The History of Sci-fi

        Only since the nineteen fifties has a distinct genre emerged for the science fiction film. Popping up since the beginning of the era of silent film, science fiction films were originally rather short skits. The typical running length lasted any where from one to two minutes at the most. Their most common themes were often technological but were intended to be humorous as well. Although the movies were shot in black and white, cinematographers could decide for themselves if they would utilize color tinting; which they sometimes did. Surely the best known among the earliest science fiction films was Le Voyage dans La Lune (1902), as directed by Georges Méliès. Launched by something very similar to a cannon, a spacecraft leaves the earth to bury its nosecone into the very real face of the Moon. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the film would go on to inspire future sci-fi films in turn. The running time of this film of Méliès comes to around fourteen minutes at sixteen frames per second.

        During the nineteen twenties, a fine line began to develop between the aesthetics of European sci-fi film and American sci-fi in film. European film-makers found themselves drawn to sci-fi for its usefulness at prediction and social commentary. Great examples of such films were from Germany, for example Metropolis (1926) and Die Frau im Mond (1929). Despite the innovative special effects of the time, the film Die Frau im Mond (1929), as directed by Fritz Lang, had a poorly developed plot for its movie, which lasted for 156 minutes, and therefore did not become a financial success. It was, however, the first film to showcase the countdown sequence for takeoff of rocket that has by now become so clichéd. Metropolis (1926), also directed by Fritz Lang, was a very popular film; and several versions of the film were shown worldwide; about a fourth of the footage of the original German version is believed to be forever lost. The film depicts a technologically advanced dystopia set in the year 2026. Metropolis (1926) goes on to this very day to influence contemporary sci-fi films. Those films of present day comprise of Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998), Brazil (1985), the Star Wars series, and The Matrix (1999).

        Hollywood during the nineteen twenties, on the other hand, utilized the sci-fi genre almost solely for melodrama, action, and gadgetry; and it would eventually evolve into the serials common of the 1930's. Such films could be best related to the smorgasbord of the very popular James Bond films that have been produced over the decades. The two most prominent serials of the thirties in America were Buck Rogers (1939) and Flash Gordon (1936). With World War II during the nineteen-forties, sci-fi films began to somewhat dwindle.

        However, with the memory of Hiroshima still fresh on everyone's mind and the possible threat of an impending nuclear holocaust always around the corner, a renewed interest in sci-fi was spawned. Sci-fi film shortly followed suit of sci-fi literature that was on a dramatic rise. Sometimes, though, the genres of sci-fi and horror began to merge with one another as a result of all the invaders from outer space and the genetic mutations as a result of nuclear radiation that populated the films being shown. Though there was certainly a great abundance of sci-fi films produced during the fifties, it was mainly a matter of quantity rather than quality as embodied by the b-movies of the day.

        Finally, as the deluge of sci-fi films began to settle near the end of the fifties, the nineteen sixties would experience fairly few productions in comparison. Easily among the most startling yet groundbreaking of all films, and not only in the genre sci-fi, would have to be Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which Kubrick directed and co-wrote with Arthur C. Clarke. 2001 (1968) was in fact the first art film that was dually a science fiction, and, unlike any other sci-fi before its time, it was extremely philosophical in nature. The sci-fi films that would proceed from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) benefited from an ever increasing budget for this genre. The following is a list of several important sci-fi films of the nineteen sixties: Planet of the Apes (1968), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Lord of the Flies (1963), Barbarella (1968), and Fantastic Voyage (1966).

        Then along came Star Wars, with its debut in the year 1977. It immediately garnered the attention moviegoers toward even greater special effects that spread like wildfire all throughout Hollywood. Soon there were The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983)--the three of them, they and Star Wars (1977), comprised the middle trilogy of the projected three-trilogy set of films by George Lucas, which were all based upon The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. As a direct result of the fantastic success with these sci-fi films, the genre of both film and literature included experienced another economic, intellectual, and creative boom. Throughout the nineteen eighties that followed, there seemed to have been an increasing attraction toward the coalescing of science fiction and fantasy.

        In the nineteen nineties interest in computer technology became a common thing, perhaps as a direct result of the burgeoning world wide web and the cyberpunk genre. Indeed there were several internet based movies produced during the decade. Total Recall (1990) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) had characters whose memories were altered by a certain human-computer interface. Of course, it was computers in the very popular The Matrix (1999) that organized and maintained the virtual prison/world for all of humanity. Though, films like Deep Impact (1999) and Armageddon (1998) kept in motion the classic disaster movie while interweaving the traits of sci-fi. With our increasing knowledge of genetics, films such as Jurassic Park (1993) and Gattaca (1997) were then made possible. It would seem that as we move further into the twenty-first century, the sci-fi genre will cover larger ground in terms of other genres than ever before imagined.

John Couris

Table of Contents