The sci-fi blockbuster that wasn’t
A lot of people probably don’t realize it, but back in the day science fiction wasn’t the big genre it is today.
The major studios considered it a very niche genre, if they considered it at all, and before Star Wars, the stories were a lot darker, like Collossus: The Forbin Project, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, Logan’s Run, etc.
Nobody had any inkling that Star Wars would be the big crossover sci-fi movie, which is why it practically came out of nowhere and became a phenomenon in the summer of 1977.
Watching Logan’s Run today, you get the impression it was trying to be the big sci-fi movie that would break the genre through to a bigger audience, but the execution wasn’t very good.
Fox was also pinning its hopes on Damnation Alley, which is long forgotten today, and finally came out on DVD and Blu-Ray. I remember seeing the poster for it in a local comic shop, with its bitchin’ all terrain vechile the Landmaster, and finally seeing the movie many years later, I can attest it’s totally weak.
Writing for Movie Morlocks, my friend Richard Harland Smith happened to agree, and penned a very amusing blog about it. He’s still got mad love for the Landmaster, and looking back on the film, as well as the magical year it came out in.
He writes, "In 1977, 20th Century Fox released a big-budget, star-studded science-fiction extravaganza and a cheap piece of crap chock-a-block with nobodies. The cheap piece of crap was Star Wars, which cost the studio a measly $9,000,000 and could boast among its cast no big names, unless you counted Debbie Reynolds’ daughter and the guy from The Bridge Over River Kwai [Alec Guiness]."
Damnation Alley’s all-star cast for its time included George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent, Jackie Earl Haley, and Paul Winfield. It’s after a nuclear holocaust, and Peppard and company are in the Landmaster trying to make it to Albany, because there may be survivors, and along the way they have to battle mutated cockroaches, and giant scorpions.
According to the ‘70’s tell-all, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Damnation Alley, Star Wars, The Deep, and several other movies were all slated for Memorial Day, which seems unlikely because Memorial Day was not a hot release day until the success of Star Wars. But the competition for the summer of ’77 included those films, as well as A Bridge Too Far, Smokey and the Bandit, Exorcist II, Orca, and The Other Side of Midnight.
Of course, Damnation Alley sank like a stone, but the enormous riches from Star Wars definitely softened the blow at Fox. If you’re curious, or even genuinely like the movie, you can get it from Shout Factory, a company that specializes in fun low budget and retro stuff.
For a lot of us, we can sit through a lot of crap when we’re younger before we’ve seen three trillion movies and our tastes are more refined, but Smith still has fondness for the sci-fi that filled his summer in ’77.
"Being 16 and it being 1977, I saw any old thing that hit my local movie theater, the good, the bad, and the crappy - from Close Encounters and Capricorn One to Empire of the Ants and Starship Invasions - and I liked them all. I was not an idiot - I could appreciate the differences in sophistication - but these movies took me somewhere, they let me stay a while, and all that really mattered was the journey."