 90′s came along. It was clever, visionary and above all else stylish and cool.
Yes the 80′s also gave us the Terminator – but I regard that movie as a fun distraction compared to something significant like Blade Runner. It’s the popcorn to the fine steak. Moving swiftly on (I won’t even touch on E.T.)
So the 90′s came along. Universal Soldier, Johnny Mnemonic … bleargh. But then right at the tail end of the decade came The Matrix. This was one of the few films I think of the decade which truly blew the collective mind of the audience. It took well trodden genres, a smattering of pop psychology and religous studies 101 and turned it into something way greater than the sum of its parts. I can remember walking out of the cinema in Johannesburg and feeling quite disappointed that the lampost didn’t bend at my command.
Into the 2000′s and we began to see the knock-off’s of the Matrix (including it’s own sequels) as well as the increasing use of CGI to obliterate any semblance of a story or idea and just gave us spectacle. There were some good popcorn movies like X-Men or Iron Man but these were firmly stuck in the super hero genre.
In fact now that I think about it I am struggling to come up with a scifi movie that attains the heights reached by films like 2001 or Star Wars. Nothing … nada. In fact the only sci-fi film I can think of which truly comes close (and its only really the first half of the film which achieves this) is an animated film and that is WALL-E. Cloverfield came close but was ultimately a modern retread of a monster movie from the 50′s. Star Trek 2009 was a brilliant movie (and interestingly also by JJ Abrams who did Cloverfield) but also just a reboot of an old series. To me the only really outstanding scifi so far is Watchmen. It gets to where it is simply by being massively genre defying.
Is scifi descending into self parody and repetition? Who knows. Two films I have yet to see (one already released and the other forthcoming) called Sleep Dealer and District 9 could hold the key to a new direction of scifi of social commentary. Sure scifi has already done social commentary in spades, but not in the way in which these two films seem to be using. Perhaps I need to head off to the video store again soon and report back on my findings.
Until then ‘Live Long and Prosper’