10 science fiction films from 1979 that are worth revisiting

Influential, mostly forgotten, dated, or surprisingly modern, all of these films are still worth watching...

1979 was a heck of a year. Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, Idi Amin was deposed, and John Wayne died. Sebastian Coe broke three world records, Iran had a revolution, and there was a nuclear disaster on Three Mile Island. It was a year of change and consequences. It was also a year filled with science fiction.

SF literature included The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke, and Jem by Frederik Pohl, and the movie scene was just as glorious – from blockbusters to B-movies, horror to art-house, foreign masterpieces to Hollywood franchises, it all happened. In space, on Earth, in the presence of such luminaries as Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Sigourney Weaver, and Oliver Reed, science fiction was everywhere. It wasn’t always good, but it was everywhere.

So here’s an alphabetical look back at ten SF offerings of 1979, starting with one of the most influential films of the last forty years.

1. Alien

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The Nostromo travels through space. It will wake up to a distress beacon, and a planet where strange beings fought for survival. Fought what? We all know that now, but Alien never loses its power, even when you’re well aware of what’s going to pop out of that egg.

Ridley Scott’s direction is all about the economy of movement; the stillness of space that transmutes into the terror of the monster, and the confrontation towards which the crew is heading. The scene in which Dallas (Tom Skerritt) edges down the black tunnel, and every inch is being tracked by the crew, is the heart of Alien. The unexpected, the unthinkable, will happen to the traditional hero. We were dragged there, slowly and precisely, by Scott’s direction.

Alien is that rarest of science fiction movies – loved by fans, applauded by critics, referenced by other directors, and studied by film students. Not bad going for just one Xenomorph.

2. The Black Hole

Have Disney always had their eyes on the Star Wars universe? They may own it nowadays, but back in 1979 they decided to get in on the act with this tale of a space crew who uncover a long-missing craft on the edge of the largest black hole they’ve ever seen. Okay, so you can’t really see a black hole, but you know what I mean.

It’s an uncomfortable mix of family-friendly moments tied with deep unpleasantness. The cute robots, voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, are a step too far for me, but they are counterbalanced by Maximilian, a giant red robot with a whirring blade attachment that is terrifying. And we see him use it – it’s the first on-screen death to appear in a Disney film. There are some big performances from Ernest Borgnine and Maximilian Schell, but my favourite turn is from Anthony Perkins as a quiet, driven scientist who wants greatness. Are there any other family films that contain an actor who’s best known for playing a serial killer?

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What a weird delight The Black Hole is, particularly the very strange and disturbing ending. And the score, by John Barry, is the best thing about it.

3. The Brood

Oliver Reed dominates this film with his unique threat of violence. The first five minutes, in which his psychiatrist character, Dr Hal Raglan, conducts a public therapy session with a very disturbed patient, is hypnotic cinema. You can’t take your eyes off him; it seems something really nasty is about to happen. And, since this is a David Cronenberg film, you know it’s going to get very nasty indeed.

So the strongest parts of The Brood are when Oliver Reed appears, but, alas, he’s not the main character of this tale of a husband whose wife has retreated into endless therapy while he struggles to raise their daughter. The wife demands to see the daughter, and he suspects physical abuse. How can he protect his child? The film contains a deep bitterness towards a legal system that favours the mother in custody battles, which reflects the real-life problems Cronenberg encountered in regards to his own daughter.

People start to die around the daughter, and the science fiction element rears its very ugly head. The therapy is creating something that can’t be controlled. When we get to find out what is happening to the wife (played with a malicious, dreamy glee by Samantha Eggar) it’s not a disappointment. Get the uncut version and enjoy.

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4. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Both Battlestar Galactica (1978) and this reboot of a classic comic book character spring from writer/producer Glen A Larson, who wanted to capitalise on the success of Star Wars to bring science fiction to the small screen. After the success of a theatrical release for the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica, Buck got the same treatment, and was successful enough to spawn two series. Larson also co-wrote the theme song, which plays over the very slick and soft-focus opening credits.

It’s easy to love this version of Buck Rogers, with disco outfits and double entendres, and Gil Gerrard personifying seventies machismo in the face of Erin Gray’s initially less than enthusiastic Wilma Deering. But there’s also a sad side to the story of Buck’s revival five hundred years after his departure on a space mission from Earth. The destruction of the cities, radioactive wastelands, the fact that all major decisions are taken by a council of computers because humans can’t be trusted to govern their own best interests – all these ideas are buried within the cheeky dialogue. I’m not saying its deep meaningful stuff, but it is worth remembering for more than Princess Ardala’s outfits and a small robot called Twiki. Bidi bidi bidi.

5. The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel

This Estonian film is based on a sci fi detective novel by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and it translates from the page to the screen with a great sense of setting. The mountains dominate the exterior shots, and inside the hotel we find ourselves in a space that never seems to make any sense. The rooms are endless and connected by shiny corridors and stairwells. It’s a cross between an Escher painting and Hotel California.

Inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) is called to the eponymous hotel, and finds nothing amiss apart from some very strange guests. But after an avalanche cuts them off from the rest of the world, death and some surprising revelations await. The whole thing reminds me of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, which is no bad thing. It’s more surreal and less pointed, and it has a soundtrack of electronic sounds that complements the cold majesty of the mountains. There’s also a great dog that takes your luggage and shows you to your room. Even Hotel California didn’t have that.

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I should add that there was a computer game version of The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel released in 2009, which seems to get regularly flagged as one of the worst games of all time. Maybe stick to the film.

6. Mad Max

I had to check that Mad Max really was made in 1979. It seems a lot newer than some of the films on this list, but perhaps that’s the low budget punky feel of it that seems to date less than big budget enterprises. It’s great to revisit this film and be reminded of why Mel Gibson conquered the movie world. He bursts out of the screen in this movie. In the same year as Mad Max he also appeared in a small Australian film with Piper Laurie called Tim (you couldn’t get a film that’s more different in tone) and he is also stunningly good in that.

Max Rockatansky is a policeman, a husband and a father in a future version of Australia where oil has become so scarce that biker gangs roam around hijacking tankers and generally behaving in a very anti-social fashion. When they mess with Max, he becomes a lone figure of vengeance, in the best movie fashion. Cue cars and stunts and a really satisfying nasty conclusion that apparently inspired the Saw franchise. The later films all looked a bit too recognisably dystopian to me, but here life continues as usual. Policemen still try to preserve order, husbands and wives still try to raise babies. It’s the fact that it looks like reality that makes Max’s journey to becoming Mad Max all the more powerful.

7. Meteor

I love disaster movies, and this one contains every cliché. Sean Connery and Karl Malden stand around in offices with their hands on their hips and shout things like, “Will you listen to me, Goddamit!?” Chunky computers flash up displays that read

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1 DAY TO IMMINENT DISASTER

and there are lots of shots of the imminent disaster in the form of an enormous meteor that makes a whooshing sound as it travels through space towards us. But never fear, we aren’t all going to die, although a few major cities might get splatted. That’s what happens in disaster movies.

There are many problems with Meteor, including the performances (although maybe the unintentionally entertaining script and complete lack of character development has something to do with that), but the biggest problem is that this is basically a story in which people stand around. Nobody is actually required to do anything to save the world except look at some computers and wait. This is an ongoing problem with disaster movies about meteors. Deep Impact tried to get around it by showing us lots of different actors waiting, which didn’t really work either. At least Armageddon had Bruce Willis going into space to fight the meteor directly, but I think we have yet to see a really successful meteor movie. Still, in the meantime, watch Sean Connery stand around and shout with Karl Malden. It’s fun.

8. Quintet

Paul Newman is a movie God. So is Robert Altman. So when I tell you that they made a film together set in a post-apocalyptic ice age, in which the desperate survivors are obsessed with a board game that hinges on ritual murder, you’re probably thinking it sounds like the best forgotten film ever.

But there is a reason why nobody really remembers Quintet, and that’s because it’s not very memorable. Newman plays Essex, a seal hunter who becomes embroiled in the game. He rarely emotes, and everyone is smothered in bulky hats and furs that resemble medieval costume. The game itself is impenetrable, although when the film was released in cinemas it came with an instruction sheet that you can now find online. Everything moves very slowly, and the one character who brings everything to life (aptly named Vivia, and played by Brigitte Fossey) isn’t in it for very long. Altman made the decision to smear the camera with vaseline to give the edges of the shot a certain look, maybe as if staring through an icy window, but it always feels like a device rather than a reality. So you find yourself wanting to love this film, but then checking your phone for emails after twenty minutes, which is a real shame.

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Having said all that, the first twenty minutes contain an interesting opening, a terrific score by Tom Pierson, and the enjoyable presence of aforementioned Brigitte Fossey. If only it wasn’t downhill from there.

9. Stalker

I’ve already mentioned the Strugasky brothers as the writers of The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel; they also wrote the screenplay for this film. It’s loosely based on their novel, Roadside Picnic.

There is a Stalker. He leads people illegally into The Zone – an area, a wasteland of a sort, where the normal rules of the Earth no longer apply. Within The Zone there is a Room where your deepest desire can come true. Director Andrei Tarkovsky has never been interested in feeding viewers an easy experience. It is a vague and frustrating concept for us and for the people who wish to visit it, but within the confusion and the strangeness, the puddles and the remains, there is great beauty. The camera moves very slowly and with great care, giving you time to collect your own thoughts about the Zone. And, of course, about The Room. What is your own deepest desire?

After the Chernobyl disaster, the surrounding area of countryside was abandoned, and the exclusion area was renamed ‘the Zone of Alienation’. Real life stalkers now operate in that zone, some inspired by the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R, and others inspired by the film, or the original book. I wonder if any of them find what they are really looking for?

10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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Star Trek is science fiction at its most optimistic, and when that model gets messed with, people get annoyed. It’s all about going forth and being an equal opportunities employer in deep space, and it imagines a future where humanity has got its act together. That’s why, for me, there’s something joyous about seeing the Enterprise up on the big screen for the first time, and every time since. It’s an idea for the planet Earth that I never get tired of.

But this first Star Trek movie never got much love. Many people prefer the action and thrills of Wrath of Khan, thinking The Motion Picture is too slow and serious, and yet I stand by this clever, intricate story of an alien intelligence that searches for answers in regard to its own creation. The effects still look stunning, and the crew are as reliable as ever. There’s also a strong performance from Indian actor Persis Khambatta – she was Miss India in 1965, and brought dignity to the pivotal role of Lieutenant Ilia, perhaps the highlight of her acting career. She died from a heart attack in 1998 at the young age of 49.

When you revisit these movies, some look incredibly dated and some look as fresh as ever. But all of them have the magic that comes from looking past our usual mundane existence and imagining – what if? What if science takes us in this new and scary direction in the future? In 2013 we know that some of the things they imagined in 1979 couldn’t actually come to pass, or if they have, they weren’t as scary as we all thought they might be. But that only adds to the enjoyment of the film.

And, in some cases, the questions raised have become more relevant than ever. That’s the most incredible thing about science fiction – sometimes it gets it right. So when you next hear about the prediction of a new ice age, a possible meteor heading for our planet, or new research into black holes, think fondly of the movies of 1979. It was, indeed, a heck of a year.