Written by Merle Rasmussen
Planet of the Apes (1968)
I was hooked when astronauts discover a single plant on an otherwise desert planet and comment that, “unless biology works differently here, where there is one there must be more.” The idea of gorillas on horseback hunting humans took me totally by surprise. I was stunned when the gorillas posed for a photograph with their foot atop a pile of dead human trophies. The killed and captured humans were considered vermin eating corn planted by apes.
Apes can speak but humans are mute. A throat injury renders one astronaut speechless. A catatonic astronaut is speechless due to a lobotomy performed by apes. Apes try to conceal the fact that humans could once speak. The last scene is seared into my memory as a warning of what could happen if we human beings destroy our planet.
I was surprised to discover the screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. My mother and older sister protected me from frightening ugly faces that occasionally appeared on Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
I was eleven years old when this 142-minute movie was released. The hominids did not interest me much. Then a bone is tossed into the white sky and transforms into a space vehicle floating in the starry blackness of Outer Space. A spaceplane travels to dock in the hub of a double space wheel under construction in orbit above Earth. There are extensive instructions on how to operate the space toilet. The technological surprises keep coming with a moon base and a mysterious excavated monolith. When the monolith emits a deafening electronic pulse, the space suited astronauts instinctively raise their gloved hands to their ears although blocked by their space helmets. Who thinks up this detail?
Next, we see a spacecraft on its way to Jupiter. Inside the front globe of the spacecraft is a spinning centrifuge providing artificial gravity to the crew, some of whom are in suspended animation. The spaceship is run by an intelligent computer with which the astronauts converse. Then the problems begin and we find out the astronauts do not trust their intelligent computer. We also find out the intelligent computer can read lips. Did it learn to do this by itself?
The intelligent computer begins killing the crew. We learn that a determined astronaut can survive Outer Space to enter an airlock without wearing a helmet. Even an explosion in the vacuum of space is silent until there is enough atmosphere to transmit sound. Did I mention this was highly believable?
Twenty minutes of psychedelic special effects were lost on me as was most of the rest of the movie. However, I read the book and better understood what was going on. The book taught me that general astronautics could be valuable and that astronauts could instantaneously switch from conversational English to techno-speech when needed.
The technology in the film accurately predicted everyday gadgets we have now. The author, Arthur C. Clarke, worked on satellite technology linking everyone on Earth by telephone. The one detail he predicted incorrectly was that worldwide cell phone use would be free.
Logan’s Run (1976)
Again, a story with advanced technology and a computer that runs everything. Technology includes a life clock crystal imbedded in the palm of your hand. Technology provides everything you need to enjoy a utopian life, until you turn 30. Then technology causes flameout, the ultimate thrill that ends your life on Lastday. If you become a Runner, you are tracked down by an armed Sandman. A Stickman riding a floating platform dissolves the body of dead Runners. A transporter-like device allows people to be physically dialed up. Faces can be surgically altered while you wait. Some insane cyborg freezes animals for human consumption. Scenes in the book are kinkier, but I prefer the film.
Star Wars (1977)
The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, was notable for its use of Technicolor, fantasy storytelling, musical score, and memorable characters. It has become an icon of American popular culture. Flash forward 38 years and we have Star Wars, notable for its use of leading edge cinematic technology, fantasy storytelling, and memorable characters. It has become an icon of American popular culture without the musical score.
“Episode V” confused me and the audience but I read every word of the “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” opening text. Pan to a spacecraft involved in a laser battle with “something.” Then “something” enters the top of the screen and keeps expanding as it comes into full view. Should I duck? We realize it is a vast second spacecraft in pursuit. How massive is this thing?
My eyes were glued to the screen like a tractor beam to a ship hauled aboard the dreadnought. Then an armed group of skeleton white figures stands aside as a dark invader comes through the smoke. I cannot stop watching the unfolding plot.
A princess with a mission, a translating android, a multi-function robot, a farm boy with a destiny, a pirate with a price on his head, a “walking carpet” co-pilot, a robed mystic, and aliens drinking in a cantina, are all thrown together in a space opera. Animals include shaggy elephantine beasts of burden, hairy two-legged cold-weather mounts, and a tentacled garbage disposal. Drones with self-destruct mechanisms, tracked sand crawlers, retaining bolts, floating skimmers, holographic chessboards, a room-sized trash compactor, and blasters all used as everyday objects. Everything has a used appearance including a spacecraft that needs a good pounding with a clenched fist to turn on the interior lights.
Details easily allow the suspension of disbelief. There is so much to see and hear that I, and millions of other moviegoers, had to see it again.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This mystery takes place on present-day Earth. There is the re-appearance of lost aircraft without crewmembers. A lost ship appears in the middle of a desert. There are unexplained lights in the sky—spooky, nighttime UFO sightings. There are activated inanimate objects… or is it wash from a helicopter shaking that road sign? There are nighttime radiation burns. There is a child abduction. There is a distracting reference to Bigfoot.
Ordinary people are compelled to draw and sculpt something they have never seen. Then it becomes a race to a forbidden place and an attempt to avoid being stopped by a government coverup. This time the humans attempt to communicate with aliens using lights and a MOOG Synthesizer. I enjoyed this romp across America so much I had to visit Wyoming to see where this close encounter occurs.
A former Marine and I went to see this movie together. We were 22-year-old single guys. Unexpectedly, we spent two hours on the edge of our seats. It was the scariest sci-fi movie I can recall.
The human spacecraft was believably heavy. A discovered planet’s atmosphere was primordial. A discovered spacecraft contained a dead crewmember. Because of the size of its skull and breathing apparatus, I thought it was elephantine. Large eggs had been laid inside the discovered spacecraft.
A quickly metamorphizing alien was scary and dangerous. It sprang from its egg and became a face hugging parasite. It had molecular acid for blood that instantaneously melted through metal decking. Its second instar was toothy and fleet of foot. The crew started being slaughtered by an eyeless alien. An android with a secret mission had clandestinely infiltrated the crew. We had no idea what would happen next and wondered if anything or anyone could stop this dark and ceiling-clinging alien.
I abhor horror films. This film was so frightening I decided to never see its sequels, prequels, or crossover productions.
Blade Runner (1982)
My new wife did not like this film. She summed up her dislike with, “it was so dark and rainy.” I try to explain that it was meant to be this way.
Gigantic structures house corporations. The streets teem with people of all ethnicities, a food cart, and base entertainment. Advertising includes blimps with searchlights and multistory projection.
This congested future city is the setting for an assassin with a flying car assigned to find and terminate four escaped replicants. Replicants are biologically engineered beings physically superior to humans but lacking empathy. They have returned to Earth seeking their manufacturer in hope of lengthening their lives. One reminiscences about seeing, “ships on fire off Antares.”
The assassin can use a retinal scanner and a series of questions to determine if a suspect is a human or a replicant. We see a genetically engineered owl and talking toy soldier androids treated as pets. Replicant eyes are manufactured. At one point the assassin finds a snake scale. When magnified, the scale shows a serial number bioengineered into each cell. The assassin encounters a woman who might be human or a new model of empathetic replicant.
The movie Blade Runner is based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a novel by Philip K. Dick.