Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Scientific Romances of the Seventies

In 1954, Walt Disney set about proving the mettle of his studio and Science Fiction by producing one of the first great genre epics of the post-war era, turning to Jules Verne to supply him with the setting and outline of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That, in turn, inspired a lengthy series of Victorian Scientific Romances rebranded as Atomic Age parables that stretched until the end of the Sixties, running parallel to the more modern Science Fiction of the time. However, after the Summer of Love, the global protests of 1968, the Stonewall riots, the Tet Offensive, and the moon landing, the heady days of ray gun adventures and cautionary atomic optimism were passed. In their place came a strange affectation for pessimistic, deromanticized films whose ponderous lengths and turgid performances somehow gave the impression of profound meaning, no better exemplified than in the first truly large-scale, full-colour, big-budget Science Fiction epic since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An instructive comparison can be made between the two. Above all else, 2001 is a film about the emergence of consciousness. First, we see the emergence of primate consciousness in the "Dawn of Man" sequence and the connection between consciousness, technology and the violent struggle of survival. In the middle section, which contains the only part of 2001 that may be considered a story, we see the emergence of technological consciousness as HAL 9000 gains sentience and repeats the violent struggle for survival. Finally, in "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" we see the emergence of stellar consciousness as a state of being that cannot be described, only show in slit-screen effects over footage of Monument Valley for half an hour. Yet all of Kubrick's brilliant cinematography is a disingenuous construct, meant to disguise the fact that the entire movie is conceptual. It is a 161 minute depiction of a theme without any meaningful ideas, and certainly very little that approaches anything like a story or characters. Kubrick asks us to be in awe of the technical spectacle of 2001, accepting that the spectacle in-itself comprises something kind of like a philosophical idea.

By contrast, 20,000 Leagues possesses not only a theme (atomic power), but an idea (how atomic power should be used responsibly) conveyed through an impassioned human drama. Whereas Kubrick may be the greater artiste, Disney is by far the greater showman. He no doubt recognized that you can't carry a 121 minute movie on theme or even ideas alone. A concept is what gets you started, a foundation upon which you build a movie and not the movie itself. Therefore the idea of atomic power's responsible use underlies an actual story about a trio of men who are taken captive aboard Captain Nemo's submarine ship... A story overflowing with human drama, tragedy, action, and charismatic personalities. It is a heartily Romantic, passionate film. Even the settings are richly Romantic, from the beauty of the ocean to the opulence of Nemo's salon. 2001, on the other hand, depicts the vast expanses of the cosmos as listlessly dull. All the ballet music in the world cannot bandage the gaping wound in which space, spaceships and even whole planets are stripped bare of anything interesting. With newly expansive stellar consciousness pushing beyond the infinite, all Dave Bowman sees are infinite dead worlds not unlike the dessicated desert that was Earth at the Dawn of Man. Though trying to communicate space as a place of infinite growth and possibility, Kubrick somehow only succeeds in making space looking really boring. It is no wonder, after 2001 and its offspring like The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, THX 1138, Blade Runner, and Alien, that the original Star Wars should have been such a huge hit. Its return to a Romantic vision of space begat a string of genuinely well-loved Science Fiction films through the Eighties and early Nineties, like Back to the Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T., Aliens, The Terminator and Terminator 2, Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, and even, God forbid, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

In between were the 1970's, and though those dusty old Victorian Scientific Romances were put back on the shelf, a few attempts were made to revive the genre, with varying degrees of success.

The first and only real attempt was to bring Jules Verne up to date in the Seventies was a dour, vulgar, overlong, and frankly boring adaptation of Verne's posthumously published 1905 adventure novel Lighthouse at the End of the World. Designed as a vehicle for aging stars Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner, The Light at the Edge of the World (1971) divests story for theme and applies the Kubrick paradigm to the French author. In the original Lighthouse at the End of the World, Verne takes his readers to the faraway archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Three men tend the lighthouse that guards the straits through which all traffic circumnavigating the Americas must pass, until two are killed by a marauding band of pirates led by the villainous Kongre. Vasquez, the survivor, lasts as well as he can in hiding until he is joined by the sole survivor of a ship that the pirates dash upon the shoreline after commandeering the lighthouse. The two engage in a guerrilla campaign designed to detain the scallywags until help can arrive.

Trailer for The Light at the Edge of the World.

From that, one could see the outline of a film very much like 20,000 Leagues in tone, especially when Kirk Douglas plays the Americanized survivor of the lighthouse. On the one hand you have the theme of the rugged, far-flung lands that test the civility of man, and on the other you have an adventuresome story full of charismatic personalities and swashbuckling heroics. Instead what we get is a landscape of physical, emotional and moral bleakness. Only Brynner's Kongre to get within shot of being character, surrounded by cackling, animalistic, howling pirates. Douglas plays Denton, a stoically quiet veteran of the California Gold Rush who is on flight from a broken heart and a criminal record, wearing his bleakness on his weathered face. Eventually two shipwrecked passengers join them, a man rescued by Denton and a woman held hostage by Kongre. They exist purely to be flayed alive and gang raped, respectively.

The Light at the Edge of the World is poorly titled, as we spend its 120 minutes watching that light slowly become extinguished in an uninspired contest of wills between Denton and Kongre. In Verne's book, Vasquez is holding on as a force of civilization, order and decency at the furthest tip of the continent. He not only seeks to protect the lighthouse but is himself the lighthouse. In this film, Denton does not start out well, and only declines from there. The pirates are nihilistically perverse and violent, which imparts the same characteristic on the film itself. In the end, not even the lighthouse is preserved, and Denton's rescue has the same feel as when the adults finally arrive in Lord of the Flies... The Light at the Edge of the World is "Jules Verne's Apocalypse Now."

This bleak and cretinous film was followed in 1972 by the British horror film The Asphyx. In a series of photos of people at the instant of death, a faint smudge appears near each victim. Sir Hugo Cunningham  (Robert Stephens) initially theorizes that this smudge is evidence of the soul leaving the body. An unfortunate incident changes his mind, however. While testing his prototype movie camera, Cunningham's fiance and his natural born son fall from their punt and drown. He caught the entire thing on film, and discovers to his horror and intrigue that the same smudge appears, but is moving towards the victims instead of  away from them. A new theory emerges, that this apparition is actually an Asphyx... A kind of spiritual being from Greek mythology that lives in continuous torment until it can enter a human host at the moment of its death, to die along with it. If this is true, he reasons, then he may also devise a means by which to capture it and thus stave off death (which is the film's first major plot hole, of several: does the Asphyx cause death or merely hitch a ride on a dying person?). 

Trailer for The Asphyx.

The most logical points to compare The Asphyx to are the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by American International Pictures and the contemporaneous ebb of the Hammer Horror series. Were the hand of a Roger Corman and Richard Matheson involved, not to mention a Vincent Price, it may have been very good indeed. But by this time, Hollywood had effectively given up on Scientific Romances. The Light at the End of the World drastically underperformed, and save for one prominent exception, it was up to English film studios to take up the slack.

The exception was Disney, which made a go with 1974's Island at the Top of the World, based on a modern Canadian Arctic adventure story by Ian Cameron. Though the novel was set in its year of publication, 1961, Disney deliberately backdated it to the Edwardian Era in the hopes of recreating the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They were so hopeful that Disney's Imagineers were ready to roll with plans for an entirely new area of Disneyland based on Island at the Top of the World and 20,000 Leagues, to be called "Discovery Bay." This hope was dashed against the incongruous pencil-pushing that cut the film's budget, reducing its visions of grandeur to something less ambitious and substantially less profitable. While it would have been wonderful to see everything they had planned, the reality is that the fiscal hammer might not have been unfounded. Though possessing its own charms, Island at the Top of the World suffered most for not tapping into the zeitgeist the way 20,000 Leagues did. There are a lot of things going on, but none of it has the substance of the Fifties and Sixties atomic parables... A recurring theme for Scientific Romances from this time.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, however, there was one name that had not been touched. He was one of the great authors of Edwardian Pulp fiction whose work was never very deep or literary to begin with but could keep a very punchy, action-filled pace: Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was to the creator of Tarzan and John Carter that the British company Amicus Productions turned when they gave the genre their shot.

Amicus was the brainchild of American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, who vacated the U.S. for England around 1960. They set up shop in the storied Shepperton Studios with the earnest desire to produce family films that were distributed either under their own company name or other heavier hitters, beginning with It's Trad, Dad!, Just for Fun, Girl of the Night and Lad: A Dog (1962-63). Their first film, however, was a ghoulish tale of witchcraft and bloodshed titled City of the Dead (1960). Comparing the receipts on City of the Dead to their family films, Amicus realized that horror was the cash cow. Onwards they went through the Sixties and Seventies, producing mostly horror anthology films like Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973), based ostensibly on the famed EC Comics. Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing were Amicus regulars, and one would be forgiven for seeing parallels between the low-budget horror stylings of Amicus and those of American International Pictures. In fact, the two studios collaborated on such films as Vincent Price's Madhouse.

While horror paid the bills, the studio heads still felt the urge to tamer family fare. The most notorious of Amicus' productions are the two "Dr. Who" films starring Peter Cushing: Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). These films adapted the televised Doctor Who serials The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth in full Technicolor, but butchered the story and the franchise in the process. A radio series was planned, and Dr. Who appeared in a comic serial in Doctor Who Magazine, but the feature film series ended after poor receipts for the second film. A third film, based on the serial The Chase was never produced. Perhaps audiences realized that this wasn't the Doctor. But when the gloom started to go off of British bloodletting in the mid-Seventies, Amicus turn again to Science Fiction. More specifically, to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Trailer for Dr. Who and the Daleks.

The first of three films produced by Amicus to be based on Burroughs' work was The Land That Time Forgot (1975). The novel, published in 1918, takes place on the marine front of World War I, where a German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic shipping lanes torpedoes a civilian ocean liner being used to smuggle armaments. The surviving crew, led by Doug McClure, manage in turn to commandeer the U-boat but knock out its navigation, which sends them down to the Antarctic. The extended journey strains their supplies, with the only apparent option being the chance discovery of a phantom island teeming with prehistoric beasts. Hand-held puppets and marionettes were employed to bring life to these monstrosities, which was not necessarily any less convincing than any other method available at the time. The effects are only undermined by how cartoonishly adorable the dinosaurs are.

Trailer for The Land that Time Forgot.

Cave men at various stages of evolution are also present in the landscape, and behind them is a rather silly premise that had a larger role in Burroughs' novel than in this film. Though boasting a script co-written by Michael Moorcock, The Land That Time Forgot is one of those films that is about as good as it can be under the circumstances. While a major hit for Amicus, it lacked the charm, optimism, and anxiety that served as the heart of genre films from the Atomic Age. Land That Time Forgot, like Island at the Top of the World and the films that followed, imitated the form as well as they could, but lacked the essence.

The next film out of the gate, released in 1976, was At the Earth's Core, based again on the Burroughs novel of the same name. Published in 1914, the novel was the first of Burroughs' series on the prehistoric underground realm of Pellucidar. Tarzan himself would eventually visit the cavernous refugium, and overall it was very much in keeping with Burroughs' running themes of two-fisted men fighting slavering beasts for the honour of nubile, disrobed ladies, be they on Martian fields of war, African jungles, or the centre of the Earth.

In At the Earth's Core, Doug McClure and an aged Peter Cushing drive their 'Iron Mole" machine to Pellucidar and are immediately captured by the Mahars, a species of telepathic pterosaurs who use humans as slaves. McClure makes a break for it, befriends one of the indigenous peoples, woos the princess, and leads a slave revolt that includes, among other things, fighting a monster in the gladiatorial arena. Those familiar with the literary and cinematic exploits of  John Carter might recognize the basic outline. Nevertheless it is an outline that works, and At the Earth's Core is a fun adventure film. Though the monster suits leave something to be desired, there is a very effective surrealism and creeping weirdness to this underground realm, which in turn accents the charisma of McClure and Cushing.

Trailer for At the Earth's Core.

The last of the Amicus series, and the last Amicus film period, was 1977's The People That Time ForgotThe Land That Time Forgot's cliffhanger ending left off with the promise of further exploration of Burroughs' time-lost island with its strange recapitulation of evolutionary history. With that film's closing shots of mountainous wastelands beset with glacial ice, it all-but telegraphed the probability of seeing woolly mammoths and sabretooth cats. The People That Time Forgot would be a radically different entity, unfortunately.

Unlike Burroughs' literary sequels - The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time's Abyss - the cinematic sequel did nothing to build on that promised "secret of evolution" or maintain the human to prehistoric monster ratio. Where the small handful of dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles do come out to threaten the protagonists, they serve no essential part to the plot. The true monsters are the green-skinned, samuari-like barbarians with a fetish for sacrificing buxom women to their volcano god. Not living up to even the meager standards of The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot ended up as just a discomfiting, and very Seventies, orgy of violence, gunplay, cursing, cavewoman breasts, weird cults and that sort of thing, with few redeeming qualities. Not even Doug McClure had much to do in his returning role.

Trailer for The People That Time Forgot.

Ironically, internal friction between Subotsky and Rosenberg resulted in the dissolution of Amicus Productions in 1977. The team behind the Burroughs trilogy were not about to let that stop them, however. Kevin Conner, director of all three films, teamed back up with Doug McClure for Warlords of Atlantis in 1978. Released under EMI-Columbia, it was not an adaptation of a Burroughs novel but was very much in keeping with the tone and spirit of the trilogy.

Unlike the three films produced by Amicus, Warlords of Atlantis actually does make an attempt at profundity that mirrors the films of the Atomic Age. The Atlanteans are revealed to be aliens trapped on Earth in ages past who have committed themselves to manipulating humanity into developing the technology that will allow them to return to the stars. When the crew of a turn-of-the-century sailing vessel are taken captive, the chief scientist of the bunch (played by Peter Gilmore) is separated from the rest of the group. While the crew are left to toil as slaves for the upper-class Atlanteans, an attempt is made to enlist the scientist to their cause by showing him the unfolding of their plan. Through his brain flash images of the Nazi regime, World War II, and the development of atomic weaponry. In no uncertain terms the Atlanteans state that war is the driver of scientific and technological progress.

Trailer for Warlords of Atlantis.

A general sense of pessimism had been creeping through Western society and American society in particular in the decade leading up to Warlords of Atlantis. President Jimmy Carter took to the airwaves in 1979 to chastise Americans for their sense of malaise:
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation... We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy... The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world. As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.
In Britain, the Seventies were marked by the collapse of the "post-war consensus" style of government that had prioritized social programs and Keynesian economics. Deficit spending and labour unrest had brought about a financial crisis in 1976, forcing the sitting government to take out what was, to that point, the largest loan ever granted by the International Monetary Fund. This economic depression hit Britain's youth hard, fermenting the Punk scene with its anthem of "No Future." Widespread strikes and high unemployment culminated in the 1978-1979 "Winter of Discontent" that blew Margaret Thatcher's Tories into a victory in the 1979 election.

Despite Kevin Connor's best attempts - and these four films were only the start of his long career - Scientific Romances simply could not find the footing to respond to an era where OPEC oil crises were a more pressing concern than the Space Race, and more people were worried about getting a job than getting a flying automobile. It was a decidedly unromantic time. Warlord of Atlantis' pessimistic view of technological progress was in keeping with the times, though hardly a happy message.

Omar Sharif played Captain Nemo in an unremarkable television adaptation of Mysterious Island in 1973. Irwin Allen attempted a television revival of Verne's cryogenically frozen mariner in The Return of Captain Nemo in 1978, which interestingly also included Atlantis. A 1977 Spanish production of Jules Verne's Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth happened, but like most genre films of the time was considered a disappointment. 

One final film rounded out the decade, being the American production Time After Time starring Malcolm Macdowell and David Warner as H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper on a romp through modern day San Francisco, released in 1979. Like Warlords of Atlantis, Time After Time also attempted a commentary on the way modernity has been shaped by a century of violence. 

Trailer for Time After Time.

Like the 1960 version of The Time Machine, Time After Time begins with the concept that H.G. Wells was himself the anonymous narrator of his stories, and that they were not fiction but accurate autobiography. Once more he is the inventor of an actual time machine, but misfortune strikes when he shows his invention off to his friends. The misfortune is that one of his friends happens to be Jack the Ripper. Jack absconds with the time machine and travels to San Francisco 100 years hence. Wells, filled his visions of future Utopia, is terrified that he's allowed a monster to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Following, he discovers that his Utopia never happened. On the contrary, Jack is convinced that "I belong here completely and utterly. I'm home... Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I'm an amateur... The future isn't what you thought. It's what I am!"

Nevertheless, these films - Amicus' included - had the ultimate effect of heralding the death of Scientific Romances for over a decade. It wouldn't be until the mid-late 1990's that a new "golden age" of retro-Victorian Sci-Fi movies, TV shows, comics, and video games would erupt. Besides, it was hard for anybody to compete with Star Wars (1977) and its progeny. The Eighties belonged less to Jules Verne than to Steven Spielberg. 

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