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.