6. Rollerball (1975)
Can dystopian sci-fi lend itself to the setting of a sports film? Norman Jewison’s Rollerball answers that question with a resounding “Yes!”
Hitting theaters in the same summer that saw Jaws set a new standard for what came to be known as “blockbuster” season, Rollerball centers around star athlete Jonathan E. Played by Oscar-nominated actor James Caan (The Godfather, 1972), Jonathan’s popularity among fans builds as he becomes increasingly dominant in a game intended to demonstrate the futility of individuality. That leads the corporations, which have replaced nations in this futuristic society and sponsor their respective rollerball teams, to call for Jonathan’s retirement into a luxurious, private lifestyle.
Jonathan decides to defy the requests for his exit from the sport. This sets up a showdown between him and the corporations, leading to rule changes specifically designed to force his departure. The games become more lengthy and violent, resulting in injuries and even death for some players. Jonathan is tested to his limits while attempting to overcome the tyrannical control of the corporations. Caan shines all the way through to Rollerball’s epic conclusion.
7. Coma (1978)
Above all else, Michael Crichton is known for his fantastic, sci-fi page-turners: Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Sphere… just to name a few. Each of those has been adapted to the screen, as was his screenplay for Coma which was based on a 1977 novel of the same name authored by his fried Robin Cook. Crichton purchased the film rights and even directed the film himself. Coma would become the third feature film of seven helmed by Crichton as well as his directorial follow-up to the much more well-known Westworld (1973).
Coma provides a sort of preview to the medical intrigue Crichton would bring to television in his long-running drama E.R. In the film, Dr. Susan Wheeler and Dr. Mark Bellows, depicted by Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas respectively, are romantically-involved coworkers at Boston Memorial Hospital. When Wheeler takes notice of an unusual number of comas occurring at the hospital, she becomes alarmed and begins to investigate, believing a conspiracy is at play.
Bujold and Douglas are excellent in this one. The suspense builds throughout, and the tension-filled final act unfolds with great effect. Crichton delivered not just smart science fiction but a Hitchcock-like thriller with Coma.
8. The Black Hole (1979)
Disney’s efforts to jump into the late-70s space-film craze resulted in 1979’s The Black Hole. It’s certainly no Spielberg or Lucas-level adventure, but it should be better remembered than it is.
The story is set entirely in the depths of outer space where a crew aboard a research vessel – the USS Palomino – locates a long-lost ship stationed just outside a massive black hole. Upon approach to investigate, the older craft – the USS Cygnus – powers back up much to the surprise of the Palomino crew. It is soon discovered that renowned scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt has somehow survived for nearly two decades aboard the Cygnus. How has he done so, and what are his intentions?
Maximilian Schell gives a memorable yet somewhat over-the-top performance as Reinhardt. It fits the suspicious and treacherous character well. Anthony Perkins, known most for his turn as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) nearly 20 years earlier, also gives a skilled effort as Reinhardt fanboy Dr. Alex Durant in this Gary Nelson-directed film that features personality-infused robots, imaginative sets, and a masterful score from five-time Oscar winner John Barry.
9. Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 (1987)
Time for a nod to the animation fans out there, and anime fans in particular. Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 holds the distinction of being the first licensed release from long-time distributor AnimEigo for Western audiences in 1989. Originally released in Japan, the 40-plus minute OVA (original video animation) was also the directorial debut of veteran anime creator Shinji Aramaki.
The MADOX-01 is a revolutionary, tank-busting battle suit that lives up to the hype upon its first test run when ace pilot Kusumoto Elle destroys an attacking tank force, humiliating hot-headed tank jockey Lt. Kilgore in the process. Kilgore vows vengeance for being upstaged, and he gets his chance after a transit mishap sees the MADOX-01 fall off the back of a truck and ultimately end up in the possession of college-aged mechanic Koji Kondo. Kondo ends up stuck inside the suit and must evade the government, along with the wrathful Kilgore, while trying to find his girlfriend in order to patch up their relationship before she leaves his life forever.
Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 offers classic anime styling with common 1980s sci-fi tropes. There is a reason why the tropes are cliché; they offer action-packed fun. This one should be especially enjoyable for fans of its contemporaries like War Games (1983), Short Circuit (1986), or even The Transformers: The Movie (1986).
10. Slipstream (1989)
An 80s sci-fi flick starring Mark Hamill, featuring bounty hunters, and produced by Gary Kurtz & Steve Lanning…
It’s got to be Star Wars, right? Wrong!
Never theatrically released in the U.S., Slipstream – also the moniker given to the violent wind that provides the only means of travel in this future Earth via airplanes – stars Hamill alongside Bill Paxton, Bob Peck, and Kitty Aldridge. This chase adventure over and through a dystopian landscape wrecked by natural disasters pits Hamill’s law-enforcing Tasker against both Paxton’s bounty-hunting Matt Owens and Peck’s mysterious Byron.
The narrative here is all over the map as is the technical quality. However, this one manages to be entertaining throughout despite its weaknesses. The likeability of Paxton & Peck as their friendship develops while running from the cops is key, as is Hamill’s adept antagonistic performance. Slipstream’s 1980s fantasy feel provides another bit of nostalgia.
Unlike his earlier Tron (1982), director Steven Lisberger did not deliver a pioneering classic with Slipstream, but it has achieved cult status and is highly recommended by Luke Skywalker himself. Just check his Twitter feed.