A look back at the year 1979: the year of science fiction

posted by efriedmann on January 9, 2009 at 7:55 am

It was thirty years ago. It was the year 1979, and it may be quite safe to say that science fiction movies were dominating the motion picture screen more than they ever have since. This enormous outbreak of sci-fi sensation was, no doubt, due to a little gem two years earlier by George Lucas called “Star Wars”. At the time, it was the highest-grossing blockbuster movie in the United States since “Jaws”, and literally every motion picture studio wanted to get on the sci-fi bandwagon and rake in the sci-fi cash! And so, join me now on a chronological jourey together, as we look back at the year 1979; the year of sci-fi screen magic!

  • “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (March 30, 1979) – Yes, you make have forgotten this, but before the hit series premiered on television in September 1979, it had a short, but profitable theatrical run. It was this film that served as the television pilot for the series which ran for two seasons.

  • “Mad Max” (April 12, 1979) – By today’s film standards this low-budget apocalyptic thriller of dystopian Australia, starring a very young Mel Gibson might fall under the independent film category. It only received mixed reactions from critics, but still managed to spawn two successful sequels.

  • “Battlestar Gallactica” (May 18, 1979) – Coming off of the hit show’s first season, Universal pictures released a theatrical version of the show’s original TV pilot movie. This version pretty much eliminated the Cylons and their hidden base by the end of the film and left everything nicely resolved. This release was also the last film to utilize Universal’s “Sensurround”, a very popular theatrical gimic used in the 1970’s.

  • “Alien” (May 25, 1979) – Director Ridley Scott called this his “angry” version of Star Wars. This first (and best) film in the franchise received critical aclaim and box office success. It made a star of Sigourney Weaver a star and is still (in my opinion) one of the ten best science fiction films ever made.

  • “Moonraker” (June 29, 1979) – After the success of “The Spy Who Loved Me”, the next James Bond film was supposed to be “For Your Eyes Only”. However, after the success of Star Wars erupted, even the Bond franchise could not ignore jumping on the sci-fi bandwagon. The movie bears very little resemblance (as most Bond movies do) to the original Ian Flemming novel; no space shuttle, no city in space, no ray guns, etc. Although considered very cheesy by today’s standards, it still remains one of my favorite Bond movies. It was also the first Bond movie I ever saw on the big screen.

  • “Star Wars” (rereleased August 1979) – Okay, the year in sci-fi would not have been complete without a limited rerelease of this little diddy. This time around, though, fans were being treated to the first coming attractions of the next film in the saga, “The Empire Strikes Back”.

  • “Stalker” (August 15, 1979) – Admitedly, I know almost nothing about this film. It is directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and tells the story of a grey and unnamed city near the Zone, an alien place that is guarded by barb wire and soldiers. It is the type of sci-fi story based on pure science, speculation and metaphysiscs that can be easily associated with the likes of Phillip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem.

  • “time After Time” (August 31, 1979) – Before scoring big with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, director Nicholas Meyer gave us this sci-fi thriller about time travel, in which inventor H.G. Wells chases the notorious Jack the Ripper from the 19th century to the year 1979. An interesting and fast-paced thriller that could easily have been considered a precursor to “From Hell” (2001), another Jack the Ripper thriller.

  • “Star Trek” The Motion Picture" (December 7, 1979) – The first film in the Paramount franchise and subsequently, director Robert Wise’s last film, had been kicked around for sometime during the 1970s before it finally hit the big screen. Although it made a decent amount of money, it was considered a box office disappointment compared to its enourmous budget. And although the story and pace of the film is very slow, and even a little dull, the impressive visuals and special effects can be considered on par with “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The movie’s 1983 ABC-TV premiere was one of the first occasions in which an extended version of a film was created for television and then for the home video market.

  • “The Black Hole” (December 21, 1979) – By this time, it wasn’t that Walk Disney pictures had never done science fiction before (Escape to Witch Mountain, The Cat from Outer Space). But now that Star Wars had reshaped sci-fi-things-to-come, they wanted to get something on the screen, too. This was also the very first PG-rated movie by Disney. It’s cosmic and rather ambiguous ending can easily be compared to the climax of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Dante’s Inferno”.

On a personal note, I have to say that even though the motion picture industry has come a very long way in the last thirty years with the advent of computer generated special effects, I can’t honestly say that the movies themselves have gotten any better, or more fun to watch. Still, the memories of 1979 science fiction movies are thick and I still miss them!

Comments (41)

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 9, 2009 at 10:10 am

You left out one film of major historic value.

In April 1979 “THE CHINA SYNDROME” opened as was quickly written off by critics as Hollywood Sci-fi nonsense. Then a few weeks into the run the Three Mile Island power plant had a meltdown scare and “THE CHINA SYNDROME” became science fact.

moviebuff82
moviebuff82 on January 9, 2009 at 12:25 pm

You also misspelled BSG. It’s Galactica. BTW, the final few episodes of the remake of the TV series is coming out next week on Sci-Fi.

raysson
raysson on January 9, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Also released in 1979,another science fiction horror movie titled THE DARK that was produced by Dick Clark and starred Cathy Lee Crosby.

FYI: Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE came out in November of 1979,around the Thanksgiving weekend and was the first ever “PG” rated film the studio produced.
Paramount’s sci-fi blockbuster STAR TREK:THE MOTION PICTURE came out in December of 1979 at the height of the X-Mas season. Did you know that the first “Trek” movie had a “G” rating?

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 9, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Raysson, according to Wikipedia, THE BLACK HOLE was released on December 21, 1979, just as I wrote it.

And yes, it seems that some of the better science fiction films in history like STAR TREK: TMP, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) all had “G” ratings.

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 9, 2009 at 2:49 pm

AIAlvarez, regardless of how some critics might have interpretted it, I cannot see how THE CHINA SYNDROME could be considered science fiction in any way. I’d call it a simple thriller before I’d call it that. And yes, what happened a few weeks later was shocking.

I also remember a situation of life imitating art when there was a political incident in Albania and Presidnet Clinton was caught with Monica Lewinsky some time after the movie WAG THE DOG was released.

William
William on January 9, 2009 at 4:54 pm

“The Black Hole” was Disney’s big Christmas release in 1979 (12/21/79).

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on January 9, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Not as popular as the movies listed above, “Quintet” with Paul Newman was also released in 1979.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on January 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Too bad “Saturn 3” was a year late. I would have paid the $3 just to see the Farrah Fawcett nude scene.

AdrianEverett
AdrianEverett on January 9, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Well Beam Me up Scotty, it’s exactly 30 years later and Star Trek is once again coming to the theater screens. Granted this is nothing more than glorified over beating of a dead horse franchise but it seems Paramount and The Star Trek fans just cannot let go of the damned thing.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on January 9, 2009 at 6:46 pm

This is the one with the kids playing Kirk and Spock. I’ll pass.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on January 9, 2009 at 6:50 pm

No more Star Trek. If your a “Trekkie”, rent the movies on dvd.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 9, 2009 at 6:59 pm

There were also B movies galore:

“THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME”, “C.H.O.M.P.S.”, “STARCRASH”, “PROPHECY”, “PARTS: THE CLONUS HORROR”, “UNIDENTIFIED FLYING ODDBALL”, “METEOR”, and “M3: THE GEMINI STRAIN”.

KingBiscuits
KingBiscuits on January 9, 2009 at 8:12 pm

Mad Max actually opened in 1980 in the US.

And Parts: The Clonus Horror is most notable today for the successful plagarism lawsuit against the makers of the 2005 big-budget dud The Island.

JSA
JSA on January 9, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Across from “The China Syndrome”, at the other end of the scale sits “The Concord… Airport ‘79”.
Sorry, couldn’t resist…

JSA

markp
markp on January 10, 2009 at 5:09 am

I remember when we ran “Alien” and “Moonraker” at the old Menlo Park Twin in Edison N.J. It was the middle of AUGUST and we were still selling out almost 800 seats in each theatre, everyday. That’s when movies had legs, not like today when it cones out on a million screens and its dead in 2 weeks. I agree with lovemovies, those memories are great for me.

MPol
MPol on January 10, 2009 at 3:58 pm

I remember seeing “The China Syndrome” when it first came out, back in 1979. It was a good movie, and Jane Fonda did a wonderful job playing her role in this film. Not too, too long afterwards, it almost came to pass when the Three Mile Island fiasco occurred.

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 11, 2009 at 9:29 am

movie534, I was actually amazed to still see that THE DARK KNIGHT was still going strong in movie theaters by October 2008. I can’t remember the last time I saw that kind of theatrical longevity.

METEOR…yes, I forgot about that one; one of the last failed attempts to continuously glorify the 1970’s disaster flicks.

markp
markp on January 11, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Well you know Love movies, even today you will get a movie that has some staying power, I agree, but for the most part, it doesn’t happen to often. As far as Meteor, I remember this one because it was the last movie to play the Mann Fox Theatre in Woodbridge N.J., a beautiful 1700 seater, never twinned, 70MM equipped, curved screen, the works. I remember the demolishon as if it were yesterday.

kingjamesv
kingjamesv on January 12, 2009 at 5:02 am

Wow! I thought I was the only one who had seen the “Buck Rogers” movie! Wonder whatever happened to it?

kingjamesv
kingjamesv on January 12, 2009 at 5:03 am

Wow! I thought I was the only one who had seen the “Buck Rogers” movie! Wonder whatever happened to it?

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 12, 2009 at 7:54 am

Jim, I think if you watch the pilot of BUCK ROGERS, Season 1, you’ll pretty much see the movie. You could probably also find a VHS copy on amazon or ebay.

CinemarkFan
CinemarkFan on January 12, 2009 at 9:18 am

I agree Movie534. In order for a movie to have staying power today, the movie has to be extremely good, as was the case for TDK. Last year, “No Country was in theaters into March/April, and that was released in November.

Going to 1979, I wasn’t born for 11 years, but some movies that I enjoy today came out that year. While Sci-Fi was the thing, other greats include “Apocalypse Now”, “The Warriors”, “The Onion Field”, “All That Jazz”, etc… My father took my siblings to see “Alien” in 70MM at the River Oaks #2 (500 seat auditorium, now an Office Depot) in Calumet City, IL. I saw it about 12/13 years ago on the Encore channel. Perhaps when most studios are run by people (not bankers) again, then we could have intelligent films coming out all year around, and not just the end of the year for oscar consideration.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 12, 2009 at 9:33 am

Why would studios make more intelligent movies when audiences are only buying mindless CGI slide shows like THE DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN?

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 12, 2009 at 10:15 am

AIAlvarez, the only way studios are going to stop churning out and recycling the garbage that ends up on the screen of your local carnival-like multiplex is today’s moviegoing morons simply STOP PAYING to see them! For myself, I have done my best to avoid these movies and try to concentrate more on seemingly original stories (what’s left of them, anyway).

And to be fair, CGI or not, THE DARK KNIGHT was, admitedly, a somewhat intelligent story with outstanding performances and virtually none of the typical campiness you get from other super hero movies. Who knew it could be done?

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 12, 2009 at 2:37 pm

As you can tell, I am not a fan of THE DARK KNIGHT. I demand more from a movie than two hours of relentless short edits of tractor trailers inexplicably taking flight and then exploding. I also expect Batman to be a little more effective when battling a demented drag queen, but then the Batman character was so poorly developed he was barely of any consequence to the mayhem.

When did it become acceptable to not film the event and just imply the action with a series of edited three second clips? Car-wheel-gun-car-wheel-truck-explosion-car flies-angry face-scene over. Like QUANTUM OF SOLACE, you can hardly tell what just happened except for all the noise.

Call me old fashioned, but I like to see the fist make contact with the body and the reason behind an explosion. I also expect some character motivation that consists of more than “I am a wild over-acting joker. Deal with me”. Even bad 1979 cheese like MOONRAKER and METEOR had that for me.

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm

AIAlvarez, I hear what you’re talking about. I am generally disgusted by the way many of today’s filmmakers feel the need to rush the camera with endless jumps and quick editsand shove all of the action down a viewer’s throat to the point of sickness. Whatever happened to a story (even action movies) just taking its time for a moment and giving the viewer a chance to become “acquainted” with what’s going on?

You know, ever since I saw Tony Scott’s remake of MAN ON FIRE (2004), I don’t see his movies anymore because I absolutely detest that kind of ridiculous filmmaking!

MPol
MPol on January 12, 2009 at 5:15 pm

That’s just the way things are with many, if not most movies these days. While I agree that it is rather sickening, it would be asking too much of the movie industry these days to tone them down.
Another poster here on cinematreasures had a great idea for dealing with this situation that should probably be applied to movie theatres everywhere: Save the venerable old movie palaces, show movies (such as older classics, etc.) that appeal to the over-40 crowd in these palaces with a 3-5 dollar admission fee, and let the younger generation go to the multiplex cinemas, where lots of the kids destroy the moviegoing experience there.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 12, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Mpol, that’s my point. The industry has no incentive to tone it down. Audiences are rushing to buy tickets to these films. I just trailers for WATCHMEN and some instantly forgettable new TERMINATOR film. Same expensive mindless comic book crap, new date.

WayBackWhen2008
WayBackWhen2008 on January 12, 2009 at 10:43 pm

The movie industry’s incentive is to make money, as in any other business. This is capitalism-supply and demand. Sci Fi even if it is crappy makes money. bottom line. I don’t mean to oversimplify things. Albeit, we may not like what is out and cherish the Sci Fi movies of our perspective generaton, Gen Y just might. In fact, they may like the “mindless CGI” stuff. What is wrong with that? It is entertainment! Today’s Sci Fi movies are movies are memories of their youth. We have matured and see things differently now. We have higher expectations maybe. Lastly, our parents probably didn’t like our Sci Fi movie choices either. I know my parents didn’t. I loved cheesy Flash Gordon. Hey, this is America, “What a country”. lol

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 13, 2009 at 8:25 am

I think the only difference is that many now think THE DARK KNIGHT is Oscar worthy material and can’t figure out why the industry rewards SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and THE READER instead. Is Heath Ledger’s really the best supporting role of the year?

If it is mindless CGI that people enjoy then let’s admit what it is and not confuse it with a good screenplay or top level acting.

The 1979 Oscars went to KRAMER VS. KRAMER, BEING THERE and NORMA RAE. The top box office films were KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ALIEN, STAR TREK, ROCKY II and APOCALYPSE NOW.

In 2008 the top films were THE DARK KNIGHT, IRON MAN, INDIANA JONES, HANCOCK and WALL-E. No brain cells were used to make these choices.

danpetitpas
danpetitpas on January 13, 2009 at 8:27 am

I’m with AlAlvarez, but not all comic book movies are bad. When they’re well made, they can be good. Sin City and 300 sent chills up my spine! But The Dark Knight was sloppily made. The chase scenes made no sense. There were continuity errors all over the place. Heath Ledger was the only outstanding thing in an otherwise mediocre movie.

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 13, 2009 at 8:43 am

You know, maybe I should change my name to

LOVE OLDER MOVIES, HATE GOING TO NEW ONES!

Ha, ha, ha!

JSA
JSA on January 13, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Bravo MariaMaria, well said!

Here are some random thoughts in relation to this thread:

1) Even for loyal Batfans, “Dark Knight” is a love-it or hate-it affair. In my opinion the best comic book adaptation in decades, second only to Richard Donner’s “Superman”. Perfect? Absolutely not! But a thrilling ride.

2) “Iron Man”: After watching the previews, reading the reviews, and hearing what people said, I decided to skip it. I can’t objectively say it’s good or CGI dreck. Same thing applies to “Benjamin Button”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Hancock”. They are not for me.

3) Wall-E: The most endearing Disney character in recent years, with some of the most astonishing animation. Too bad he and the Pixar crew are trapped in a insipid and recycled story. It deserved to be better, given that it touches on issues of globalization and environmentalism.

4) The movies I enjoyed the most this year were “Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Visitor”, “La Vie en Rose” (a holdover from 2007) and yes, “Dark Knight”.

5) 1979: “Apocalypse Now” should have won the Best Picture. A war movie, a horror movie and a psychedelic fantasy all in one, with Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography. And based on a novel written in the late 1800’s.

6) One of the worst ideas to come out of Hollywood was the audacity to remake “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.

And going back to the original intent of this thread, I do remember fondly “Star Trek”. I was not sold entirely on the idea of a full lenght movie, because to me the series had run its course. But with Robert Wise directing, I just could not skip it!

JSA

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on January 13, 2009 at 8:30 pm

I don’t buy the generation argument. A good film can easily be differentiated from a good childhood memory. Some of my favorite films are from way before my birth and once in a while a great film still does appear on the scene.

I will gladly trade the sloppy CGI in THE DARK KNIGHT for the excellent CGI in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Bad is bad.

My favorite science fiction films are METROPOLIS and SILENT RUNNING but I never saw them as a child. My favorite sci-fi childhood memories were PLANET OF THE APES and BARBARELLA. Not great movies, but fun.

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 14, 2009 at 8:20 am

I don’t buy the generation argument, either. Were it valid, then one could say that today’s kids would never listen to the Beatles, Elvis Presley or Motzart, simply because they were “before their time”.

efriedmann
efriedmann on January 14, 2009 at 8:21 am

By the way, one of my favorite non-sci-fi movies of 1979 was BREAKING AWAY. It won the Oscar for best original screenplay. I still love that movie!

MPol
MPol on January 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Way to go, Love movies-hate going!!

The name,“ Love older movies, hate going to new ones” sounds cool! (lol)

ChrisB
ChrisB on January 14, 2009 at 10:51 pm

“‘Mad Max’…only received mixed reviews from critics”

I remember Siskel and Ebert gave it their “Dog of the Week” award – I’d love to ask Roger if he and Gene ever rethought that review.

“Meteor” – I remember it having a troubled production history, with a lot of the effects being reshot. Best moment: After an argument with Karl Malden, Sean Connery utters the unforgettable line:

“Why don’t you stick a broom up my a—? Then I can sweep the carpet on the way out!”

WayBackWhen2008
WayBackWhen2008 on February 20, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Hey Love Olde Movies, Hate Going to New Ones, when are you going to add an article? Miss reading your movie thoughts…

KingBiscuits
KingBiscuits on April 20, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Siskel and Ebert actually did rethink Mad Max. They would later praise it and compared RoboCop (which got two thumbs up) to the Mad Max films when they reviewed RoboCop.

MPol
MPol on May 27, 2009 at 7:38 pm

“Breaking Away” ! Oh yeah!! I remember that film well. It was cool.

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