I have SF writer John Scalzi to thank for alerting me to the existence of The Spirit of ’76, which has become one of my favorite sci-fi comedies, more and more enjoyable every time I watch it. Scalzi mentioned it in his cool book The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies (2005), and it’s a good thing, too, because this movie really is quite unknown, even to many sci-fi fans, and its 5.6 rating at IMDb.com is ludicrously low.
The movie is a true science fiction movie in that it addresses relevant issues of interest to technology and the development of society. It starts in the year 2176, where all information has long since been digitized – just as we are now about to do in this internet era of ours. The vulnerability of this strategy for data storage becomes apparent when a planet-wide magnetic storm erases everything. Since people are relying on computer uplinks for most of their thinking and data retrieval (this is not explained in the movie, but strongly implied), all human beings are suddenly rendered completely ignorant and naïve about everything. Their entire culture grinds to a halt and faces imminent self-destruction. Fortunately, an eccentric inventor has come up with a time machine, and the Ministry of Knowledge sees no other recourse but to send a small band of their best people into the past to retrieve essential cultural information. The plan is to go back to 1776 and get hold of the fabled Constitution, but by mistake the team ends up in 1976 instead. And the brilliant stroke of comedy is that they are too clueless and culture-shocked to ever discover that they aren’t in 1776. So they record the entire cultural zeitgeist of 1976 and are elated to bring it back to the future to jumpstart their own deflated culture with a healthy dose of the rainbow decade. Unbelievable fun!
The characters are great. The emissaries of the future have names like Heinz-57, Chanel-6 and Chevron-17, and when they arrive in 1976 they are taken under the wing of hip, slang-spouting teenagers Chris and Tommy, who help them by getting them hip clothes and hide their time-machine. And so they start their cultural mission to document the age and find ways to save the future from cultural collapse. The long middle of the movie chronicles this mission; the characters’ comical encounter with the music, fashion and silliness of the age, peppered throughout with lots of cool one-liners. One of the hottest actresses of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Olivia D’Abo, plays Chanel-6, and even if there were no other reasons to watch the movie (but there are plenty), her presence alone would be reason enough.
Although the movie is a satire, and its tag line is “A close-up look at the most embarrassing decade in history,” its depiction of the ‘70s is actually very affectionate while also making fun of it. And to let people from the future who are named after corporations embrace 1970s (counter)culture in the belief that it’s actually 1770s culture is certainly intended as a funny jab at typical American conservatism.
In short, it is an uproariously funny movie, especially to someone like myself, born in 1971, and more or less still considering myself a part of the hippie movement. I love the fact that this movie was done in 1990, only a decade after the ‘70s, and still understands and appreciates the cultural impact of the ‘70s very clearly. Great movie. Watch it!
My DVD is the American R1 release, which is the only version available. And it is fantastic. It’s got lots and lots of extras: director commentary, behind the scenes featurette, outtakes and additional scenes, a music video, cast profiles, trailer, subtitles – and an entire handful of easter eggs (remember those? Are they even doing those anymore?), where people more or less connected with the movie offer humorous reminiscences about the 1970s. All good – could hardly be better. If you appreciate true sci-fi gems, this is a movie that belongs in your collection.
Director: Lucas Reiner
Cast: David Cassidy, Olivia D’Abo, Geoff Hoyle, Leif Garrett and others.
Runtime: 82 min.