Cinesphere: 70s Sci-fi Worth Repeat Viewing

There are movies that are guilty pleasures. That’s not what I’m talking about. There are movies that are “so bad, they’re good.” I’m not talking about that either. And I’m certainly not talking about movies you could honestly consider “good” in the same way you think of CITIZEN KANE or SEVENTH SEAL as good. What I’m talking about are movies that are extremely flawed and don’t quite work as movies. Yet, there is something unique and interesting about them which makes them truly compelling. The sort of movie that I will watch over and over again while my Criterion DVD Collection of the greatest cinema of all time gathers dust.

ROLLERBALL. God, I love ROLLERBALL. I could make an, almost convincing, argument how this is a “good” movie, in the objective sense. But even I don’t fully believe it. I do think it’s a whole lot better than people give it credit for. For those of you who don’t know this movie, it’s about an…Oh, God. I just realized some people out there might be thinking of that “other” ROLLERBALL made in 2002. No, no, no, no, no. NO!

I’m talking about the real one. The one directed by Norman Jewison in 1975. The one with James Caan in his finest role, ever. Yes, yes, I know he was good in THE GODFATHER and as the doomed degenerate in James Toback’s THE GAMBLER. But he has never been more convincing, or iconic, than as the super-star athlete, Johnathan E, in the world’s most violent, most popular, sport, Rollerball.

The story is a little muddled but, basically, it’s set in a bleak, dystopian future. The year 2018. The world is controlled, not by nations, but by mega-corporations that need to keep the populace entertained while they exploit them. A “sport” is created that is so violent, people are regularly injured and sometimes even die. Think of the NFL on..No, just think of the NFL.

Actually, Rollerball is more like the NFL plus roller derby, motorcycles and, very cool looking, spiked, leather gloves. And it’s fun as hell to watch the games in the movie. Sure, the film is a little racist, misogynistic, and doesn’t make total sense. But who cares? That moment when Caan is out on the rink at the end of the game, with no rules, and no time limit, and the crowd starts cheering “Johnathan!” “Johnathan!” “Johnathan!” Then it goes to the freeze-frame set to that organ music, Bach’s Fugue in D Minor…I just got chills even writing about it. So good.

OMEGA MAN. Ok, I would never try to convince you this is a “good” movie. It’s just not. But it’s a perfect example of what I am talking about. There have been three movies based on the book, I AM LEGEND, written by Richard Matheson in 1954. It’s basically a zombie story where one, lonely, man tries to hang on.

One film is the 2007, Will Smith, version. It’s just bad. Not ROLLERBALL remake, travesty to all mankind, kind of bad. Just totally forgettable in that big, bland, glossy way Hollywood does so well.

Then, there is a version made in 1964, staring Vincent Price. I consider this one a truly underappreciated “almost good” movie. Shot in Rome and featuring some very cool-looking fascist architecture, it captures the spirit of the book well. The biggest problem with it is Vincent Price. It’s just hard to take him seriously, no matter what he does.

Finally, there is OMEGA MAN. Made in 1971 and staring Charlton Heston. OMEGA MAN is not bad in the same way the Will Smith version is bad. And it’s definitely not “good” in any objective sense. But it’s still kind of amazing. And the reason for that is one thing. It was shot in downtown Los Angeles when it looked like the zombie apocalypse had already come and gone a few times over.

It’s hard to imagine that crowded and lively Spring Street, in downtown Los Angeles, was once deserted and empty of all but the most desperate and derelict. That the very same parts of Broadway, where the super-hip Ace Hotel and neighboring high-fashion clothing stores currently are, could seem so frightening. But it was. Lots of downtown areas were like that. It was all about life in the suburbs. Riots had happened. White people had fled. Downtown areas were where “they” lived. Places to avoid if possible, especially after the sun went down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to sell OMEGA MAN as some brilliant social commentary about poverty and urban planning. But that stuff IS in there. Just by showing L.A. for what it used to be, it reminds us that we don’t need post-apocalyptic zombies to make urban areas look like plague zones.

And then there’s SOYLENT GREEN. It was made in 1973 and directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer is a story in himself. He directed big budget, star vehicles for several decades. Most of which are totally forgettable. However, he did make some solid film noir stuff before that (the original) NARROW MARGIN, the WWII flick, TORA!, TORA!, TORA!, and, most notably, the original DR. DOLITTLE with Rex Harrison. The man was basically the Sidney Pollack of his day.

The story of SOYLENT GREEN is still incredibly relevant. It’s about over-population and global warming. And the nasty effects thereof. Heston plays a New York cop. He and his old-guy cop friend, Sol, played by Edward G.Robinson, investigate the murder of one of the controlling elite. The investigation shows them a world of privilege where clean water, good food, and luxury housing are still available to those with means, as the rest of the population faces slow death and starvation. The elite get nervous as their food source to keep the commoners happy, plankton, starts to die off in the oceans. The solution is “Soylent Green.” Which, as it happens, is made out of human beings.

Actually, my biggest problem with the movie is the end when Heston is yelling “It’s people! Soylent Green is people!” It’s suppose to be this big, shocking, reveal. Hell, if I were starving to death and they told me I could eat sterilized, well-seasoned, and flavorful chips made out of other people, I wouldn’t really have a problem with it. But maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, there are a couple of other memorable things about SOYLENT GREEN. There’s the “furniture,” which is what they call the live-in sex slaves of the elite. I’ll leave it to you what to make of that. There’s the scene where Edward G. Robinson voluntarily goes to the government-sponsored euthanasia center. He dies as he listens to classical music and looks at a video screen filled with images of a green, growing, and healthy planet earth. A scene which has taken on new meaning to me now that I’ve learned that Robinson actually WAS dying when he filmed it. Cancer killed him just twelve days after the movie wrapped. And, of course, there’s the great crowd control scene where huge trucks use bulldozer attachments to scoop people up like trash. Oh, if only I could make that happen on the busy sidewalks of my neighborhood! Perchance to dream.

So, there you have it: ROLLERBALL, OMEGA MAN, and SOYLENT GREEN. Three movies that don’t usually make the “best of” lists but are still great on their own terms. Three movies you should watch over and over again. And again after that. Before you know it, you might even be hearing Bach in your head and chanting “Johnathan!” “Johnathan!” “Johnathan!” without even realizing it.

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