In 1975, Jaws was released to an unsuspecting public and a delighted Universal Studios. It marked the beginning of something that had begun to evolve out of arguably, the most experimental decade cinema has ever seen: The 1970’s.
It was a time when filmmakers took advantage of a changing Hollywood, uncertain in what the public wanted in the wake of a powerful counter-culture movement, loss of faith in political structures after the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War and the rise of a new competitor who was finally beginning to flex its muscle in the form of decreasing attendance: Television.
The old studio system was collapsing and most of them, by the end of the decade; would be bought by multi-national conglomerates which would begin cementing the system we have today. In this uncertainty, the studios turned to the new generation of filmmakers, which would become known as “The Movie Brats”. Young guys out of film schools and Roger Corman’s “anything goes” boot camp of filmmaking at AIP.
This was all prompted by the success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde at the end of the previous decade. Indeed, Jaws itself wasn’t really the beginning but a further evolution that had started with Planet of the Apes, 2001 and then The Godfather only three years prior. But there was something different about this one. In a decade where irony, deep, meaningful character studies and the reflected paranoia of the day were redefining cinema using new storytelling techniques inspired by the European New Wave Movement, Jaws evolved cinema yet again but like most things in transition; it still carried the DNA of what came before. As it turned out, it was only the first part of a radical shift in what became known as “high concept”. The second part of this evolution would appear in the summer of 1977 with Star Wars.
At the time, many lamented what they saw as less meaningful fare then films like All The President’s Men, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Five Easy Pieces. However, if you look at what was happening at these studios; I contend this was going to happen sooner or later. Jaws and Star Wars just gave it DIRECTION. In fact, looking back almost 40 years and comparing these first blockbusters with what they have become today; we see that a lot of these early “high concept” films that appeared in the wake of the summer of 1977 were really, really good.
Why was that? Well, the studios knew they had hit on something new and very lucrative but just like with Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider; they didn’t exactly know why. What they did know was that things like giant sharks, spaceships, robots and other fanciful fare were what people wanted to see and so, in the wake of Star Wars; the race was on to see what would stick and what wouldn’t. The studios would eventually figure this out in the coming years and settle into a formula where films were less made than micromanaged but before then, that same experimental and rebellious spirit of the Movie Brats would not yet die but find new expression in this game of high concept. After all, what was really the difference between a character study of Michael Corleone and Superman? This period of high concept experimentation wouldn’t last long however. Only about four years, a brief period much like that ethereal light that exists for the last fleeting hour after the sun has dipped below the horizon: This was genre film’s Magic Hour.
The best way to track the rise, zenith and end of Magic Hour is with the Star Wars films themselves. A New Hope symbolizing the start, The Empire Strikes Back being the zenith and Return of the Jedi marking it’s end. It’s hard even now for me to articulate what separates these films from what came after but a lot of it is right there in George Lucas’s original Star Wars. That first film was low budget-, but not a B-film. It was new and outside the Hollywood system but it wasn’t what would come to be called “independent”. To me, it could best be described by the same term used to describe Lucas’s first science fiction outing. Like THX1138, it was EXPERIMENTAL. When I think of this term applied to that first Star Wars film, I think of that trash compactor creature sticking it’s one lone eyeball up from under the muck. It was such a weird and offbeat image in a movie full of them.
Another element inherent in these films seems to be the grounding of the fantastical. Making the unreal feel real. This was a pretty seminal idea in 1977. That first look at the Millennium Falcon dripping with stains and scorched with exhaust marks was something new at the time. Even though you were looking at an image that you KNEW wasn’t real, it sure as hell felt like something that COULD EXIST. But it wasn’t just the design of the film but the performances too. The actors approached this like they would any other film and through that naturalistic approach that actors traded in at the time, it further solidified the sense of reality. These two elements would slowly bleed away in the decades to come to be replaced with a self-conscious wink to the audience and a much more stylistic method.
Probably the most notable element that hardly exists in these films anymore is the decidedly adult approach to the stories being told. Today, we’re told that Science Fiction and Fantasy movies are only for 14-year old boys but in the wake of 1977, it was anything goes in the genre. Even Star Wars had pretty adult elements that I remember being shocked by as a kid. Who can forget the burned skeletons of Luke’s aunt and uncle or the blood splattered, severed arm of the alien who picks a fight with Luke and ends up on the wrong end of Kenobi’s lightsaber?
These elements would find there way through the films of the period in the various forms of Outland, Alien, Blade Runner and Conan the Barbarian. However, it wasn’t just the violent content but the realistic sense of jeopardy for characters in these films. You really worried about them and felt what they were facing were real challenges. The sense of danger was palpable. I remember being shocked again for the first 20 minutes of The Empire Strikes Back watching the good guys get there asses handed to them. The concept of the good guys not being able to defeat the opposition was new and thrilling and made you feel that for the rest of the movie, truly anything could happen. This adult approach also seemed to extend to a more meaningful, philosophical subtext in these films. Again, witness the musings and complexity of Yoda in Empire or the thought provoking and quasi-spiritual imagery of Close Encounters and the deep questioning of one’s identity in Blade Runner. Even Captain Kirk became a more complex and nuanced character with an existential crisis about age and his own usefulness in The Wrath of Khan. Subtext itself seems to be a sacrilegious concept in today’s high concept films.
The most obvious queue taken from Lucas was the combining of different genres: The Science Fiction Western, the Science Fiction Horror, the Horror Satire and so on. It showed that through the use of this new genre, older genres could be explored again with a fresh perspective. Think again of Outland whose own director described it as “High Noon in space”. Blade Runner itself is “Film Noir science fiction”.
The final and probably most inconsistent element of these films seems to be the experimental flavor itself. This was most likely because it was the main element that resulted in poor box office more times than not and therefore was the first lesson the studio learned in this new enterprise. Tron, The Dark Crystal and Blade Runner may be loved films today but at the time they were definite failures that no one wanted to repeat. The studio’s takeaway seemed to be, don’t stray too far off the beaten path even if the imagery is mind blowing.
Magic Hour can said to have started in 1978, where Hollywood’s first reactions to Star Wars would make it to movie theaters so let’s start there and with the first film out of the gate: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Technically released at the end of 1977 and not really a reaction to Star Wars but a film made alongside it, this was nonetheless the film that solidified the movement and probably planted the idea that as long as there’s something fantastical in a film (no matter what it is), the audience will show up. In many ways, this is the counterpoint to Star Wars and for me, just as great a film. Where Star Wars was light in tone and heavier on action, CE3K was more akin to 2001, Silent Running and other high profile Science Fiction that came before. This was the space film that made you think. Star Wars made you want to pick up that Christmas paper roll and swing it around at people but CE3k made you look up at the night sky and wonder what was really going on out there. It’s also a wonderful hybrid movie of the time. 70’s elements like government conspiracies; deep character study and realistic, overlapping dialogue ground this film in a way few other science fiction films have achieved since. This film also features two of the most dazzling special effects ever seen: the first being Douglas Trumbull’s seminal UFO effects that still hold up today and the second: Richard Dreyfus’s performance. His obsession with getting to Devil’s Tower is so complete that it truly feels all-consuming. Again, realistic natural performances ground the fantastical narrative.
That year also flirted with what would become two Hollywood staples: The first being the remake. Philip Kaufman directed the first of many (and in my opinion, the best) retelling of the classic 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, adding a truly disturbing atmosphere with a great 70’s ending that probably wouldn’t fly today. The film itself perfectly infused an old idea with enough of the new while still not losing its original identity. THIS is how remakes are done.
The other Hollywood staple that was introduced that year, the comic book film; was represented by The Man of Steel himself: Superman. Still, to this day; I have yet to see a movie about super heroes that’s been this engrossing, epic and emotional. Nolan’s films come close but this is still the Gold Standard for me. Both actors who play Clark Kent, first as a teenager then as an adult; really make you identify and feel the struggle of a person who can’t quite fit in and wrestles with a destiny that keeps him at a certain distance to those around him he’s come to care for. The film gives a sense of the epic in the way it’s shot but also conveys an intimacy through the character. The way his human father dies also feels sudden and tragic which is how death affects a lot of us in real life. This further grounds the story in a sense of the real and punctuates the emotional response Superman has when he finds Louise Lane killed in the third act. In the end, you understand exactly why he does what he does next and more than that, you want him to. Yes, the film does fall apart quite a bit in the second half almost like it was made by a different director and that’s because it was. The producers fired Donner before he could finish filming the entire story, which is too bad because it does finally make for a pretty noticeable flaw in the viewing. There is still a lot to love in the Metropolis section of the film, however and to this day only Nolan has been able to make a man with a cape feel like a real person inhabiting a real world.
There are other notable genre films of that year (Coma, The Boys From Brazil and Capricorn One) but I feel these are the ones that really meet the description of Magic Hour.
After that initial first year, 1979 would see filmmakers becoming even more innovative with the genres of science fiction and horror. In some cases, the films would stretch experimentation even further while in others they would rebirth more traditional stories. This is the year that saw the release of one of science fiction’s most enduring films, one that created a new hybrid genre and itself is imitated almost as much as Star Wars. I’m talking about Alien, of course. Outside of 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Mario Bava’s atmospheric 1965 film Planet of the Vampires; the world hadn’t been exposed to the idea of Science Fiction/Horror. In the present age where science fiction with a major budget HAS to be PG-13 for the young ones, the gore, violence and the unrelenting, Gothic, bleak atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s classic stands out the most now. I wonder how a studio would react to a pitch like that today, where an alien organism bursting from a man’s chest punctuates the end of the first act. I’m betting that wouldn’t fly today. Scott would push this formula further right at the end of Magic Hour.
On a lower budget, Horror/Science Fiction/Fantasy would also be explored in what still remains one of the most unique low budget horror films ever made: Phantasm. A film that involves robotic (?) exsanguinations, grave digging and some sort of inter dimensional travel and on top of it all, it’s still frightening. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a horror film with such imaginative elements got the green light a year after the release of Star Wars.
High Concept in the form of horror would also be seen this year with John Carpenter’s The Fog, a modern retelling of the classic ghost story; and David Cronenberg’s The Brood, which, like Phantasm, would find a successful blending of horror and Science Fiction elements to create a disturbing, atmospheric prose.
Across the world, high concept was also getting a makeover in the form of one of the most successful grindhouse films ever made: George Miller’s original Mad Max. Another film about a dystopian future that were so popular in the 70’s, this film seems to take a certain inspiration from the high speed battle sequences in Star Wars to create a more frenetic and visceral narrative that engages the audience with some of the most intense car stunts ever seen on film. That operatic style extends to the performances too. Toe Cutter (the main villain and leader of the bike gang) feels like a low-fi version of Darth Vader at times…if Vader had a coke habit. As impressive as his film debut is, like Scott; Miller would be back to refine his style at the zenith of Magic Hour.
Among these more modestly budgeted ventures, the movie with the highest profile that year was the return of the Enterprise crew in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This is probably one of the best examples of Magic Hour and how it took the best innovations of Star Wars to create something decidedly different. On the surface, it resembles Star Wars in the use of truly impressive visuals and an epic sense of scale (world building like this simply wasn’t possible on Star Trek’s television budget) but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of dazzling you with action and speed, it does so with intellectual concepts and a feeling of profound mystery. In this universe, THAT’S what the special effects are there to support. Considered boring and bloated at the time, looking back almost 40 years later; it reads as an ambitious experiment to evolve a 60s’ science fiction show into a hard science fiction drama. It feels exactly like what it is: an attempt to push the intellectual musings of the TV series and put them front and center, free from the restraints of television execs demanding more fist fights and romance. The strengths of Star Trek existing within the creative innovations of Magic Hour is in sharp contrast to Star Trek 30 years removed from all of this. In 2009, once again we get a reinvention of Trek using Star Wars as the main impetus but this takes place in a Hollywood that has its big budget priorities down to an overly researched science. This time those whiz-bang elements BETTER be there or else.
In the end, we now have a corporate created Trek with minimal to no character development, style over substance and in its sequel; the most shallow nod to Trek’s tradition of big ideas in the form of a lazy 9/11 metaphor that had already been done to death on the Battlestar Galactica revival and in Star Trek itself just a few years earlier with an entire season of Enterprise and before that with a much superior Deep Space Nine two-parter (“Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”). In the end, this is the most 2001-like and experimental Star Trek film we would ever see.
Wrapping up the year, I have to mention Disney’s The Black Hole. The first attempt by the studio to enter into the Star Wars realm of big budgets and high concept; it ends up too imitative and conservative. However, there’s a spark of experimental creativity and a more adult tone for the studio, appearing at the very end. Hastily put together to try to figure out a satisfying ending, the trip through the Black Hole has some very interesting imagery and almost horror-like concepts; pointing to a studio that was ready to step out of its comfort zone and be more daring. This would certainly be felt in the coming years of Magic Hour, ending up with one of the most original and innovative films of this period.
Other notable films of the year where Time After Time, a movie that mixed the science fiction genre with Edwardian elements culminating in what some might call one of the first examples of Steampunk. It was the debut of filmmaker Nicholas Myer who will come back to flex his muscle even more before Magic Hour is out. In the horror genre, we also have a Gothic remake of Dracula adapted from a popular stage play at the time and directed by John Badham, featuring a wonderful John Williams score and possibly the most frightening and disturbing Mina (in this case, the daughter of Van Helsing) ever devised for the screen.
1980 would see the return of Star Wars with The Empire Strikes Back, not only one of the best sequels ever made but one of the best examples of combining independent film sensibilities with the Blockbuster concept. This makes Empire one of the strongest examples of Magic Hour, made right in the center of the movement and representing the perfect blend of the first film and the best parts of Return of the Jedi. It’s a beautiful middle ground for the realization of George Lucas’s universe. This is because it’s a blending of that low-budget, experimental spirit of the first film but with a larger budget that somehow doesn’t stifle its creativity but greatly enhances it. This is the rarest of blockbusters and is almost always found in the second act of a trilogy when someone is able to pull it off. In this case, the edgy, adult tone is realized to a greater degree in the sequel both in the form of story and it’s visual atmosphere.
The characters also become much more complex and have to make tougher decisions. What I love most about this is, it’s a sequel but holds off as much as possible on the sequel idea of “the same but different”. The “same” part seems to be represented only by the main characters and a few familiar vehicles (mainly the Millennium Falcon, Luke’s X-Wing and the Empire’s Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters). Everything else is different. This film really doesn’t hold back on introducing you to new elements like Lando, Hoth, Snowspeeders, Super Star Destroyers, Dagobah, Cloud City, Lando, Yoda, bounty hunters, The Emperor and asteroid fields. The best thing is, they all enhance the story and the universe, not distract from it. Even the performances of the actors are more nuanced. The adult tone also comes back with Vader’s revelation (yes, the villain in a Sci-Fi film becoming a more complex character himself was pretty innovative at the time), his severing of Luke’s hand, and the fate of Han Solo. In all, Star Wars didn’t just return with a bang, it also grew up.
Superman would also return with a more complex and adult tone than its first outing with Superman 2. Now pay attention Zack Snyder. This is how you challenge the character of Superman without fundamentally changing his core. Like Empire, this film feels more adult in tone and darker. I can tell you, much like “Star Wars 2”; this was pretty strong stuff for children at the time. The villains feel like a real threat, mostly thanks to Terence Stamp’s larger than life performance that feels like Hitler, if he could fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. The desire of Superman to live an ordinary life with the woman he loves is explored to beautiful effect here, from his initial bungling that reveals his identity to Lois to his attempt to challenge a bully without the benefit of his super powers that ends with the Son of Jor-El being amazed and shocked at the site of his own blood. It culminates in a very poignant moment in which Superman returns to a destroyed Fortress of Solitude and speaks to his father and is greeted with only silence at first. The battle between Superman and the three villains is wonderfully realized and far more engaging than the CGI destruction that seems to drone on and on in Man of Steel. All of our assumptions about the first film are challenged but in the end, aren’t altered beyond being recognizable, making for a sequel that feels just as well balanced as Empire.
1980 also brought us another science fiction film with a more adult tone and while many of you may be thinking of Sybil Danning’s revealing costume in Battle Beyond the Stars, I’m actually talking about Saturn 3. Ultimately a failure on a storytelling and directorial level; it was attempting something closer to Alien but replacing the alien itself with a robot.
What was interesting here though, is the rare moments of violence and gore which show its connection to Frankenstein and the unique production design. The sets and Hector the robot are still stand outs in concept design especially today when more and more science fiction and fantasy films look like they were all designed by the same artist. Conceived of and originally directed by John Barry, the production designer of the Star Wars films; he was ultimately fired off of his own project and replaced by Stanley Donen after conflicting with Kirk Douglas. Ultimately one of the experimental failures of Magic Hour, the design aspects of this film still hold up today. A great film to watch with the sound off and that’s actually a compliment in this case.
It seems this was the year for experimental, science fiction failures because there were two more. The first was the remake of Flash Gordon, which interestingly enough was what Star Wars was going to be before George Lucas was unable to secure the rights. The film was both derivative and daringly experimental at the same time. It was obviously a Star Wars clone but took the bold choice of featuring a retro Art Deco-design for the entire film at a time when everyone was chasing Lucas’ “used universe” aesthetic. Then there was the VERY experimental choice of rejecting the “classical score” which Star Wars also brought back into popularity. Instead, the movie was scored by the rock group Queen who created a sound that’s halfway between a synthesized sound and a full on rock opera making for one of the most unique and memorable film scores ever recorded. The other experimental failure was literally about experiments and it was one of the strangest films of Magic Hour.
Altered States was a film directed by Ken Russell from the only novel ever written by famed screenwriter Patty Chayefsky (Marty, The Catered Affair, Network) who also wrote the screenplay but removed his name from the final film after disputes with Russell. The disagreement in tone between the screenwriter and director can be seen in the finished product which features a very serious story with Chayefsky’s trademark naturalistic dialogue but which is somewhat undermined by Russell’s direction which handles the “trip sequences” with an over-the-top approach that sometimes wanders into silliness.
The story itself is pretty heady stuff detailing a research scientist (played by William Hurt in his first film role) who experiments with psychotropic drugs while being suspended in an isolation tank. This first results in intense hallucinations that slowly becomes a frightening trip into a continued regression to man’s earlier state. At first he’s transformed into an early hominid but by the end of the film, regresses to man’s earliest primordial state which is somewhere between non-corporeal and ultimate chaos. As critic Janet Maslin wrote at the time: “The screenplay, addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man”. Try getting away with that today in the age of comic book movies.
Perhaps Altered States would’ve been in better hands with the filmmaker who made this next entry: The Elephant Man. David Lynch had burst on the scene in the same year as Star Wars with his VERY experimental film, Eraserhead. The success of that film afforded Lynch the luxury of a bigger budget and a studio picture. In a great example of how originality and the bigger interests of Hollywood commerce were so evenly balanced in this period, Lynch originally was going to make a film he wrote called Ronnie Rocket but when it became obvious that it wouldn’t be picked up by anyone, he had his producing partner find scripts for him to direct. The Elephant Man was his choice for his sophomore effort. To this day, it’s seen as the most mainstream of Lynch’s filmography and yet, still maintains his trademark surrealist style. Shot in black and white, featuring an innovative use of sound and one of the most impressive make up transformations of all time, John Hurt creates real pathos for the real life tale of John Merrick who, deformed from birth, is rescued by Anthony Hopkins to live a life that finally shows him his own worth. All of the elements combine to create a kind of sad, moving fairy tale that is deeply empathetic to its main character. In the end, it plays like a dream version of E.T.. This is a wonderful blend of big, Hollywood storytelling with the strange, offbeat sensibilities of a real artist.
That’s it for Part 1 and those first three years. Next time, I’ll cover the introduction of horror films to finish off 1980 and take a look at the genre explosion that was 1981. Please comment below on your thoughts on these movies and what other films from this time I may have missed that could fit into Magic Hour.