THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

As we move into the Sixties and Seventies, you’ll notice that we’ve dropped in the number of films selected, from ten to seven. Unfortunately, the science fiction boom of the Fifties crested by the early Sixties, and the number of films being made by American studios plummeted; it’s not a coincidence that the bulk of the movies selected for this article came from outside the United States. 1968 then saw the release of two landmark films: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and PLANET OF THE APES. Not only did they bring back adult-oriented science fiction, but they demonstrated for the studios that they could make back their investment in a big-budget science fiction film. A big-budget boom did not truly begin until STAR WARS was released in 1977. On the positive side, in demonstrating that they could make back their investment not once but many times over, it convinced the studios to produce far more SF films than any time since the late Fifties. On the downside, history repeated itself as they wound up orienting their output towards principally juvenile audiences, and became more concerned with the exploitable and profitable aspects than with artistic quality. Consequently, a very narrow conception of the genre emerged, one that unfortunately persists to this day.

It must also be said that as we enter the Seventies and beyond, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of genuinely underrated science fiction movies. As Danny Peary explained in the introductions to his legendary Cult Movies books on why he limited the number of science fiction and horror films in each volume: nearly every science fiction film has a cult or at least a coterie of admirers of some sort, and that’s especially true of those made in the past forty or thirty years. Yeah, ZARDOZ and THE BLACK HOLE have fans, but there is no way that they can be considered “underrated” by any yardstick. I also left off THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, two of my very favorite science fiction films. They may seem underrated because they don’t get discussed as much as they should, but are still well known and extremely well-respected by most fans.

So what does that leave us? Well….

17. UNEARTHLY STRANGER

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Although Great Britain had made science fiction films since the beginning of the 1950s it wasn’t until Hammer released the feature film version of Nigel Kneale’s THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT that the UK experienced a science fiction boom of their own. At their best, they followed in the tradition of the Quatermass serials in creating thoughtful stories with novel plot devices unlike anything found in American films of the era. UNEARTHLY STRANGER is a unique, haunting movie totally unlike any other made in either country at the time. John Neville, an Anglo-Canadian stage legend forever immortalized as Baron Munchhausen in Terry Gilliam’s film, is a scientist working on a research project involving space travel through astral projection (don’t worry, it’s essential to the plot), and several of his colleagues have mysteriously died from massive brain aneurysms. Could Neville’s “Swiss” wife be linked to them? Well, if you’ve ever read Richard Matheson’s short story “First Anniversary” you may figure it out early on, but the fine performances and intriguing ideas will keep you watching anyways, and there are some startling camera angles and editing effects that help to create the intended feeling of unease, that something from beyond has intruded into our reality. The most startling sequences feature the wife (Gabriela Licudi) who not only sleeps with her eyes open and can touch a hot stove without flinching, but whose very presence has a strange effect on children.

18. IKARIE XB-1

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Science fiction also proved to be a popular genre behind the Iron Curtain, with Eastern Europe being a prolific purveyor of the genre until the Berlin Wall fell. The former Soviet Union, East Germany and Poland made the most science fiction films (often co-productions between two or three countries), but nearly every former Communist Bloc country-Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, even Bulgaria- produced at least one science fiction film. Yet one country stood out not just as a prolific source of SF cinema but for the sheer quality of its output: the former Czechoslovakia turned out some of the best science fiction films of the Sixties and Seventies, even if most of them went unseen outside the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries. A few managed to escape, and Karel Zeman’s great fantastic films, which combined live-action with every conceivable form of animation have enchanted audiences worldwide since the mid-Fifties. However, since Zeman’s films are not only well-acclaimed here (mostly by animation aficionados ) and are as much genre hybrids of science fiction and fantasy as they are of technique, I have chosen instead to spotlight a “harder” science fiction film that deserves more attention. IKARIE XB-1 is one of the best space movies ever made, and while it may not be as acclaimed as either 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS, it still deserves priority as a “thinking person’s” science fiction film that used its space setting for the purposes of drama and thematic relevance, not just for audience thrills.

Curiously enough, although it has the distinct look of a European film (the cinematography reminds me of Sven Nykvist’s work for Ingmar Bergman films of the period) and an episodic story structure that is at odds with conventional Western notions of narrative, it nonetheless has a premise more redolent of American pulp science fiction than that associated with Eastern Bloc science fiction (even though it was adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel THE MAGELLANIC CLOUD).  Set on a giant spaceship destined for colonization of a planet in Alpha Centurai, the storyline has no real plot beyond focusing on the personal conflicts and crises of those involved, making it seem even like a literal adaption of an American “paste-up” novel.  In fact, it’s very reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, itself a paste-up of two novellas originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction. The comparison to the pulps should be viewed as a compliment as it evokes a similar Sense of Wonder in its best scenes: the spaceship circling an abandoned vessel in space; the shots of the “Black Sun” (a Karel Capek reference?), a star that spews lethal radiation that threatens the hundred or so voyagers; a lonely robot, calling out for its owner as it rolls through empty hallways; and the great final scene, which alas was cut out by AIP, the film’s American distributors. In its place, they substituted a stock cliche ending (think the Twilight Zone episode “Third from the Sun” or one-fourth of the endings of EC’s science fiction comics) that makes you want to kick in the screen. Fortunately, Sinister Cinema has issued a special edition double DVD set containing both the original Czech film and the American edit (entitled VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE).

19. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES

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Mario Bava is deservedly acclaimed as one of the finest horror directors of all time, but he worked in other genres, giving them his own unique stylistic touch. Hercules in the Haunted World is easily the best “sword and sandal” film I have ever seen, and Diabolik is one of the better “Swinging Super-Spy” movies of the late Sixties. Additionally, Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is probably the best Italian science fiction film ever made. Although I admit that Antonio Margheritti’s Battle of the Worlds and Wild Wild Planet are probably my favorite SF films to come out of the country, they probably count as “guilty pleasures” more than anything else, given that I’m quite alone in my affection for them. On the other hand, I’m surprised Bava’s science fiction film has a mixed reputation. There’s a great divide among American science fiction fans (most of whom dislike Italian science fiction films of the Sixties, although they’ll readily concede that they’re better than the innumerable Star Wars and Road Warrior rip-offs that would come out of the country in subsequent decades) regarding the film’s merits, many admiring Bava’s characteristic style and visual invention, while others find it ponderous and dull. I personally find the film fascinating. Yes, it’s deliberately paced, but I find that works in the film’s favor as the film needs to take its time to reveal itself without relying on long passages of expository dialogue. That the movie manages to do so speaks volumes about Bava’s skill at telling his story as much as his ability as dressing it up. It’s also one of the the most visually haunting science fiction films until Alien was released, and while the story similarities are likely a coincidence, the fact that Carlo Rambaldi worked on both films helps to explain some of the visual likenesses.  If you’ve only seen it on TV before, pick up the DVD or Blu-Ray for a rich visual and aural experience.

20. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS

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Jess Franco is a horror director I place several-OK, many-notches below Bava on the quality scale. Still, I must be fair and concede that while he made too many awful films (with a resume as vast as his, you’re bound to miss your aim more often than not), and I’m repelled by the content in many of them (particularly his later oeuvre) he doesn’t deserve the “Worst Director of All Time” monicker some have attached to him. He certainly isn’t the worst horror director, not as long as prints of H.G. Lewis and Andy Milligan films still exist, and he isn’t even the worst prolific director, a dubious title that Joe D’Amato deserves far more. And at his best, he’s genuinely good. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS is a an entertaining hybrid of the spy film and science fiction, and while most of the innumerable James Bond rip-offs of the Sixties had some science fiction content (particularly as they became more prominent in the Bond films themselves), they usually pushed it to the margins.  Not this film, which owes as much to the German Dr. Mabuse films of the Sixties as it does to Bond; the “robots” of the title (really people placed under artificial mind control) are central to the plot. It also helps that it stars the always-engaging Eddie Constatine, who became a superstar in Europe as a result of movies like this one, and a genuinely witty script by Jean-Claude Carriere, shortly to gain worldwide acclaim for his Luis Bunuel scripts and is still actively working today…and a recent winner of an Lifetime Achievement Oscar! Although hardly representative of most of Franco’s oeuvre, fans of his will recognize similarities to some of his earlier films, specifically THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z and DR.ORLOFF’S MONSTER and if you’re not a fan of Franco but still want to see one of his films in the name of completion, I recommend this one.

21. THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES

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Charles Eric Maine was a surprising choice for a science fiction writer to have so many of his books adapted to the movies, but no less than three were made in the Fifties: SPACEWAYS, THE ATOMIC MAN and THE ELECTRONIC MONSTER, none of which live up to their compelling titles. The film version of his novel THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES was made much later in 1970 and is by far the best adaptation of his work. A problem with the other movies based on Maine’s work is that if they fall into any subgenre, it’s so-called “mundane science fiction”-both literally and figuratively. Although the premise of MR.SOAMES is the least far-fetched of the four, dealing as it does with a man (the always-exceptional Terence Stamp) who has been revived from a coma he has been in since birth thanks to an advanced operation, it develops it in a most intriguing fashion. Although Stamp is superb in a difficult part (unlike later performances by actors in similar roles, there is no attempt ever by Stamp to overplay or exaggerate his character’s mental state or to play for sympathy), he’s complimented by almost-as-good turns by Nigel Davenport and a bearded Robert Vaughn as his doctors. Incidentally, this is also probably the best movie ever produced by horror specialists Amicus Productions.

22. I KILLED EINSTEIN, GENTLEMEN

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Once again we return to Czechoslovakia but for a very different type of science fiction film, a time-travel comedy that’s as enjoyable as the BACK TO THE FUTURE series and also plays wittily with time paradoxes, but is much more biting and political in its satire. By the late Sixties, a Czech New Wave had emerged in the nation’s cinema, that offered some of the most stinging rebukes to communism and socialism in the film world. Many delightful and wonderfully entertaining SF comedies came out of the country during this period: MISTER YOU ARE A WIDOWER, DINNER FOR ADELE and possibly the best of them all, WHO KILLED JESSE? All of them are pretty great, but I’m singling out I KILLED EINSTEIN because it has received the least attention; certainly a title that suggests the murder of not just one of the greatest scientists who ever lived but also one of history’s great humanitarians may make many apprehensive about watching it.  The Overlook Science Fiction Encyclopedia in fact outright panned the film, being aghast at the idea of blaming Einstein for the atomic bomb, although they were missing the whole point. The precise target of the film are those who blame science and technology as well as scientists themselves for disasters that are the result of poorly-thought out political decisions. The political satire is very much in the Czech tradition of Karel Capek’s science fiction work as well as the anti-authoritarian films of Milos Forman and Vera Chytilova, taking on both the anti-intellectualism of totalitarian societies (numerous communist governments had banned the teaching of relativity and quantum physics for going against Marxist principles), and the absurdity of government solutions. It also features one of the best and most accurate depictions of Albert Einstein (wonderfully played by Petr Cepek) in the movies, and is one of the few to acknowledge that he accomplished his greatest work while still a young man. Movies like this one make me understand why the Czechs loved Frank Zappa.

23. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

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I’m as surprised as you are to see this one listed here. For once thing, not only am I definitely not a Star Trek fan, but for many years, annoyance with the show’s obsessive cult kept me from fully enjoying it. I actually quit reading STARLOG magazine in the early Nineties when their overwhelming coverage of the franchise at the expense of all other facets of fandom just grew too ridiculous for me to handle. However, over the past few years, I’ve started to warm ever-so-slightly to the original series. While its cult certainly hasn’t died down, both the lack of a new TV series for a now quite-long period of time as well as reruns of the earlier series becoming less ubiquitous in a changing TV landscape has helped make it seem less in-your-face obnoxious. I can understand now why science fiction fans who weren’t necessarily fans of SF films or television nonetheless loved the show. Normally, it annoys me when TV or movies recycle ideas that have been used umpteen times by science fiction writers, but I don’t mind it all with this particular franchise, since they not only seem essential in building the setting and developing the plots, but there is no attempt to sell them as daring or original. It just accepts them as a necessary component of the architecture.

I’ve also manage to warm-up somewhat to the film franchise as well, and this movie in particular. Yes it was critically lambasted upon initial release, but I think Roger Ebert (who liked the film with reservations) was correct when he said that over-familiarity with the main characters helped work against its acceptance by the public at the time, as it initially seemed incongruous seeing them transplanted to a big-budget setting. Ironically, the biggest complaint by fans at the time was that it was too familiar, with a plot redolent of too many episodes of the TV show…so make up your minds, dammit! Had it been made without them, it may have been recognized as a noble attempt to make a genuine actual-to-goodness science fiction film instead of yet another action flick or feature-length special effects reel made in a crass attempt to cash in on the success of STAR WARS. All the same, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well if the film didn’t have such beloved characters that had been well-developed over the course of the series; seen today, it’s easier to embrace the film’s fantastic events since we are experiencing them through individuals who have been developed even further in the cinematic universe, so we can easier relate to their feelings of awe and danger. Of course, the director’s cut is a massive improvement over not only the original theatrical edit, but the television one as well, which featured what may very well be the worst print transfer of any big-budget movie.

As we conclude our look at the Sixties and Seventies, it’s probably best to quote from Dick DeBartolo and Mort Drucker’s MAD MAGAZINE parody of ST:TMP:

KIRK: Spock, did we just witness the beginning of a new life form?

SPOCK: No Captain, we witnessed the beginning of a new motion picture form where the special effects are ten times more interesting than the people, the plot and the dialogue!

Just a simple of way saying…we wrap up with the Eighties and Afterwards next week!

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