It was just last week that I was watching the Tom Cruise sci–fi action film, Oblivion. I had recorded it with the anticipation of watching some mindless, Michael Mann-type action romp. But, I was pleasantly surprised.
When I watched Oblivion, it was more reminiscent of those classic sci–fi thrillers from the 1970’s. Classic dystopia films with modestly tame graphics and special effects, with rugged-looking stars playing tough individuals in harsh forbidding landscapes, sometimes with disturbing and unsettling endings.
Classic sci-fi films: resurgence
Ever since the start of the decade, science fiction films have seen a sudden resurgence. But, when I say sci–fi, I do not mean superhero blockbusters and Star Trek/Wars re-launches. I mean the more respectable type of science fiction. The kind of science fiction that harkens back to those wondrous years when sci–fi writers wrote about the present day by using the future as an allegorical device.
The examples of such films in the 1970’s are endless, among them is Soylent Green, the 1973 Charlton Heston classic where a heartless regime in a future New York overcrowded with starving masses resorts to cannibalism in order to feed said masses, albeit in a processed form.
Another classic includes Logan’s Run, in which Michael York lives in what he believes to be an utopian society where everyone stays young, but only because no one is allowed to live beyond 30 years of age. Those that try to out-run the system are hunted down and killed.
Classic sci–fi TV serials and modern sci-fi films
And it wasn’t just film from the 1970s that provided us with classic sci–fi. The same can be said for British television of the 1970’s, which produced two of the most classic sci–fi serials of their day, both from the mind of Welsh writer, Terry Nation.
The shows were the apocalyptic classic, Survivors, which tells the story of the survivors of a world-wide pandemic that kills all but 10,000 people in England; and Blake’s 7, which depicts a group of inter-galactic space rebels fighting against a harsh and brutal totalitarian regime, a kind of “Dirty Dozen in Space” idea.
Since 2010, there have been several sci–fi films written and made in a similar vein, among them, there is the 2013 thriller, Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson; this year’s ultra low-budget psychological thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane, with John Goodman; as well as Christopher Nolan’s 2014 big-budget epic, Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey.
One the most spectacular examples in recent cinema of a classic sci–fi film was Ben Wheatley’s dystopia film High-Rise, adapted from the original book by J. G. Ballard and featuring the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Sienna Miller.
The film centres on a luxury tower block, presumably set in the 1970’s, called the High Rise that, in spite of featuring a wealth of modern conveniences, begins to fall into chaos and anarchy as the infrastructure collapses back into the old class structure.
Other films that evoke memories of classic sci–fi that have been made in the last few years also include Ex_Machina, a modern thriller about a programmer (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who must give the Turing Test to an android (Alicia Vikander) with artificial intelligence.
These films are obviously quite in a different league in comparison to the more action-driven sci–fi epics of recent years, mainly due to the fact that in the case of these films, budgetary restrictions mean that the focus of the film is concentrated more on the story and the special effects.
This sets them apart from films like Godzilla, where the plot manages to shore up poor special effects, or Jupiter Ascending, which was so devoid of any real plot that it became totally dependent on it’s visually-impressive effects.
Self/less (2015) is “reminiscent of sci–fi classic”, Seconds (1966)
Another film on our list that is reminiscent of another sci–fi classic is Self/less (2015), starring Ryan Reynolds and Matthew Goode, whose plot and premise reminds one of the 1966 sci–fi thriller, Seconds, starring Rock Hudson.
In both films, the main protagonists are old men reaching the end of their lives, both of them obsessed with eternal youth. In both cases, they both agree to experimental surgery to have their minds implanted into fresh new young bodies. Again, in both cases, the surgery is successful and both men immediately indulge in their long-forgotten vices.
Here’s where the plots of both movies start to divulge slightly. In Self/less, Ryan Reynolds starts to have hallucinations concerning his new body’s past life, which leads him to investigate his body’s providence; whereas in Seconds, Rock Hudson’s character eventually becomes reticent towards his new life of non-stop orgies of self-indulgence and decides eventually that he wants to go back to his old life.
The only real difference between the two films is their endings, and this is where the greatest contrast can be found in the sci–fi films of today and yesterday. In Self/less, Ryan Reynold’s character decides to allow his body to reverse back to its old self and allows his mind to slip away into nothing.
But, in Seconds, Rock Hudson’s character is told by the shady organisation that set up his conversion that there is no going back and is eventually lead off, tied down and gagged, to what he now realises to be his death, his conversion having failed.
“Harsh and brutal realism”
A classically disturbing ending and one that is quite different to what we have come to expect of today’s cinema. But, I suppose that that is the huge difference between then and today’s cinema. I suppose the cinema audiences of today are a little less willing than the audiences of the 1970’s to go through such harsh and brutal realism.
But, the whole point of the cinema is escapism. People go to watch a movie so that they might forget how terrible some of their lives can be, and going to the cinema in order to switch off for a couple of hours is one of the perfect ways to go about doing that.
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