20 Forgotten Sci-Fi Films From The 1970s: 'THX-1138,' 'Zardoz' And More
By Sarah Norman | October 5, 2023
The 1970s Were A Bleak Era In Science Fiction
After the independent film revolution of the late ‘60s, it was easier than ever to film a movie and find distribution. Coupled with advances in special effects technology, the brave new world of moviemaking was ready for science fiction. There’s a glut of amazing science fiction from the 1970s, but some of the best films are those that went unnoticed when they were initially released to theaters.
If you’ve seen these forgotten sci-fi films of the 1970s then you’re one of the few movie buffs who know about esoteric science fiction outside of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Keep in mind, it’s not that those aren’t great films, they’re just the first thing people think of with science fiction in the ‘70s. These movies are insane weird, and while they might not be for everyone, they’re some of the coolest and most groundbreaking movies of the decade.
The people at Woodstock were warned not to take the brown acid, but no one said anything about “blue sunshine.” A hidden gem from 1977, Blue Sunshine is part political thriller, part say no to drugs campaign and all psychotic. The film follows a group of people who lose their minds (and their hair) a decade after taking acid called “blue sunshine.”
In the film, things get weird when people lose their hair - literally going completely bald - before turning into raging psychopaths within minutes. At the time the film received middling reviews, but in the decades since its release, it's taken on a cult following.
Before he made what we like to call around these parts the most popular science fiction film series of all time, George Lucas directed the ultra-intense, dystopian science fiction film THX-1138. The movie tells the story of a government-controlled society where citizens have no autonomy, no emotions, and no hair.
The film stars Robert Duvall as THX 1138, a citizen who develops feelings in a monotonous world. The film was under-appreciated upon release, but it showed that Lucas could put images and sound together well enough to make a talkie, so he had a few more chances before making a film about a particular set of wars in the stars. You won’t find any of the levity of Star Wars in THX-1138. The film is a dark, stylish mood piece that offers no hope in this galaxy, let alone one that’s far, far away.
Death Race 2000
On April 27, 1975, the world was gifted with one of the greatest works of satire known to man. Directed by Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), the film shows a world that’s tipped into totalitarianism. Rather than focus on making the world a better place the citizens of Earth spend their time watching violent TV, culminating in the “Death Race,” a televised, cross country race that’s like the Way Out Wacky Races but with 10 times the death and destruction.
What the film lacks in production value it more than makes up for in humor and action. David Carradine stars as a half-man, half-machine (sort of) named Frankenstein who’s the best at what he does, which happens to be winning Trans-Continental races while killing people.
As kitschy as the film is, it holds up extremely well. It’s fast-paced, campy, and the conceit of the film is like The Hunger Games if it didn’t take itself too seriously.
Before he made one of the biggest independent movies of all time John Carpenter directed a little known movie called Dark Star. While his first film doesn’t provide the same narrative satisfaction as Halloween or Escape From New York, but it’s still a must-watch film for fans of Carpenter, or science fiction fans in general.
The film is about the apathetic crew of the Dark Star as they slowly lose their minds over the course of a long trip through space. If you like dark humor in your science fiction then Dark Star will scratch that itch - and it might drive you a little crazy.
Anyone who's ever been worried about having children will immediately fall in line with the existential dread of David Cronenberg’s The Brood. This film from 1979 presents the idea of a psychologist who is able to manifest patients' inner emotions into physical beings. This being a Cronenberg film, the inner beings are obviously not little cuties. Instead, they’re horribly violent creatures that try to kill whatever’s making the patient upset.
The Brood is bonkers, but it’s not necessarily a fun watch, so don’t pull this up when you’re trying to Netflix and chill. This is more of an OMG have you seen this movie kind of flick.
Sean Connery in a cloth diaper, what else do you need to know about this mind warp of a movie? Few science fiction films from the ‘70s lean as far into weirdness as this movie, especially with a star who played a little character named James Bond. Upon its release viewers and critics alike were confused to no end by this movie.
It’s not easy to summarize, but Zardoz is about a guy named Zed (Connery) who lives in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth is sort of ruled or maybe just watched by an advanced, immortal race called the Eternals. Zed, a brute, finds his way into the Eternals camp and learns the truth about his gun spewing concrete god Zardoz.
A Boy And His Dog
Based on the Harlan Ellison novella, A Boy And His Dog offers a realistic look at and end of the world, nuclear scenario. If nihilism is what you’re in the mood for then this movie delivers it by the pound. This little known science fiction film stars Don Johnson as Vic, a young man who roams an apocalyptic wasteland with his psychic dog.
As Vic discovers an underground world of crazies who want him to help repopulate their society he learns that life is hell regardless of where he is. It’s no wonder audiences didn’t flock to the box office for this downer of a film.
The Man Who Fell To Earth
Come for David Bowie’s cinematic debut, stay for the overwhelming weirdness of watching him drink bottle after bottle of milk. The Man Who Fell To Earth is a kind of science fiction romance film that’s also a character study of the entire human race. Out of all the films discussed here, this is likely the one people know the most about - thanks to the fact that it features the Starman.
The film focuses on Bowie’s alien character attempting to bring water back to his planet, something that he immediately fails to do when he falls prey to all of the pleasures of Earth. The film is visually amazing, and it has a very ‘70s style of filmmaking which is to say that’s it can be a huge downer if you’re in a bad mood.
The Incredible Melting Man
Does The Incredible Melting Man provide the nihilistic catharsis of The Man Who Fell To Earth or the over the top camp of Death Race 2000? No on both fronts. While this “glop movie” isn’t going to win any retroactive Academy Awards, it is one of the most fun movies from the ‘70s. It’s a classic late night movie that’s perfect for watching with a room full of friends.
Most people who’ve seen this full-on psycho-ward of a movie has probably watched it on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it’s worth checking out sans commentary just to say you’ve seen this low budget, very gross movie.
The starkly beautiful Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is often mentioned in the same breath as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but aside from being a visually stunning, lengthy film it couldn’t be more different from Kubrick’s flick. Don’t be afraid of the nearly 3-hour run time - likely what kept English audiences away - it’s worth sitting through to watch the story of grief and loss play out.
There’s something in this film for everyone, whether you prefer mind-blowing visuals or a good story it’s here. After finishing this film you’ll want to take a break to figure out what it really means to be human.
This ain’t your daddy’s Westworld. Well, depending on how old you are this might be your daddy’s Westworld. Released in 1973, this Michael Crichton joint takes the audience on a trip to an android filled world where guests are offered the chance to fight and have sex with anyone they want with no repercussions.
The show picks up its early ideas from the film, but Westworld ’73 is unique to itself. It stars Yul Brynner as a robe-cowboy who stalks the film’s heroes in a kind of commentary on his previous work from The Magnificent Seven and Invitation to a Gunfighter. Aside from the cool robot stuff in the movie, it’s a well-paced film that grabs audiences and pulls them through a theme park ride of a movie. Imagine a film that was just the first part of Logan’s Run without that snooze of a back half, doesn’t that sound great?
Today we know David Cronenberg as the master of body horror, but in 1975 he was still trying to gain momentum as a director. With Shivers, Cronenberg created a vibe that would last throughout the 1980s. This gross (and great) little movie follows a group of apartment dwellers who fall prey to a vicious worm creature that turns everyone into maniacal, randy zombie-like creatures.
Looking back on the film, Cronenberg is disappointed in the cheap look of the creatures. On the film's commentary he explained:
Unlike George Lucas I had no desire to go back and correct it with modern technology. Let it live in the time that it existed with all the flaws. That’s where it belongs.
This is definitely a movie to check out this spooky season, just don't eat dinner beforehand.
George A. Romero is known for his dynamic and horrifying Living Dead series, but in 1973, The Crazies gave audiences an equally terrifying vision of the present. Imagine a world where a small town was infected with a military rare biological weapon that turns them into crazy people.
Much like the Living Dead films, The Crazies posits a worse case scenario for something that could actually happen. Like many science fiction films from the era, The Crazies is a total bummer but it's definitely worth your time.
In 1978's Laserblast a blonde teen with literally no screen presence finds an alien weapon that doubles as a kitschy necklace in the middle of the desert. He immediately uses the weapon to blaze a path of destruction that turns him into a half man half alien creature. It's a genuinely weird movie that has clear pacing issues, but there's a nihilistic thrust to the film that's undeniably watchable. Even though the execution isn't exactly Star Wars, the idea the a total dirt bag would be the person to make alien contact on Earth is kind of fun in a horrifying way.
Who would we be if we didn't clue you into Starcrash, an Italian Star Wars ripoff that's 100% worth your time if you like the idea of watching David Hasselhoff and Caroline Munro save the universe from someone named Count Zarth Arn. The fascinating thing about this movie is that it's so specific to the era. Released about a year after the success of Star Wars, Starcrash is a clear cash-in on the success of George Lucas and that's what makes it such an enjoyable, albeit forgotten, film.
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes
It would be easy to include every movie that followed the Planet of the Apes in the 1970s, but it's better to just ease you into Beneath the Planet of the Apes and leave the rest up to. This sequel is absolutely unhinged. The film begins as a beat for beat remake of the original film (time warp, future Earth full of talking apes, escaped astronaut, etc), but then the movie goes off the rails.
Charlton Heston shows up as a prisoner of a cult of mutated humans who worship an atomic bomb before a full on ape-human war breaks out. The film ends on a huge downer, fitting it directly into the trope of '70s science fiction films where the credits roll and no one is happy.
The movie is undeniably goofy, but everyone in it plays the action and dialogue straight as an arrow. It's as if they think they're performing Shakespeare, but it's one of Shakespeare's lost plays about a future civilization about talking apes.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is easily one of the best remakes ever made. This late '70s update of the McCarthy-era classic brings the paranoia to the big city where a group of friends discover alien invaders who are taking over the bodies and minds of everyone around them, changing them ever so subtly. The film was a huge hit in the '70s, but thanks to time and a less successful remake audiences have forgotten about this sci-fi gem. Director Philip Kaufman believes that the reason his version of the story works so well is because he didn't treat the film like a remake. He told The Hollywood Reporter:
I thought, ‘Well this doesn’t have to be a remake as such. It can be a new envisioning that was a variation on a theme.' The allegory metaphor was moving it first of all into color, and second of all with a contemporary cast, and thirdly trying to give the characters a depth of characterization in the way that the original didn’t. The last thing was moving it to a big city. By the time we were making the film, paranoia had certainly gravitated to the big cities where it probably lurks now more than ever.
Not to be nosey, but if you build a theme park full of robots whose programming goes off the rails and they start killing people then it might be time to trash the project. This 1976 sequel to Westworld stars Peter Fonda and Blythe Donner as investigative reporters attempting to uncover the secrets of the Delos Corporation.
Aside from the fact that the Delos Corporation really wants to make a bunch of money with their robots, they're also in the business of making robot clones of political and military figures. This movie is a little more fun, a little campier, and it has a samurai robot. What more could you want?
Folks, forget about Squid Game. Rollerball is the dystopian science fiction film that deserves your obsession. Set in a future where corporations control everything and the wealthy destroy everything around them for the heck of it (so definitely not in a parallel time to ours at all), this movie posits a world where audiences need hyper violent entertainment to keep them glued to their sets. Starring James Caan, Rollerball has a similar vibe to Death Race 2000 crossed with ABC's Wide World of Sports. Throw this on with friends, pick your favorite team, and scream your head off.