The 1970s were a goldmine for sci-fi movie fans. For decades, many a haunting storyline was undermined by less-than-stellar special effects. In the ’70s, however, those decades of creativity were finally met by technology that brought ideas to life in a way that had never been seen before, ushering in the next generation of sci-fi. Here, then, are 14 sci-fi movies that defined the decade.
14. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – It was just three years previous, in 1968, that Stanley Kubrick directed 2001: A Space Odyssey and added sci-fi director extraordinary to his already impressive resume. In 1971, his dark take on Anthony Burgess’s classic A Clockwork Orange made him a legend. In short, Kubrick’s work was a cinematic masterpiece. It was the first movie to ever use Dolby Sound and actor lead actor Malcolm McDowell later said that his role as Alex DeLarge was so convincing that it actually made it harder for him to get other roles later in his career, because people always saw the creepy guy from A Clockwork Orange.
13. THX 1138 (1971) – George Lucas’s name is synonymous with sci-fi. As the mastermind behind the Star Wars legacy, his movies have not only shaped the way we think about sci-fi, but inspired directors the world over. Before Star Wars, however, there was THX 1138. In the dystopian future of THX 1138, android police officers control the world and use drugs to control human emotions and desire. It was very experimental by Lucas’s later exacting standards. While it was a commercial flop at the time of its release, it has become one of the most popular cult movies in sci-fi history.
12. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) – In 1976, David Bowie was full-on into Ziggy Stardust mode, so casting him as a mysterious human-like character who has come to earth was not a far stretch. As Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie comes to earth in hopes to bring water back to his drought-ridden planet. While Bowie has made his way to the screen and stage many times, this may be his most memorable role. Oddly enough, contractual disputes ensured that Bowie could not be involved with the movie musically.
11. Logan’s Run (1976) – The premise of Logan’s Run is simple: in a dystopian society, population control means that everyone is killed at a predetermined age. Michael York is Logan 5, who tries to escape this fate. The most remarkable aspect of this movie, however, is that it won several awards (Academy and Oscars) for special effects and art design. It was also the first movie to ever use Dolby Stereo sound. Yet, nearly the entire movie was shot in the Dallas / Fort Worth Metroplex.
10. Soylent Green (1973) – While Charlton Heston is best known for his more epic roles (i.e., Moses, Jonah Ben-Hur, etc.), it is perhaps his role as Detective Robert Thorn in Soylent Green that has given more goose bumps over the years than any other. In a dystopian future suffering from overpopulation, fresh food is hard to come by. Most people survive on food rations in the form of processed soylent green wafers. When Thorn discovered the secret behind soylent green, viewers everywhere seriously considered vegetarianism for the first time.
9. Time After Time (1979) – Time After Time is unique among sci-fi films as it is so rooted in literary history and blending both fact and fiction. Using a time machine created by H.G. Wells, authorities travel through time in an attempt to catch Jack the Ripper. Oddly enough, The role of H.G. Wells was performed by Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange, who won the Saturn Award for Best Actor for his work in Time After Time.
8. The Andromeda Strain (1971) – There are few names more synonymous with science fiction than Michael Crichton. His books alone have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. It was his second novel, The Andromeda Strain whose skillful film adaptation really put him on the map. the plot involves scientists investigating a deadly extraterrestrial organism that causes human blood to clot rapidly and induce … well … death.
7. Solaris (1972) – The Russian movie Solaris is based on the Polish novel of the same name. Over the years, Solaris has been both praised and criticized for being everything that American sci-fi is not. The special effects are VERY minimal. There is no thunderous score. No fast scene cuts. No chase scenes. Instead, Solaris uses long, slow-developing scenes to look at the psychological crack up of humans on the planet Solaris. Favoring plot in a time when sci-fi movies were favoring visual effects made Solaris a bit of an outcast when it was released in 1972. That difference, however, has secured its place in history as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever.
6. Westworld (1973) – Written and directed by Michael Crichton, and starring the man who could act in ANYTHING, Yul Brenner, Westworld was just plain weird … but in a good way. Brenner plays an animated robot in an Old West themed amusement park. One day, a computer virus – who even knew what those were in 1973! – tears through the system and tells all the robots to kill the customers. And Brenner slays them again!
5. Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) – How could this not be a winner? Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s book of the same name, Slaughterhouse-Five was a Cannes Award winner that Vonnegut himself praised highly, and we all know how often that happens. In the movie, protagonist Billy Pilgrim, views his life in a first-person, non-chronological way, leaving viewers to piece together the scenes into a very disturbing whole.
4. Mad Max (1979) – While it’s not his first film, Mad Max is the film that launched Mel Gibson’s monumentous career, in addition to two very successful sequels. Unlike the dystopian societies of many of the other films on this list, Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic thriller in which society is in a state of anarchy instead of oppressive government. Either way you slice it, it’s no good. Max is the fits the badass good guy role to a T as a law enforcement officer who doesn’t play around. Until 2009′s Paranormal Activity, Mad Max, with its $400,000 budget, held the title as the highest profit-to-cost ratio ever, with $100 million in profit.
3. Alien (1979) – Just as Mad Max launched Mel Gibson’s career, Alien did the same thing for Sigourney Weaver. In fact, this is the film that launched an entire film franchise that featured some of the world’s most acclaimed directors taking turns putting their own unique stamps on the tireless plot of really mean aliens trying to take over earth.
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – Whenever you see “Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg”, you just know it’s good. Yes, his reputation precedes him and this movie is one of the big reasons why. Opting for aliens as good guys, a theme later echoed in ET, Spielberg took an old idea, added some ridiculously good special effects and made one of the most memorable films of all time in any genre, not just sci-fi.
1. Star Wars (1977) – In this first installment of the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas set out to do something that had never been done before: bring the epic mythology of literary history into a space setting on the big screen. And, boy did he ever succeed. Sure there are plot holes in this movie, but the scope of not just Star Wars, but the whole franchise was so ambitious that fans overlooked them, making the Star Wars trilogy the most successful series of movies in sci-fi history.