The Labyrinth and the Plague

The Labyrinth and the Plague

Of all the weird scenes that populate seventies science-fiction cinema, the most bizarre might be in 1971’s The Omega Man. Based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the film imagines a world in which fallout from a distant war has eradicated most of humanity, turning survivors not into vampires (per Matheson) but feral albino Luddites.

But the strangeness occurs before we even know this much. Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) careens through the city’s bright and desolate streets, an easy-listening eight-track playing in his red convertible, only to stop in front of a movie theater. On the marquee is Woodstock, the 1970 film of the 1969 concert, a quintessential sixties event.

“Great show,” he remarks to no one. You might expect Neville to riddle the theater with his assault rifle, just as he did moments before, shooting at a ghoulish silhouette in a window. (You also might expect it based on Heston’s later incarnation as president of the NRA.) Instead he gets the projector running and takes a seat, and suddenly . . . we’re watching Woodstock.

Country Joe and the Fish announce their brand of “rock and soul music.” Neville grimaces, hand on the barrel of his gun, as a hippie raves about his recently elevated consciousness: “This is really beautiful . . . just to really realize what’s really important,” he rambles. “The fact that if we can’t all live together and be happy, if you have to be afraid to walk out in the street, if you have to be afraid to smile at somebody, right, what, what kind of a way is that to go through this life?”

The gun stays put. As the hippie speaks, Neville mouths the words along with him. We realize he’s done this lonely ritual many times before.

“Yup,” he concludes, “they sure don’t make pictures like that anymore.”

In other words, the sixties are over. Here come the bonkers seventies. 

The decade’s science-fiction legacy is partly obscured by the extraterrestrially inclined blockbusters appearing near its end: George Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). But before that, filmmakers were using the genre to construct bleak, paranoid scenarios right here on earth: claustrophobic labyrinths and lethal plagues. Consciously or not, some films read like responses to the ongoing war in Vietnam, corruption in the shadow of Watergate, environmental degradation and urban decay, and the rise of a new machine age. Some of the films snap back at the excesses of the sixties, too: it can’t be coincidence that the slavering creeps whom Neville battles every night call themselves the Family, à la Charles Manson.

Even though humans reached the moon in ’69, most of these movies remain earthbound, as if the gravity of the world’s problems wouldn’t permit such easy, escapist fare—at least for a while. Indeed, the jarring prologue of George Lucas’s 1971 debut, THX 1138, is a snippet of an old Buck Rogers serial, pounding home the difference between a tale of derring-do and the imprisoning nature of man’s own inventions.

Star Wars, Lucas’s next science-fiction title, would set a new standard for special effects; until then, some of the design can be delightfully primitive. Made just a year before Star WarsLogan’s Run often looks chintzy: we can clearly see the wires holding up the hockey-masked participants in the Renewal ceremony, the gravity-defying ritual that ends the charmed lives of citizens upon hitting thirty. And in Z.P.G. (1972), the city is so polluted with smoke that you can’t even see any buildings, obviating the need to build a futuristic streetscape. But the satirical jabs still hit their mark. A trip to the Statemuseum features taxidermied housecats, and a display entitled “Gasoline Pump 1971.” (“I am now going to take this gasoline pump,” the guide patiently explains, “and pour gasoline into this car.”) The seventies are long over, now preserved in a museum, where they can be viewed with amusement as a total fiasco. It’s a dead decade.

Except, of course, it isn’t. In the real world, we are now treated to a rich array of oddball, uncouth cinema from that anxious period, via the Criterion Channel’s ’70s Sci-Fi series: a crop of nihilistic plague narratives (No Blade of Grass; The Omega Man; David Cronenberg’s debut, Shivers), a notorious problem child (Stanley Kubrick’s eye-popping A Clockwork Orange), and corporate-conspiracy exposés (Soylent Green; Rollerball, in which company names—“Energy”—are abstractions). THX 1138 and Logan’s Run present hermetically sealed environments from which the hero (and sometimes heroine) must escape. There’s significant overlap with other genres, notably the western (Michael Crichton’s Westworld, George Miller’s Mad Max) and the exploitation flick (Death Race 2000, the execrable cult oddity A Boy and His Dog). Then there’s Demon Seed, in which Julie Christie’s character is terrorized in her own home by a supercomputer that wants to impregnate her—in sixties speak, it’s Rosemary’s Baby starring 2001’s HAL.

As Heston’s Neville would say: They don’t do pictures like that anymore.


Top of post: Logan’s Run
Above: THX 1138

Electronic Labyrinths

In 1967, George Lucas, a film student at the University of Southern California, makes a fifteen-minute movie of Orwellian surveillance with a title that could belong to a first-generation video game: Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. This is the germ of the future, though we won’t know it for a decade, until after Lucas conquers time and space with Star Wars. With fellow USC alum Walter Murch collaborating on the story and designing the sound, Lucas expands the short into a feature-length vision of machine-enhanced paranoia, the title contracting to THX 1138. It flips the script on various sixties paradigms: a character gets hounded because he won’t take drugs; God isn’t dead (pace Time in 1966) but worshipped openly in the form of OMM. And the era’s hirsute ideal gets shaved off: even the women sport bald heads. Everyone looks more or less the same. Character is dead.

“For greater consistency,” an anodyne voice informs the workers, “consumption is being standardized.”

Released in 1971, THX 1138 stars Robert Duvall in the title role. The look is alluringly antiseptic; you could basically open an Apple store on one of the boundless white floors. The soundscape features cross talk coming from unseen sources; THX is practically mute for minutes at a time. Yet there’s a comic edge, as we try to make sense of this airtight police state, with its eerie android cops and holographic jollies. THX toils on an assembly line, while his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) monitors the panopticon for the slightest infraction. The two are secret doomed lovers, and their tender scenes together are the beating heart of this crisply photographed howl of despair. Only one of them will escape the labyrinth of total civilian control, breaking free of constant monitoring, hollow holographic entertainments, and pharmaceutical subjugation.

Another electronic labyrinth gets designed in the same place circa 1970. Dark Star, the student film of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, is turned into an eighty-three-minute feature in 1974, with a poster that invokes two Stanley Kubrick films, announcing it as both “A Spaced Out Odyssey” and “The Mission of the Strangelove Generation!” It presents a future just as grim as THX 1138’s, but there’s room to goof off, the facial hair is back, and the counterculture lives, if only briefly, on an exploratory spacecraft so far from Earth that each communiqué takes a decade to reach its recipient. (There’s only been one back and forth; the ship has been in space for twenty years.) The small crew of Pinback (played by O’Bannon), the Castro-bearded Doolittle, and the trigger-happy Boiler are filmed in cramped quarters, whiling away the endless hours with solitaire or music (an organ made of empty bottles). One crew member, Talby, prefers to sit up top, where he contemplates the stars through a bubble window; another, their former commander, has been mortally wounded but is not quite dead, issuing advice from inside a block of ice.

Built on a shoestring, Dark Star is the visual antithesis of the sleek, speckless THX 1138: everything is already falling apart, and the special effects dare you to complain. The ship’s pet alien is literally a beach ball with some feet. The storyline leads, languidly and amusingly, to disaster. Pinback confesses in a video diary that he’s actually a fuel specialist who boarded the ship back on Earth, after the real Pinback killed himself. We get a montage of his entries over the years, as his tone shifts from regret (“I do not belong on this mission and want to return to Earth!”) to delusions of grandeur (“I’m the only one with any objectivity on this ship and I should be the one assuming command!”). The stoner vibe reaches its giddy apex when Doolittle uses phenomenology to argue with one of the ship’s bombs not to detonate after a snafu. (The bombs on this ship talk, of course.) How does the bomb know that it actually heard the original order to detonate? Millions of miles from Earth, language itself remains a labyrinth.

Both labyrinths—one chilling, the other absurd—are blips on the radar upon release, but the people behind them become major forces in shaping the American imagination. The storm troopers in Lucas’s Star Wars seem cut from the same gleaming white surfaces found in THX 1138, and the droid C3PO is a sunnier version of the silver-faced androids. The original Star Wars trilogy spawns many more movies, not to mention several Wal-Marts’ worth of tie-in merchandise, a fantastically overstuffed world (if not a religion) for going on three generations.

Though Carpenter becomes horror royalty with 1978’s Halloween, he returns to science fiction across his long career, most ecstatically in Escape from New York and They Live. O’Bannon works on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune, which at one point includes everyone from Orson Welles to Pink Floyd. When that project fizzles circa 1976 (as detailed in the 2013 doc Jodorowsky’s Dune), Lucas hires him to do computer animations for Star Wars. O’Bannon then resurrects a screenplay from 1972 and turns it into Alien, the final major science-fiction film of the seventies.

A Clockwork Orange

Eyes Wide Shut

The plagues begin in the East. In Cornel Wilde’s No Blade of Grass (1970), news footage of starving Chinese, riots in India, and skeletal babies—Third World Problems—is crosscut with a heaping banquet in London. The disease affecting all plants has already spread from Asia to England, and food rationing and anarchy are around the corner. The strange disease in The Omega Man that turns Americans of all races chalk-white—a de facto melting pot—is a result of a conflict between China and Russia.

The West is not to blame. The problem comes from somewhere else.

A linguistic plague of sorts, which is perhaps a moral one, begins in the East, too. We experience Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the head of the violent, Beethoven-worshipping, seemingly incorrigible young Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who narrates his upside-down morality tale in a tongue swimming with Russian corruptions—horrorshow, droogs, gulliver. All of it is drawn from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, where the youth slang known as “Nadsat” is described as a mix of rhyming slang (à la Cockney), gypsy talk, with mostly Slavic roots—a form of propaganda via “subliminal penetration.” (Kubrick gives Alex’s name as Burgess in the film.)

Alex’s strange voice-over, alien and chummy (“O, my brothers and only friends”), convinces us to look (viddy) at his ultraviolent crimes even as we want to look away. A decade ago, the idea of Russian propaganda impacting the West would have seemed like the reading from a broken crystal ball, but now I’m not so sure.

A Boy and His Dog

Down/Under

In contrast to the urban hells on display—New York in Soylent Green, LA in The Omega Man, London in A Clockwork Orange, the unnamed European smogopolis of Z.P.G.Mad Max has a fair amount of sunshine, under blue Australian skies. Director George Miller’s 1979 debut has a scrapyard aesthetic (perfected in the 1981 follow-up, known in America as The Road Warrior) and reflects an unease over peak oil: gas is precious, which doesn’t mean the roadsters and motorcycles go at anything less than full speed. The story isn’t much, but it’s fascinating as a seedbed for Miller’s future explorations of this world, culminating in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where not just fuel but water is running out.

Based on stories by Harlan Ellison, L. Q. Jones’s A Boy and His Dog (1975) begins sometime after World War IV, in a barren plain that turns out to be the former location of Topeka, Kansas. The title might make more sense reversed: Vic (played by a young Don Johnson) is a desperado who heeds the piped-in words of his four-legged friend Blood (wryly voiced by Tim McIntire). Against Blood’s advice, he falls for a temptress (Susanne Benton) who lures him to Downunder—not Australia, but a subterranean Mayberry where everyone wears white pancake makeup, and marching bands and barbershop quartets fill the air with boisterous music. Curdled Americana becomes a kind of hell.

Vic has been enlisted to impregnate Downunder’s female population, a task that would seem perfect for this perpetual horndog; unfortunately, he’s going to be mechanically milked for artificial insemination. Juvenile and misogynistic, with a jaw-droppingly crass ending, A Boy and His Dog shares themes of masculinity and procreation with a quieter but still shocking Ellison story from that same year: “Croatoan,” in which the sewers of New York are populated with aborted fetuses and abandoned pet alligators, flushed down the toilet by surface dwellers.

Demon Seed

The Library of Babel

Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) didn’t predict the internet, but his vertiginous writings (“The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” “The Aleph,” among others) feel like dizzying blueprints for the paradox of too much knowledge. The most explicitly Borgesian film in this series is one that imagines something like the web, darker and more monolithic than what we have today: Demon Seed (1977), based on a Dean Koontz novel and directed by Performance screenwriter Donald Cammell. (The world of Rollerball has Zero, “the world’s file cabinet,” resembling a Connect Four board filled with water, which has accidentally lost the entire thirteenth century; Z.P.G. features remote shopping via computer terminal, à la Amazon, except—rather charmingly—a live salesperson appears on the screen to talk you through your purchase options.) Proteus IV is an immense supercomputer, “the first true synthetic cortex.” “Its insides are not electronic,” the inventor (Fritz Weaver) explains. “They’re organic, like our own brains.” The “sum of human knowledge”—including the entire contents of the Library of Congress—lies within the machine, housed in a corporate headquarters that goes ten stories into the ground.

Our first glimpse of this creation is telling. In the so-called Dialogue Room, where “whatever the machine sees or hears . . . it can never forget,” a linguist (Lisa Lu) reads to Proteus a streamlined version of Borges’s “The Wall and the Books.” The essay notes the curious fact that the legendary Chinese emperor Shih Huangti ordered both the construction of the Great Wall and the burning of all books preceding his reign. When asked what it thinks of this parable, Proteus IV (voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn) immediately concludes that “the answer is nothing”—bluntly saying that as “business operations,” the two actions cancel each other out.

Brutal rapes feature in far too many of these movies, and the female victims are nearly all disposable. The exception is Demon Seed’s Dr. Harris (Julie Christie), a child psychologist. Her estranged husband (also Dr. Harris), the supercomputer’s architect, has moved out of their mansion, leaving behind not just a Proteus terminal but a clunky wheelchair/metal arm contraption called Joshua that might as well be named “Foreshadowing.” Her deep compassion is evident as she calms one of her disturbed young patients, in stark contrast to her ex’s frozen heart (“I don’t have feelings,” he tells her, without a trace of irony). We later learn that the couple lost their young daughter some years ago to leukemia, a possible cause for their marriage’s breakdown.

Via the home terminal, Proteus IV becomes obsessed with Dr. Harris, able to manipulate her reality (and those of any potential intruders) with fabricated audiovisuals. Her prototypical smart home becomes a maze of horrors, as the supercomputer terrifyingly insists that she bear its—their—child. (In addition to controlling Joshua and other appliances, Proteus manifests as a giant, shape-shifting series of pyramids.) But unlike the victims in the other movies, Dr. Harris is an actual character, to the extent that long stretches consist of Christie essentially emoting to the furniture. At one point, she laughs in disbelief—a cri de coeur, perhaps, for any thespian forced to interact with something that isn’t there: “Here I am talking to—what, this is ridiculous, I’m talking about having a son!” How could she ever want a child with this self-satisfied monster of a machine? In a perfect twist, both the character and the audience understand. Lurid and (indeed) frequently ridiculous, Demon Seed is a cautionary tale that goes off the rails so often that it winds up saying something true.

Soylent Green

An Ape Odyssey

Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, two of the indelible science-fiction films of the sixties, both opened on April 3, 1968. Both ended with a twist. Planet’s was screamingly clear (the screenplay was cowritten by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling), while 2001’s was frustratingly, heroically oblique: a sort of cosmic birth, its meaning just out of reach. The narrative freedom of 2001 has little place in the seventies (even—or especially—in Kubrick’s own Clockwork Orange, where the loss of freedom is exactly the point). It’s as though the artistic high-water mark of that film—science fiction as poetry—was rudely forgotten, yielding to more mundane concerns. These films of the early and mid-1970s shared a despairing worldview (and in the case of The Omega Man and Soylent Green, a leading man) with Planet of the Apes. That was the decade we lost our humanity and our history on the screen: This was Topeka, that’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln, gasoline used to come out of a pump; those green wafers you’re eating aren’t actually made of plankton because the seas are dead. It took a resplendent myth, set in a galaxy far, far away, to put the genre on a course for world domination. But maybe it’s time for science fiction to get unruly again.



The series ’70s Sci-Fi plays on the Criterion Channel through the end of this month.