The 1970s were one of the most overtly political decades for science fiction filmmaking. Humor writer Tom Gerencer grew up watching movies such as Logan’s Run, Silent Running, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, all of which contain clear political messages.
“We were watching industrialization do what it’s continued to do now, getting worse and worse and worse, and we had a lot of voices back then saying, ‘No, we have to stop this,’ and rightly so,” Gerencer says in Episode 543 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley was impressed by the continued relevance of many ’70s science fiction movies, whether it’s the idea of a deadly new virus in The Andromeda Strain or the threat of artificial intelligence in Colossus: The Forbin Project. “If you look at some of the issues they’re dealing with—pandemics, AI, ecological collapse, youth culture, nuclear war—you would have to say that they did a pretty good job of honing in on some of the issues that were going to be important over the coming decades,” he says.
Unfortunately many examples of ’70s science fiction don’t hold up today as entertaining stories. TV writer Andrea Kail finds movies such as Silent Running and Beneath the Planet of the Apes to be slow-paced and preachy. “I don’t think any of these really hit the sweet spot between ‘here’s a message’ and ‘here’s a good movie telling us that,’” she says. “You can make a message movie and it can be interesting. These do not do that.”
Science fiction author Matthew Kressel enjoyed seeing how ’70s science fiction movies inspired future filmmakers, such as Silent Running influencing Red Dwarf or Colossus: The Forbin Project influencing Wargames. “One of the coolest things was just to see how future directors came along and took pieces of these and made them their own,” he says. “You could just see how a really good director and storyteller can take any premise and make it great.”
Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer, Andrea Kail, and Matthew Kressel in Episode 543 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Andrea Kail on Silent Running:
There’s three writers on it. One of them is Michael Cimino, who wrote The Deer Hunter, and Deric Washburn, who wrote The Deer Hunter with him. Michael Cimino won multiple Academy Awards for many movies. And then the third writer is Stephen Bochco, of Hill Street Blues fame, one of the biggest TV producers of the ’80s—of hit shows. So this is the amateur outing of three of the biggest writers of the ’80s, and it’s shocking how terrible it is. Cimino won I don’t know how many Academy Awards, Steven Bochco ruled the ’80s television. It’s shocking.
Tom Gerencer on The Andromeda Strain:
A friend of mine who I grew up with said, “Hey, you know that movie Disclosure? The book was written by this guy Michael Crichton, who also wrote The Andromeda Strain.” And I was like, “Holy cow,” because the two of us both really loved The Andromeda Strain. We saw the movie, and were blown away by it. To an eight-year-old, the science was flawless, and the movie was super cool. The whole concept of the key, and having to climb up this ladder, and go to different levels and try to get to one of the stations where you could turn the key was fascinating. We used to act that out all the time, climbing trees. “Duck!” This movie really made an impression on me as a kid.
David Barr Kirtley on Colossus: The Forbin Project:
I really liked at the beginning how Forbin is so confident and assured and competent, and everybody looks up to him, and he just always knows exactly what to do. Then you just see him unravel over the course of the movie until by the end he’s just this broken person, and I thought the way the movie portrayed that was really well done. … Any time Colossus was doing anything, I just thought it was so chilling. I just had such a feeling of doom through the whole movie. I thought it really captured the relentless, implacable nature of machine intelligence.
Matthew Kressel on cautionary tales:
I don’t know if it’s just my personal experience—I might be generalizing—but I feel like viewers today are a lot more discerning about stuff that they watch. I don’t think you can get away with these kinds of hitting-you-over-the-head messages. I think you have to be more subtle with your messages and let the viewer come to their own conclusions about what these things mean. I’ve kind of lost my faith in science fiction as a cautionary tale. We’ve had half a century or more of these cautionary tales, and we’re still heading headlong into the apocalypse. But they certainly make you think, and maybe scare you a little bit, and entertain you.