Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s by John Kenneth Muir

John Kenneth Muir's insightful volume Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s takes readers on an odyssey through a compelling decade of genre movies.  The book includes in depth reviews of all the major releases, ranging from the iconic to the obscure.  In addition to the reviews, one can discern a larger narrative of history if the book is read from cover to cover. 

The first half of the 70s were a continuation of the 60s with the Vietnam War still raging and a youth rebellion in full swing.  The Watergate scandal had a profound effect on movies and culture, inspiring a number of movies dealing with cynicism and paranoia. Two events in 1977 marked a turning point, the inauguration of Jimmy Carter and the release of Star Wars both foreshadowed a return to conservatism.

Muir breaks down 70s Sci-fi/Fantasy genres into general categories including: The Planet of the Apes series commented upon issues of race and nuclear power, a flurry of dystopian and post-apocalyptic films of varying quality.  Other movies expressed anxiety about computers and technology, ecological concerns, government/corporate cover ups, and space age epics. 

The superhero film also matured. James Bond films such as Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me took their inspiration from comic books instead of the Ian Fleming novels. Richard Donner's genre defining Superman continues to inspire, convincing audiences a man could fly.

Sci-fi films were bleak as the decade began. No Blade of Grass imagined food shortages and a violent breakdown of civilization.  Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange shocked theater goers with its depiction of urban decay, violent gangs controlling the streets, and repressive government.  A young George Lucas imagined a drugged out, emotionless populace living pointless lives beneath the earth in THX-1138.  As Muir argues, these films and many others reflected the newspaper headlines (back when people still read newspapers).

Many films drew directly from the news, such as the Peter Watkins disturbing Punishment Park, a fictional documentary made in response to the shootings at Kent. St.  A personal favorite of mine, The Andromeda Strain remains a cerebral masterpiece about scientists struggling to contain a space germ from over running the planet.  Soylent Green dealt with overpopulation, directly inspired by Paul Ehrlich's stark bestseller The Population Bomb.

Eventually the moody Sci-fi films gave way to grand, special effects laden space adventures.  Star Wars spawned a multitude of imitators from the terrifying Alien, to the James Bond howler Moonraker, and the Cold War allegory Battlestar Galactica.  

Star Wars also made a Star Trek movie possible. In 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture saw the return of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock to the big screen.  Muir's review will convince naysayers to revisit an often maligned effort, typically referred to as The Motionless Picture.

Muir also writes thoughtful reviews on the trashier films.  Titles like The Thing With Two Heads, Sssssss, Flesh Gordon, and The Giant Spider Invasion are treated with respect and evaluated on what they set out to accomplish.  For what they lacked in budget and quality, they made up for in spirit.

For any fan of the genre, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s deserves a place on the bookshelf.  Read it to revisit some old favorites and to discover some hidden gems.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Podcast Review: The Projection Booth: The Star Wars Episode

Recently The Projection Booth podcast released a marathon six hour episode on the 1977 George Lucas film Star Wars. The Projection Booth, hosted by Mike White and Rob St. Mary, produce one episode a week, usually reviewing a cult classic.  For the Star Wars episode Mike and Rob reflected on their own histories with Star Wars and interviewed several folks with a deep knowledge of the franchise and the fan culture it created.

Even though Star Wars made Lucas a cultural hero to a post-Vietnam generation, he never embraced the original version. So for the 1997 re-release he included CGI special effects, additional scenes, and most infamously the "Greedo shot first" uproar.  Personally, I was never annoyed with the revisions, although the dance sequence in Return of the Jedi bordered on camp.  As long as the original versions are kept available to the public, I have no problem. But Lucas is determined to erase them from existence, much to the chagrin of everyone.

His contradictory statements about the creation of Star Wars have added to the confusion.  Back in the 70s Lucas often spoke of there being nine films to the saga, sometimes twelve.  After completing the prequel trilogy in 2005, Lucas pronounced the story finished - as he originally envisioned it!  Then another about face came in 2012 when he sold the rights of Star Wars over to Disney with a big reveal: he had planned further installments.

The podcast features interviews with two authors who have written extensively on these issues. Chris Taylor author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe and Michael Kaminsky author of The Secret History of Star Wars. Both shed light on the origins of Star Wars. Both books reveal Lucas never really had a grand vision and made most of the story up on the fly. For influences he turned to comic books, classic science fiction, Kurosawa's cinema, and Frank Herbet's 1965 novel Dune.  In many ways, Lucas did what Quentin Tarantino accomplished a generation later, mashed up a rich multitude of influences and created something vibrant and alive.

The trailers for the new J.J. Abrams version of Star Wars look encouraging.  Fans hope they will get the movie they've craved since Return of the Jedi.  No Jar-Jar Binks.  The core cast from the original will be back.  Toned down CGI effects. Hopes are running high.

I was born in 1979 so I missed the initial run of A New Hope, although I remember seeing Return of the Jedi in a theater. Jabba the Hut terrified me, but I loved the Ewoks, and was perplexed when Vader removed his mask.  I came to know Star Wars through home video, watching those VHS types over and over again.

In the early 90s Bantam published a trilogy of Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn.  Those novels were okay, but never captured the transcendent experience of watching the movies. 

Finally in the mid-90s, Lucas announced plans for another trilogy and fans suffering from withdrawal waited with intense anticipation as the new millennium beckoned. The release of The Phantom Menace met with mixed to downright hostile reviews.

White also interviewed Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People vs. George Lucas, a documentary on the fan vitriol that's accrued against Lucas over the years. While the fanboy temper tantrums get annoying, some pertinent questions are raised on the creative choices Lucas made.

In The People vs. George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola laments how Star Wars consumed Lucas's talent and we will never get to see the other movies he envisioned.   Imagine an alternate universe where Lucas, content with the success of Star Wars, sold over the rights in 1977 and went on to pursue his own personal projects? We'll never know.

For any fan of Star Wars, listening to The Projection Booth episode is a great way to prepare for The Force Awakens. Mike and Rob provide a great perspective on the history of Star Wars. Check it out!