❉ It’s a crash course for the ravers, as we look back on 1970s sci-fi dystopias…
And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare
The shutters lifted an inch in temperance building, high on Poacher’s Hill
And red mutant eyes gazed down on Hunger City
No more big wheels
Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald
Any day now, the year of the Diamond Dogs
David Bowie – ‘Future Legend’, 1974.
One of my favourite film genres is what you could call the ‘futuristic dystopia’, unless someone has since invented a less cumbersome name for it. This genre seemed to be one of the most prominent of the 1970s, along with road movies and disaster movies. The pessimistic seventies was like a bad hangover after a wild party, as the revolution failed to be televised.
The best minds of the baby boomer generation either burnt out or sold out, the war in Viet Nam continued to drag on, the Watergate scandal erupted, and in the UK things were no better, with recession, oil shortages, three-day weeks, the Troubles, decaying, crime-ridden concrete jungles and British Leyland strikes every other week – A Clockwork Orange‘s Brutalist, high rise urban wastelands and dandyish bullyboys provided a visual motif for the glam rock bootboys and punks to pillage for their own states of emergency.
This is the background that informed the ‘futuristic dystopias’ of ’70s sci fi (not just in cinema either – see JG Ballard’s books High Rise and Crash, and Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borrible Trilogy). This split into two sub-genres. The first, taking its cue from 2001, used outer space as a metaphor for inner space, astronauts retreating from technological overload into alienation like Major Tom, the anti-hero of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded in 1969 and a UK number one in 1975.
A trio of early ’70s sci fi films portrayed spaced-out spacemen turning their back on Mother Earth, and turning on, tuning in and dropping out: John Carpenter’s Dark Star, Silent Running (directed by Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001) and the Russian film Solaris.
In the splendidly low-budget Dark Star, three astronauts bicker, eat tasteless synthetic meals against a background of mind-numbing muzak; and the ship computer keeps having to talk an independently-minded talking bomb out of detonating itself. The astronauts all have long hair and one of them tries to get back to Earth on his surfboard, giving the film a kind of ‘Easy Rider in space’ feel.
Silent Running is even more hippyish, with Bruce Dern maintaining the world’s only surviving flora in a huge orbital biosphere. When the order is given to destroy the project, he jettisons the crew and retires in his artificial Eden, presumably with some Joni Mitchell 8-track cartridges.
The Russian film Solaris presents both alternatives of the future: an ultra-urbanised Earth and a rural idyll, in the form of an intelligent planet (Solaris) that can create any desired scenario, and the scientist Kelvin – who has been sent to investigate Solaris – chooses the rural idyll.
The more prominent sub-genre, and the one that interests me the most, is the other alternate vision of the future. Here we see exactly what Major Tom and the crew of Dark Star were abandoning – a dystppian vision of a post-apocalyptic society “in the not too distant future”.
This phrase is often used to describe films that are basically a satirical exaggeration of how we live now under the guise of speculative sci fi. Society is divided amongst the haves and the have-nots, run along authoritarian lines demanding total conformity and indolence, and the film’s poster slogans suggest a pleasuredome that has bought into hedonism and nihilistic escapism at a cost – “The only thing you can’t have in this perfect world of total pleasure is your 30th birthday” (Logan’s Run), “In the year 2000, hit and run driving is no longer a crime…it’s the national sport!” (Death Race 2000)
The haves live in a brave new world of synthetic pleasures (Logan’s Run, where laser cosmetic surgery is the norm, and you can pick sexual partners from an interactive matrix; Westworld, a robotic amusement park where tourists can fight robot gunslingers and, yes, even sleep with the robot whores) and super-intelligent computers that make 2001’s Hal look like a toaster – as in Demon Seed, where Julie Christie’s house is run by an omniscient computer that eventually impregnates her. Neat trick if you can pull it off…
The have-nots live in urban wastelands with population problems and major food and energy shortages (Soylent Green), gangs of youths run amok among the streets, underpasses and tower blocks like packs of dogs (A Clockwork Orange, The Warriors, Assault On Precinct 13); and an underclass are kept dumb and unquestioning by media propaganda and dubious bloodsports-style entertainment (Death Race 2000, Rollerball – see also the prescient The Running Man).
Elsewhere, in Robert Fuest’s adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme, aka The Last Days Of Man On Earth, Jon Finch (Frenzy, Macbeth) plays Moorcock’s flamboyant hero Jerry Cornelius ; a kind of hybrid of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who and Roger Moore’s James Bond with his curly locks, frilly shirts, foppish velvet suits and louche, insouciant manner, as the world teeters on destruction. Cornelius is a dandyish scientist and playboy, dragged into a quest for his dead father’s ‘final programme’ – a microfilm blueprint of the next stage in mankind’s evolution.
Along the way we meet the sinister Dr Smiles (Graham Crowden: If, O Lucky Man, Britannia Hospital), the bisexual doctor Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre, Jubilee) who physically absorbs her lovers including a pre-EastEnders Sandy Ratcliffe at her most beautiful, and Jerry’s smackhead brother Frank (Derrick O’Connor: The Sweeney, Hawk The Slayer), all of whom are also after the microfilm. A Clockwork Orange‘s Patrick Magee also turns up, in a typically understated performance. The film also features a very unusual soundtrack, a collaboration between trad jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and experimental synthesiser duo Beaver and Krause.
1976’s Logan’s Run was set in a pleasure-seeking metropolis which looks uncannily like a massive shopping arcade, and where all its inhabitants have flawless cheekbones and no one is over thirty – but of course, this brave new world is proved to be illusory, Sanctuary much. In all fairness, its’ hippyish everyone-join-hands-sing-hallelujah ending betrays the bleak dystopian tone of the other films we’re looking at, but the conformist, unquestioning ‘pleasure principle’ of its society means it’s still a key film of this genre.
Quite a few of these films do not strictly fall under the sci fi genre. For example, Assault On Precinct 13, The Warriors and A Clockwork Orange do not boast any cliched sci-fi trappings such as lasers and gadgets and are not set in any specific decade, but all seem to take place sometime between 1980 and the mid twenty-first century. These three films define the urban wasteland look, concrete jungles that the 2001 generation have abandoned and forgotten about to leave their proto-punk offspring to fend for themselves. Dilapidated high rises and graffitied subways and desolate streets littered with abandoned or burnt out cars feature heavily.
Two other non-sci fi films that deserve to be mentioned are Wild In The Streets and Dawn Of The Dead. Wild In The Streets was made in 1968 and based on a novel by Robert Thom, who also wrote Death Race 2000, and is a counter-culture satire where a teenager becomes president, puts LSD in the tap water, and sends adults aged over 25 to concentration camps. Freaky!
Dawn Of The Dead is the middle part of George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy, and arguably the finest of the original trio. Again, set in what appears to be the near future, where the country is in a state of national emergency and run by a paramilitary organisation dealing with the threat of the dead coming back to life, whittling down the population.
Most of the action takes place in a multi-storey-shopping arcade, where a small group of survivors are holed up, and pick off zombies that stumble around the mall in a grotesque parody of their former behaviour – walking up the down escalators, milling around the water fountains etc.
As satire goes, it’s not exactly subtle, but is handled very humorously, and the phrase mindless consumerism never seemed so literal! A suitable bedfellow for Dawn Of The Dead is Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man, where also a zombie population arise to ascendency in the wake of a major catastrophe like the handmaidens of Charles Manson…. As a sidenote, it’s deeply amusing that the famously libertarian Heston helmed a trilogy of post-apocalyptic dramas (Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green) which cast him as something of a liberal hero.
These films have great soundtracks – Andre Previn’s futuristic lounge muzak of Rollerball, Wendy Carlos’s Moog Beethoven score for A Clockwork Orange, John Carpenter’s lo-fi electronica scores for his films Assault On Precinct 13 and Dark Star – and some wonderfully kitsch space-age leisureware. However, what I love most of all about these films is, now we have passed the two milestone dates of 1984 and 2001, it only takes a small stretch of the imagination to see how prophetic these films are in the 21st Century.
I mean, Death Race 2000 and Rollerball use exploitative reality TV game shows as entertainment, keeping the populace distracted from the chaos and decay around them. OK, The Only Way Is Essex: Marbella and Celebrity Love Island haven’t yet resorted to running over contestants (although we live in hope), but you get my drift… Of course, “it’s only a movie…”
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and is the co-editor of Me and The Starman, coming soon in 2018 from Who Dares Publishing. James wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website.