Sci-Fi Fun, Sci-Fi Disturbing

Like most genres of film, Science Fiction has many sub-genres within a one all-inclusive umbrella but there’s the odd, subtextual mix of the fun and the disturbing in almost all of it.   No matter how fun it may be to watch, just under the surface or perhaps to the side of the screen, in a scene that may take up only a few seconds, something profoundly disturbing is happening.   In something as fun as Star Wars (more fantasy adventure than sci-fi, I know) an entire planet is blown up.  Millions of children, families, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, babies, animals, beloved pets, you name it, all dead.  In an instant.  In Forbidden Planet, one man’s own arrogance and desire to never leave his adopted home results in the deaths of every member of a landing colony, save himself and his daughter.   In Them!, a little girl sees her whole family killed by giant ants.  It’s a safe bet she will be deeply troubled and mentally isolated the rest of her life.   What fun!  How disturbing.

Logan's Run Ivy

I’ve written about sci-fi a lot here and elsewhere.  On the Morlocks alone I’ve already written two pieces sci-fi’s darker side, here and here, so it’s no surprise that I’m returning to it yet again as it’s a subject that interests me, but this morning, as I was looking through my DVD collection and my eyes landed upon Logan’s Run (yes, I have Logan’s Run and, yes, I enjoy it) I thought to myself, “That’s a really disturbing story.”  And then I thought of Silent Running and, hell, even Wall-e.  They all share the same conviction that the planet, at some point, became inhospitable to either human life, plant life or both.  In Logan’s Run (the movie, not the book, which is vastly different and a little more interesting and also explains a bit more) humanity lives under a dome, isolated from the environment.  Now the movie focuses on the fact that computers run everything and the population is systematically thinned by killing off anyone who reaches the age of 30 but what the movie never quite answers is why are they all living under a dome.  And when they exit, and find Washington, DC (after crossing water so I take it the dome city is located in Virginia), it’s covered in ivy and uninhabited except for an old hermit and lots of awesome cats.  Obviously, at some point, the world became so horrible that the population escaped underground and constructed domes to wait it out and then, as in Wall-e, forgot they were waiting anything out and became sedated and addled in their new existence.

Now I know what you’re thinking but I don’t find the whole “civilization has been destroyed”, ala Planet of the Apes, as disturbing as the fact that everyone has forgotten it was ever there to begin with.  That’s the really disturbing implication of Logan’s Run: We are all forgotten.  Every achievement, every mistake, every triumph, every horror, everything always and ever, forgotten.  And that old hermit is about as knowledgeable of the world around him as the cats (but not nearly as adorable) so there’s little chance of culling any history from him.  And the fact that the dimly lit dome city inhabitants seem eager to “learn” from him at the end signals dire straits indeed for the remaining years of humanity.

Silent Running

Silent Running (later used as a kind of loose inspiration for Wall-e) deals as well in disturbing themes of loss and neglect.  In that movie, domes carrying the remaining plant life of planet earth orbit Saturn, awaiting orders to one day return so that the earth may become green once again.  Leaving aside the fact that the earth could not function as a vital, living planet without plants (hey, sometimes you have to cut sci-fi some slack to make it work), the implications of the story are disturbing indeed:  Not only did we make a planet inhospitable to plant life, we eventually stopped caring.  It’s the other side of the same coin with Logan’s Run.  The horror isn’t just that it happened, it’s that, at some point, everyone stopped giving a damn.  When the astronauts manning the plant domes are given the order to jettison the domes and head back to earth, one man, botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), takes matters into his own hands to save the plants but in the end his success is questionable (one dome is saved, yes, but what it’s ultimate fate will be we will never know).

Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer, is wrapped in disturbing themes from beginning to end but, again, the main disturbance is that of loss of self.  In the case of Seconds, literally.   Unlike Logan’s Run and Silent Running, where we can at least optimistically assume that the disasters that befell humanity were gradual and neglectful, in Seconds, the loss is purposeful and immediate.  Its characters make the decision to forget the past, wipe the slate clean and start from scratch, no matter the result.  It is a much more disturbing film than Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (disturbing enough) because it is not leavened with humor but rather, presented as a stark, cold meditation on what it means to completely lose one’s uniqueness as a human being.

Seconds hospital

In the film, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) chooses to have his life erased (some poor soul is killed in his place and he undergoes reconstructive surgery) so that he may be reborn as a young man, ready to become what he always wanted to be instead of what the world told him to be.   He is transformed into Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and quickly realizes that everything he thought was tying him down and holding him back were the very things that defined him as a person and, thus, made his life worth living.   From beginning to end, it as stark and unsettling a look at what makes an individual who they are as there has ever been.

These three films (Seconds, Silent Running, Logan’s Run) all came within a ten year period and echoed the disturbing outlook of the sci-fi around them (The Terminal Man, Soylent Green) making the sixties and seventies my favorite period ever in the realm of sci-fi.  Oh, there were optimistic and adventurous sci-fi movies in that period, too, and for a while, in the eighties, it looked as though sci-fi would forever more be whimsical and fluffy.   But alien invasions and dystopian futures kept the fires burning for the type of profoundly disturbing sci-fi themes that attract me as a viewer.  The idea of a society forgotten, a planet neglected or a persona willingly thrown aside are subjects that instinctively bother us because the implications seem too horrifying to face.  And maybe we never will as long as sci-fi keeps exploring the possibilities and we keep watching.

40 Responses Sci-Fi Fun, Sci-Fi Disturbing
Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 10, 2013 2:25 pm

Seconds…i never viewed it as Sci Fi,but since the genre itself is so broad,i guess it would come off as what high-minded types call “speculative fiction”….the thing that creeps me out about it is the antiseptic atmosphere,thanks to James Wong Howe’s camera,it does however, remind me of an extended Twilight Zone episode,albeit more “adult” and fleshed out….it’s such a peculiar anomaly,i wonder if the only reason it ever got made was because Rock Hudson was attached?…that was right around the time he was making fluffy comedies with Doris Day

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 10, 2013 2:25 pm

Seconds…i never viewed it as Sci Fi,but since the genre itself is so broad,i guess it would come off as what high-minded types call “speculative fiction”….the thing that creeps me out about it is the antiseptic atmosphere,thanks to James Wong Howe’s camera,it does however, remind me of an extended Twilight Zone episode,albeit more “adult” and fleshed out….it’s such a peculiar anomaly,i wonder if the only reason it ever got made was because Rock Hudson was attached?…that was right around the time he was making fluffy comedies with Doris Day

Posted By Doug : March 10, 2013 4:21 pm

Greg,though it hasn’t ever yet been made into films, are you familiar with Cordwainer Smith’s “Instrumentality” epic sci-fi?
I would start with “Scanners Live In Vain” or “The Dead Lady of
Clown Town”. Amazing, thoughtful work.

Posted By Doug : March 10, 2013 4:21 pm

Greg,though it hasn’t ever yet been made into films, are you familiar with Cordwainer Smith’s “Instrumentality” epic sci-fi?
I would start with “Scanners Live In Vain” or “The Dead Lady of
Clown Town”. Amazing, thoughtful work.

Posted By AL : March 10, 2013 6:25 pm

JAMES WONG HOWE–When the S.F.Film Festival honored him with a wonderful Tribute I asked him to comment on his brilliant photography for SECONDS. His response? “Well, you know, John Frankenheimer and I do not speak…” He went on to explain that they clashed strongly on the “style” of the photography and how specific shots were to be done and that the director was adamant, and abusively dictatorial, demanding that Howe do as he was told. Well ‘whatever”. I respect both of these artists, but even though they quarreled vehemently, the only thing that matters is what ended up on the screen; and SECONDS is one of the most stunningly photographed B&W films of all time.

Posted By AL : March 10, 2013 6:25 pm

JAMES WONG HOWE–When the S.F.Film Festival honored him with a wonderful Tribute I asked him to comment on his brilliant photography for SECONDS. His response? “Well, you know, John Frankenheimer and I do not speak…” He went on to explain that they clashed strongly on the “style” of the photography and how specific shots were to be done and that the director was adamant, and abusively dictatorial, demanding that Howe do as he was told. Well ‘whatever”. I respect both of these artists, but even though they quarreled vehemently, the only thing that matters is what ended up on the screen; and SECONDS is one of the most stunningly photographed B&W films of all time.

Posted By Gene : March 10, 2013 7:38 pm

I was always fascinated with Seconds, in part, because of Rock Hudson. I guess he was attempting to be taken more seriously. That aside the film is indeed a visually and thematically disturbing and challenging film. It’s a shame that we have so few films today that question where we are going with so-called scientific advances. Even the most visceral films are not made to provoke but entertain. So it goes with our culture.

Posted By Gene : March 10, 2013 7:38 pm

I was always fascinated with Seconds, in part, because of Rock Hudson. I guess he was attempting to be taken more seriously. That aside the film is indeed a visually and thematically disturbing and challenging film. It’s a shame that we have so few films today that question where we are going with so-called scientific advances. Even the most visceral films are not made to provoke but entertain. So it goes with our culture.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 8:53 am

Doug, no, I am not familiar with “Instrumentality,” having only heard of it once before. I’ll now give it a look. Thanks.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 8:53 am

Doug, no, I am not familiar with “Instrumentality,” having only heard of it once before. I’ll now give it a look. Thanks.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 8:57 am

Devlin, Al, Gene: We can all agree, SECONDs is something extraordinary. When many people first see it, they don’t like it because it doesn’t have the fun or exciting feel one expects from this kind of fiction. Even TWILIGHT ZONE episodes with disturbing endings (“It’s a cookbook”) had the fun of getting that ironic twist at the end. SECONDS, on the other hand, is just bleak. A truly downbeat, bleak look into the persona of one man. That visit he makes to his wife after he’s changed is one of the most alternately chilling and depressing scenes a sci-fi film ever put on the screen. It’s just so sad, so heartbreaking. He made such a mistake, such a huge mistake and cannot bear the responsibility for it any longer.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 8:57 am

Devlin, Al, Gene: We can all agree, SECONDs is something extraordinary. When many people first see it, they don’t like it because it doesn’t have the fun or exciting feel one expects from this kind of fiction. Even TWILIGHT ZONE episodes with disturbing endings (“It’s a cookbook”) had the fun of getting that ironic twist at the end. SECONDS, on the other hand, is just bleak. A truly downbeat, bleak look into the persona of one man. That visit he makes to his wife after he’s changed is one of the most alternately chilling and depressing scenes a sci-fi film ever put on the screen. It’s just so sad, so heartbreaking. He made such a mistake, such a huge mistake and cannot bear the responsibility for it any longer.

Posted By Jennifer : March 11, 2013 11:32 am

Perhaps this is the reason some people see fit to lumping so many horror movies into the Sci-fi genre. And these days the Sci-Fi trend is killer viruses. Note to Hollywood: Viruses are not as interesting as you think.

Posted By Jennifer : March 11, 2013 11:32 am

Perhaps this is the reason some people see fit to lumping so many horror movies into the Sci-fi genre. And these days the Sci-Fi trend is killer viruses. Note to Hollywood: Viruses are not as interesting as you think.

Posted By Richard B : March 11, 2013 4:19 pm

Ah, LOGAN’S RUN: Our protagonists go through all kinds of hell escaping the domed city, and more breaking back in, but at the end everyone who lives there just walks out. Ah, SILENT RUNNING: Not only is there no plant life on earth, but our hero takes forever to realize that plants need sunlight. But focusing on such superficialities ignores the deeper themes that you point out: as in PLANET OF THE APES, one day all will be forgotten. All we are, will be or have ever been is written on water.

Rock Hudson was indeed instrumental in getting SECONDS made, and it’s a shame he was never taken more seriously as an excellent actor than he was; it’s his NIGHTMARE ALLEY. (You know who else in it was never better? Richard Anderson!) Fascinating anecdote about Howe; I guess it really is Frankenheimer’s picture.

Posted By Richard B : March 11, 2013 4:19 pm

Ah, LOGAN’S RUN: Our protagonists go through all kinds of hell escaping the domed city, and more breaking back in, but at the end everyone who lives there just walks out. Ah, SILENT RUNNING: Not only is there no plant life on earth, but our hero takes forever to realize that plants need sunlight. But focusing on such superficialities ignores the deeper themes that you point out: as in PLANET OF THE APES, one day all will be forgotten. All we are, will be or have ever been is written on water.

Rock Hudson was indeed instrumental in getting SECONDS made, and it’s a shame he was never taken more seriously as an excellent actor than he was; it’s his NIGHTMARE ALLEY. (You know who else in it was never better? Richard Anderson!) Fascinating anecdote about Howe; I guess it really is Frankenheimer’s picture.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 8:45 pm

Jennifer, horror and sci-fi definitely overlap a lot. Frankenstein is a perfect example. The reanimation of the dead is both horrific and scientifically advanced. It works both ways. The Fly is another one that use sci-fi (teleportation) and horror (a man-fly) together.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 8:45 pm

Jennifer, horror and sci-fi definitely overlap a lot. Frankenstein is a perfect example. The reanimation of the dead is both horrific and scientifically advanced. It works both ways. The Fly is another one that use sci-fi (teleportation) and horror (a man-fly) together.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 9:08 pm

Richard, oh man, LOGAN’S RUN has a lot of silliness to it but that’s one of my favorite parts. Once the buildings start blowing up, everyone just walks over to the aqueduct and you think, “Why did Logan and Jessica nearly kill themselves twice getting in and out of there when they could have just walked over to it.” I mean, apparently, there’s a large door somewhere at the edge of that dome that makes entering and exiting rather easy.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 11, 2013 9:08 pm

Richard, oh man, LOGAN’S RUN has a lot of silliness to it but that’s one of my favorite parts. Once the buildings start blowing up, everyone just walks over to the aqueduct and you think, “Why did Logan and Jessica nearly kill themselves twice getting in and out of there when they could have just walked over to it.” I mean, apparently, there’s a large door somewhere at the edge of that dome that makes entering and exiting rather easy.

Posted By Richard B : March 11, 2013 9:17 pm

Greg: “They just appear on the horizon like the Sioux nation” is how I’ve always described it.

Posted By Richard B : March 11, 2013 9:17 pm

Greg: “They just appear on the horizon like the Sioux nation” is how I’ve always described it.

Posted By robbushblog : March 11, 2013 11:47 pm

Seconds is great, and extremely disturbing. It is one of the most interesting looking black and white movies I’ve ever seen.

Silent Running was interesting for a while, but ultimately, I just didn’t care about Bruce Dern’s character or his mission. It’s been a few years since I saw it and I’m trying to remember why it lost me. The reason escapes me at the moment.

Logan’s Run is fun cheese. It’s fun cheese for all of the reasons you mentioned. It also has Farrah Fawcett and……Jenny Agutter…….sigh……

Posted By robbushblog : March 11, 2013 11:47 pm

Seconds is great, and extremely disturbing. It is one of the most interesting looking black and white movies I’ve ever seen.

Silent Running was interesting for a while, but ultimately, I just didn’t care about Bruce Dern’s character or his mission. It’s been a few years since I saw it and I’m trying to remember why it lost me. The reason escapes me at the moment.

Logan’s Run is fun cheese. It’s fun cheese for all of the reasons you mentioned. It also has Farrah Fawcett and……Jenny Agutter…….sigh……

Posted By ziggy : March 12, 2013 2:22 am

and leave us not forget Carpenter’s “They Live” (’88)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096256/

Posted By ziggy : March 12, 2013 2:22 am

and leave us not forget Carpenter’s “They Live” (’88)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096256/

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 12, 2013 9:14 am

“They just appear on the horizon like the Sioux nation”

Or the final scene of Zulu on the hilltop.

When Logan and Jessica appear after a minute or so, you wished they had enough of a sense of humor at that moment to at least have Logan look behind him and ahead again, do a double-take on the aqueduct he just almost drowned swimming through, and slap his head realizing he could have just gone over the top.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 12, 2013 9:14 am

“They just appear on the horizon like the Sioux nation”

Or the final scene of Zulu on the hilltop.

When Logan and Jessica appear after a minute or so, you wished they had enough of a sense of humor at that moment to at least have Logan look behind him and ahead again, do a double-take on the aqueduct he just almost drowned swimming through, and slap his head realizing he could have just gone over the top.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 12, 2013 9:26 am

Silent Running was interesting for a while, but ultimately, I just didn’t care about Bruce Dern’s character or his mission.

Well, he does kill three guys just trying to do their jobs which immediately makes him very unsympathetic from the get-go. I think the scenario of the movie is a good one poorly executed and written. But I do love Trumbull’s effects.

To make it more interesting, I like to imagine it as a Star Wars universe story in which the Valley Forge (renamed, maybe, the Naboo) is carrying the remnants of plant life from Coruscant until the Emperor takes over and says, “Scrap that crap now. Who needs it?”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 12, 2013 9:26 am

Silent Running was interesting for a while, but ultimately, I just didn’t care about Bruce Dern’s character or his mission.

Well, he does kill three guys just trying to do their jobs which immediately makes him very unsympathetic from the get-go. I think the scenario of the movie is a good one poorly executed and written. But I do love Trumbull’s effects.

To make it more interesting, I like to imagine it as a Star Wars universe story in which the Valley Forge (renamed, maybe, the Naboo) is carrying the remnants of plant life from Coruscant until the Emperor takes over and says, “Scrap that crap now. Who needs it?”

Posted By Richard B : March 12, 2013 1:18 pm

And I haven’t even mentioned having been to the Fort Worth Water Gardens where that part of “Logan’s Run” was filmed, so there went my suspension of disbelief…

Posted By Richard B : March 12, 2013 1:18 pm

And I haven’t even mentioned having been to the Fort Worth Water Gardens where that part of “Logan’s Run” was filmed, so there went my suspension of disbelief…

Posted By AL : March 12, 2013 5:36 pm

Ziggy–Thank you for mentioning THEY LIVE! It’s one of my Favorites–and one of the most underrated.

Posted By AL : March 12, 2013 5:36 pm

Ziggy–Thank you for mentioning THEY LIVE! It’s one of my Favorites–and one of the most underrated.

Posted By swac44 : March 21, 2013 1:42 pm

Call me crazy, but I think Peter Ustinov is completely adorable in Logan’s Run. A lot more than a bunch of furry bird killers.

Posted By swac44 : March 21, 2013 1:42 pm

Call me crazy, but I think Peter Ustinov is completely adorable in Logan’s Run. A lot more than a bunch of furry bird killers.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 21, 2013 8:21 pm

I like Peter Ustinov in anything but cats are pretty much the highlight of the movie for me. And Box, of course. I mean, he is overwhelming and all.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 21, 2013 8:21 pm

I like Peter Ustinov in anything but cats are pretty much the highlight of the movie for me. And Box, of course. I mean, he is overwhelming and all.

Posted By robbushblog : March 21, 2013 8:40 pm

I like kitties and all, but Jenny Agutter was the highlight. Secondary to her was seeing a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett in all her blond, toothy glory. Not naked of course, but very cute.

Posted By robbushblog : March 21, 2013 8:40 pm

I like kitties and all, but Jenny Agutter was the highlight. Secondary to her was seeing a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett in all her blond, toothy glory. Not naked of course, but very cute.

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