The Age of the Excessive Machine: Psychedelic SF, On-Screen and Off
In 1975, a group of talented young men started work on an epic film version of Dune. It would have featured extravagant visual design, never before seen effects, an all-star cast (including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger)—and would have sparked a new age of spiritual awakening for the entire world!
At least, that’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version.
What little is known about it seems almost impossibly strange. The castrated Duke Leto and impregnates Jessica with a drop of his blood. The spice writhes as if it were alive. The Emperor rules from an upside-down room. Baron Harkonnen has a monstrous statue of himself for a mobile fortress. In the end, Paul is killed but becomes the collective consciousness of the planet Arakis—which then flies off to enlighten the entire Galaxy.
None of it has much to do with the novel. Instead it seems a mad hallucination; Dune on an acid trip and freaking out; a wild, psychedelic vision unimaginable except at the height of the turned-on Seventies.
Science fiction and psychedelia combined?
An improbable, almost impossible, combination—or so it seems. Yet for a brief moment they met—and not just for Jodorowsky and his team of “warriors,” but in some very mainstream films (and a few that definitely weren’t).
And, yes, even science fiction writers were psychedelic.
While easy to recognize, “psychedelic” remains harder to define. We associate it with bright primary colors and cartoonish design, like the legendary posters from the Fillmore.
However, much of the music at the Fillmore was also psychedelic, songs like “White Rabbit,” whose lyrics seem filled with ominous portent but whose meaning is elusive. Distortion, reverb, feedback, exotic instruments like the sitar, electronic music and effects give it a hazy, dreamy effect, much like being high.
In fact, what defines psychedelic matches the physical effects of hallucinogens. LSD had escaped the CIA’s mind control experiments and was spreading fast, thanks to people like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. By 1965 its first symptoms had crept into SF cinema—most notably in a film aimed at children.
Science Fiction was not doing well in the theaters.
The glorious rush of the genre in the fifties had lost steam before the end of the decade. Science Fiction still got made but no one quite knew what to do with it. The results were strange; everything from realistic NASA flights to morality plays (mostly starring Charlton Heston), James Bond clones with aliens, cautionary tales extrapolated from the headlines, art-house science fiction, and even a few Fifties retreads.
To Milton Subotsky, science fiction was strictly for children.
It seems an odd fit. His Amicus films made the best non-Hammer Hammer horror films. But, instead of copying his rival’s horror-themed Quatermass films, he chose to adapt a children’s show. He even left the Amicus name off so he wouldn’t scare the parents away.
In Doctor Who and the Daleks, the formerly black-and-white planet Skaro—and even the Daleks—came in garish colors. While aimed at children, it is a radical shift from the subdued, even sterile, esthetic of the genre in the fifties. He also splashed the same bold colors all over Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), his 1967 children’s film, The Terrornauts, and even the final scenes of the Quatermass inspired They Came From Beyond Space (1967).
Similar elements also appeared in two 1965 Italian films:
Although he dabbled in every genre, the enormously talented Mario Bava is best remembered for his horror films—and the intense splashes of color lighting his castles and graveyards. However, when he threw them on the mist-shrouded Planet of the Vampires even the stark, modernistic interior of a spaceship became an eerie and shadowy place.
Three years later, he would create an entirely different psychedelic look for his other science fiction film, Danger: Diabolik, with bold modernist sets and the most extravagant end any supervillain ever met.
Wild, Wild Planet is nowhere near as accomplished as Bava’s film, but it is almost as colorful. It reaches its hallucinogenic peak on the planet Delphus. There Mike Halstead and his crew face not just wild op-art and futuristic design, but a scientist planning a fate worse than death for Mike’s girlfriend: he will cut her—and himself—in half, then fuse the two into a single person!
It has to be the single most insane plan ever conceived by a movie villain and sounds suspiciously like something out of William S. Burroughs. It seems fitting that it all ends when a flood of horrific red goo overwhelms the secret complex.
That same year, a strange underground science fiction film emerged from the heart of the psychedelic culture. Sins of the Fleshapoids, directed by Warhol acolyte Mike Kuchar, is a color silent with musical accompaniment and speech bubbles scratched onto the film (and, one suspects, largely improvised by the cast), about a robot revolution a million years from now. While sexy and a little perverse, it lacks the nudity, gore, and constant assault on the audience’s sensibilities of the later Warhol films.
One can also see the psychedelic in such films as Mission Stardust, Privilege (1967), Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, Project X (1968) or Moon Zero Two (1969). But none of these were as influential as a film that was great science fiction in its own right: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s stargate sequence dazzled audiences with a slit-scan light show created by Douglas Trumbull. Reportedly hippies would arrive at the theaters just in time to watch it lying on their backs, staring up at the screen. Curiously, such “trips” became de rigueur in these movies, in films as diverse as Silent Running, Brainstorm, Star Trek IV, and even Mission To Mars and Interstellar.
Barbarella (1968), however, was far more psychedelic in the fullest sense of the word.
Jane Fonda plays a naïve innocent saving the universe by having sex with everyone she meets. Roger Vadim adapted the French comic strip to show off his latest wife, and she keeps donning revealing new costumes only to have them torn off. Along the way she is attacked by killer dolls, thrown in a deadly aviary and nearly pleasured to death in Durand Durand’s “Excessive Machine.” Her shag-lined space ship looks like a giant pair of lips, women lounge about smoking “essence of man” from a giant hookah (with a man swimming inside), and it all ends with yet another flood of red goo. Even the film score is psychedelic.
Barbarella’s outrageous sexuality reflects a major cultural change underway in the European film industry: nudity and sex had suddenly become as acceptable on-screen as it was in the counter culture. Many of the science fiction films that followed rarely show up on television because so much would have to be cut. Some, like A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Man who Fell to Earth (1976) required heavy editing for the US market to avoid an “X” rating.
The cinematic experiments of the era also worked well with psychedelic science fiction. Alain Resnais took the fractured time lines of Last Year at Marienbad and gave them a more literal interpretation in 1968’s Je t’aime, Je t’aime, sending his hapless protagonist randomly back and forth through his past when he volunteers to test an organic, womb-like, time machine.
Billy Pilgrim came similarly unstuck in time in the film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1972). He bounces between the horrors of war, his ordinary life back home, and an alien zoo on Tralfamador where he mates with a Hollywood starlet, against a score which plays deliberate counterpoint to the action. The Man who Fell to Earth has a similar, if less literal, non-linear plot, but as many art films of the era did it goes further, raising questions of how much of what we saw was real.
Another European trend—serious adult animation—also produced a classic psychedelic film: René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973). Some have compared it to the early Métal Hurlant magazine: it overflows with strange creatures, bizarre ideas and, yes, even cartoon nudity.
Laloux would make another equally hallucinogenic science fiction movie long after psychedelia had faded away. Sadly, Gandahar (1988) remains mostly unseen in the US thanks to its topless female characters.
Underground animator Ralph Bakshi’s decidedly psychedelic 1977 film, Wizards is probably science fiction as well, although his post-apocalyptic world is full of elves and sorcerers. The film is beautiful, bizarre, and even brilliant—but it is also remarkably inconsistent and unfocused.
The 1981 anthology film, Heavy Metal, suffers from the same problems. The best segments—like Taarna’s quest for revenge, or the vintage Corvette dropping from orbit—are stunning. But who in the world thought it was a good idea to blend psychedelic space art with stoner comedy?
Psychedelic science fiction even had a small television presence, mostly on Britain’s ITV network.
While Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation” shows—like Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons—used lots of wild color, his finest moment came in the live action UFO (1970), where Sylvia Anderson’s fashions get billed in the opening credits. And no wonder: the official “uniforms” of SHADO include fishnet shirts for the sub crews; and silver mini-skirts, purple wigs, and exotic makeup for the girls manning Moonbase!
On the other hand, The Prisoner (1967) matches its trippy visuals of lava lamps, killer weather balloons, watchful statues, inexplicable technology, and deliberately old-fashioned surroundings with an equally trippy set of ideas: mind swapping, hypnosis, mental regression, virtual reality and even bedtime stories. The final episode is perhaps the most psychedelic, with an ape-masked Number One, a room full of controllers chanting “I, I, I . . . ” over and over, and a machine gun battle set to “All You Need Is Love.”
It all peaked in the mid-Seventies.
Saul Bass, who created iconic credit sequences for films like Vertigo, gave us Phase IV in 1974. It starts with a mysterious stellar event triggering a cosmic awakening of the ants, giving them collective intelligence. It abounds in psychedelic imagery, from the animated opening to the ants’ strange geometrical structures. Its distributors deleted the original “stargate” ending—a terrifying, often inexplicable montage of life in the ants’ new world—before its release. It remained unseen until 2012.
Zardoz (1974) mixes obscure philosophizing, weary eternals seeking death, and the Wizard of Oz with a giant floating head, Sean Connery in red, rubber shorts (with matching bandoleers), and an ending borrowed from Buster Keaton. It buries us under a steady barrage of strange visuals, from images projected on naked bodies, to shrink-wrapped people and a dazzling hall of mirrors battle between Connery and the immortal’s crystal computer. Zardoz combines knowing self-mockery with a grandiose sense of self-importance—which could be said about the psychedelic movement itself.
But perhaps the movie that best represents the whole era was the screen adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel, The Final Programme (1973). It seems at first glance a warped James Bond on acid, with Jon Finch as a dandified billionaire physicist with his own private fighter jet, Edwardian clothes, and black painted fingernails. But throw in the enigmatic Miss Brunner who somehow absorbs her lovers, Jerry’s far too loving interest in his sister, and a mysterious computer “programme” which might just save the world, and it becomes something far stranger.
Dr. Phibes director Robert Fuest creates a number of extravagant set pieces, like a gigantic pinball game with people rolling around in big plastic bubbles, or a chessboard door unlocked by the right moves. It ends with yet another, more satiric take-off of 2001’s stargate, as the programme fuses Jerry and Miss Brunner into a single being as they have sex. However, unlike the novel, where they produce a messianic savior (Jerry’s initials are no coincidence), it yields a deformed monster who describes the world with the word Miss Brunner used for one of her lovers:
The word “psychedelic” gets thrown around a lot when people talk about Moorcock—and the Cornelius novels, with their incompatible storylines and bizarre details deserve it.
Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine was the heart of the “New Wave” science fiction movement, which tried to bring experimental and literary approaches to the genre, often—as the films of the era did—fusing fantasy and science fiction elements. Other “New Wave” pioneers, like Harlan Ellison and his Dangerous Visions anthologies, or J.G. Ballard have been called psychedelic, although Ballard’s dark and crumbling worlds seem far from the word’s normal sense. To date only the Portuguese Low-Flying Aircraft (2002) and High Rise (2015) have adapted his SF to the screen. Neither is currently available in the US.
Curiously, Frank Herbert, whose Dune was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Experience, rarely gets called “psychedelic.” Nor does Kurt Vonnegut, although the label gets slapped on a few of his novels.
And then there’s William S. Burroughs, a genuine counter-culture icon: some of his work—like Nova Express—is more or less science fiction, although his style includes such conceits as randomly inserted unrelated bits of prose. His books are so psychedelic that they’ve been said to be totally unfilmable, although David Cronenberg did make a movie loosely based on Naked Lunch. 1984’s Decoder tried to capture his spirit without directly adapting his work. Jürgen Muschalek used intense color and shadow to hide his minimal budget, adopting a disjointed and abrupt editing style to match Burrough’s heavily fragmented prose. The end result is more Cyberpunk than psychedelic, however, filled with revolution and dark, paranoid conspiracies.
Perhaps the handwriting on the wall first appeared in 1976 when the East German DEFA studios released In the Dust of the Stars. One wonders what the studio’s commissars thought of appropriating a clearly decadent Western style.
The last psychedelic science fiction films of the Seventies are among the most stylish (although the other elements seem less prominent). Logan’s Run (1976) remains one of the most memorable, with bold design and psychedelic excesses like the fiery ritual of Carrousel. But the wave of great genre films that followed—Star Wars, Alien, The Road Warrior and Blade Runner—all took place in used universes, where everything was battered and worn. It was a hostile climate for anything as unrealistic as psychedelia.
The Italians had produced more psychedelic science fiction than anyone else, and it lingered even after they started making Star Wars rip-offs. Their first, Star Crash (1978) is easily as colorful as Barbarella, and has such fantastic imagery as a Death Star knock-off in the shape of a giant hand. But a year later, The Humanoid looks exactly like what it is: a low-rent George Lucas copy.
By 1980, Flash Gordon looked atavistic. It is perhaps the most visually stunning psychedelic film ever made, set in a strange, mist-filled realm where floating islands fill the sky and the insanely colorful rockets and uniforms look as if they’d been ripped right out of Alex Raymond’s Sunday pages. Its campy score by Queen, its tongue-in-cheek humor, and the aggressive sexuality of Ming and Aura all came straight from the psychedelic playbook. But something has changed: sex is no longer redemptive. Barbarella would never have hesitated to use it to win over Ming.
Or perhaps it wasn’t that much of a change. Disturbing notes, like Ballard’s fetishists obsessed with car crashes or Alex’s Clockwork Orange rapes had been there all along. By 1982, the frigid protagonist of Liquid Sky, finds nothing but oppression in the sexual demands of those around her. When aliens seeking the endorphins released by orgasm start killing her lovers, she uses sex as a weapon—only to throw her own life away when the aliens try to leave without her. The film assaults us with garish color and bizarre fashions—and yet it is punk nihilism, not psychedelia.
Jodorowsky’s epic struggle to make Dune stalled out in 1982. He couldn’t raise the ten million he needed. Not a single frame of film seems to have resulted from his effort.
The psychedelic culture itself lost its innocence around the same time, descending into chaotic punk rebellion.
While psychedelic elements—particularly “stargate” sequences—still occasionally surface in science fiction films, not only has their hour passed but the grungy “realism” of Eighties SF has given way to the hard SF realism of Gravity and The Martian. A few stray films—like Aeon Flux—toy with deliberately unrealistic SF, and a few Anime—say, Satoshi Kon’s brilliant but demented Paprika (2006) and the utterly insane Redline (2009)—go further than the maddest psychedelic film ever dared go.
Whatever its flaws and inherent contradictions, psychedelic SF helped bring new life to a film genre that couldn’t seem to overcome its Saturday matinee past. It may seem embarrassing now, but it played a major role in the birth of a few landmark science fiction films.
Have we seen the end of the sort of science fiction movies it inspired?
The wild genre-bending work of Don Coscarelli, Vincenzo Natali, or Richard Kelly; the talk of a new version of Barbarella; and visually driven science fiction like Oblivion all say “not yet.”
Maybe realism is overrated.