50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 1970s – Rolling Stone
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50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 1970s

From cosmic head trips to adventures in galaxies far, far away


It was the decade that gave the world the maverick New Hollywood drama, the Nixon-era paranoid thriller, the slasher flick, the all-star disaster movie, the gross-out comedy and the modern mega-blockbuster. But the Seventies were particularly kind to one specific cul-de-sac of cinema: the science fiction film, a subset category that was still buzzing from its late-Sixties head-trip phase courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the Age of Aquarius slowly slid into the beginning of the nation’s Watergate-and-disco period, you could still find sci-fi movies that wanted to blow an audience’s possibly addled, probably enhanced mind. But by the end of the 1970s, it was possible to have checked out postapocalyptic action-adventures, future-shock case studies, technophobic nightmares, low-budget exploitation movies about what-if scenarios and big-budget space operas — all of which fell under the S.F. umbrella and helped turn the genre into a gamechanger. And as anyone who saw Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar last year will tell you, the influences of this period are still showing up in theaters near you.

So, in honor of the 10-year-period that made science-fiction filmmaking what it is today, we are counting down the 50 best sci-fi movies of the 1970s. Some of them belong in the greatest-of-all-time canon; others, we will fully admit, are the cinematic equivalent of a ripe Camembert. But each of these helped the decade redefine where science fiction could go on the big screen, whether it was in a grungy grindhouse or a state-of-the-art multiplex. This is where the genre genuinely started to boldly go where it had never gone before.


‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1972)

Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel of "unstuck in time" soldiers, interplanetary households and the bombing of Dresden during WWII was thought to be unfilmable — a message that George Roy Hill wisely chose to ignore. If anything, his adaptation doubles down on the fragmented, dissociative feel of the novel, dropping viewers into the world of Billy Pilgrim, the former WWII prisoner of war who ends up spending his autumn years in an alien terrarium with a stripper. You're never sure whether the oddball outer-space vignettes are figments of our hero's traumatized imagination or actual close encounters of the WTF kind; all you know is that the movie treats its Pilgrim's progress as one helluva surreal journey through the hell of human misery and bliss. DF


‘Fantastic Planet’ (1973)

As dense as a novel and as elusive as a dream, René Laloux's fable envisions a planet where humanoid creatures called Oms exists as pint-sized playthings for the giant sky-blue Draags. The story of an oppressed race rising up against their overlords has been parsed as an allegory for World War II, but its drive towards peaceful, if uneasy, coexistence suggests a more complex, less particular philosophy. Using paper cutout animation and long dialogue free-stretches, the film's evocative minimalism creates a world more felt than understood. SA


‘Superman’ (1978)

In light of today's fixation on "dark" superhero tales, Richard Donner's fidelity to the DC comics plays as positively unfussy and wholesome in retrospect. But like its 21st century brethren, this is no B-movie cheapie — it's a $55 million, franchise-launching behemoth that employed Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, as well Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, to make you believe a man could fly. As epitomized by Christopher Reeve's throwback movie-star charisma, there’s more vintage screwball pizzazz and widescreen spectacle than malaise-days grit here, though Margot Kidder's E.R.A-era Lois Lane helps bring things up to speed. While Hackman steals the show as a dastardly dandyish Lex Luthor, even he's upstaged by an ingenious set design that turns Grand Central Station into a supervillain's swimming-pool-bedecked secret lair. EH


‘God Told Me To’ (1976)

Grindhouse auteur Larry Cohen wasn't the first to surmise that God might be an alien, but he was the first to suggest that extraterrestrials might possess humans' minds and send them on a mass killing spree. Featuring citizens falling to sniper fire as they cross the street, God Told Me To embodies the sordid grit of mid-Seventies Manhattan, where hard-nosed detective Tony Lo Bianco has his faith tested and his mind blown by a case that leads him to investigate the very nature of humanity itself. The mixture of high-flown philosophy and greasy cop thriller often feels like watching two movies projected on the same screen — an unsettling, sometimes perplexing, definitely unforgettable experience. SA


‘THX 1138’ (1971)

As visually and sonically stunning as anything George Lucas would later do in a galaxy far far away, his future-fascistic nightmare is a pure product of the decade's New Hollywood renaissance, exploring sex, drugs, mind-numbing television, governmental malfeasance, and both the necessity and futility of rebellion. Robert Duvall is quietly tremendous as the movie's equivalent of 1984's Winston Smith. It's not just a film, it's a jumping-off point for an alternate universe in which George Lucas's body of work veers closer to Sixties cerebral sci-fi than Thirties serials. STC


‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ (1970)

Fourteen years before The Terminator (and only two years after HAL refused to open the pod door), there was another, lesser-known tale of a supercomputer seizing control of the world and trying to eradicate humanity. Smug engineer Dr. Charles A. Forbin, who convinces the U.S. Defense Department to let his "Colossus" control the country's nuclear arsenal, then watches in horror as his creation goes over his head and starts communicating with the Soviet's own electronic brain. Scientific cockiness drives the story: As a representative of humanity's best and brightest brainiacs, the doctor builds a machine smart enough to realize that mankind is teeming with arrogant jerks like himself — all of whom need to be purged in the name of peace. NM


‘Stalker’ (1979)

A rough-hewn hired guide brings two intellectuals to a forbidden, possibly radioactive Russian territory called "The Zone." Over the course of a single day, the men traipse around an overgrown, abandoned structure, and eventually enter a room that's believed to have the power to satisfy someone's deepest wish. It's the reverence and trepidation of the visitors that imbues the space with magic — much as Andrei Tarkovsky's movie camera can make a flowing brook, a bird flying overhead, or a phone ringing in empty house into a knee-buckling act of god. EH


‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1975)

When you're living in a scorched-earth hellhole where canned goods replace money and violence is the lingua franca, getting laid may not be your first natural instinct. But that's what makes this bizarre, low-budget satire based on a Harlan Ellison novella so effective. Vic (a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson) is a perpetually horny teenage itinerant who speaks telepathically with his dog Blood. When an underground group needs a sperm donor to repopulate their society, Vic is happy to offer his services. Ellison's source material may have been used to better effect in a number of other films since its release, but the singular, sick-as-fuck satire has more than earned its status as a cult classic. JN


‘Mad Max’ (1979)

Part down-under Western, part Seventies vigilante thriller and part action-packed postapocalyptic road movie, this landmark Ozploitation movie imagines a war-ravaged future in which cops like "Mad Max" Rockatansky are the only things that stand between lawless biker gangs and what's left of civilization. George Miller's vision of a dystopia-as-demolition-derby helped turn Mel Gibson into an international  star; thanks to a bad overdubbing job regarding the Aussie accents, it initially stiffed in America. By the time its superior sequel The Road Warrior showed up a few years later, the original had become a bona fide cult classic. CC


‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971)

A precursor to the biohazard thrillers that have occasionally infected multiplexes over the past 20 years, Robert Wise's adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel about a deadly space pathogen trades in the genre's cosmic pulp and head-trippiness for a procedural-like seriousness. Having discovered a downed satellite has brought back a spore — code name: Andromeda — that threatens to wipe out humanity, a team of scientists have to contain this lethal visitor or die tryin'. The era's predilection for sterile white environments and emphasis on the first part of the term "science fiction" gets a nice workout here, as will your nervous system. Germaphobes, proceed with extreme caution. DF


‘Rollerball’ (1975)

Norman Jewison's extreme-sports future shock bundles together a paranoid political thriller, a McLuhan-drunk media satire, ultraviolent exploitation, reverent respect for faddish athletic pursuits and enough zoom shots to make Robert Altman blush. You also get James Caan as the greatest competitor in the history of rollerball — a wildly popular bloodsport that combines roller derby, motorcross, football and boxing. In this fucked-up future, corporate rule has toppled the nation state, leading executives to rig the game so that sportsmen like Caan's champion 'baller can't realize the power of their popularity. The skate-rink action, which culminates in an apocalyptic death match, remains rabble-rousingly brutal. EH


‘Westworld’ (1973)

In the future, rich tourists tired of traditional vacations can visit three adult theme parks in which lifelike robots cater to their every need. But after a series of malfunctions, the androids begin murdering their guests, leading to a final standoff involving Yul Brynner as a surly, trigger-happy gunslinger. Michael Crichton's 1973 film foresaw the rise of computer viruses and was one of the first to utilize CGI technology that would become commonplace years later. While the graphics may look dated now, the film remains a prescient look at the evil cinematic conglomerates found in everything from the Robocop to Blade Runner. Also, murderous cowboy robots will always be a sci-fi geek's cinematic wet dream. JN


‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978)

Easily among the greatest remakes ever made, Philip Kaufman updates Don Siegel's McCarthy-era classic to 1978 San Francisco. Donald Sutherland's trench-coated health inspector discovers that citizens are transforming into dead-eyed replicas of themselves. Like a deathblow to the wounded remains of the Sixties, the mysterious affliction drives people to distrust their neighbors, their community, and the environment. Kaufman proves singularly adept at keeping multiple genres and tones in play, from noirish mystery to heady paranormal thriller to face-squishing sci-fi horror. There's truly no recovering from the film's final the enemy-is-us parting shot. EH


‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977)

When was the last time you watched the first fruit of Steven Spielberg's post-Jaws harvest? Did you remember the extended, door-slamming scenes of marital discord between Richard Dreyfus and Teri Garr? Did you remember how long Spielberg delays the big reveal? Did you remember how easily Dreyfuss agrees to board the spaceship? Unlike 1977's other sci-fi blockbuster, Star Wars, the secret to Close Encounters of the Third Kind's greatness is how it takes the time to immerse us in a swirl of Seventies paranoia and Reader's Digest-derived mysticism before blowing us away with a Manhattan-sized mothership. Four decades after Orson Welles warned of marauding Martians, Spielberg gave us a wholly friendly alien visitation, complete with oh-hey totally harmless abduction of a toddler, frenzied keyboard-based attempts at communicating, and a luminescent, kind-eyed species of being that has the rare power to tame Francois Truffaut. EH


‘Phase IV’ (1974)

The only feature directed by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass concerns a colony of hyperintelligent ants intent on taking over the world, but it's less a creature feature than the equivalent of taking mushrooms with a bunch of hip myrmecologists. As the ants trap a group of scientists in their isolated desert lab, it becomes clear they don't want to wipe out humanity so much as (literally) colonize it — an idea played out over the film's recently rediscovered ending, a heady montage that gives 2001's "Beyond the Infinite" a run for its money. SA


‘Silent Running’ (1972)

A movie that has everything — if by everything you mean Bruce Dern as a long-haired homicidal intergalactic treehugger playing poker with droids, talking to bunnies, and feeling really passionately about salad. The directorial debut of visual effects wiz Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running is a deceptively grim environmentalist allegory about a conservationist who balks at destroying the greenhouses he’s immaculately maintained aboard a giant space freighter. Though in the moral right, Dern's crazy-eyed rants about his predicament foretell a very dark turn, which leaves him alone with nothing but his self-righteousness, guilty conscience, and the aforementioned droids. A singularly bonkers effort that nevertheless taught Star Wars a thing or two about dodderingly cute robots and gave Mystery Science Theater its bored in space conceit. EH


‘Zardoz’ (1974)

It's 2293, and the world is divided between impotent, midriff-baring hippies and illiterate, bedraggled savages. To keep the latter in check, a giant stone head deity floats over the landscape and goads men in red diapers to kill people at will. One of these "exterminators" is a mostly naked, obscenely hirsute Sean Connery, who singlehandedly subverts the class system by infiltrating an anesthetized Garden of Eden and inducing ice queen Charlotte Rampling into obsessing over his erection. One half vintage acid trip and one half devious social satire (director John Boorman tellingly pits SoCal mystics against armed radicals), this legendarily ludicrous spectacle has more to offer than James Bond swinging around a braided ponytail for 105 minutes — and that's saying something. EH


‘Star Wars’ (1977)

Even after close to 40 years of exhaustive reckoning, it's hard to overestimate the cultural and economic significance of George Lucas' pulpy, pop-inflected space opera. While it nostalgically riffed on Flash Gordon serials, Greek and Anglo mythology, and Leni Reifenstahl-cribbed triumphalism, the filmmaker was nevertheless prescient about both world and market building. That we're about to receive a third trilogy based on characters first introduced in 1977 certainly speaks to the film's enduring appeal — indeed there's never been anything quite like it. And while all other sci-fi films from the Seventies can't help but be products of their era, Lucas has done everything he can — from digitally upgrading analog effects to backdating the introduction of characters — to prevent it from becoming a relic. His project wasn't to make a movie about that or any other time, but rather a story that lives off the screen, all the time. We’re all still living in it. EH


‘Solaris’ (1972)

Based on a novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, Solaris doesn’t transcend its genre so much as seriously elevate it. The defining movie of the Soviet cosmonaut era isn’t a story of heroism, collectivism, or technological innovation, but a disorienting head-trip about memory, loss, and guilt. Sent to investigate a space station in which the two remaining inhabitants have been driven mad by mysterious forces, a psychologist (the brooding Donatas Banionis) is immediately haunted by his dead ex-wife, who’s not just an apparition but a physical presence. The swirling Solarian sea is designed like a day-glo Rothko, and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky envisions weightlessness as a foreboding, paranormal affliction — but what Solaris is really after is the ineffability of inner space. EH


‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)

Criticized and condemned upon its release — director Stanley Kubrick even pulled it out of circulation in the U.K. for a time — A Clockwork Orange may seem relatively tame by today's cinematic standards for society-in-moral-free-fall dystopias. But few of this extreme satire's successors are as hilarious. Led by Malcolm McDowell's liberatingly bratty performance as the degenerate droog Alex, this adaptation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel remains bitterly funny (and wise) about all the ways that conformity and government oppression conspire to break our spirit. Serious enough about its message to deliver it as farce, Orange is a bleak cautionary tale headlined by one marvelously charming bastard. TG


‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976)

Bearing no traces of the tropes that helped tame the genre throughout the decade, Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of Walter Tevis's novel remains a breathlessly in-the-moment, sui generis creation. David Bowie is Thomas Jerome Newton, a scarlet-haired alien sent to earth to secure water for his own dehydrated planet. After he hustles a multimillion-dollar fortune out of high-tech patents, the beanpole androgyne becomes waylaid from his mission, mesmerized by serial distractions such as a comely elevator operator (Candy Clark) and the constant cacophony of American television, preferably viewed en masse. For Roeg, loneliness and ennui aren't just colors in a crayon box; they're harrowingly consequential states of mind and being. You're damn right the alien is you. EH


‘Alien’ (1979)

Outside of Jaws' prolonged tease that leads to its money-shot shark reveal, no Seventies spectacle builds its dread and anticipation toward one scene as beautifully as director Ridley Scott's extra-terrestrial horror. (No matter how many times you've seen it, the alien's violent explosion from Kane's stomach is deeply, profoundly upsetting.) Before we get to That Scene, Alien is merely one hell of an office drama in space — a submarine thriller set among the stars. Then it morphs into a haunted-house chiller dropped into the cosmos, creating unbearable tension from the film's close-quarters locale. At the movies, outer space was once a source of wonder, curiosity, adventure — after Alien, it was a new canvas for our nightmares, a place where no one could hear you scream. TG

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