I recently aired my continued distaste for Star Wars to a friend who then trotted out the old familiar arguement that without Star Wars there would be no mainstream sci fi as it had been the stuff of low budgets and cheese, an outlaw genre. I managed, however drunk I was, to rattle off a fair few titles which he knew of but obviously not in the context of that argument as the list surprised him. So, here they and others are. Also, here's a list of great sci fi that had to be made under the radar as it had what Star Wars didn't have, compelling new ideas:
Ten year radius either way just for limits. I've disqualified some major footage here, by the way. Dystopias (even with future settings) like Privilege or Brazil as there is a lot less sci fi in them than satire. Solaris was big budget in context but not given the same start in life as an American mainstream release so it won't be in here. (And some great micro budget sci fi in the aftermath like Primer, Cube, TimeCrimes or Monsters didn't make it as they were made well outside the decade each way limit. They get a mention here, though.) The idea is that sci fi sat as comfortably in the high production value mainstream as musicals, drama or war movies and didn't need the supersized corndog of Lucas' film to change that.
In order that I thought of them (no keys were brought closer to fatigue through Google use in the making of this list - it would be much bigger if I had - I did however, verify a date here or detail there with imdb and wiki).
(Oh, and Christian, if you read this, this is not a delayed "so-there" to our conversation but what happened after I thought about it the next day.)
Big Sci Fi before Star Wars 1967-1977
(not in chronological order unless the time I thought of them is chronological order.)
Planet of the Apes: The whole series but the first one will do. A great exercise in sustained irony and the notion of the Promethean dangers of human progress. This despite the involvement of Charlton Heston.
The Omega Man: Adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend pressed into 70s service with resonance of the newly departed hippy movement (there's even a bit of Woodstock shown at one point) and the ongoing Vietnam spectre. This despite the involvement of Charlton Heston.
Soylent Green: Out with the old in with the new. The sanctity of youth wasn't just a theme of Logan's Run but when it became a matter of what was put on the table things take a queasy Swiftian turn. A flawed but strong satirical fable well disguised as popcorn entertainment. This despite the involvement of Charlton Heston.
Westworld: Bread and circuses world gone wild when a circuit shorts and the inventions rise in revolt.
Slaughterhouse Five: Kurt Vonnegut on film. Might as well just say Jules Verne.
Silent Running: Eco sci fi in excelsis. Bruce Dern defending the last patch of botany against a a coporate oppression. If that isn't forward looking I can't imagine what would be.
ZPG: Living human museum exhibits, robot babies, gas masks to go to the shop and rebellion by human gestation. The gang's all there.
STAR WARS: An impressively art directed beginning, throws off its burden of ideas to play out as a boy's own adventure that could have been a western or pirate adventure. Nothing wrong with any of that but this is sci-fi-as-setting, not the fiction of notions. I understood that at the age of fifteen, not particularly cinephilic but with a low tolerance for padding and bullshit both of which played out on the screen seemingly without end. It was to be the only one out of the six that I would see in its entirety.
Right, so we've made it to Star Wars and are now half way. If Star Wars opened the door sci fi to be treated seriously in its wake what major budget fare did it allow? Almost immediately after its massive success we had a slew of superhero movies like Flash Gordon and the Superman series. Alien? Yes and then Blade Runner. But see below for these as exceptions. Mostly, we got a range of big budget low imagination pieces like Terminator, Robocop, Back to the Future, Tron (not all bad, though) and Ghostbusters and then there's the rise and dominance of Stephen Spielberg and all who fed in his stable, raising production values and lowering expected audience IQs to about the same degree (yes I typed all that in one breath!). If Star Wars opened doors it was to the date movie version of the fiction of ideas, flash without form.
But remember the claim is not that Star Wars influenced the sci fi to come but opened the door for it to enjoy higher production values and climb out of the genre swamp. As we've already seen, there was a lot of big budget sci fi in the decade running up to the big leap into popcorn space and some notable blockbusters up to '87 but what doesn't get acknowledged in the argument is the sci fi with real ideas that had to be made on the smell of gaffer tape because it didn't have light sabres and death stars but real ideas. Vide!
Sub Radar sci fi that Star Wars' success did not help 1977-1987
Scanners: The airport book racks were filled in the 70s with scenaric doomsaying and popular fringe science about pyramid power, ESP with titles like Supernature. Cronenberg took it a step further. The first time a computer meltdown was shown as it would happen in homes the world over beyond a decade later: a whimper not a bang (an instance where a lack of pyrotechnics raises the sci fi cred).
Mainstream but still...
Altered States: Psychedelics and race memory. Oh, and Ken Russell. Oh, and Paddy Chayeffsky. Still here?
Ok dig it, before Star Wars plenty of strong-concept what-ifs with big contemporary budgets and after Star Wars a lot of big goofy self-referential mythology but really no challenging ideas. Those were, if anything, driven underground by the rush to cash in on SFX and big art direction.
What about The Thing? That was big budget. Yeah but it was in the wake of Alien rather than Star Wars; a boy's own adventure it wasn't. Well, what about Alien? Maybe but not definitely as it was a monster movie more than a quest but I'll give you the sci-fi=setting basis. Then again, its creative team admitted more influence from Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. Ok, Blade Runner. Big budget sci fi with substance might have been green lighted in the post Star Wars market but boy does it owe nothing to Lucas. Also Blade Runner was a flop, unjust but true.
The problem really here is that Star Wars is not really sci fi. It's far more action adventure with a lot of internal mythology (borrowed liberally from elsewhere or not is not the issue and the permissable norm in pop culture). So the only doors it could really open for sci fi were for films like it that just appeared to be sc fi but were perfectly happy to be retooled westerns, actioners or war movies etc.
I hope I haven't unduly offended any fan of the Star Wars franchise. You like your movies and probably hate all mine. We can get along. But this argument which is more of an attempted ambush at a social occasion than an essayable notion that this massively successful thing ushered in a generation of big sci fi and made it respectable doesn't wash. Star Wars did have an effect. So did Jaws before it and Indiana Jones after. But those effects were for more of the same of each, not for further exploration into questions of mind and time and all else beyond. Those questions were whispered in the arthouses, the fleapits and the video shops, their desperate, gaudy promo art begging fraudulently to be seen to be as attractive as the units of the big league, and on into time future, admired fanatically by the few and sneered at by the main ... like most good ideas until someone can sell them like staples.