The wonderful thing about the DVD revolution is the way that it makes it possible for just about anyone to become a film student. Videotapes began the process, of course, but their limitations meant that the really nice versions of a lot of movies were only available to someone who was willing to shell out the big bucks for a laserdisc player (and the expensive discs it played.) Once DVDs really caught on, though, science-fiction fans like myself could take an informative, exhaustive, and above all cheap trip through the history of the genre.
All of which is by way of introduction to my decision, some years back, to sit down and watch The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, and Soylent Green. I figured I might learn something about my sci-fi geek ancestors by watching what I thought of as an informal, accidental trilogy. All three of them had come out on DVD, and all three of them had come out in very reasonably-priced versions. And most importantly, all three of them had become, in their own way, pop-cultural touchstones. I didn’t know exactly why I grouped them together in my head beyond that, but I figured it would come to me as I watched them.
It actually didn’t. Perhaps it was because the project took a little longer than planned; I watched Logan’s Run in 2002, but I didn’t get around to watching The Omega Man and Soylent Green until about four years later. (In my defense, in the intervening time I bought a house, wrote a couple of books and some short stories, and watched lots of other movies. Oh, and I started a blog.) Even after I’d finally watched all three, though, the connection never gelled in my mind. I knew it was there; I was sure I was right to see them as somehow linked. But it still didn’t click as to why.
Until recently, when I read about another movie that came out not long afterwards. It’s a little cult film from a director that only did a handful of movies, a sort of avant-garde sci-fi flick that tried to graft the techniques of cinema verité into a new genre. You might have heard of it, though. It’s called Star Wars.
(pause for laughter)
(pause some more for laughter)
No? Not even a little? OK, I’ll move on. The point is, Star Wars came out only a couple of years after Logan’s Run, but the two of them look like they’re from different decades. Logan’s Run is a very technically polished science fiction film, with effects that no doubt dazzled contemporary audiences, but it’s still one of the last pre-Star Wars films, whereas Star Wars is the first post-Star Wars film. (Yes, Star Wars is a post-Star Wars film. I’ll explain.)
All three of the films in my informal trilogy share that same elusive element, that quality that changed in the watershed moment when Star Wars transformed science-fiction cinema for better and/or worse. They’re better, simply in terms of production quality, than 50s sci-fi movies like The Thing, It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers…but you can see a continuum of evolution between those movies and Soylent Green, whereas something like Transformers doesn’t even look like it came from the same breeding stock. It looks more like a descendant of Star Wars…OK, a brain-damaged, atrophied descendant, but a descendant nonetheless.
I think the key is Lucas’ decision, with Star Wars, to create an immersive environment. People talk about the special effects of Star Wars as though that was the film’s great breakthrough, but it really didn’t make that many advances beyond what was already possible. (Which is not to denigrate the advances it did make–motion control cameras allowed for fluid, realistic shots of space battles that were essential to the director’s vision.) But the real change was the extra care that was taken in crafting the models, the costumes, the sets and the locations. Lucas wanted you to feel like he was shooting a documentary, not a science-fiction movie.
Previous science-fiction effects artists weren’t lazy when they didn’t take that same amount of care–they were just thinking about the effects in a different way. To them, the science-fiction genre was the genre of ideas; everything was an allegory, a representation of existing concepts. Logan’s Run was about the generation gap. Soylent Green was about overpopulation and pollution. The Omega Man was about nuclear war. Likewise, the effects were representational instead of realistic. Prior to Lucas, science-fiction was the cinema of ideas.
Actually, Star Wars is an allegory too. It’s a movie made by a cynical veteran of the 60s, with the Empire as a stand-in for a pre-Watergate Nixon administration that seemed (at the time) to be about one bad week away from dissolving Congress and declaring martial law. The only solution, according to Lucas’ actually pretty radical and highly politically-charged script, is for armed rebellion against the tyrannical government, aided by all the other races that the Powers That Be ruthlessly oppress. (Early drafts of the script contained sequences that later trickled into Return of the Jedi. The highly trained, professional soldiers with all the cool technology getting their asses kicked by natives with pointy sticks and stolen guns? Gee, what war was going on right around then?)
The problem is, Lucas made the film so immersive that nobody noticed the allegory, and the effects so beautiful that everyone judged all subsequent films by the standards he set. From now on, an important aspect of all science-fiction movies would be, “Are the effects realistic?” The cinema of ideas was replaced, in that instant, by the cinema of visceral experience. Sci-fi became all about making you feel as if you were there, recreating the documentary feel of Star Wars instead of the philosophy of it. A post-Star Wars movie was one you lived, not thought about. (Which is why, despite having intended to make a pre-Star Wars movie, Lucas made a post-Star Wars movie in the eyes of everyone who saw it. See? Makes sense now, right?)
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every science-fiction movie made before Star Wars was a deep, insightful allegory, any more than it means that every post-Star Wars film was a brain-dead piece of eye-candy. Writers and directors still have things to say in their art, and that’s a constant in any time and any genre. But the emphasis shifted with Star Wars…and by watching Logan’s Run, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green, you can see some of the most advanced examples of films made before that watershed moment, the apex of the cinema of ideas.
And, um…if you haven’t seen them, please don’t read the comments section. Because someone’s going to spoil the ending of Soylent Green, I guarantee it.