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Strange Days: When Science Fiction Went Weird

  When Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, it ushered in a new era of science fiction; yes, there were the movies that adhered to as much realism as they could muster, as per writer Arthur C. Clarke's desire for "hard" sci-fi, but then you had to bear in mind the way that film ended, with one of the weirdest conclusions to any mainstream movie seen so far on the big screen. Call it the effects of psychedelics contributing to a drive for the genre to deliver mind expansion, but there was something definitely afoot, and in another 1968 effort there was, if anything, a more consistent attempt at blowing the audience's mind, only this time it was more dedicated to themes Kubrick would never have considered, and remain looked down on in the style to this day: material that was humorous, sexual and even perverse, kinky and nasty. That film was Barbarella.

Drawn from the far out comic books of Jean-Claude Forest, it presented the can-do heroine of the title as a futuristic yet somehow naïve denizen of space, an agent who is sent on a life or death mission by her boss to capture the renegade scientist Durand Durand before he sets about destroying great swathes of the galaxy with his death ray. To do so a trip to the planet Lythion is in order, though not before we get an eyeful of star Jane Fonda removing her space suit under the opening titles, a sign that this was not your average Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon (though the same producer, Dino De Laurentiis, funded a remake of that property that owed plenty to Barbarella). As Fonda was about to turn publicly political, this film was seen as an embarrassment to her, but she made her peace with it once she recognised what a major cult movie it had become, both ironically and sincerely with its audience.

It was certainly one of the most distinctive-looking and sounding works of the sixties, with its cheerfully artificial appearance, camp dialogue, Bob Crewe's music blaring on the soundtrack and actors who all seemed in on the joke: Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant who rules over the city of SoGo, though is curiously dubbed by plummy Joan Greenwood, David Hemmings as freedom fighter Dildano (!) who is more inept than crusading, Milo O'Shea as the Concierge who is up to no good, John Philip Law as Pygar the blind angel, fresh off Diabolik, Marcel Marceau as a talkative scientist, and Ugo Tognazzi as the wanderer of the ice who rescues our heroine from metal-toothed dolls. The concepts here were a sixties swinger's idea of futuristic, so naturally dated within nanoseconds, but this simply rendered them weirder, director Roger Vadim (Fonda's husband) orchestrating the ridiculousness just as Durand plays his pleasure-torture machine with Barbarella inside.

The other big science fiction movie from 1968 was Planet of the Apes, where Charlton Heston had wound up two thousand years into the future and found it a most unforgiving place. That had spawned a sequel in 1970, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, featuring the same world ruled by intelligent and evolved simians, with an even stranger twist to proceedings than before when added to the mix was a society of psychic humans who took their faces off to sing off-key hymns to their planet-threatening bomb. This was also a hit, so Escape from the Planet of the Apes arrived in 1971, and its attempts to be all things to all socially concerned people rendered it indicative of a franchise unafraid to go to some pretty strange places to make its points. This time, three of the apes went back in time to modern (for the seventies) America to be treated with suspicion, then welcome, then outright hostility when the truth was revealed.

Those apes were played by original cast members Roddy McDowall (as Cornelius, back in the series after taking time off from part 2 to direct pet project Tam Lin) and Kim Hunter (as Zira, her final time in the role), plus the addition of genius scientist Sal Mineo (as Milo, in his last movie before his untimely murder, ironically asking his character to be murdered early because he found the makeup process so arduous). Milo's genius was the explanation as to how this trio managed to get the space capsule working and through the time warp, thrown away in the dialogue but also bringing about a terrific opener as they arrive washed up on the same beach Heston wound up on in the first instalment, followed by Jerry Goldsmith's top orchestral funk workout variation of his classic score in the original. So far, so good, but the end result veered drunkenly between cutesy fish out of water comedy and grim consequences.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes was the first in the quintet to be expressly aimed at a more family audience rather than the supposedly more intellectual adults in the auditorium, but all of them had been a lot more popular with the younger viewer of the day. What was weird was the way the producer Arthur P. Jacobs arranged his message making, from seeing Zira address a women's organisation to make clear her feminist views to Cornelius observing both the humans' current treatment of animals and the apes treatment of humans tantamount to slavery of the sort that blighted the United States for too long. Yet there was a vivisection element to question the audience on testing with animals, so much so that we were expected to be in tears by the point of the emotional finale once the visitors were identified as a threat. Whether you were being a matter of taste, but this series went places science fiction hits would not often go afterwards.

Meanwhile, in Japan, another lucrative franchise had been progressing for some time longer, as the most identifiable science fiction monster out of that nation's cinema was finding he was more appealing to little kids than he was to the adults. In 1971, he had starred in Godzilla vs Hedorah, or Godzilla vs The Smog Monster if you preferred the English language dub, which took the character on an environmentalist trip as he battled a rubbish dump. Fans new and old alike were baffled at what was up, the new director drafted in to revitalise the series was banished, and a reboot to resemble the material that had gone before was ordered: Godzilla vs Gigan in 1972 was that effort and saw the big green guy on firmer ground. Or did it? There was a residue of that misplaced earnestness to be traced here, notably in the villains' grand plan: yes, they were space aliens again, and yes, they had ruined their Earthlike planet with pollution.

Not an original tale, but to add the odd twist they were giant cockroaches in human guise (you could identify them by their shadows, which remained unchanged) - not Godzilla-sized insects, you understand, but six feet tall at least. After a lot of setting up which saw the hero, a manga artist whose ideas were not going down well with his editor, team up with two insurgents trying to rescue the female half's scientist brother from the aliens' base of operations in a children's theme park (!), all this careful establishing of protagonists and antagonists was promptly dismissed in the main in favour of the classic Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima (in his final go-round in the role) more or less spending most of his screen time rolling around in the dirt and dust. He wasn't alone, as thanks to budgetary reasons there were only four giant monsters this time, two goodies - Big G and Anguirus - and two baddies - King Ghidorah and the titular Gigan.

Ghidorah had been seen before, and this tricephalus appearance was a favourite with the fans making him the closest thing to an arch-enemy Godzilla had, but the real curiosity stemmed from Gigan. OK, additional curiosity came when Godzilla was incapacitated by a statue, not his finest moment especially when it was a statue of himself, but Gigan's special power was not so much his hook hands but the circular saw located in his chest and belly, which he used to cut up buildings like so much lumber, and actually draw blood from our huge, lizard hero in inappropriate for kids gore scenes in a kids' movie. Adding to the sense of "what the hell is going on?" was when Godzilla and his partner exchanged words: in the Japanese version this was represented by a record scratching sound and speech bubbles, but in the American this was infamous for giving the monsters dialogue which was every bit as ridiculous as it sounded - literally.

The science fiction for the grown-ups was not going any more sensibly in the Western world. There are fans of Zardoz (1974), and there are fans of The Final Programme (1973), but the fans of the latter have the edge since adapter, designer and director Robert Fuest had a sense of humour about what he was doing, and that translated onto the screen. It was a time when written science fiction was heading off in all sorts of wild directions, some reactionary, others adapting from the hippy generation to the Me generation to expand minds in a curiously self-centred manner for consciousness expansion. British writer Michael Moorcock was at the forefront of this movement, creating hero quests that commented on classical tales while bringing them right up to the seventies with as much mind-stretching imagery as he could muster. It was a mark of this era that someone thought this would make a good film.

Fuest certainly thought he was the man to do it, though after he had seen what he conjured up, Moorcock was dismayed and pronounced the results a terrible version of his source material. Fans of the author were divided between those who agreed with him and felt the movie fell far short of what had been possible on the page, and those who were simply satisfied that there was a cinematic incarnation of Moorcock's best-known character, Jerry Cornelius. It's true that while assuredly weird, The Final Programme (or The Last Days of Man on Earth as it was alternatively known) did not quite pass muster as an entirely satisfying science fiction film; maybe the budget was too meagre, maybe Fuest allowed the material to get away from him, but all that said there was little quite like what he did craft from some very unruly origins. Even on the limited resources he had, visually this was striking and imaginative, and the performances matched that.

In particular Jon Finch as Cornelius; some would say he had a disappointing career that did not live up to his full potential, but if this was judged by the cult movies he made, then perhaps it was more of a success than the naysayers would have you believe. Here he was arch, vain, but flawed and funny, a man of action who will just as likely do his best to run away from a fight, an adventurer with an array of gadgets at his disposal from a helicopter to a strange-looking pistol, but with a reticent attitude, not wanting to be too involved with the attempts to avert the impending apocalypse that humankind faces. Jenny Runacre was leading the group of scientists who think they can assure immortality and avert our extinction, and the cast was peppered with famous faces of the day, the feeling of the film unsteadily walking a tightrope between clarity and confusion part of the reason it compelled. If you were on its skewed wavelength, you'd probably laugh quite a bit.

No selection of the weirdest science fiction of the seventies would be complete without The Man Who Fell to Earth which arrived slap bang in the middle of the decade, 1975. Its star, David Bowie, had been immersing himself in futuristic imagery for years, his first hit had referenced the Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey, so he jumped at the chance to play, not a stranded astronaut as in his song, but a stranded space alien. The fact that Bowie was off his face on cocaine for the entirety of the shoot would, in a normal production, have sabotaged it perilously, yet here added to the lead character’s portrayal of - literal - alienation as he arrived from a distant, desert planet in search of water to replenish it and rescue the population, only to be dragged down by his own flaws and the punishing mundanity of life on Earth which reduces everything to its own level with little care for the exoticism and potential of contacting an otherworldly civilisation.

Not so much a stranger in a strange land, as Robert Heinlein would have had it, more a stranger in a crushingly banal land, his otherness, his uniqueness on this planet destroyed when he starts to set up a corporation to raise funds then build a method of transport for the water he needs, only for the authorities to get wind of his plans and more through unthinking stupidity than any real malice serve to undermine Bowie's Thomas Jerome Newton's noble ideals at every turn. At the time, this film met with a mixed reception, its director Nicolas Roeg's typically idiosyncratic approach proving abrasive for those who wanted a straightforward sci-fi yarn starring a rock celebrity, and it still divides audiences, yet in retrospect it was perfect for Bowie who always investigated the implications of not quite belonging to this society, never mind this planet. Newton's isolation was one of the keenest representations of that on film.

In the eighties, the most famous fictional space alien would be the titular creature from Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and he was intended to be friendly and wondrous; a mere seven years before, Bowie was downright tragic, infected with the pop culture of television (Newton watches a wall of sets all at once, like Elvis Presley - whose image appears on one of the screens) and the love of Candy Clark's chambermaid, the woman who introduces him to alcohol rather than water, leading him to become an addict. The author of the source novel Walter Tevis was similarly afflicted, but the movie is not so much his autobiographical metaphors realised as it was Bowie's artistic fantasies clashing with the sobering actuality of his situation, and Roeg's style, where years go by for the other characters yet Newton remains the same age, like a fly trapped in amber, emphasised how desolate it was to have a vision, a hope, that leads nowhere.

The weirdness in science fiction began to peter out somewhat when, predictably, Star Wars arrived in 1977, indicating audiences were no longer as interested in mindbending examples of the form, but trust the Italians to create something which took a collection of mainstream sci-fi and horror hits and combine them in an attempt to appeal to every market that had made them a hit. What I'm referring to is The Visitor, released in 1979, which took some of the flashback sequences from The Man Who Fell to Earth as its starting point for images of another world, then had Franco Nero show up for what amounted to a cameo as a space Jesus to explain the plot in a way that, it transpires, only has a vague connection to what we were actually about to watch. Which was a rip-off of The Omen, only this time with a little girl, Katy (Paige Conner), as the spawn of the Devil, or the space Devil, or whatever was supposed to be causing the unfolding mayhem.

Referencing The Omen means you know what - that's right, setpiece deaths, most memorably Glenn Ford as an investigating detective who is attacked while driving by Katy's pet falcon, crashes his car into a fence which rolls down a hill and explodes. It was like the guest stars at the beginning of every episode of Police Squad! only intended to be serious. Among other “strictly for the money” famous faces appearing, John Huston was present as about the only character who knows what is going on, not that he shares this with the audience, and has a tendency to throw shapes at Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style light and cloud shows in the night sky, for no other reason than it was in the Spielberg movie so chuck it into this one. Also here were Shelley Winters as a good nanny, so nothing like Billie Whitelaw's evil nanny in the Richard Donner blockbusting horror of course, and Mel Ferrer as the regulation evil corporate leader planning to use Katy for...

Um, you got me there, evil for the sake of it was as far as the motives got here, and it was perversely entertaining, even laugh out loud funny, to watch, for instance, Katy influence her father Lance Henriksen's basketball team's fortunes by blowing up a rival player in a shower of sparks just before he makes a winning score. Then there was the scene where she visits an ice rink, purely to knock other skaters over, and eventually spin two chaps around so fiercely that when she lets go they are sent flying through a trestle and a window respectively. This has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, such as it was. The Italians (in this case, the makers of Jaws rip-off Tentacles - you'll be surprised they didn't crowbar in a shark here too) were notorious for their magpie approach to genre cinema, and examples such as The Visitor concocted something utterly bizarre unintentionally, its ludicrous facsimile of big hits carrying a weirdness all its own.

But really, the era of the wacked-out science fiction epic was sputtering by the late seventies, ironically in spite of the great advances being made in special effects: everything was either a horror or thriller or comedy with the trappings of the genre, and works seeking to address the big, cosmic issues, or at least aim for big, cosmic visuals, were well on the wane. Which brought us to the last gasp of the hippy-dippy sci-fi operating on high concepts and possibly high states of mind, 1980's Altered States, based on a searching, high-faluting screenplay by heavyweight talent Paddy Chayefsky (whose Network had been so well thought of in the previous few years). Unfortunately, this project kept shedding its creatives thanks to, apparently, how difficult the writer was to cooperate with, and by the time Ken Russell got his hands on it, time was marching on and the audience for this sort of thing was well out of date.

In a perfect world, Altered States would have shown up in the late sixties and promptly blown minds, but this was not only a Star Wars landscape science fiction was operating in, but post-such midnight movies as El Topo and Eraserhead, meaning Russell had his work cut out if he wanted to address the questions asked by Chayefsky. Not helping was that the writer demanded every word of his dialogue be included, and Russell was doing his best to succeed in a very fraught production as he saw his Hollywood career already turning problematic. What he did was compensate: massively. Whenever there was the chance to add in some striking, trippy imagery, he jumped at it, and there were about three or four extended sequences of the downright bizarre as boffin William Hurt tries to get to the heart of evolution by using a floatation tank and masses of hallucinatory drugs. Yup, he was your basic mad scientist dressed up in philosophical jargon.

That this never actually did answer any big questions was likely down to the story being more connected to the other lead character, Hurt's wife, played by Blair Brown. She was a longsuffering type trying to get used to living as second place behind her husband's experiments, which took some acclimatisation when, for example, he comes home and describes the experience of transforming into a caveman and hunting, killing and eating a sheep at the city zoo as the most satisfying of his life. Never mind his wedding day, or the birth of their children, nope, getting in touch with his inner apeman is the tops. Yet for all its absurdity, you kind of admired Altered States, it was resolutely unfashionable (Russell, like Roeg, would find the eighties unfavourable to his ambitions and visions, by and large), but dedicated itself to getting under the skin of the viewer in a way that attempted a consciousness expansion without drugs. This approach to science fiction would fall away dramatically in the cinema of the eighties, where all-American movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future and Predator was what audiences wanted from their fantastical fiction. But weirdness would be back...
Author: Graeme Clark.


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