A History of Science Fiction Film | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Welcome to a new weekly feature here on Retrozap.com called Sci-Fi Saturdays. These posts will explore the history and impact of various science fiction films from its golden age in the 1950s through present day.

This week’s entry on Sci-Fi Saturdays will explore the birth of the sci-fi film. It will also look at some of the standout creators of the genre, some helpful nomenclature and an explanation of the format these articles will be taking in the future.

Sci-Fi Saturday

Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Science fiction films have been around since the dawn of cinema. The 1902 Georges Méliès short La Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), is considered by most to be the first science fiction film. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne, this French film introduced audiences to the fantastic wonders that film can create. German cinema also created a paramount science fiction film in those early days, which continues to influence productions today. Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis provides a very complex look at a dystopian future, helping to shape themes commonplace to science fiction films and literature for years to come. Like Méliès film, Metropolis was also based on an existing text by novelist Thea von Harbou.

Other films from the early days of cinema included many adaptations of existing literary work. Films such as the 1907 French adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, also by Méliès (there was a 1916 American adaptation as well), a 1910 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the 1919 adaptation of HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. The 1920s also saw the adaptations continue including a 1920 version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (one of three versions made that year. This one is the most famous of those with John Barrymore in the lead role), and the 1925 version of The Lost World, which is based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, known more for his Sherlock Holmes works. In fact, adaptations by existing authors such as Verne, Wells, Doyle, Shelley & Stevenson continue all the way to modern times. Additionally other noted science fiction authors get tapped as time goes on for filmed adaptations of their work, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Richard Matheson.

Sci-Fi Saturday

Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon (1936).

However, even with the existing source material, and the creativity of producers and directors in the new format of cinema, science fiction did not really take off as a genre until post-World War 2. The 1930s and 1940s did provide quite a few classic entries for the genre including the first non-silent version of Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, entitled The Island of Lost Souls (1932), Things to Come (1936), the serialized versions of Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939), and the very inspired King of the Rocket Men (a 1949 serial). Other films from this era that can be considered science fiction, but may be better thought of as horror films with science based themes include: James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) with Boris Karloff, the Fredric March version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains, and all of their sequels.

Sci-Fi Saturday

Destination Moon (1950) lobby card.

Sci-Fi Saturdays will look at science fiction films from 1950 forward, as that is the year the genre really seemed to take hold. During that year, two films with very similar themes and plots were released within a few weeks of each other. Both Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon revolve around the first manned expedition to the moon, each having mixed results, and both paving new roads for the genre. Rocketship X-M contains the first use of electronic music in a science fiction film with the use of the Theremin (notably used in the themes for both Forbidden Planet (1956) and the Star Trek (1966) television series), while Destination Moon was the first of at least half a dozen prominent films by Producer George Pal dealing with space, aliens and other science fiction tropes.

It seems no surprise that the roles of producer or director would become important to the science fiction genre. Creative individuals discovered a series of thematic and visual means to tell their stories that were both popular and profitable. The aforementioned George Pal would also produce and/or direct some of the cornerstone entries into the sci-fi genre including 1953s The War of the Worlds and the 1960 version of HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Another prominent producer, Irwin Allen, also created many notable entries for the genre. He was famous for films dealing with natural or man-made disasters often in a sci-fi setting. His notable works include both the 1961 film version and 1964 television series for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the Lost in Space (1965) & The Time Tunnel (1966) television series. But he may be more famously known for the disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), which could be thought of as “sci-fi adjacent,” as they deal with larger than existing structures that are destined for disaster. Modern names that readers may be more familiar with include George Lucas (THX-1138 (1971) and the Star Wars saga) and Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1981) and Minority Report (2002)) who both altered the genre dramatically beginning in the 1970s.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Steven Spielberg’s first foray in sci-fi, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Before we continue too far, let’s take a moment to address nomenclature regarding terms such as science fiction or sci-fi. An important distinction that some might argue (as Harlan Ellison does in this 1997 clip from the Sci-Fi Channel’s show SF Vortex) is that sci-fi is not the same thing as science fiction. Ellison argues that sci-fi is a dumbing-down of the more thoughtful science fiction. What he’s really saying is that science fiction literature is superior, as it addresses things that cannot be achieved in the medium of film or television. The inner monologues and deeper characterizations of the genre is something that even the best films cannot compete with. And while there may be merit to the argument, for the purposes of these write-ups on Sci-Fi Saturdays, both phrases mean the same thing: science fiction films. Sci-fi films and TV shows have been a popular medium for many decades now. Slighting the use of a shorthand description of the genre, because of the popularity of a mass-market adaptation, seems counter intuitive. Wouldn’t it would be better to get more people interested in the genre, even if it was for a watered-down version of the original? As with many of Ellison’s arguments, it comes off as elitist and bitter.

One thing that sci-fi enthusiasts can agree on is that with the possible exception of the horror genre, no other narrative genre encompasses the hopes and fears of the human condition as much as science fiction. The genre has films that look forward to the greatness of humankind (2001: A Space Odyssey), films that question the nature of humanity (Blade Runner), or films that look at the nature of reality (The Matrix). It also contains films that ponder the extinction of the human race due to man-made (Mad Max) or natural disasters (Snowpiercer), as well as humanity being subsumed by aliens (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or machines (The Terminator). These themes, and films, will be some of the media reviewed in Sci-Fi Saturdays.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The futuristic images of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Each generation of sci-fi films seem to have their own thematic issues. The 1950s is fraught with films dealing with xenophobia and the fears of atomic radiation. The 1960s sees themes of plagues and technology gone awry. Dystopian futures rattle out of the 80s and 90s as well as fears of computers and cyberspace. But as things change throughout the decades, the genre still embraces the basic questions of humanity: Who are we, and Why are we here?

Sci-fi films also have a large crossover with other genres, more so than almost any other. By definition most sci-fi films are a form of fantasy, but they remain in the realm of science, and not magic. Whereas Star Wars (1977) may be a sci-fi/fantasy film, for its inclusion of spaceships, robots and other technological aspects, it is not a straight fantasy film in the same way Willow (1988) might be. As mentioned in the opening of this article, many sci-fi films pull from the horror genre, such as Frankenstein (mad scientist, reanimation of the dead), Godzilla (a monster film, but whose creation is steeped in the scientific advances of mankind) and even Alien (a horror film, set in a sci-fi environment). There are sci-fi/action/adventure hybrids as well which take current events and imbue them with scientific advancements beyond current capabilities. Films like the James Bond series, or superhero films like Iron Man or Spider-Man are good examples. They are not science fiction films first, but do contain science fiction elements. This series will concern itself with more traditional science fiction films, and less with monster, disaster and action/adventure sub-genres.

Sci-Fi SaturdaysFinally, it’s good to remember that film does not exist in a void. Books, magazines, comics, theater and television all were making advancements in pushing the boundaries of science fiction during the heyday of the sci-fi film. In fact real scientific advancements often propelled the narrative of all these media into new and uncharted territories. An attempt will be made to explore some other aspects surrounding the release of the various films discussed in these articles, to show that nothing exists within a vacuum (except perhaps the coldness of space itself!)

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Come back every Saturday to look deeper into a specific science fiction film and discuss its place and importance in the genre on Sci-Fi Saturdays. Some will be serious, while other will be completely frivolous. But they will all be a fun look at interesting films. And, hopefully, you will discover a film you may have never knew existed, and choose to boldly go, where you have never gone before!

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