Star Wars and SF cinema: Where would the genre have gone without it?

You think Star Wars ruined the possibility for “legitimate science fiction” to appear on the big screen? Darren Slade suggests that you think again.

Early line to see Star Wars at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

There’s an oft-repeated view of 1970s cinema that goes like this: First, lots of talented new directors were given unprecedented freedom which resulted in a breath-taking array of fresh and challenging films. Then Jaws and Star Wars came along and the era of intelligent grown-up cinema was dead.

I’ve never been entirely fine with this analysis, most successfully expounded in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. For one thing, I don’t believe that the early 1970s era was quite as golden as some like to make out, and I think there were plenty of signs that it was burning itself out anyway.

But what about genre cinema? The success of Star Wars led to SF and fantasy films dominating the industry. But what would have happened to the genre without it?

I recently read Chris Taylor’s book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. It’s an excellent account of the cultural impact of George Lucas’s franchise. It also reminds the reader that Lucas was not alone in trying to get SF films made in mid-1970s Hollywood.

Taylor lists a few examples. Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins had written Home Free, sometimes called  Star Dancing, about an Earth space mission which makes first contact with alien life. At around the same time, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky came close to making a big budget film of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Martin Scorsese, it was reported, had optioned some Philip K Dick stories, while Brian De Palma wanted to film Alfred Bester’s novel The Demolished Man. George Lucas’s friend Edward Summer recalls being involved in three attempts to film another Bester novel, The Stars My Destination.

All these projects – doubtless influenced by the way 2001: A Space Odyssey had broadened the horizon for SF on film  –  sound fascinating. It’s tempting to speculate about the paths  genre cinema might have taken had any of them been made. But these films have one obvious thing in common: They weren’t made. Not before Star Wars and not after.

Silent Running

Any hopes for “serious” SF taking hold at the time rested on a pretty small number of examples, chiefly Silent Running (1972), which probably only counts if you take “serious” to mean “gloomy”; and a handful of literary adaptations: Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) Soylent Green (1973) and A Boy and His Dog (1975).

Meanwhile, the SF and fantasy films that attracted the big budgets and the media attention were anything but serious. Chief among them was probably Logan’s Run (1976), surely one of the lightest dystopian visions on film, but we also had two campy throwbacks to the 1930s: the pulp magazine adaptation Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975) and a remake of King Kong (1976).

And when it came to seriously big budgets, there were two very generously-financed films in development whose origins were distinctly pulpy: Superman, which had been gestating since 1974 and was of course based on a property of the 1930s; and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which took UFO movies of the 1950s and gave them a benign twist for the 1970s.

Many people have bemoaned the way genre cinema developed after Star Wars, and not without reason. For many years afterwards, SF meant only space opera, or westerns with special effects. There were quite a few entertaining movies in that vein, but even the most indulgent viewer could sense the full potential of the genre was hardly being explored.

Roy Batty ponders the nature of existence at the end of Blade Runner.

There were exceptions, of course. Alien (1979) took filmed SF in a scarier direction. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) may have been ponderous but it attempted to be more 2001 than Star Wars. Altered States  (1980)  was something pretty unique in genre cinema. And we finally had a Philip K Dick adaptation in Blade Runner (1982), as well as a film of Dune (1984), from David Lynch rather than Jodorowsky.

There were perhaps a handful of SF movies that attempted to take the genre in surprising directions in the years immediately after Star Wars. But there had been only a handful in the years immediately before it.

Star Wars may have drastically changed the film business, but it’s surely unfair to conclude that it made it harder to get “authentic” SF filmed. In that respect  – odd as it may sound – Star Wars may have made almost no difference.


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