Tag Archives: 70s science fiction

Silent Running

Silent Running

Format: Cinema

Screening dates: 21-27 October 2011

Venue: ICA, London

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 14 November 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Writers: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco

Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin

USA 1971

90 mins

The future. Earth is defoliated, the last remaining plant life confined to geodesic domes floating in deep space. When the order is given to destroy the gardens, the botanist rebels, murders his crewmates and sails one garden off through Saturn’s rings.

Silent Running is a film to see when you’re young, if you can arrange it that way. Revisiting it, decades after a BBC2 screening in the 70s, I was struck by how curiously illogical it all is, full of plot contrivances that don’t make any sense except as stepping stones to the next emotional moment. You can see it’s a director’s film, and the services of three writers, including Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) and Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), haven’t tamed the unruly vision into something narratively coherent.

The director in question is Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special effects on 2001, and here used his expertise to create a visually impressive science fiction epic on a budget of a million dollars. The excellent extras on Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray fill in the details of how he managed this (with great ingenuity and skill, is the short answer).

One budgetary saving was made by having actor Bruce Dern alone on screen for much of the movie, a Robinson Crusoe figure slowly deteriorating mentally through guilt and loneliness, with only his robot servants for company. If you’re going to make a naí¯ve, didactic eco-fable, Dern’s casting is very smart: since the other astronauts are interchangeable louts and the scales are heavily weighted in favour of the eco-conscious space hippy, it helps that Dern makes him shrill, manic, passive-aggressive and obnoxious from time to time. Without altogether losing our sympathy, he gives the thing an edge. With his narrow, vaguely rodent-like face, blazing blue irises and tiny, pin-prick pupils, Dern stops Freeman Lowell becoming some sort of tree-hugging Jesus. The fact that the script makes him a murderer also helps, and the film pulls towards an exploration of guilt, an all-consuming torment that consumes the character even as he tries to create a new Eden.

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The science is notably weak, to the point where the film seems to be more allegory than speculative fiction, and the strange and potent image of a child’s watering can in space suggests that Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince may have more to do with this movie than 2001. Indeed, even the ecological message may be a red herring. We’re told that everywhere on Earth is 75 degrees: an air-conditioned, sterile paradise has been created, rather than the uninhabitable, polluted wasteland of global warming prophecy. Lowell’s objection to that is more aesthetic or spiritual than pragmatic, ‘the simple beauty of a leaf’ being something a child should experience for the good of the soul. So while the Peter Schikele/Joan Baez songs insist on the vitality of nature, from a nostalgic point of view where all that is to perish, the film’s real interests may actually be more elusive.

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, made at a far lower cost than Silent Running‘s tight one million, is likely to remain for most the space hippy movie of choice, but Trumbull has an ace up his tie-dyed sleeve. His last image, of a lonely robot drifting away from us in a floating garden, is the seed from which the whole of Wall-E grew, as well as providing Spielberg with his closing credits for Close Encounters. And while Carpenter’s country song accompaniment to space travel is irresistibly comic, and Spielberg’s use of ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ inescapably kitsch, I find the combination of deep space and folk music peculiarly moving here.

Silent Running screens at the ICA, London, from Oct 21 to 27.

David Cairns

Phase IV

Phase IV

Format: Cinema

Screening dates: 22-27 October 2011

Venue: ICA, London

Format: Region 1 DVD

Release date: 23 September 2008

Distributor: Legend Films

Director: Saul Bass

Writers: Mayo Simon, John Barry

Based on the novel by: Barry N. Malzberg

Cast: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, thousands of ants

USA 1974

84 mins

Environmental fears have long presented a rich vein for fantastic fictions. Arthur Machen’s 1917 novella The Terror depicts a world in which normally docile animals begin to turn against humankind in a strange reflection of the horrors of the Great War. During the Cold War, the mushroom clouds of the 1950s spawned one mutated colossus after another, while the subtler, more insidious environmental fears of the 60s and 70s produced a swarm of ecological horror films, some of them very good.

Gonzo-entomology doc The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, despite being presented by an entirely fictitious, gleefully deranged mad scientist, Nils Hellstrom, who clearly can’t wait to welcome our new insect overlords. On the other side of the Pacific, Colin Eggleston’s haunting Long Weekend (1978) saw a self-absorbed suburban couple who behave inconsiderately on a beach holiday get their come-uppance from Mother Nature herself. Both of these are well worth seeing, but for sophistication, imagination and ambition, none can match Saul Bass’s Phase IV.

Famed as a graphic designer of posters and title sequences for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas), Bass only got one shot at directing a feature, and by all accounts didn’t enjoy the process much, but the resulting film is a period masterpiece that is both a microcosm of contemporary progressive issues and a beautiful, intelligent science fiction film.

An unusual planetary alignment in our solar system exposes planet Earth to anomalous electromagnetic fields. Initially it seems that nothing has happened, but entomologists begin to observe odd behaviour on a very small scale: different species of ants, normally aggressive to one another, are joining forces to prey on larger animals, including humans.

The ants march across America, destroying whole towns, gnawing through wooden structures and destroying crops and livestock. In an attempt to find out what’s going on, and try to stop it, English entomologist Dr Ernest Hubbs (a frothingly good Nigel Davenport) and American mathematician James Lesko (Michael Murphy) set out to observe a colony of the super-intelligent ants from the apparent safety of a geodesic biosphere in the Arizona desert.

What follows is a long, tense stand-off between ants and humans, both enclosed within their architecturally expressive command posts: the ants build angular skyscrapers, the humans shelter in a hi-tech buckyball.

While the ants seem to have reached a mutual agreement - to destroy all other life on Earth rather than one another - the humans wage a battle of their own: Hubbs, cantankerous and autocratic, wants to destroy the ants, while the younger Lesko attempts to communicate with them by transmitting geometric forms at their structures. [As an aside, the film is curious for featuring the first ever crop circle, made by its ant stars, a couple of years before we humans developed our own in the Hampshire countryside.]

Although its interiors were shot at Pinewood, Phase IV‘s arid, ant-ravaged locations convey a convincing sense of a dying America and, as you’d expect from a first-class designer, the film looks exquisite. The two warring civilisations are presented through their contrasting environments; the human decorated with huge computers, tangles of magnetic tape and piles of computer printouts looks like a chaotic maelstrom compared to the gleaming, pristine myrmecological world shot by Ken Middleham, who also filmed the insect sequences for The Hellstrom Chronicle. A brooding score, featuring eerie synthesiser sounds from White Noise’s David Vorhaus, further accentuates the mood of alienation and impending ant-nihilation.

Read our Reel Sounds column on the soundtrack of Phase IV.

Enigmatic and intriguing, Phase IV remains ultimately ambiguous as to which future we should choose: the faceless bio-mechanical harmony of the ants, or the chaotic, destructive but emotionally rich world of the human?

Nobody can have expected this low-key, philosophical and ultimately rather downbeat film to be a commercial success, but Paramount still tried to exert control over the final cut, leading to a quarrel over its ending. Bass shot a final sequence showing the remains of the human world after the ants had won, but the studio re-edited it (perhaps finding its post-human vision too depressing) to create a more oblique solarised psychedelic montage, which still works, though I’d love to see what Bass originally intended.

An already remarkable film, Phase IV is made all the more so by being something of a one-off - Bass never made another feature, while writer Mayo Simon only wrote one more (Futureworld, a sequel to Westworld) and a pilot for the Man from Atlantis TV series, before starting an award-winning career as a playwright.

For a long time hard to see, Phase IV is now available on a no-frills DVD from Legend Films in the US, while an ant-sized, fan-led movement is petitioning to have the director’s cut made available.

Phase IV screens at the ICA, London, from Oct 22 to 27.

Mark Pilkington

Soylent Green

Soylent Green poster

Format: DVD

Release date: 29 September 2003

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Stanley R. Greenberg

Based on the novel by: Harry Harrison

Cast: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young

USA 1973

97 mins

Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green, a loose adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, is a prescient eco-science-fiction drama that earned itself cult status among science fiction fans due to its ‘shock’ climax. Released in 1973, a year after Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull) and the closely aligned but largely forgotten Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (Michael Campus), Soylent Green fuses a noir-ish police procedural plot with a dystopian vision of a future world ravaged by dwindling resources, over-population, corporate corruption and environmental damage. After starring in Franklin J. Schaffner’s seminal Planet of the Apes (1968) and Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) Charlton Heston, the era’s go-to action hero, returned to the science fiction genre to star as Robert Thorn, a tough, cynical and deeply disillusioned detective in the decaying New York of 2022. Heston’s co-star Edward G. Robinson made his final screen appearance as Sol Roth, Thorn’s elderly apartment-sharing ‘book’ - a person employed to read the remaining archives of written material stored in the city to glean information of possible use in criminal investigations. Roth is the film’s heart and soul, his nostalgic yearnings for the pre-eco-meltdown world still act as a mindful warning to this day. With New York acting as a microcosm for the ills affecting the planet, Fleischer’s movie is of interest to contemporary viewers more for its enduring themes than for its actual entertainment value, as in the cold light of day it fails, much like Michael Anderson’s eco-science-fiction-based thriller Logan’s Run (1976), to fully deliver on its intriguing premise.

Soylent Green is not short on narrative ambition, its plot taking in corporate-sanctioned assassination, references to ‘the greenhouse effect’, food riots, a global conspiracy, racketeering, assisted suicides and an irreparable divide between the isolated rich and the teeming, poverty-stricken masses. The scarcity of food dominates proceedings, with the common citizens (a futuristic version of the Soviet-era proletariat) reduced to surviving on the Soylent Corporation’s range of processed foodstuffs, including the titular product that Thorn’s murder investigation uncovers horrific facts about. The fetishisation of actual food is seen in the reverential manner in which black market acquisitions (lettuce, apples, beef, brandy) are treated by Thorn and Roth during a sequence in which they sit down to a ‘dinner party’ amid the squalor and cramped conditions of their apartment. That those foodstuffs have been stolen without conscience by Thorn from the luxurious apartment of the dead businessman William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten), whose assassination is the catalyst for Thorn’s discoveries, highlights the levels of corruption and desperation running through this future society. The juxtaposition of poverty and wealth runs throughout the movie, the exclusive apartment complex (complete with concierge) stands in stark contrast to the sparse living conditions and homelessness seen elsewhere and has uncomfortable connotations, given the rise of gated communities and continued influence on political decisions wielded by big business in the modern world. It is in these comparative angles that Soylent Green has its strengths; never more so than in Sol’s assisted suicide at a government-run facility, echoes of which are felt in our society with the ongoing debate on the issue and Martin Amis’s calls for a euthanasia booth on every corner where people can end their lives with ‘a Martini and a medal’. Robinson’s death two weeks after shooting wrapped adds an extra level of poignancy to the sequence, which remains the stylistic highlight of the movie.

The role of women in Soylent Green‘s vision is limited to one of two choices - either a faceless, desperate existence among the masses, or a paid role as ‘furniture’ to a rich owner, a sub-plot that the screenplay touches on via Thorn’s affair (as much about the luxury of the apartment and the food) with Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson’s former live-in lover, who comes with the apartment. The film was released during the era of second-wave feminism and this aspect of the narrative would have struck a powerful chord with audiences. But due to the bland, lifeless performance delivered by Taylor-Young and the perfunctory nature of the sub-plot, subsumed as it is by the conspiracy at the heart of the movie, it’s an under-explored theme.

Despite its thematic relevance in the modern world, Soylent Green is only intermittently engaging and is an ultimately unsatisfactory experience, with its revelatory climax attempting, but failing to match the Statue of Liberty sequence in Planet of the Apes for shock value. The screenplay and pacing are leaden at times where a more upbeat tempo, punchier dialogue and a fuller exploration of the many narrative sub-strands could have placed the movie in genuine classic territory. The two big action sequences - a mass food riot and Thorn’s exploration of the Soylent ‘waste disposal’ plant - are adequate at best and while the scenes of over-population and squalor are relatively well-drawn the luxury dwellings, gadgets and fashions that surround the elite now look kitsch in the extreme. The outdated feel isn’t helped by an unmemorable soundtrack that veers between Americana folk and funk where it cries out for a throbbing, discordant blast of electronica to mirror and add another layer of gloom to the onscreen pessimism. As much as I generally loathe remakes, reboots and re-imaginings, Soylent Green is a film that, on paper at least, would benefit from just such an undertaking, in a manner similar to Nicholas Winding Refn’s proposed updating of Logan’s Run.

Neil Mitchell



Format: DVD

Release date: 31 August 2009

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Luigi Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli (uncredited)

Writers: Luigi Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli

Original title: Le orme

Cast: Florinda Bolkan, Klaus Kinski, Peter McEnery, Nicoletta Elmi, Lila Kedovra

Italy 1975

92 mins

Like Alice, the young translator whose strange journey we follow in Footprints (Le orme), you may find yourself hit by waves of tingling déj&#224 vu, recurrent nightmare and flickering, almost remembered memory when watching this long-lost Italian thriller. Have I seen that peacock stained-glass window before? I’m sure I’ve stood on that mysterious hill overlooking that same sea?

If it wasn’t for the fact that this psychedelically haunting giallo from 1975 has never before been released in the UK, and has been unavailable worldwide on DVD until now, it would be easy to cite its influence on later moonlit dips into the interior, like some of the more cerebral moments of Argento, Aronofsky’s The Fountain, US experimental filmmaker Nina Menke’s work and of course many of Lynch’s delights.

Through an impressive performance by Florinda Bolkan (who also starred in ‘nunsploitation’ flick Flavia the Heretic), we are drawn into Alice’s world and her degenerating psychological state. A yellow dress has appeared overnight in her wardrobe, lurid against her row of beige suits. There’s also a ripped up postcard with an image of an opulent hotel on her kitchen floor. Alice’s colleagues have just informed her she’s been missing from work for three days, and the dream of an astronaut abandoned on the moon continues playing out in her mind’s eye. Alice’s seemingly straightforward existence has been torn apart and she must travel to the exotic island of Garma to piece things back together. We are drawn all the more powerfully into her world as she seems credible and intelligent, not prone to hysterical flights of fancy like the flailing token females that plague many gialli. And to this is added the impressive, disturbing cameo by Klaus Kinski as the sinister scientist Dr Blackmann.

Director Luigi Bazzoni’s treatment of Footprints is visionary, being equal parts style and substance, enhanced much by the cinematography of Vittorio Storraro, who of course also contributed his extraordinary talent to the films of Bertolucci and Coppola. It’s certainly a visual treat and while it is true to its era, it retains an elegance even in the final surrealist sequence on the stunning Balkan beach. The dream/memory flashbacks are executed with restraint and subtlety, and as a result have a particularly memorable impact on the subconscious mind. Perhaps a little like Storraro himself, this is a film with a sassy sense of its own style: it’s not just dressed to impress.

Footprints comes with the added appeal of obscurity: you’ll probably be the only one you know who’s seen it. The price to pay for this obscurity is the crude restoration of previously lost scenes, and the sudden (unintentionally) hilarious switches from English to Italian. These can be forgiven but do detract slightly from the overall credibility of the film. All in all, however, for those longing for an existentialist, sci-fi adventure that combines the narrative mystery and sense of isolation of Solaris with the vivid Italian visions of Argento: this is the film you’ve been dreaming of.

Siouxzi Mernagh