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“Feel-bad Seventies Sci-Fi” — The influence on and by changing societies

December 10, 2018
MThomas

logansrun.pngI love ’70s sci-fi movies. Partly it’s because the early ’80s was the advent of the VHS/VCR and cable TV, and in late elementary school I was introduce to these movies for the first time.

Don’t even get me started about late ’70s / early ’80s sci-fi TV shows. Buck Rogers and the original Battlestar Galactica. Gil Gerard and Lorne Greene. My childhood heroes. Yikes.

Anyway, I’ve already written about how recent Chinese SF could be viewed as a result of (and a window into) modern zeitgeist and as a reflection on cultural and societal mores/fears/desires/hopes.

Cosgrrrl has written in a similar vein about what she calls the “feel-bad” sci-fi flicks of the ’70s. Problem: Many of the stories actually reflected concerns in a previous decade of society.

A brief run down of these “feel-bad” movies and their sources:

  1. A Boy and His Dog (1975) – Based on a short story by Harlan Ellison from 1969.
  2. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess from 1962.
  3. Logan’s Run (1976) – Based on a novel by William Nolan and Clayton Johnson from 1967.
  4. The Omega Man (1971) – Based on a novel by Richard Matheson from 1954.
  5. Rollerball (1975) – Based on a short story by William Harrison in 1973.
  6. Silent Running (1972) – original screenplay, novelized the same year.
  7. Soylent Green (1973) – Based on a novel by Harry Harrison from 1966.
  8. Westworld (1973) – Original screenplay (Michael Crichton’s Hollywood directorial debut).

So out of the 8 movies listed, 6 are based (sometimes quite loosely, sometimes not) on previous stories. Only 1 of those stories was actually from the ’70s; 4 were written and published in the ’60s. One came from the ’50s.

So do these movies show “a glimpse into the mindset of filmmakers and audiences at that time”? I.e., the 1970s?

Yes and no.

westworld-yul.pngContent-wise, clearly US science fiction had already been dealing with societal issues prior to the “national hangover” from the turbulent Sixties.

I Am Legend (which influenced zombie movies and TV shows in every decade since) was clearly a reaction to post-WWII nuclear apocalypse fears.

A Clockwork Orange has nothing to do with the US Sixties, being written by a British author at the end of the Fifties. The ending of the movie, however, is clearly Kubrick (totally different from the book).

Movie producers and scriptwriters were absolutely feeding on fears of a US movie audience in the Seventies. At least, until Star Trek and Star Wars came out and the era of “feel-bad” sci-fi ended (at least until the 21st century, post-9/11 world). So it is merely a difference between SF in written form vs in Hollywood form?

I think it would be telling to compare early to mid Seventies sci-fi movies with what was popular – much more popular – at the time. Mainstream US readers and moviegoers poo-pooed sci-fi my entire childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. SF was a fringe genre, watched only by “immature” teenagers who had no idea how to grow up and join the rest of “mature” society.

Now? Sci-fi rules the airwaves. Sorry, the streaming. (The airwaves still sounds better.)

250px-BuckRogersDVDBut of course sci-fi has always been there. Even Buck Rogers was originally serialized in newspapers back in the ’20s and ’30s. (And it had a really horribly depressing ending, too.)  It was only — guess what — Fifties US society that told us that sci-fi was the mask of an immature mind. Avid newspaper readers in the 1930s clearly didn’t think sci-fi was immature.

Cultures and societies change. So do their associated desires, fears, hopes, dreams, and so forth. That’s why we constantly see new adaptations of older stories. That’s OK. It’s the nature of stories. Which is why I Am Legend got made again as a Will Smith blockbuster in 2007 (with a really stupid ending), Battlestar Galactica had a reboot (2004 onwards, including spinoffs), and Westworld was reinvented (2016 – ). And of course Star Wars and Star Trek will never die, although they will (and have) adapted to fit perceived audience taste and demographics.

Also, don’t forget that big movie studios are notoriously risk-averse (they do fork over tons of money for production cost) and prefer to rehash old stories that they figure teenagers who are now grown up will go watch again.

Which is to say I think we should be on the look out for the next version of Flash Gordon at some point soon. (Besides the smartphone commercial, I mean.) Hopefully with less spandex and even less blatant racism. (And yes, the 1980 movie was based on a 1930s newspaper comic strip. Sense a pattern?)

I laugh when a literary agent tells me that the current “SF market” is “saturated.”

So what? When hasn’t it been? As long as there are people worried about the future, there will be sci-fi.

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