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Days of future past

By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  June 26, 2010

Invasion scenarios, because they can be simplistic and ethnocentric, tended to be queasier and more ambiguous in the '70s. David Cronenberg began his feature career with SHIVERS (1975; June 19 at 9:30 pm), in which a man-made phallic parasite begins to transform people into sex-crazed zombies, thus inaugurating the filmmaker's interest in how our own bodies and their primal urges freak us out. You won't want to go home and fuck afterward, but scanning our usually hidden fears and doubts is what science fiction does at its basest. Philip Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978; June 26 at 7 pm) perhaps did it best, remaking the 1956 Cold War nailbiter and transferring its anxieties to post-hippie San Francisco, an entire society already undergoing neurotic stress that manifests here as Capgras syndrome and the pre-Reagan approach of emotional conformism. The textures of the film — from the linty mange of the pods to the soundtrack's insistent background screams — can drive you right up the wall, but few sci-fi ideas have proved to be as unsettling, and out of the four versions so far of Jack Finney's novel, Kaufman's is the most surgical.

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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH: Nicolas Roeg’s elliptical, zoom-happy, off-kilter style may be the decade’s signature modus, and this is a cool film with a miserable heart.
Some invasions were more mundane. In THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971; June 20 at 7 pm), which was fashioned by wildlife docster Ed Spiegel, Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon Green, and Omen creator David Seltzer, insects are the enemy — or rather, we are their enemy, and their eventual victims. Narrated by a fictional scientist played by Laurence Pressman, this feverish, Oscar-winning quasi-documentary whips up a frenzy of entophobia with galling sequences of insect warfare and predation, and it forecasts an apocalypse we cannot avoid.

That apocalypse arrives in Saul Bass's PHASE IV (1974; June 25 at 9 pm), one of the oddest Hollywood films of the '70s, a dreamy vision of ants that have, finally, coalesced into a single big-brain mass (communicating among one another by way of mathematics) and decided to take over the world. Most famous for his Hitchcock title-sequence designs, Bass directed just this one feature, but despite its lapses, Phase IV is chin-deep in uneasiness and visual marvels and heady speculations about how fragile our terrestrial superiority may be in the end. When Bass focuses on the science, and on the ants themselves, as they exchange information in hair-raising close-up and glow with all kinds of unnatural hues, you taste a kind of intellectual wonder that movies, in their dedication to speed, pandering, and foolishness, have rarely attempted to deliver.

Damn the future — utopias have been out of fashion since WW2 came to a close and H.G. Wells died (almost simultaneously). Ever since, dystopias have been science fiction's clearest and most scathing way to critique the status quo. As you'd expect, with so much anti-authoritarianism on the ground, the '70s films were thick with them.

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