May 25th, 1977: Star Wars premieres in theaters and takes the world by storm.
May 25th, 1979: Alien premieres in theaters and terrifies audiences senseless.
This makes May 25th just about the coolest day of the year in my book. I thought about writing something about both films for this Memorial Day weekend. But you know what? They get enough love.
Don’t get me wrong. Star Wars and Alien are great – they’re classics for a reason. But they both have their own celebration days now, for goodness’ sake. They’re good. So let’s instead talk about a few sci-fi films that could use a little love. These movies are all from the 70s and 80s. Keep in mind, these films are all products of their time. Some moments may not have aged gracefully – and I don’t just mean their special effects. Still, they’re a fun time capsule of who we were and what we thought the future might look like.
If you’re looking for something new or different to watch this Memorial Day weekend, give one of these movies a chance.
Silent Running (1972)
In the future, all plant life on Earth is dead. A few vestiges of vegetation still exist far away from Earth, in biodomes being hauled through our solar system by commercial freighters. When the powers that be decide that keeping these biodomes is an unprofitable frivolity, the freighters are recalled back into commercial service. A crewmember on one of these ships, played by Bruce Dern, fakes the destruction of his ship and sets off into deep space alone, with only the companionship of three robots, hoping to preserve the last forests known to mankind.
Anyone expecting Silent Running to deliver action and adventure may be disappointed, but it’s a solid character study and a sci-fi parable with a lot to chew on. Its environmental message has sadly only become more relevant with each passing year. Even if you haven’t heard of Silent Running, its influence is plainly visible in such movies and TV shows like Wall-E, Red Dwarf, and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Your mileage may vary with the Joan Baez songs.
The Black Hole (1979)
A personal favorite of mine, The Black Hole was a sci-fi update of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with a group of astronauts discovering a long lost ship with only one survivor… who, of course, turns out be a mad scientist. Said mad scientist (the best kind of scientist) believes he’s discovered a way to pilot his ship through a black hole, in the hopes of discovering what lies on the other side.
Viewed today, The Black Hole is a perfectly acceptable adventure made in the post-Star Wars boom, with a surprisingly deep bench of notable character actors, such as Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine. It’s most notable for being part of a library of films that Disney made in the late 70s through the mid-80s that were deliberately designed to scare the bejesus out of kids. If you haven’t seen it before, I won’t ruin what they find within the black hole-except to say that it terrified me and countless other kids senseless back in the day.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Like The Black Hole, Battle Beyond the Stars is a deliberate update of a classic story with a sci-fi coat of paint, aimed at moviegoers who needed a Star Wars fix. Produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman, Battle has no illusions of greatness. It’s a Seven Samurai-riff made on a modest budget-with an ensemble of character actors showing up for a paycheck who have enough class to make it look like they’re not there just for the paycheck.
The film works better than you might expect (and probably better than the filmmakers expected, too), thanks to a fun, quirky script by John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Lone Star) and special effects by James Cameron (who probably needs no introduction).
If you’re a fan of the Dune books, you’re probably still waiting for an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novels that does them justice. (Instead of another film adaptation, it probably needs the HBO Game of Thrones treatment.) That’s not to say this version of Dune doesn’t have anything to offer, but let’s be honest: this film is nuts.
Adapted for the screen and directed by David Lynch, this film is exactly what you would expect from the guy who made Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. The movie actually hits most of the book’s major plot points – but David Lynch spins everything into something as off-kilter and dreamlike as his own original stories. And this film pushes the then newly-created PG-13 rating to the limit. I can’t imagine going to see this movie in 1984 with a theater full of scared and confused children. Needless to say, all those tie-in coloring & activity books probably weren’t big sellers.
If you’re looking for a straight adaptation of Dune or a breezy space opera, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re looking for a David Lynch movie and all that entails, you’re gonna get it and probably enjoy the heck out of it.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
If you haven’t seen this movie, I don’t want to spoil too many of its surprises. Released a year before Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, The Last Starfighter has a very similar hook to that novel – except, of course, this is the populist Steven Spielberg-esque version of that premise, built solely to entertain.
And entertain it does. Of the movies on this list, it may hold up the best. It’s ridiculously fun and quotable. Despite being designed for mass consumption, it has a number of quirky, personal touches that give it a unique voice. I mean, it has Robert Preston recreating his classic performance as Harold Hill from The Music Man, except this Harold Hill is an alien with a car that transforms into a spaceship. What’s not to love about that?
What are you watching this Memorial Day weekend? Let us know!