Although many early films featured fanciful special effects that sought to thrill audiences, Georges Méliès, an imaginative French filmmaker and magician, truly pioneered conventions of the science fiction genre through his film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). With innovative and illusionary cinematic techniques, Méliès created many memorable images that influenced filmmakers to explore the possibilities of using special efforts to enhance the craft of storytelling. Another prominent science fiction film from the early years of cinema was the expressionistic masterpiece, Metropolis (Lang, 1927), which is still highly acclaimed for its futuristic sets and mechanized society themes (Dirks).
When the 1930s began, the advent of sound and the effects of the Great Depression led audiences to pursue films with more escapist themes, such as the low-budget, space exploration tales of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. This ultimately resulted in the declining popularity of serious speculative films at the time. Nevertheless, other elements of the science fiction genre were carried into the horror genre, which was experiencing profound growth primarily because of the massive success of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Despite struggling through most of the 1930s and 40s, the science fiction genre really took off in the 1950s, which was dubbed “the Golden Age of Science Fiction Films” (Dirks). Out of response to the growing interest in space exploration, films depicting outer space were released, such as Destination Moon (Pichel, 1950). In addition, alien films saw a huge surge in popularity, partly because of the Kenneth Arnold and Roswell incidents of 1947, and also due to anxiety over the Cold War and spread of Communism. Two films that capitalized on this movement were The Thing from Another World (Nyby and Hawks, 1951) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951). Another subgenre that had enormous popularity at the time was the mutant creature or monster film, which came about due to fears of destructive rockets and the atomic bomb. Some of the more popular film’s falling under this category were The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourié, 1953), Them! (Douglas, 1954), The Blob (Yeaworth Jr. and Doughten Jr., 1958), and of course, Japan’s Godzilla (Honda, 1954). At the same time, several films were created that focused on the dangers of human mutation, such as The Fly (Neumann, 1958), The Amazing Colossal Man (Gordon, 1957), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (Arnold, 1957).
After the rush of science fiction films during the 1950s, the genre was radically changed in the 1960s with 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). With groundbreaking visual effects and an incredibly realistic portrayal of space travel, 2001 is now widely revered as one of the greatest films ever made. From this point on, science fiction films typically began to enjoy increasingly larger budgets and ever improving special effects, as the next decade saw the release of Planet of the Apes (Shaffner, 1968), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977). Following the enormous financial success of Star Wars, science fiction became bankable and each major studio rushed such films into production. This heightened respect for the science fiction genre led to the rebirth of Star Trek as a film franchise (Roddenberry’s original TV show aired between 1966-1969), as well as the release of Alien (Scott, 1979), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), and E.T. (Spielberg, 1982).
Digital effects have only become more sophisticated since then, and spectacular worlds and stories have been created through films like Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993), Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996), The Matrix (1999), Avatar (Cameron, 2009), and the latest Oscar winner for Visual Effects, Gravity (Cuarón, 2013). Although the genre struggled at times early on, the impact of science fiction on film history is unquestionable. Where once the genre was defined by low-budget B-movies, now science fiction has become the predominant genre for blockbuster hits, and is taken far more seriously. Given the impressive technology that is currently available to filmmakers, as well as the science fiction genre’s ability to captivate viewers through speculative depictions of the future, it is safe to assume that the genre will continue to impact film for many more years to come.
Dirks, Tim, ed. "Science Fiction Films." Filmsite. <http://www.filmsite.org/sci-fifilms.html>.