Science fiction film

From Academic Kids

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Poster for The Day the Earth Stood Still, an archetypal science fiction film

Science fiction as a genre of film making has been an element of the cinema experience since the earliest days of the motion picture industry. These films have explored a great range of unique topics, including many that can not be readily presented in other genre. Science fiction films have been used to explore sensitive social and political issues, while often providing an entertaining story for the more casual viewer. Today, science fiction films are in the forefront of new special effects technology, and the audience has become accustomed to displays of realistic aliens, space battles, energy weapons, faster than light travel, and distant worlds.

This genre has produced many memorable films, as well as a number that can be considered mediocre or even among the worst examples of film production. It took many decades, and the efforts of talented teams of film producers, for the science fiction film genre to be taken seriously as an art form by many critics.



Science fiction films began to make their appearance very early in the history of movie production, during the silent film era. The initial attempts were short films of typically 1 to 2 minutes in duration, and shot in the black and white, silent-film technology of the period. These usually had some type of technological theme and were often intended to be humorous.

Before 1930

In 1902, Georges Méliès released Le Voyage dans La Lune, the first major film of the science fiction genre. Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, it portrayed a journey to the Moon in a spacecraft launched by a powerful gun. This movie's space travel plot, formalist visuals, and innovative special effects, influenced future sci-fi films.

In 1910, Shelley's novel Frankenstein was brought to the film medium, one of the early mergers of sci-fi and horror. Although only 16 minutes in length, this film succeeding in producing a suitably dark mood and would be remade several times in the future. Another such horror movie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was released in 1913.

An early epic film that introduced underwater filming was the production of the Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, based on the novels of Jules Verne.

The 1920s saw distinctly different forms of science fiction films being produced in America and Europe. European film-makers employed the imaginative elements and the predictive aspects of science fiction, with films such as Metropolis (1926) and Die Frau im Mond (1929) — both from Germany. By contrast, Hollywood embraced action, melodramatic plots, and techno-gadgetry. These would blossom into the serials of the 1930s, and echoes of this trend can still be seen today in films such as the various James Bond movies.


Movies during the 1930s provided an escape from the poverty of the Great Depression, and it was during this era that film-making experienced a golden age. Movies now possessed a sound-track, and the extreme physical expression of the silent era was replaced by dialogue. The films were focused on the actors, rather than the still-primitive special effects. An exception was the 1933 release of King Kong, including scenes of the giant ape battling biplanes atop the Empire State Building. Most sci-fi films focused on human drama, instead of aliens, space travel, or disasters.

Influenced by Metropolis the 1930 release Just Imagine was the first feature length science fiction film by a US studio but the film was an expensive flop and no studio would produce a feature length science fiction film until the 1950s. The British made Things to Come of 1936 along with Metropolis was one of the most influential films of the early period in using special effects to evoke 'spectacle' but it too was a failure at the box office.

This decade also saw the rise of the serial movies, most notably in the form of the various Flash Gordon films, as well as the quasi-sci-fi Dick Tracy and others. These were generally somewhat mediocre efforts employing soon-to-be-stock ideas such as the mad scientist, various super-tech gadgets, and plots for world domination. The decade also saw the release of The Invisible Man (1933), and new versions of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


With World War II dominating events during the 1940s, few science fiction films were released and several of those were mere vehicles for war propaganda. Among the few notable examples was Dr Cyclops (1940), an early colour film, and Fleischer Studio's animated Superman short subjects, which often incorporated science-fiction themes.


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When Worlds Collide DVD cover: Apocalyptic themes were popular in science fiction films during the Cold War era

The 1950s witnessed the emergence of the monster movie trend, driven by the anxieties and paranoia of the emerging cold war, beginning with Howard Hawks's The Thing and the success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Several important movies, now considered classics, were released during this period, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, War of the Worlds, Them!, Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and On the Beach.

A notable producer of this period was George Pal who was responsible for War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide and the pseudo-documentaries of manned space exploration Destination Moon and Conquest of Space. When Conquest of Space flopped at the box office the US studios again turned their backs on 'straight' science fiction.

The 1950s were also the dawn of the space age as humans began to venture into outer space, and a number of films from this period reflected a fear of the consequences. Among these were The Angry Red Planet (1959), First Man Into Space (1959), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). (This last film is also considered a precursor to the film Alien.) Another popular theme from this period was movies about flying saucers, reflecting the prevalence of UFO sightings.


Once of the most significant movies of the 1960s was 2001: A Space Odyssey, produced by Stanley Kubrick. This movie was groundbreaking in the quality of its visual effects, its realistic portrayal of space travel, and the epic and transcendent scope of its story. Science fiction movies that followed this film would also enjoy increasing larger budgets and ever improving special effects.


The early 1970s saw the continued themes 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 THX1138 (man vs. surveillance).

Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both released in 1977, contained a type of mystical element that had first appeared in 2001: A Space Odessey. The space discoveries of the 1970s created a growing sense of marvel about the universe that was reflected in these films.

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.


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 saw the production of such films as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995). Serious animation has not yet proven commercially successful in the U.S. 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.

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 movie franchise that continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Ridley Scott's Alien was hugely significant in establishing a visual styling of the future that became dominate in science fiction film through its sequels and Scott's Blade Runner.

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 disuaded 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.


The emergence of the world wide web and the cyberpunk genre during the 1990s spawned several internet-themed movies. 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 movie fandom, who could more directly support (or criticize) such media franchise film series as Star Trek and Star Wars.

Disaster movies remained popular, with themes updated to reflect recent influences. Both Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1999) used the threat of a massive impact with the earth. Independence Day (1996 in film) recycled the 1950s monster movie, with rapacious, all-consuming aliens. Advances in genetic science were also featured in the dark-themed movies 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.


Defining precisely which movies belongs to the science fiction genre can be as difficult with films as it is with literature.

Science fiction film is "a film genre which emphasizes actual, extrapolative, or speculative science and the empirical method, interacting in a social context with the lesser emphasized, but still present, transcendentalism of magic and religion, in an attempt to reconcile man with the unknown" (Sobchack 63).

This definition assumes that a continuum exists between (real-world) empiricism and (supernatural) transcendentalism, with science fiction film on the side of empiricism and horror film and fantasy film on the side of transcendentalism. However, there are numerous well-known examples of science fiction horror films, epitomized by Frankenstein and Alien.

The visual style of science fiction film can be characterized by a clash between alien and familiar images. This clash is implemented in the following ways:

  1. Alien images become familiar
    • In A Clockwork Orange, the repetitions of the Korova Milkbar make the alien decor seem more familiar.
  2. Familiar images become alien
    • In Dr. Strangelove, the distortion of the humans make the familiar images seem more alien.
  3. Alien and familiar images are juxtaposed

Cultural theorist Scott Bukatman has proposed that science fiction film is the main area in which it is possible in contemporary culture to witness an expression of the sublime be it through exaggerated scale (the Death Star in Star Wars), apocalypse (Independence Day) or transcendence (2001: A Space Odyssey).


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Independence Day movie poster: The movie represents a popular theme of the modern era for science fiction: a lot of action and special effects

A science fiction film will be speculative in nature, and often includes key supporting elements of science and technology. However, as often as not the "science" in a Hollywood sci-fi movie can be considered pseudo-science, relying primarily on atmosphere and quasi-scientific artistic fancy than facts and conventional scientific theory. The definition can also vary depending on the viewpoint of the observer. What may seem a science fiction film to one viewer can be considered fantasy to another.

Many science fiction films include elements of mysticism, occult, magic, or the supernatural, considered by some to be more properly elements of fantasy or the occult (or religious) film. This transform the movie genre into a science fantasy with a religious or quasi-religious philosophy serving as the driving motivation. The movie Forbidden Planet employs many common science fiction elements, but the nemesis is a powerful creature with a resemblance to an occult demonic spirit. The Star Wars series employed a magic-like philosophy and ability known as the "Force". Chronicles of Riddick (2004) included quasi-magical elements resembling necromancy and elementalism.

Some films blur the line between the genres, such as movies where the protagonist gains the extraordinary powers of the superhero. These films usually employ a quasi-plausible reason for the hero gaining these powers. Yet in many respects the film more closely resembles fantasy than sci-fi.

Not all science fiction themes are equally suitable for movies. In addition to science fiction horror, space opera is most common. Often enough, these films could just as well pass as westerns or WWII movies if the science fiction props were removed. Common themes also include voyages and expeditions to other planets, and dystopias, while utopias are rare.

Special effects in science fiction movies range from laughable to ground-breaking. Milestones in this respect include Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Star Wars and, more recently, The Matrix.

Scientific elements

While science is a major element of this genre, many movie studios take significant liberties with what is considered conventional scientific knowledge. Such liberties can be most readily observed in films that show spacecraft maneuvering in outer space. The vacuum should preclude the transmission of sound or maneuvers employing wings, yet the sound track is filled with inappropriate flying noises and changes in flight path resembling an aircraft banking. The film makers assume that the audience will be unfamiliar with the specifics of space travel, and focus is instead placed on providing acoustical atmosphere and the more familiar maneuvers of the aircraft.

Similar instances of ignoring science in favor of art can be seen when movies present environmental effects. Entire planets are destroyed in titanic explosions requiring mere seconds, whereas an actual event of this nature would likely take many hours. A star rises over the horizon of a comet or a Mercury-like world and the temperature suddenly soars many hundreds of degrees, causing the entire surface to turn into a furnace. In reality the energy is initially reaching the ground at a very oblique angle, and the temperature is likely to rise more gradually.

The role of the scientist has varied considerably in the science fiction film genre, depending on the public perception of science and advanced technology. Starting with Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist became a stock character who posed a dire threat to society and perhaps even civilization. In the monster movies of the 1950s, the scientist often played a heroic role as the only person who could provide a technological fix for some impending doom. Reflecting the distrust of government that began in the 1960s in the US, the brilliant but rebellious scientist became a common theme, often serving a cassandra-like role during an impending disaster.

Disaster films

A frequent theme among sci-fi films is that of impending or actual disaster on an epic scale. These often address a particular concern of the writer by serving as a vehicle of warning against a type of activity, including technological research. In the case of alien invasion films, the creatures can provide as a stand-in for a feared foreign power.

Disaster films typically fall into the following general categories:

  • Alien invasion — hostile extraterrestrials arrive and seek to supplant humanity. They are either overwhelmingly powerful or very insidious.
  • Environmental disaster — such a major climate change, or an asteroid or comet strike.
  • Man supplanted by technology — typically in the form of an all-powerful computer, advanced robots or cyborgs, or else genetically-modified humans or animals.
  • Nuclear war — usually in the form of a dystopic, post-holocaust tale of grim survival.
  • Pandemic — a highly lethal disease, often one created by man, wipes out most of humanity in a massive plague.

Time travel movies can also exploit the potential for disaster as a motivation for the plot, or they can be the root cause of a disaster by wiping out recorded history and creating a new future.

Time Travel

The concept of time travel, or travelling backwards and forwards through time, has always been a popular staple of science fiction film, as well as in various sci-fi television series. This usually involves the use of some type of advanced technology, such as H. G. Wells' classic The Time Machine, or the Back to the Future trilogy. Other movies have employed Special Relativity to explain travel far into the future, including the Planet of the Apes series.

More conventional time travel movies use technology to bring the past to life in the present (or a present that lies in our future). The movie Iceman (1984) dealt with the reanimation of a frozen Neanderthal, a concept later spoofed in the comedy Encino Man (1992). The Jurassic Park series portrayed cloned life forms grown from DNA ingested by insects that were frozen in amber. The movie Freejack (1992) has victims of horrible deaths being pulled forward in time just a split-second before their demise, and then used for spare body parts.

A common theme in time travel movies is dealing with the paradoxical nature of travelling to the past. The movie 12 Monkeys (1995) has a self-fulfilling quality as the main character as a child witnesses the death of his future self. In Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) the main character jumps backwards and forwards across his life, and ultimately accepts the inevitability of his final fate.

The Back to the Future series goes one step further and explores the result of altering the past, while in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) the crew must rescue the Earth from having its past altered by time-travelling aliens. The Terminator series employs self-aware machines instead of aliens, which travel to the past in order to gain victory in a future war.

Film versus literature

When compared to literary works, such films are an expression of the genre that often rely less on the human imagination and more upon the visual uniqueness and fanciful imagery provided through special effects and the creativity of artists. The special effect has long been a staple of science fiction films, and, especially since the 1960s and 1970s, the audience has come to expect a high standard of visual rendition in the product. A substantial portion of the budget allocated to a sci-fi film can be spent on special effects, and not a few rely almost exclusively on these effects to draw an audience to the theater (rather than employing a substantial plot and engaging drama).

Science fiction literature often relies upon story development, reader knowledge, and the portrayal of elements that are not readily displayed in the film medium. In contrast, science fiction films usually must depend on action and suspense to entertain the audience, thus favoring battle scenes and threatening creatures over the more subtle plot elements of a drama, for example. There are, of course, exceptions to this trend, and some of the most critically-acclaimed sci-fi movies have relied primarily on a well-developed story and unusual ideas, instead of physical conflict and peril. Nevertheless, few science fiction books have been made into movies, and even fewer successfully.

Science fiction as social commentary

This film genre has long served as a vehicle for thinly-disguised and often thoughtful social commentary. Presentation of issues that are difficult or disturbing for an audience can be made more acceptable when they are explored in a future setting or on a different, earth-like world. The altered context can allow for deeper examination and reflection of the ideas presented, with the perspective of a viewer watching remote events.

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Clockwork Orange DVD: This movie, while violent and grotesque in nature, is a social commentary type of film written by Stanley Kubrick

The type of commentary presented in a science fiction film often an illustrated the particular concerns of the period in which they were produced. Early sci-fi films expressed fears about automation replacing workers and the dehumanization of society through science and technology. Later films explored the fears of environmental catastrophe or technology-created disasters, and how they would impact society and individuals.

The monster movies of the 1950s served as stand-ins for fears of nuclear war, communism and views on the cold war. In the 1970s, science fiction films also became an effective way of satirizing contemporary social mores with Silent Running and Dark Star presenting hippies in space as a reposte to the militaristic types that had dominated earlier films, A Clockwork Orange presenting a horrific vision of youth culture, Logan's Run depicting a futuristic swingers society and The Stepford Wives anticipating a reaction to the women's liberation movement.

Enemy Mine demonstrated that the foes we have come to hate are often just like us, even if they appear alien. Movies like 2001, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, and Tron examined the dangers of advanced technology, while Robocop, 1984, and even Star Wars illustrate the dangers of extreme political control. Both Planet of the Apes and Stepford Wives commented on the politics and culture of contemporary society.

Influence of classic sci-fi authors

Jules Verne was the first major science fiction author to be adapted for the screen with Melies Voyage Dans La Lune of 1902 and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea of 1907 but these only use Verne's basic scenarios as a framework for fantastic visuals. By the time Verne's work fell out of copyright in 1950 the adaptations were treated as period pieces. H. G. Wells has had better success with The Invisible Man, Things to Come and The Island of Doctor Moreau all being adapted during his lifetime with good results while War of the Worlds was updated in 1953 and another update will be released in 2005. The Time Machine has had two film versions (1961 and 2002) while Sleeper in part is a pastiche of Wells' 'The Sleeper Awakes'.

With the drop off in interest in science fiction films in 1940s and 1950s few of the 'golden age' sci-fi authors made it to the screen. A novella by John W. Campbell provided the basis for The Thing From Another World. Robert Heinlein contributed to the screenplay for Destination Moon, but it was not until Starship Troopers (1997) that one of his major works was adapted and L. Ron Hubbard had to wait to 2000 for the disastrous flop Battlefield Earth. Isaac Asimov can rightly be cited as an influence on the Star Wars and Star Trek films but it was not until 2004 that a version of I, Robot made it to film.

The most successful adaptation of a sci-fi author was Arthur C. Clarke with 2001 and its sequel. Reflecting the times, two earlier science fiction works by Ray Bradbury were adapted for cinema in the 1960s with Fahrenheit 451 and the Illustrated Man. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-house 5 was filmed in 1971 and Breakfast of Champions was filmed in 1998.

More recently Phillip K. Dick has become the most influential of sci-fi authors on science fiction film. Dick's work manages to evoke the paranoia that has been a central feature of science fiction film without invoking alien influences. Films based on PKD's works include Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), and Paycheck (2003). These film versions are often only loose adaptations of the original story, being converted into an action-adventure film in the process.


See also


External links

fr:La science fiction au cinéma et à la télévision Autre it:Cinema di fantascienza nl:Sciencefiction (filmgenre) ja:SF映画 sv:Science fiction-film


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