History of science fiction films
The history of science fiction films parallels that of the motion picture industry as a whole, although it took several decades before the genre was taken seriously. Since the 1960s, major science fiction films have succeeded in pulling in large audience shares, and films of this genre have become a regular staple of the film industry. Science fiction films have led the way in special effects technology, and have also been used as a vehicle for social commentary.
Science fiction films appeared very early in the silent film era. The initial attempts were short films of typically 1 to 2 minutes in duration, shot in black and white, but sometimes with colour tinting. These usually had a technological theme, and were often intended to be humorous. Le Voyage dans la Lune, created by Georges Méliès in 1902 is often considered to be the first science fiction film. It drew upon Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in its depiction of a spacecraft being launched to the moon in a large cannon. Its ground-breaking special effects pioneered the way for future science-fiction films, and it became largely popular after its release.
Science fiction literature would continue to influence early films. Jules Verne's classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was adapted multiple times, notably into the 1916 film, one of the first feature-length science fiction films. Others, such as Edison Studios' 1910 adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, and the 1913 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, brought the concept of mad scientists to cinema. These two also demonstrated an early overlap between the science fiction and horror genres. Into the 1920s, another success was The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book of the same name. It was one of the earliest examples of stop-motion animation, and also introduced several now-famous science fiction concepts, like monsters, dinosaurs, and hidden worlds.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the 1920s displayed a distinct difference from American cinema. European film-makers began to use the genre for prediction and social commentary. In Russia, the film Aelita discussed social revolution in the context of a voyage to Mars. In Germany, one of the most important pioneers of science fiction was the Expressionist Fritz Lang. His 1927 film Metropolis was the most expensive film ever released up to that point. Set in the year 2026, it included elements such as an autonomous robot, a mad scientist, a dystopian society, and elaborate futuristic sets. His 1929 work Frau im Mond, or Woman In The Moon, came as the silent film era was coming to a close, and notably introduced the idea of counting down the time to a rocket launch.
1930s and 1940s
Movies during the 1930s were largely impacted by the advent of sound and dialogue, and by the effects of the Great Depression that began in 1929. Audiences began to pursue films with more escapist themes, leading to a decline in serious speculative films. After the failure of the big-budget 1930 American film Just Imagine, studios were reluctant to finance the expensive futuristic sets necessary for this type of film. Although the 1936 British film Things to Come, written by H. G. Wells, projected the world 100 years into the future and forecasted the advent of World War II, it too was a box-office flop, and films with serious speculation and visual spectacle of the future would largely disappear until the 1950s.
Instead, the decade saw the rise of film serials: low-budget, quickly-produced shorts depicting futuristic, heroic adventures. action, melodramatic plots, and gadgetry. Echoes of this style can still be seen in science fiction and action films today, as well as in the various James Bond films. Some of the most popular of the era were the various Flash Gordon films, the exploits of Buck Rogers, and others, such as the quasi-science fiction Dick Tracy. They continued to use science fiction elements like space travel, high-tech gadgets, plots for world domination, and mad scientists.
Other elements of science fiction were carried into the burgeoning horror genre, driven by the massive success of the Universal Studios' Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Many Universal Horror films, such as The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde prominently featured mad scientists and experiments gone wrong, as did other monster movies like The Vampire Bat, Doctor X, and Dr. Cyclops.
Sequels to successful horror films continued into World War II, and the 1940s also saw the development of patriotic superhero serials like Fleischer Studio's animated Superman short subjects that often doubled as war propaganda. However, science fiction as an independent genre lay mostly dormant throughout the war.
Post-War and 1950s
Two events at the end of World War II had major impacts on the science fiction genre. The development of the atomic bomb increased interest in science, as well as anxiety about the possible apocalyptic effects of a nuclear war. The period also saw the beginning of the Cold War, and widespread Communist paranoia in the United States. These led to a major increase in the number of sci-fi films being created throughout the 1950s, and creating a Golden Age of Science Fiction that matched the one taking place in literature.
One of the earlier and most important films of the era was 1950's widely publicized Destination Moon. It follows a nuclear-powered rocketship carrying four men to the moon, against a background of competition against the Soviets. With a script co-written by Robert A. Heinlein and astronomical sets by renowned space artist Chesley Bonestell, the film was a commercial and artistic success, and it brought about more studio financing of science fiction film. The producer of Destination Moon was notably George Pal who also helped create When Worlds Collide, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and the pseudo-documentary of manned space exploration Conquest of Space. Although Conquest of Space was a commercial failure that set back Pal's career, the other four each won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which demonstrated the increased technical excellence and critical recognition of the genre.
Alien films saw a huge surge in popularity during the 1950s. Many featured political commentary being mixed with the concept of UFOs, which had become ingrained in the public consciousness after the Kenneth Arnold and Roswell incidents of 1947. Two of the first were The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise, and Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World, with their contrasting views of first contact. While the former had a peaceful race of aliens urging humans to control their use of nuclear weapons, the latter's title creature stalked a crew in Antarctica, with the paranoid final words, "Watch the skies!" The idea of alien invasions as an allegory recurred with Don Siegel's 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Critically acclaimed as a classic, it has been viewed as both a veiled criticism of McCarthyism, or a cautionary story of Communist infiltration.
Another important UFO film, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, had special effects created by Ray Harryhausen, a master of stop-motion animation that had previously worked with King Kong animator, Willis O'Brien. His work also appeared in such films as 20 Million Miles to Earth, and 1953's hit film, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. That film, based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, featured the fictional Rhedosaurus, which is thawed out of the Arctic by atomic testing and begins to ravage sections of the United States. Its massive success set off a new wave of science-fiction monster films. Like the 1930s, these movies demonstrated a mix of horror and sci-fi, now often mixed with anxiety of nuclear technology or the dangers of outer space. Them!, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Tarantula, released within two years of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, all featured over-sized animals created by nuclear testing. It! The Terror from Beyond Space, The Blob, The Angry Red Planet, and Kronos, on the other hand, featured alien monsters. Still others, like The Fly, The Amazing Colossal Man, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, focused on human mutation. This trend was not limited to the United States; perhaps the most successful monster movies were the kaiju films released by Japanese film studio Toho. The 1954 film Godzilla, with the title monster attacking Tokyo, gained immense popularity, spawned multiple sequels, led to other kaiju films like Rodan, and created one of the most recognizable monsters in cinema history.
The financial success of these films relied on studios drawing in large teenage audiences, taking advantage of popular techniques such as drive-in theaters and 3D, notably used by movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Gog. In addition to increasing the audience size, many sci-fi films of the time were created with minuscule budgets; the phrase "B-movie" came to signify a formulaic genre film made with low production costs (usually for less than $400,000). This concept was exemplified in a studio memo about the movie Them! that stated, "We want a picture with the same exploitation possibilities as we had in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. We all know this will not be a 'class production' but it has all the ingredients of being a successful box office attraction." The idea of low-quality, low-cost films were taken to an extreme by directors such as Roger Corman, Coleman Francis, and Ed Wood, and the latter's Plan 9 from Outer Space has been hailed as one of the worst films of all time.
However, in the second half of the decade, the steady success of the genre led to some studios attempting serious films with large budgets, including the coldly realistic depiction of a post-nuclear war world, On the Beach, and Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi re-imagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The second film would have an impact on the genre for years to come; it included the first all-electronic music score, introduced the character Robby the Robot, and served as the inspiration for Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek.
The success of science fiction films also saw the genre grow internationally. In Britain, there was a period of notable production, with Hammer Films adaptations of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass series. The success of the television versions inspired the company to commission a series of film adaptations. Science fiction films also began appearing in Bengali cinema, including Satyajit Ray's 1958 magical realist film Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone), and Ritwik Ghatak's 1958 film Ajantrik (The Unmechanical) that examined the relationship between man and machine.
After the rush of science fiction films in the 1950s, there were relatively few in the 1960s, but these few transformed science fiction cinema.
One of the most significant films of the 1960s was 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. 2001 is regarded as the seminal entry in the science-fiction genre as it influenced several later entries. Steven Spielberg, one of the genre's most well-known figures aptly called 2001, 'the big bang of science-fiction.'
This movie was groundbreaking in the quality of its visual effects, in its realistic portrayal of space travel, and in the epic and transcendent scope of its story. Science fiction movies that followed this film would enjoy increasingly larger budgets and ever improving special effects. Clarke has told of screening earlier science-fiction films for Kubrick, and Kubrick pronouncing them all awful, without exception, even the revered Things to Come from 1936, with its screenplay by H. G. Wells. 2001 was the first science fiction art film and had a philosophical scope that earlier films had not attempted. Many critics called it an incomprehensible mess when it first appeared. Today, it is widely lauded by critics as one of the greatest films of all time.
Several other important science fiction films were released in the 1960s. Planet of the Apes (1968) was extremely popular, spawning four sequels and a television series. Earlier in the 1960s, Fahrenheit 451 was a social commentary on freedom of speech and government restrictions. The extremely camp Barbarella paid homage to the sillier side of earlier science fiction. Finally, the science fiction film "boldly went where no man had gone before" when Raquel Welch ventured inside a human body in Fantastic Voyage. Another influential science fiction film, though it was never produced, was Satyajit Ray's The Alien, a story about a boy in Bengal befriending an alien. After production of the film was cancelled, the script became available throughout America in mimeographed copies, and may have served as inspiration for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Adaptations of H. G. Wells stories continued to be made, including films of The Time Machine and First Men in the Moon, but these seemed somewhat like a continuation of the 1950s sci-fi's. While not strictly-speaking science fiction, some of the James Bond films included a variety of science fiction-like gadgetry.
The era of manned trips to the Moon saw a resurgence of interest in the science fiction film in the 1970s. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both released in 1977, contained a mystical element reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The space discoveries of the 1970s created a growing sense of marvel about the universe that was reflected in these films.
However, the early 1970s also saw the continued theme of paranoia, with humanity under threat from ecological or technological adversaries of its own creation. Notable films of this period included Silent Running (ecology), the sequels to Planet of the Apes (man vs. evolution), Westworld (man vs. robot) and THX 1138 (man vs. the state), and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (man vs. brainwashing).
The conspiracy thriller film was a popular staple of this period, where the paranoia of plots by the national government or corporate entities had replaced the implied communist enemy of the 1950s. These films included such efforts as Alien, Capricorn One, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Logan's Run, The Day of the Dolphin, Soylent Green and Futureworld.
The slow-paced Solaris made by Andrei Tarkovsky and released in 1972 (and remade as a much shorter film by Steven Soderbergh in 2002) matches and in some assessments exceeds 2001 in its visuals and philosophic scope, while other critics find it plodding and pretentious.
In 1979, three notable science fiction films appeared. Star Trek: The Motion Picture brought the much loved television series to the big screen for the first time. Alien upped the ante on how scary a screen monster could be. And Time After Time pitted H. G. Wells against Jack the Ripper, with a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, who would later go on to direct two of the installments in the Star Trek film series. The year 1979 also saw Walt Disney Productions' venture into the science fiction genre with The Black Hole, which was poorly received but praised highly for its special effects.
Following the huge success of Star Wars, science fiction became bankable and each major studio rushed into production their available projects. As a direct result, Star Trek was reborn as a film franchise that continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Ridley Scott's Alien was significant in establishing a visual styling of the future that became dominant in science fiction films including "The Black Hole", "Saturn 3", "Outland", "2010", "Enemy Mine", and "Aliens (film)" through its sequels and Scott's Blade Runner; far from presenting a sleek, ordered universe, these films presented the future as dark, dirty and chaotic.
Thanks to the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, escapism became the dominant form of science fiction film through the 1980s. The big budget adaptations of Frank Herbert's Dune and Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 2001, 2010, were box office duds that dissuaded producers from investing in science fiction literary properties. The strongest contributors to the genre during the second half of the decade were James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven with The Terminator and RoboCop entries.
Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial became one of the most successful films of the 1980s. An influential film release was Scanners (1981), a film that would be imitated several times over the next two decades.
From 1980, the distinction between science fiction, fantasy, and superhero films blurred, thanks in large part to the influence of Star Wars. From 1980 on, every year saw at least one major science fiction or fantasy film, which critics disparaged and were ignored on Oscar night, except in the technical categories. Disney's 1982 film Tron had a unique visual style, being one of the first major studio films to use extensive computer graphics.
The 1980s and later saw the growth of animation as a medium for science fiction films. This was particularly successful in Japan where the anime industry produced Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995). Serious animation has not yet proven commercially successful in the United States and Western-made animated science fiction films such as Light Years (1988), The Iron Giant (1999) and Titan A.E. (2000) did not draw a significant viewing audience. However, anime has gradually gained a cult following and from mid-1990s its popularity has been steadily expanding worldwide.
The emergence of the world wide web and the cyberpunk genre during the 1990s spawned several Internet-themed films. Both The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Virtuosity (1995) dealt with threats to the network from a human-computer interface. Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Total Recall (1990) had the memories of their main actors modified by a similar interface, and The Matrix (1999) created a machine-run virtual prison for humanity. The internet also provided a ready medium for film fandom, who could more directly support (or criticize) such media franchise film series as Star Trek and Star Wars.
Disaster film remained popular, with themes updated to reflect recent influences. Both Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998) used the threat of a massive impact with the earth. Independence Day (1996 in film) recycled the 1950s alien invasion films, with rapacious, all-consuming aliens. Advances in genetic science were also featured in the Jurassic Park (1993) and the slow-paced Gattaca (1997).
As the decade progressed, computers played an increasingly important role in both the addition of special effects and the production of films. Large render farms made of many computers in a cluster were used to detail the images based on three-dimensional models. As the software developed in sophistication it was used to produce more complicated effects such as wave movement, explosions, and even fur-covered aliens. The improvements in special effects allowed the original Star Wars trilogy to be re-released in 1997 with many enhancements.
As in the 1980s, in every year of the 1990s one or more major science fiction or fantasy films were produced.
Oddly, in the 2000s (decade), SF films seemed to turn away from space travel, and fantasy predominated. Except for Star Trek and Star Wars films, the only films set off Earth that appeared in the first half of the 2000s (decade) were Serenity, Titan A.E., and the poorly received Mission to Mars and Red Planet. On the other hand, fantasy and superhero films abounded, as did earthbound SF such as the Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions.
Science fiction has returned to being a tool for political commentary in recent times with films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report with the former questioning the increasing materialism of today's world and the latter questioning the political situations surrounding the world post 9/11. Unique entries into the genre were also released around this time with the first science fiction romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
By the middle of the decade, the theater audience had begun to decline and this was reflected in the numbers attending the science fiction movie releases of this period. Sophisticated home theater systems came close to matching the cinema experience, and avoided the expense and inconvenience. Film studios had begun placing product advertisements prior to the start of films in theatres, seeking another means to enhance their bottom line, and alienating a segment of the theater-going audience. Making up for the losses in cinema revenue were sales and rentals of the high-quality DVD releases, many of which included previously cut scenes and extra material.
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