Science Fiction Films
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Science Fiction Films are usually scientific, visionary, comic-strip-like, and imaginative, and usually visualized through fanciful, imaginative settings, expert film production design, advanced technology gadgets (i.e., robots and spaceships), scientific developments, or by fantastic special effects. Sci-fi films are complete with heroes, distant planets, impossible quests, improbable settings, fantastic places, great dark and shadowy villains, futuristic technology and gizmos, and unknown and inexplicable forces. Many other SF films feature time travels or fantastic journeys, and are set either on Earth, into outer space, or (most often) into the future time. Quite a few examples of science-fiction cinema owe their origins to writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
They often portray the dangerous and sinister nature of knowledge ('there are some things Man is not meant to know') (i.e., the classic Frankenstein (1931), The Island of Lost Souls (1933), and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) - an updating of the 1958 version directed by Kurt Neumann and starring Vincent Price), and vital issues about the nature of mankind and our place in the whole scheme of things, including the threatening, existential loss of personal individuality (i.e., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)). Plots of space-related conspiracies (Capricorn One (1977)), supercomputers threatening impregnation (Demon Seed (1977)), the results of germ-warfare (The Omega Man (1971)) and laboratory-bred viruses or plagues (28 Days Later (2002)), black-hole exploration (Event Horizon (1997)), and futuristic genetic engineering and cloning (Gattaca (1997) and Michael Bay's The Island (2005)) show the tremendous range that science-fiction can delve into.
Strange and extraordinary microscopic organisms or giant, mutant monsters ('things or creatures from space') may be unleashed, either created by misguided mad scientists or by nuclear havoc (i.e., The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)). Sci-fi tales have a prophetic nature (they often attempt to figure out or depict the future) and are often set in a speculative future time. They may provide a grim outlook, portraying a dystopic view of the world that appears grim, decayed and un-nerving (i.e., Metropolis (1927) with its underground slave population and view of the effects of industrialization, the portrayal of 'Big Brother' society in 1984 (1956 and 1984), nuclear annihilation in a post-apocalyptic world in On the Beach (1959), Douglas Trumbull's vision of eco-disaster in Silent Running (1972), Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973) with androids malfunctioning, Soylent Green (1973) with its famous quote: "Soylent Green IS PEOPLE!", 'perfect' suburbanite wives in The Stepford Wives (1975), and the popular gladiatorial sport of the year 2018 in Rollerball (1975)). Commonly, sci-fi films express society's anxiety about technology and how to forecast and control the impact of technological and environmental change on contemporary society.
See: Robots in Film (a comprehensive illustrated history here).
Science fiction often expresses the potential of technology to destroy humankind through Armaggedon-like events, wars between worlds, Earth-imperiling encounters or disasters (i.e., The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), the two Hollywood blockbusters Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), etc.). In many science-fiction tales, aliens, creatures, or beings (sometimes from our deep subconscious, sometimes in space or in other dimensions) are unearthed and take the mythical fight to new metaphoric dimensions or planes, depicting an eternal struggle or battle (good vs. evil) that is played out by recognizable archetypes and warriors (i.e., Forbidden Planet (1956) with references to the 'id monster' from Shakespeare's The Tempest, the space opera Star Wars (1977) with knights and a princess with her galaxy's kingdom to save, The Fifth Element (1997), and the metaphysical Solaris (1972 and 2002)). Beginning in the 80s, science fiction began to be feverishly populated by noirish, cyberpunk films, with characters including cyber-warriors, hackers, virtual reality dreamers and druggies, and underworld low-lifers in nightmarish, un-real worlds (i.e., Blade Runner (1982), Strange Days (1995), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and The Matrix (1999)).
Borrowing and Hybrid Genre Blending in Sci-Fi Films:
The genre is predominantly a version of fantasy films ( Star Wars (1977)), but can easily overlap with horror films, particularly when technology or alien life forms become malevolent (Alien (1979)) in a confined spaceship (much like a haunted-house story). Quite a few science-fiction films took an Earth-bound tale and transported it to outer space: High Noon (1952) became Outland (1980), The Magnificent Seven (1960) was spoofed in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Enemy Mine (1985) was essentially a remake of Hell in the Pacific (1968) with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, and the chariot race of Ben-Hur (1959) was duplicated in the pod-race of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999).
Further, there are many examples of blurred or hybrid science fiction films that shared characteristics with lots of other genres including:
The Earliest Science Fiction Films:
Many early films in this genre featured similar fanciful special effects and thrilled early audiences. The pioneering science fiction film, a 14-minute ground-breaking masterpiece with 30 separate tableaus (scenes), Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), was made by imaginative, turn-of-the-century French filmmaker/magician Georges Melies, approximating the contents of the novels by Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) and H.G. Wells (First Men in the Moon). With innovative, illusionary cinematic techniques (trick photography with superimposed images, dissolves and cuts), he depicted many memorable, whimsical old-fashioned images:
Otto Rippert's melodramatic and expressionistic Homunculus (1916, Ger.) - mostly a lost silent film - was a serial (or mini-series) composed of six one-hour episodic parts. It told about the life of an artificial man (Danish actor Olaf Fonss) that was created by an archetypal mad scientist (Friedrich Kuhne). The monstrous, vengeful creature, after realizing it was soul-less and lacked human emotion, became a tyrannical dictator but was eventually destroyed by a divine bolt of lightning. Its importance as an early science-fiction film was that it served as a precursor and inspiration to Universal's Frankenstein (1931) film and many other plots of sci-fi films (with mad scientists, superhuman androids, Gothic elements, and the evil effects of technology).
The first science fiction feature films appeared in the 1920s after the Great War, showing increasing doubts about the destructive effects of technology gone mad. The first feature-length dinosaur-oriented science-fiction film to be released was The Lost World (1925). It was also the first feature length film made in the US with the pioneering first major use (primitive) of stop-motion animation with models for its special effects. It helped to establish its genre - 'live' and life-like giant monsters-dinosaurs, later replicated in Gojira (1954, Jp.), Jurassic Park (1993) and Godzilla (1998).
One of the greatest and most innovative films ever made was a silent film set in the year 2000, German director Fritz Lang's classic, expressionistic, techno-fantasy masterpiece Metropolis (1927) - sometimes considered the Blade Runner of its time. It featured an evil scientist/magician named Rotwang, a socially-controlled futuristic city, a beautiful but sinister female robot named Maria (probably the first robot in a feature film, and later providing the inspiration for George Lucas' C3-PO in Star Wars), a stratified society, and an oppressed enslaved race of underground industrial workers. Even today, the film is acclaimed for its original, futuristic sets, mechanized society themes and a gigantic subterranean flood - it appeared to accurately project the nature of society in the year 2000. [It was re-released in 1984 with a stirring, hard-rock score featuring Giorgio Moroder's music and songs by Pat Benatar and Queen.]
Another Lang film, his last silent film, was one of the first space travel films, The Woman in the Moon (1929) (aka By Rocket to the Moon). It was about a blastoff to the moon where explorers discovered a mountainous landscape littered with raw diamonds and chunks of gold. [The film introduced NASA's backward count to a launch - 5-4-3-2-1 to future real-life space shots, and the effects of centrifugal force to future space travel films.]
Alexander Korda's epic view of the future Things to Come (1936) was directed by visual imagist William Cameron Menzies and starred Raymond Massey (as pacifist pilot John Cabal). The imaginative English film was based on an adaptation of H. G. Wells' 1933 The Shape of Things to Come and set during the years from 1940 to 2036 in 'Everytown.' It included a lengthy global world war (WW II!), a prophetic Brave New World-view, a despotic tyrant named Rudolph (Ralph Richardson), the dawn of the space age, and the attempt of social-engineering scientists to save the world with technology. An attempt to prevent scientific progress - and the launch of the first Moon rocket - was vainly led by sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke). David Butler's Just Imagine (1930), a futuristic sci-fi musical about a man who awakened in a strange new world - New York City in the 1980s, provided prophetic inventions including automatic doors, test tube babies, and videophones.
Early Science-Fiction - Horror Film Blends: The 30s
The most memorable blending of science fiction and horror was in Universal Studios' mad scientist-doctor/monster masterpiece from director James Whale, Frankenstein (1931), an adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. Her original 1818 book was subtitled Frankenstein - The Modern Prometheus, and she used this allusion to signify that her main character Dr. Victor Frankenstein demonstrated 'hubris' against god/nature in his experimental desire to create life from dead body parts, and afterwards abandoned his monstrous ugly creature. Like the Titan god, who stole fire from the gods to benefit mankind, he did not realize the ramifications of his actions. (Although there were civilizing results of having fire, it also brought the ability to work with metals, which could be shaped into weapons, that could then be used in warfare.) Many other derivative works, including numerous sci-fi films, have featured mad scientists, and artificially-created monsters that run amok killing people.
This was soon followed by Whale's superior sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), one of the best examples of the horror-SF crossover, and one of the first films with a mad scientist's creation of miniaturized human beings. The famed director also made the film version of an H. G. Wells novel The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains (in his film debut in the starring title role) - it was the classic tale of a scientist with a formula for invisibility accompanied by spectacular special effects and photographic tricks.
Mad Scientists in Early Horror/Sci-Fi Films:
In the 1930s and early 40s, American sound films with hybrid science fiction/horror themes included an oddball collection of mad scientist films, with memorable characters who created mutated or shrunken creatures:
Escapist Serials of the 30s: Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers
In the 1930s, the most popular films were the low-budget, less-serious, space exploration tales portrayed in the popular, cliff-hanger Saturday matinee serials with the first two science-fiction heroes - Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
Space-explorer hero Flash Gordon was a fanciful adventure character derived from the Alex Raymond comic strip first published in 1934 (from King Features). The serials 'invented' many familiar technological marvels: anti-gravity belts, laser/ray guns, and spaceships. Universal's serialized sci-fi adventures included:
Popular elements in the swashbuckling films were the perfectly-cast, epic hero athlete/actor Larry "Buster" Crabbe, the lovely heroine and Flash's blonde sweetheart Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), Dr. Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon), and the malevolent, tyrant Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) on far-off planet Mongo. The Flash Gordon films were remade in 1980 (with Sam J. Jones as the title character and Max von Sydow as Ming, with music by Queen), and in 1997 as the animated Flash Gordon: Marooned on Mongo. [There was also a pornographic knock-off film titled Flesh Gordon (1972) that featured a dildo-shaped spaceship.]
Wavy-haired, muscular Buster Crabbe also starred in the 12-part serial Buck Rogers Conquers the Universe (1939) shot between Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). It was derived from the novelette story "Armageddon-2419 A.D." written by Phil Nolan (published in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories), and from the comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century by Dick Calkins. In this sci-fi serial, Buck Rogers pursued the vile Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), but the series proved to be not as popular as the Flash Gordon serials.
Another serial was Republic's 15-part serial The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), aka D-Day on Mars, with one of the first instances of alien invasion. And in Columbia's 15-episode serial Bruce Gentry - Daredevil of the Skies (1949), the hero (Tom Neal) fought off the genre's first flying saucers.