Where were you in ‘68? Knowing this paper’s demographic, you probably didn’t exist. But it’s guaranteed that you enjoy the results of these six cultural icons that continue to inspire storytellers even 50 years on.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This esoteric triumph of cinema is perhaps the most important sci-fi film made. If you still don’t get what it’s about, don’t worry – anyone who claims to know is lying. Stanley Kubrick himself admitted that the film’s infamous ending is ‘incomprehensible within our earthbound frames of reference’. Can you get more avant-garde than not understanding your own film? Kubrick’s visual effects are so exquisite that they made conspiracy theorists claim he faked the moon landing. Where sci-fi films used tinny synthesisers to deliver space vibes, Kubrick opted for classical music, causing initial audiences to burst out laughing at the novelty. Ten years later, they rejoiced upon hearing the equally symphonic score of Star Wars. Most importantly, 2001 is a wondrous exploration of human achievement through imagery alone. In one of the most poignant moments, a hominid ape throws away a bone, screaming and rejoicing in victory. We watch the bone spin through the clear sky until the film cuts to a spacecraft floating silently amongst the stars. This simple transition invites us, briefly, to skim through the entirety of human history: through war, the marvels of art and science. Every notable sci-fi filmmaker since has arguably paid homage to Kubrick’s unparalleled storytelling.
The Beatles: Yellow Submarine
Following the release of Sgt Pepper, The Fab Four were obligated to fulfil an unfortunate movie contract. It was agreed that a cartoon be created, so long as The Beatles had no actual involvement other than providing four new (and shamelessly lazy) songs. The result was a nonsensical tale in which the evil Blue Meanies, music-hating monsters, set out to “oblueterate” the harmonious folk of Pepperland. A survivor seeks out The Beatles to save the day. It deserves to be a complete disaster of a movie, yet it works. Considering the artists had only 11 months to complete the animation, the resulting genius is incredible. It’s a psychedelic menagerie of bold colours, photography and rotoscoping – all of which was hand painted on cels, frame-by-frame. Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein said he was greatly influenced by satirical undertones of the clever script, and praised Yellow Submarine as being the forefather of modern animation by proving that adults could appreciate cartoons.
Fiction wasn’t the only type of storytelling to be revolutionised in 1968. Don Hewitt became a pioneer of television journalism after growing tired of the “hour-long snoozers” he oversaw at CBS. He set about developing a show able to tackle anything: from Richard Nixon to communism… to The Muppet Show. His writers worked hard to create an eloquent tone for each episode. Hewitt knew that audiences were captivated not only by hard facts, but the story constructed. The show became an instantaneous success, setting up modern journalism to aim for both credibility and enjoyment. Nowadays 60 Minutes is one of the most successful shows in television history that still airs weekly, and has spawned copies all over the globe.
A Wizard of Earthsea
While not as popular as other fantasy novels, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy is widely praised for its challenging take on the theme of good and evil. Unlike the villains invented by the likes of Tolkien, a black-and-white concept of evil in Earthsea is frustratingly absent. There is no real “villain” except the main character’s shortcomings – his pride, temper and vanity – inviting us to wonder if the potential for evil lies within all of us. Similarly, any clear religious allegory is absent. Just as in the real world, morality is not a monochromatic concept. Le Guin urged modern fantasy writers to break away from conventional tropes, and most importantly, reminded a new generation of writers that fantasy could be as complex works of realism, during a time when the genre was largely written off as immature. Notably, Harry Potter appears to borrow heavily from Le Guin, though J. K. Rowling has refuted this.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K Dick is often heralded as the father of modern sci-fi, which isn’t surprising considering he wrote the story behind Blade Runner. This novel portrayed humanity’s struggle for meaning in an increasingly technology-centric universe – an idea that has only become more relevant with time. Unlike the film, Electric Sheep includes a sub-plot about a religion called Mercerism, which involves sending humans into a fabricated reality where they experience “real” emotions. The religion is absurd, yet it makes sense that humans would rather continue living under false pretences than face the emptiness of their artificial dystopia. Electric Sheep questions what it means to be human through the androids – machines that end up displaying truer emotions, perhaps, than the book’s own human protagonist. Dick asked what human experience would mean in the future, where he imagined (quite accurately) we would be living our lives through technology. It is an unnerving and brutally honest perspective on human advancement and undoubtedly influenced many later sci-fi works.
The myth that everyone who worked on Rosemary’s Baby was cursed makes this landmark film even creepier. An outwardly pleasant young couple move into a building with a “high incidence of unpleasant happenings”. What ensues is not, however, your typical Poltergeist scare-fest, but instead a stylish exposition of paranoia and psychological trauma. Polanski said he aimed to build a sense of dread throughout the film without the use of easy pointers like constant music, jump scares or gory visual effects – in his words, a “classy” horror film. His Hitchcockian knack for suspense redefined the horror genre and paved the way for psychological thrills in film as seen in the likes of The Shining and Requiem for a Dream. Are the unfortunate “accidents” supernatural or coincidences? Is it the devil, or is it all a figment of Rosemary’s imagination? No actual violence ever occurs, and the only supernatural imagery we see is through glimpses of dreams. It is this masterful ambiguity that evokes dread and wonder in all of us even 50 years later.