Of course, we all know that science fiction—or speculative fiction, as in, fiction-of-what’s-coming—is actually about the here-and-now, and the ultimate measure of a sci-fi narrative’s density is its prescience. It’s the only genre predicated on the power of ideas, and so the only comprehensible explanation for science fiction’s lowly slot on the high-culture totem pole is that our mightiest tastemakers, still vividly remembering Flash Gordon, simply will not pay enough attention.
Perhaps a few of the graybeards will hit the mid-winter Walter Reade showcase, which selects quixotically from the past 35 years of futuristic cinema, mixing all-too-familiar blockbusters with potent rarities. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) are cast-iron pulp machines you’d think cable TV had rendered old hat years ago, but Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977) is a neglected cherry bomb, in which Julie Christie gets abducted, raped, and—gulp—impregnated by a computerized house. Taken from an early Dean Koontz novel, the film rushes in where even David Cronenberg, with his qualms about technological progress and biological vulnerability, has been afraid to tread.
Philip Kaufman’s masterfully paranoid, post-Nixonian reincarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) should be part of our collective memory by now, but Abel Ferrara’s family-implosive version, Body Snatchers (1993), still deserves the proper release it never quite got, if only for little Reilly Murphy’s queasy reaction to his snatched school-mates’ identical crayon drawings. There may be no pop concept of the last 100 years so symbolically applicable to so many social dreads; here’s to having new versions, by new idiosyncrats, every decade or so.
The dystopias include L.Q. Jones’s A Boy and His Dog (1975), a sardonic, Harlan Ellison-derived vision of post-Bomb collapse in which telepathic dogs help horny men scour the wasteland for functioning mates, and Gas-s-s-s (1971), Roger Corman’s similarly sandblasted and impressively absurd road-movie trek through a devastated America left grasping at thoughtless culture once the substance of society has been blown away. Corman’s film speaks trenchantly about the nation’s latent impulses and warped priorities—some things never change. Still, goodbye prescience, hello prophecy with the BBC TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), written by Nigel Kneale (whose best film, 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit, is another series keystone). Hampered by wretched camera placement and acting, Kneale’s droll diatribe effectively conceived of reality TV—from 24-7 sex contests to a prototype for Survivor—three decades before the fact. Thus, his larger point—about how engineered voyeurism seeks to anesthetize the “low-drive” populace into docility and public non-awareness—has more of a cudgel’s heft today than it did in 1968.
But sci-fi’s reigning oracle might be Peter Watkins, represented here by Privilege (1967), a parable about how pop idolatry could be used as a weapon of fascistic corporate control, and the remarkable Punishment Park (1971). Using the faux-doc trope he perfected in all of its irony for La Commune, Watkins looks at a post-Kent State America in which radicals are arrested, convicted in closed tribunal hearings, and then persecuted. Even if his primary conception—not Guantánamo Bay, but the titular desert tract, in which victims run until hunted down by troopers in training—seems to be only an Ashcroftian wet dream, Watkins’s handle on the machinations of state enforcement is chillingly sure. Hippie-tinged or not, this is not a ’70s film, but one to see right now.