On this week’s post, I’m covering some sci-fi movies. One is what we would call hard sci-fi, which really tries to imagine a future and put us in that world, the other may or may not be sci-fi depending on your definition, but it’s much more grounded in the real world. Regardless, both are pretty well-known films, and I’m going in fresh, so let’s do it. This week’s films are:
Michael Anderson – Logan’s Run (1976)
Peter Hyams – Capricorn One (1977)
These films both exist in a very specific time, which I’ll call “Pre-Star Wars”. Of course, Star Wars was a major event in the history of film. It changed the entire industry drastically(along with Jaws), but it also changed special effects, and how sci-fi could be represented on film. Say what you will about George Lucas and some of his later films, but he essentially re-wrote the rules of an entire genre.
I say that to say that these films feel strange to a modern eye. But we can discuss that more as we go. Let’s get into it.
Logan’s Run (1976)
In a future world, humans all live in a giant dome city, and are cloned rather than born. Their lives are ruled by computers, and it appears to be a paradise. Humans can spend their entire lives doing whatever they like. The city population is carefully managed and at age 30, humans are killed, being given a chance to ‘renew’, at a ceremony called Caroussel. But some people don’t trust the system, and when their time comes, they run. A police force, the Sandmen are tasked with chasing down these runners. However, on Sandman, Logan, is told by the computer that he should go undercover as a runner, to find how they’re getting out of the city to go to a place called Sanctuary. Logan enlists the help of Jessica, who he believes is part of the movement. What will he discover as he goes down the rabbit hole?
The film is directed by Michael Anderson, who had a long career as a director, but didn’t direct a lot of memorable films. It stars Michael York and Jenny Agutter, who both had good careers and are still working regularly today.
The film is mostly remembered today for how mockable it is. There have been various parodies of the film in other popular media, like the TV show Community. And it is easily mockable. The dialogue is filled to the brim with strange jargon for all sorts of things. The film also does a really bad job of letting us ease our way into the world. We’re basically thrown into the deep end, and there’s no outside character to help the audience understand what anything means. It took me about 30 minutes before I really got how everything in the world fit together.
For example, early in the film, we’re introduced to the ritual of Caroussel, where people at the end of their lives can attempt to ‘renew’, which theoretically allows them to be reborn. We watch 15-20 people in robes walk in and stand on a circular platform. They take off their robes to reveal red and white jumpsuits with masks. The platform is surrounded by a force field, and the platform starts to spin. The characters float into the air, and then start to explode while everyone in the stadium chants ‘renew’. It is thoroughly bizzare, and we are never given any history of this ritual or how it’s meant to help people be reborn.
Later, as Logan hangs out in his apartment, he uses some kind of teleportation device to bring sexy strangers into his living room to have sex, like he’s flipping channels on the television. He sees an attractive man, and flips ahead to find Jessica, played by Jenny Agutter. He asks her to have sex, and she says she doesn’t want to, but Logan seems to believe that anyone he can teleport in is there to have sex. It’s not made clear if this is a service for everyone, or only the Sandmen who have this privilege. We do learn that Jessica made herself available for this service, whatever it is.
The other majorly mockable thing is something that isn’t entirely the films fault, is the set design. The interior of the main city set is meant to look futuristic and shiny. But it’s obviously a shopping mall. The film had no way to know that a lot of shopping malls would go with this aesthetic, or that the design of shopping malls would stagnate, so when we see this space, we don’t see a futuristic city, we just see a lightly redressed shopping mall.
So the film has a lot of faults that are magnified because sci-fi went in an entirely different direction soon after it was released. But let’s look past that and try to figure out if there’s a decent film in there.
The film really gets going when Logan is sent on his mission. He’s given a small medallion depicting the Egyptian Ankh which is the symbol of the runners and the crystal on his palm that indicates his age is changed to erase his last 4 years. He finds Jessica, and works to gain her trust, letting a runner go, and trying to get his face changed while running from his own partner, Francis. Eventually, Jessica shows him the path to the other runners, and Logan turns on his transponder, calling the other Sandmen to his location.
Logan gains the trust of the runners, and learns how to get to the location of Sanctuary, and when the other Sandmen come in, he and Jessica run for it. They find themselves in the bowels of the city, which seem long forgotten. It becomes clear that no one really understands how the city works.
The action and tension really work in these sections of the film. They reach a frozen area with animal sculptures. They meet a robot there who explains that food hasn’t come in awhile, and so he has to freeze whatever meat comes through. He leads them to an area filled with frozen people. Logan and Jessica realize that they’re about to be killed, and run for it. Logan still has his gun, and starts shooting, destroying the robot. Soon after, they get outside, and discover an entire new world.
They keep walking through this overgrown wilderness, and Logan starts to realize that Sanctuary isn’t a real place, it’s just a myth that the runners came up with to give each other hope that they didn’t have to die. But Jessica isn’t ready to let that dream go and they press on.
Eventually, they run across the ruins of Washington, D.C. As they explore, they discover an old man in the ruins of the D.C. Capitol. The old man is never named, but he’s the best character in the film. He hasn’t interacted with other humans in decades clearly, and is surrounded by cats, who he insists have 3 names each. His dialogue is so strange and interesting, but it tells a bit of a story about his life. He explains to Logan and Jessica about how his parents were mated for life, which fascinates them. They’re also of course fascinated by his age.
Logan decides to go back to the domed city, and reveal that there’s a world outside and people don’t have to die at 30. They take the old man with them. But as soon as they enter the city Logan tries to spread his word, and is immediately captured. He’s interrogated by the computer and somehow, him telling the computer that Sanctuary doesn’t exist makes it explode.
Everyone in the city escapes as it burns, and outside they find the old man, possibly leading to a new and limitless future.
Let’s get onto the next film.
Capricorn One (1977)
NASA is about to send the first manned mission to Mars. But just before the rocket takes off, the astronauts are pulled off the craft. They’re taken to a remote location while the rocket takes off without them. They’re told that the life support system was faulty, and if they had revealed that, they feared the entire program would have been canceled. So instead, NASA comes up with a convoluted plan to have the astronauts fake the Mars landing in a television studio, then fly to the capsule when it lands to be rescued there. But when the capsule burns up before landing, NASA has to kill the astronauts to keep the story straight. Will the astronauts be able to escape?
The film is written and directed by Peter Hyams, who directed a lot of really interesting sci-fi films like 2010, Timecop, Outland and others. The film stars James Brolin, Hal Holbrook, Elliott Gould, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, and…uh yeah…OJ Simpson. Who is most famous for some other things. Which we’ll just skip past today. So lots of great actors, and people who would eventually be pretty famous. So even for modern audiences, this film feels very familiar.
For the first 15-20 minutes, we deal entirely with the launch of the rocket. The section is essentially narrated by NASA mission control. We see the astronauts get into the capsule, see the mission control checks, and the crowd gather in the stands, including a senator and the vice president. This all feels like a standard launch scene that people might have seen in other films, television shows, or even the news.
Things start to get strange when the astronauts are pulled out of the capsule and the launch continues. We continue hearing the voice over from mission control describing how the mission is proceeding. We watch the launch as the men are put on a plane and taken away, being told that they can take off their spacesuits. No one involved with the mission seems to have noticed that the astronauts are not on board.
When the men reach the remote location, they meet Dr. Kelloway, played by Hal Holbrook. In a pretty good monologue, he explains to the three astronauts, Brubaker, Willis and Walker, about how the space program has come on hard times, and one more big failure would end the entire thing. And when he discovered that the life support system they received was faulty, he decided not to report it. He takes them to another room, where a Martian landscape is setup, along with a lander, and a capsule. He tells them the plan to fake the entire mission.
Brubaker, played by James Brolin, objects to the plan, telling him they have too much integrity. But Kelloway threatens their families, telling him that people above him are willing to kill people to keep this going.
This is a moment that feels really disingenuous to me. I don’t really believe that there’s so much riding on a spaceship launch that people would start killing the families of astronauts. Perhaps it’s plausible, but the film didn’t do a good enough job of selling that these stakes are high enough to warrant the kinds of threats the these men are receiving. We never hear who these forces are, we’re just told they exist and are expected to buy it.
The astronauts agree to help fake the mission, and while this is happening, a local reporter, Caulfield, played by Elliott Gould starts asking questions. He’s first alerted to something strange when his friend at NASA starts to tell him about strange readings that he’s found from the spaceship versus the television signal, which seems to be only coming from 300 miles away. After bringing this up to his superiors a couple of times, and mentioning it to Caulfield, he suddenly disappears. Caulfield goes looking for him, and finds that someone else is living in his apartment, and has apparently lived there for months. When he leaves, his brakes are cut and his throttle is stuck open, leading to a ridiculous scene where Caulfield manages to drive through busy city streets at 90 miles an hour for about 3 minutes before finally driving off a drawbridge.
The film really falls down in these kinds of action moments, where it strains credulity way beyond it’s limits. This also reveals how little thought went into the shadowy figures making all this happen. We’re told that the President and congress do not want the space program any longer, and will cancel it whenever they get any excuse. But it’s also made clear that the government is heavily involved in the cover up, as evidenced by a scene later when Caulfield is visited by FBI agents who search his house and plant cocaine there to arrest him. So who is in charge of this cover up? Is it a company that’s going to lose valuable contracts? Or is is the government? It doesn’t really make any sense.
The film adds it’s big twist when the capsule tries to land on earth, and is burned up. NASA now has to kill the astronauts to keep the story alive. The three men figure this out, and stage an escape. In one of the stronger sections of the film, they get off the base and steal an airplane, only to discover that they don’t have any fuel in the plane. Brubaker has to make an emergency landing in the Texas desert.
The three men are now in the middle of the desert, with no idea where they are. The decide to split up, going in three different directions, knowing that the direction they came from is wrong. They split up the survival kit, and each take a flare to warn the others when they have been captured.
The film now turns into a race against time. The three men are all walking through the desert, trying to survive and find some kind of civilization to announce to the world that they are alive. Caulfield is trying to figure out what actually happened, and how the conspiracy works. And Kelloway is trying to find the astronauts.
Chasing the astronauts are two black helicopters, and they embody another ridiculous aspect of the film. For some unknown reason, the filmmakers decided to give the helicopters some kind of sentience. When they fly through the air, they’ll stop, then turn towards each other, as if giving each other a look, and communicating their thoughts. But the helicopters aren’t robots, or sentient, they just have regular human pilots which we see several times. I get what the filmmakers were going for, they wanted the copters to be menacing and feel like they were a threat. But you could do that by simply giving the pilots personalities.
In the end, Caulfield tracks Brubaker, the only surviving astronaut to the desert and finds him with the help of a cropdusting pilot. They get away, and Caulfield and Brubaker show up to his own memorial service, where the president is speaking, we assume revealing the entire hoax.
The Double Feature
Here we have two films that came out around the same time, one set in the distant fantastic future, and the other grounded in the era it came from. When I jumped into these films, I thought for sure I’d be rolling my eyes at Logan’s Run, and be more into Capricorn One. But it was more the opposite.
Sure there are plenty of ridiculous moments in Logan’s Run, but Capricorn One falls into the same trap a lot of modern movies fall into where they leave huge plot holes and assume the audience will forgive them. Sometimes this works, but it just doesn’t in this film.
Logan’s Run on the other hand starts rough, but eventually becomes a decent movie about self-discovery and breaking out of your past to make a better future.
The most unforgivable thing about Capricorn One is that it ends at it’s most interesting moment. Brubaker is showing up to his own funeral, revealing this massive conspiracy. Kelloway is ruined, and now he’ll have to explain everything. Everyone in the country is going to have this insane thing revealed. Brubaker is going to go in front of congress to explain what he knows. Kelloway is going to have to do the same. What happens to him? What happens to the space program? What happens to the country? What happens to the president? For god’s sake, someone remake this film as a television series. The first season can end with that moment, and let’s go from there.
As I’m writing this, classes start tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to the semester after a long summer of transcribing and data analysis. Classes are fun because I can start to interact with the students again. Talking to the young students really energizes me.
So what about next week’s films? I’ve been wanting to do some old school dance movies for awhile, specifically Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who I’ve never covered. I used to have a little box set of their films, but it has parted from my collection at some point. But luckily, Filmstruck has me covered. I don’t have a ton of experience with these, so I’m picking almost randomly, but next week I’m going with:
Mark Sandrich – Top Hat (1935)
George Stevens – Swing Time (1936)
The titles of these films vaguely ring a bell, so I think they might be some of the better known films from these two, but I’m not sure. But let’s go with it.
See you next week.