We examine the future of days past in our latest episode, as we look at some classic 70s Science Fiction. Strap yourself into our dystopia machine as we look at The Andromeda Strain, THX 1138, Solaris, Fantastic Planet, Soylent Green, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Stalker.
The Andromeda Strain
Based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel, The Andromeda Strain tells the story of a group of scientists trying to learn about the nature of a space organism thoughtfully brought to Earth by the US Government in their attempts to discover new biological weapons.
After the satellite carrying the virulent wee beastie crashes in New Mexico, killing the entire population of a small town save for one infant and one old man, and then kills the first team trying to recover it (that’ll serve them right for trying to approach the town at that always awful and unconvincing hour, day-for-night), Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) recovers the satellite and survivors and takes them all to Wildfire, the top secret bio-research centre built to his design. There he is joined by a handful of other distinguished scientists given top-secret clearance and tasked with identifying, categorising and neutralising the miniscule space invader.
I imagine The Andromeda Strain could test the patience of some as it takes place, for the most part, in a series of sterile rooms and laboratories, and features numerous sequences of scientists methodically explaining, then performing, investigative procedures, but I find it deeply satisfying, not least because, while narrative and drama necessarily accelerate the sequence of events, it maintains a very strong degree of truthiness (indeed, it has been praised for its veracity by groups working in infectious diseases).
On top of this, director Robert Wise maintains a strong sense of tension throughout, though this tension would have been near constant without the unnecessary framing device, used only a few times but to the film’s detriment each time, of the incident being considered in retrospect from a Senate hearing. Now call me crazy if you must, but I feel the fear that Andromeda, as the beastie becomes codenamed, might wipe out huge swathes of population is rather undermined by knowing there are at least enough people left alive afterwards to hold a hearing and discuss such matters as a paper jam in a fax machine. Still, at least Wise shows a much defter touch here than he did when he again attempted sci-fi at the end of the decade. “43 unending hours of model shots? That’ll do me!” V’ger needs a goddamn edit. But I digress: I like The Andromeda Strain, it is good, you should watch it.
I could swear I’d seen this back in my formative years, but perhaps it was the short film this is based on, or perhaps it was just a still of the memorably stark visuals. At any rate, I couldn’t remember much of this, apart from those visuals. As I come to type up my notes for this, I can’t remember all that much of this, apart from those visuals, but let’s crash on and hope it comes back to me.
We are introduced to the overwhelmingly brightly lit, white painted dystopia of a few centuries hence, where life is very different indeed. A totalitarian Party control all people working in subterranian factories, drugged to the eyeballs to repress your identity and humanity, with even your name assigned by the state, a seemingly random collection of letters and numbers, like our THX 1138 here, played by Robert Duvall. He finishes a shift building the unflappable android police enforcers he will soon be menaced by and returns to his habitation, stopping only to pray and give confession to the party-approved deity OMM.
He’s feeling odd unusually unfocused because, it turns out, his flatmate Maggie McOmie’s LUH 3417 has been fiddling with their meds, doing whatever the inverse of slipping him a mickey is, leading to them rediscovering human emotions and drives. Such novelty does however reduce his efficiency on the production line, leading to their transgressions being discovered and THX being thrown in jail, which seems to be the same blank white void that Apple did their product launch videos for most of the past few decades.
Rejecting the drug based rehabilitation, he breaks out alongside Donald Pleasence’s delusional “rebel leader” and Don Pedro Colley’s character, apparently a hologram, and they go on the lam through this strange dystopia pursued by them there android cops, with THX ultimately heading for the surface for a life amongst the shell dwellers, whatever precisely they are supposed to be.
THX 1138 has, of course, lived on in popular culture not primarily due to its success (it saw little at the time) or even its inherent qualities, but because it’s a George Lucas joint, and George Lucas made Star Wars. Perhaps you have heard of it, but the question that remains for this podcast is whether or not this has much value as anything more than a DVD extra on a Star Wars box set.
And I suppose it does, although there’s a bunch of qualifiers needed to that. In many ways it’s a really concise summation of Lucas’s strengths and weaknesses as a story teller. Visually it’s quite remarkable indeed, and remains so to this day. Narratively, there’s not a great deal to it, but it’s solid enough for what it needs to be. The genius of it is in the details of the world, with many little throwaway lines and concepts that hint at something really interesting that could be explored.
It doesn’t explore that here, of course, and as the “expanded universe” of Star Wars perhaps proved, it probably shouldn’t. Being left with questions about the Party, and it’s seeming co-opting of all forms of totalitarianism – fascism, communism, and religion and capitalism, and whatever’s happened to the planet that means the surface is deemed uninhabitable, or if that’s just another lie to control the populace, and who exactly is doing the controlling, are all the best aspects of speculative fiction – providing questions and letting you answer them yourself.
If you’re in the mood for answers to be served to you on a plate, however, THX 1138 doesn’t deliver, and to be honest if you just wanted the bare minimum of information to be served to you to have a basis other than total guesswork for answering the questions yourself, well, you’re not getting that either, so there’s a lot to both like and criticise about the world-building of the piece.
Overall, that just about comes out in the wash, and it does deserve some recognition apart from his marginally more famous work. It should be noted that George Lucas couldn’t help George Lucasing this, with a directors cut that balances out some lovely restoration and clean up work with some abominable CG enhancements that stick out in a sore thumbesque fashion, so, yes, again, concise summation of Lucas’s strengths and weaknesses.
Shooty-bangs and pew-pews and spaceships have their place, and can certainly be entertaining, but the best science-fiction, and especially that which lingers longest in the mind, is that which challenges, or explores some ethical, philosophical or existential point. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is certainly that, using the setting of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s book to explore memory, love, personhood and a host of other issues pertinent to his overarching topic of existence. (Not that this sat well with Lem, though, who didn’t much care for Tarkovsky’s adaptation and whose own interest was in aliens and the improbability, if not impossibility, of alien beings being capable of understanding one another).
Solaris begins with Donatas Banionis’s Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, bidding farewell to his father and aunt before leaving Earth to travel to a space station orbiting the mysterious alien world, Solaris. Before he goes he views testimony from many years ago given by his father’s friend Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) to a hearing in which he claimed he saw a number of mysterious things on the ocean planet which the space station orbits, including a giant, slime-covered child (what is it with sci-fi and giant space babies?). These were dismissed as hallucinations by almost everyone, but there’s certainly something going on with the current crew and it’s up to Kris to determine if the Solaris project should continue.
On reaching the station Kris discovers that the crew is… odd. Yes, let’s go with odd. Or dead, because one of the three crew members is that, too. There also seem to be unexpected people aboard, though while Kris is mildly interested in a woman who’s wandering about he seems almost comically uninterested in the little person trying to escape from Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn) laboratory. Perhaps in Russia you don’t have curiosity, curiosity has you?
That night Kris receives a visit from one of what the other scientists have named “guests”: neutrino-based lifeforms projected from the sentient ocean below, somehow connected to conscience and taking the form, in Kris’s case, of his late wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). This sets the scene for the rest of the film and its discussions and explorations of existence and philosophical musings about love and our ideas of other people: Novo-Hari is an incomplete person as she is formed by Solaris solely from Kris’s memories of her, but she is as real to him as the real Hari, perhaps more so. Do we love another person or do we love our idea of another person? What is real and what is not, and does it matter when our reality is only our brain’s perception and interpretation? There is always a level of abstraction.
This is a nearly three hour film in which not a lot happens but I certainly wasn’t bored. Tarkovsky used relatively empty and long sections deliberately, intending them to be meditative and force thoughtfulness and perhaps introspection. That said, though, Solaris consists of two “parts”, and virtually the entirety of the first part could have been excised with no notable impact on the overall film or its themes. Talking of cutting, for a film so determined to let the viewers work most of the content out for themselves, the ending is oddly artless as we see that Kris’s return home is not what it seems. “That water is a bit odd, pretty sure I know what’s going on there. Yup, thought so. OK. . Oh, we’re still going are we? OK. Here, would you like this hammer with which to beat me about the head?”
I can’t say that I enjoyed Solaris, but I also very much did not not enjoy it, finding it pretty interesting throughout and at least being engaged enough that my attention never wandered nor boredom set in. There’s a lot to unpack in Tarkovsky’s film, but I feel this is one I will return to, though I’m currently orbiting a planet very far away from the one where this is considered a masterpiece. Not sure what the fuss is about, but am open to being fussed out of five.
Now, in so far as I am ever 100% sure about any of my addled memories, I am sure I’d not even heard of Fantastic Planet in advance of this podcast. More fool me. René Laloux’s 1973 La Planète sauvage, a French / Czech co-production presents a startlingly animated took at a most peculiar planet indeed. For a frame of reference, perhaps the most widely popular similar animation look and feel would be Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python, although the tone here is rather less humorous, but if anything, more surreal.
We are introduced to Tiwa a young Draag girl, from a race of hulking, titanous blue humanoid aliens, with highly advanced technology and weird psychic meditation powers. Not quite Dr. Manhattan level, but getting there, for all you Watchmen fans out there. While out playing one day she comes across an orphaned infant wild Om, that she cajoles her parents into letting her keep it, with the promise that she will house train it and feed it and walk it, and so on. Oms, by the way, are humans. not the deity from THX 1138.
For such is Ygam, the world of Fantastic Planet, where some Oms are raised as pets, with a remote control collar to prevent them scampering off, as Tiwa fits to the infant she names Terr, while some live wild as tribals in the often bizarre and dangerous environment of Ygam, occasionally culled as pests and frequently tormented for fun by younger Draags. Draags age much more slowly than Oms, so before long Terr has grown to a rebellious adolescent, who has been teaching himself with the telepathic tutoring device intended for Tiwa.
He soon makes a break for freedom, tutoring doohicky in tow, and makes contact with a tribe who initially keep him at arms length, viewing him as an outsider and possible spy, before eventually his knowledge leads to them avoiding a purge, and in what’s admittedly a bit of leap, invading a disused Draag space facility where they repurpose that tech to escape to the planet’s moon, which is the actual titular Fantastic Planet, where further revelations await that could see a peace brokered between the races.
Fantastic Planet is, on the narrative surface at least, a strange fruit indeed, all backed by a psychedelic jazz soundtrack and with an animation style that’s all decidedly non-traditional, certainly as viewed from today. It’s a visually imaginative and impressive world, which if anything only suffers from not being explored enough. Boiled down and bulletpointed, you could, I suppose, argue that the overall narrative and even the exploration of the characters and the world is overly rushed, and there’s not much of a counter to that in a 70 minute film.
It certainly feels like it could easily sustain a miniseries at least, but the flipside of that is that there’s certainly never a dull moment, and oddball visuals and concepts are thrown at you in such quick succession that it is dizzying, in a good way indeed.
It is, I think, more concerned with making an overall allegory, which I’ve seen claimed to be about animal rights, which I suppose works but is rather more literal than the points on colonialism and slavery that came to mind when I watched it. It works on all those levels, although admittedly not while saying anything more obvious than “these are bad”, but, well, this was, as far as I understand, still aimed at a young teen audience.
I suppose as best a summary I can give is that it’s narratively a bit immature, but visually and in terms of its imagination and overall concept, it’s fairy sophisticated, and certainly worth a mere seventy minutes of your lifespan.
The world is burning, a perpetual summer caused by the greenhouse effect in which the coldness of winter is a distant memory, perhaps even a myth. The oceans are dying, food is scarce, the human population enormous. 40 million people live in New York City, which has so expanded in size so that it now borders Philadelphia. Jobs are rare, living spaces seemingly more so. But there are still rich white guys, exploiting the rest.
One of these rich white guys is murdered, though it’s made to look like a burglary gone wrong. Assigned to investigate is Charlton Heston’s detective Frank Thorn. Thorn is a corrupt police officer, a thug and a thief, who demeans women, particularly the live-in prostitutes at the dead guy’s apartment building, using the particularly unpleasant epithet that such women are referred to by: furniture. He also takes sexual advantage of these women (though, naturally, she falls for him, because what’s not to love?). This man is the hero. (As an aside, I don’t know if this is a comment on the world – this is set in New York, which had a notoriously corrupt police force in the 70s – or we’re once again in creepy basturt territory.)
When he’s not being a thoroughly unpleasant person Thorn is, at least notionally, a detective, and with the help of his “book”, Edward G. Robinson’s Sol Roth, he attempts to find out why one of the directors of the Soylent Corporation was bumped off, how a bodyguard can afford $150 a jar strawberry jam and why people are putting pressure on his boss to stop him. Thorn is eventually led to a government suicide centre and learns the truth about the connection between these, city recycling facilities and the miracle, highly nutritious foodstuff, Soylent Green.
The last time I watched this I recall enjoying it a great deal more: this time it was a struggle to watch. I’ve never been a great fan of Charlton Heston and I find it all too easy to believe him as this sleazy criminal. Even if that is, in fact, just good acting (and as far as that goes he’s fine), it’s hard to be invested in such an unpleasant person, even if he is trying to bring to light something quite so shocking. In the end, Soylent Green’s famous conceit is far more enduring and interesting than the film itself, which largely seeks to squander it, being far more interested as it is in chases and murders and misogyny. There’s barely a hint in the first half of the film about what’s going on, and when Sol discovers the truth he immediately decides to get himself euthanised, leaving no note for anyone: any delay to Thorn and the truth would’ve died with him.
It’s easy to imagine a reframing of this film producing a vastly superior product, because the idea of trying to keep the truth of a dying world from the population and a drastic, stomach-turning and desperate solution to the food problem being stumbled upon and then investigated is compelling. Sadly, Richard Fleischer’s film doesn’t seem all that interested in it. “Soylent Green is disappointing!”
The Man Who Fell to Earth
A thin, white duke-ish gentleman stumbles down a slagheap in the opening of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is also a reasonably accurate capsule summary of the overall film.
Said man is, of course, David Bowie, here playing Thomas Jerome Newton, at first glance a peculiar gentleman who sets about registering and exploiting a series of advanced technological patents, although before long, and as is implied by the title, we discover that he is, in fact, an alien, from a planet in the middle of a severe drought.
So, aided by Buck Henry’s patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth he sets up a company to build hitech contraptions, making a tonne of money that he sinks into research into space travel. Basically Elon Musk’s life story, then. He’s looking to develop a way to ship water back to his planet, but there are forces out to stop him.
Ultimately, it’s implied to be the government, who get wind of his true nature after a tip-off from Rip Torn’s Dr. Nathan Bryce, a roguish employee who had become something of a confidant to Newton.
However that only happens after Newton has worn the mask of humanity long enough to start becoming human, and falling prey to some of the same ills that have fallen many of us. He meets and forms a romantic relationship with Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, who introduces him to concepts like alcohol and television, to which Newton becomes addicted, which is more thoroughly encouraged by his captors in the final stretch of the film.
There is, on paper, not a lot of narrative to stretch over the two and a quarter hours of film – have we mentioned films were paced very differently in the seventies – but as with a good few of the films on tonight’s roster the narrative is largely a crowbar to get into the character’s brain.
In the main, this is a study of alienation – quite literally, I suppose – and isolation, with a pretty incredible turn from Bowie, although there’s an argument that he’s playing a very thinly veiled version of himself in the film.
There’s a few aspects that haven’t aged well – the alien planet’s train system in particular, although to be scrupulously fair I’m sure even at the time it looked like a rejected balsa wood primary school production castoff. However The Man Who Fell To Earth isn’t particularly concerned with any special effects around the “falling to Earth” part of things, and is rather more focused on the man himself, and how that reflects on wider humanity. That, it seems, is more or less ageless, to our eternal discredit.
That, combined with a striking visual style, complex characters who swing between sympathetic and obnoxious, solid performances and an intriguingly enough unfolded narrative, makes this worth catching up with should you not already have done so.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
We’re not generally fans of remakes round here, but when a film considered in many places to be amongst the best remakes ever also happens to fit our topic for the month it seems worth taking a look.
That remake is, of course, 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, and first in 1956. Amoeba-like beings leave their planet and drift through space, falling on the Earth in rain, and particularly in San Francisco, where scientist Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) picks one of the unusual flowers that have grown from the amoebic rain. She takes it home, puts it in a glass next to the bed and goes to sleep.
When her dentist boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle) begins acting very oddly the next morning, the last (or at least 7th or 8th) thing she’s going to think of to explain it is that the flower created an entirely new, identical body, transferred all of his memories over and dissolved the human body, leaving a perfect replica, simply missing emotion.
More fool her, then, as that is exactly what happened, though she’s definitely aware that something is wrong, as Geoffrey is no longer Geoffrey: alike yet not alike. She enlists the help of her friend, city health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who at first asks her to see his friend, the famed psychiatrist David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) and his weird wee leather finger thing that I assume is a visual clue that he’s a rotter. Kibner persuades Elizabeth that her feelings are a manifestation of a desire to leave the relationship, which she buys for about three seconds.
Numerous encounters, including seeing a full-size Jeff Goldblum replica, key Matthew and Elizabeth into what is going on, and they try to warn people, only to realise it’s far too late for that, so scarper it is. Run away!
Given its themes – homogeneity, paranoia, conspiracy, metaphorically sleeping while bad things happen, inevitability of change and a bunch more – Invasion of the Body Snatchers is open to a multitude of interpretations. A criticism at the time, in Time, was that it was “laughably literal”, which is frankly baffling as it could be about so many things. The 1956 version was considered by some to about McCarthyism, and by some others to be about the loss of autonomy, both is in the US and the USSR. The 1978 adaptation could also be about at least some of that, about city life, about Watergate according to some interpretations, and numerous others. You could even, without much squinting, interpret as nature being bad for you.
The truth is, of course, that it’s about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends; it’s also a personal statement about the pod-people themselves. Hey, Bennell! Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you stupid health inspector!
Because Invasion of the Body Snatchers is so potentially broad I have little interest in finding something specific. I am, instead, happy to simply enjoy the film as a well-produced, well-acted sci-fi horror. SFX are used sparingly but when they are they’re quite effective (Donald Sutherland smashing in the head of his own replica is a particularly creepy image), and it’s interesting how eerie someone simply pointing and making an odd noise can be given certain context. Sutherland in particular is great, and his reaction to someone being knocked down may actually be the most natural and realistic I’ve ever heard (that may seem such an odd, and oddly specific, thing to mention but it really struck me), but the core cast are all really good.
Perhaps not essential viewing but really quite enjoyable. Approved.
I am glad we’ve kept the nice, straightforward, easy to recap one to the end. The second Tarkovsky film we’re speaking about today manages the impressive trick of being massively more oblique than the first, and Solaris is hardly a transparently obvious piece of work.
Something strange is going on in Russia after something strange fell from the sky into a now cordoned off area called the Zone. What we laughingly call reality holds little purchase there, with time and space seeming to warp around itself, perhaps to protect a room at the heart of it where a force of some description may, or may not, grant you your truest desire, in a genie-esque fashion, if you are able to make it there past the many dangers that await.
Two people want to make the trip, who we will come to know only as the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), one wanting to come to challenge himself and find inspiration for a great work, the other seemingly to investigate and win a Nobel Prize. They are lead by Alexander Kaidanovsky’s titular, twitchy Stalker, as the attempt to pick their way first past the military guards, and then the dangers of the Zone itself, which, if we’re being critical here, are rather more frequently told than shown.
However much like The Man Who Fell To Earth, the narrative and the setting are less of a story in and of themselves as they are a crowbar to enter the minds of the characters, leaving us with a film that owes more to Waiting for Godot or Satre’s No Exit than most of its genre stablemates. The bulk of this film is, well, arguments, about a variety of philosophical and psychological concepts that I’m not well equipped to be telling you about, certainly not after one viewing, and after the sort of month I’ve had.
I may have to punt on whether this is I film I actually like, but it’s a film that’s most certainly intriguing and despite a highly esoteric nature, kept me engaged with it for the over two and a half hours it unfolds on both the narrative and technical levels. The plot and characters, as alluded to, are often impenetrable, but so is a lot of the other details, like the choice made for the non-Zone footage to be sepia toned and weird looking, as opposed to the in-Zone footage being conventionally coloured.
My thoughts rather peter out on this – I’ve not had the time or capacity to fully process this film yet, and most likely if you came to me next year I’d still not be exactly sure what I thought about it. Still, that’s rare enough in and of itself to warrant a recommendation. Plainly, a challenging work that’s not taking it easy on an audience, so perhaps not one for casual viewing, but well worth making an appointment with.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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