2001: A Space Odyssey
By one reckoning, we can trace the birth of science fiction back to the pioneering days of film itself. Georges Melies's A Trip to the Moon is nothing if not a fantasy invigorated by a magician's delight in spectacle and camera tricks and a showman's sense of fancy, but this 19th century lark established the essentials of much of 20th century science fiction cinema: futuristic hardware, strange new worlds, weird monsters and dazzling special effects. Toss in adventure, and you've got the rocket-powered comic-inspired serials starring Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and, decades later, Star Wars (I mean, really, are the "scientific principles" really much more sophisticated?).
By another reckoning, however, you could peg the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the first film to visualize Jules Verne's visionary 19th century submarine, as the birth of a science fiction cinema that attempted to convince us that these fantastic worlds really could and, for a couple of hours, really did exist. This is the cinema spun (to a greater or lesser degree) from scientific extrapolation and social speculation, a cinema of utopias, dystopias and serious attempts to look at the dynamics between technology and society; a more rarified side of the genre can be seen in such disparate films as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Solaris (1972), The Road Warrior (1981), Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997).
It's all science fiction, an elastic genre that defies all definitions put to it. The term wasn't even invented until 1923, decades after Jules Verne and HG Wells inaugurated the genre with their speculative novels and, unlike such vibrant genres as the horror film and the western, developed no real cinema traditions until decades later.
Silent Science Fiction
In the silent era, you were more likely to find the future tackled onscreen in films from Europe than the US. Russian cinema used science fiction as a lens through which to view the ideals of socialism and the threats to that ideal, notably in the visually delirious space-opera spoof Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), about a social revolution on Mars.
Fritz Lang's most famous contribution to the genre is surely Metropolis (1926), a film more allegorically than scientifically based and indebted to the epic scale of his adaptations of Wagner's operas. It's a magnificent, visually mesmerizing spectacle that subscribes more to alchemy than science. More genuinely visionary are The Woman in the Moon (1929), a trip to the moon and a mix of space opera and spies that anticipates not merely the modern rocket and zero gravity, but also created the now iconic countdown; and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), where world domination is accomplished through technology and the control of information. The tradition was carried on into the German films of the early sound era, such as the 1933 The Tunnel (which was remade in Britain in 1935) and F.P. 1 Doesn't Answer (1932).
The 30s, 40s and 50s
In 1930s America, you were more likely to find mad scientists than serious scientists: Frankenstein (1931) and its sequels, The Island of Lost Souls (1933; not on DVD; from Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau), The Invisible Man (1933) and Dr. Cyclops (1940), the entertaining "shrinking human" thriller with Albert Dekker. On the other end of the spectrum were the space-age adventure serials inaugurated by Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, comic strip pulp brought to the big screen with two-fisted heroes piloting bulbous rocket ships.
One truly speculative film of the decade is Things to Come (1936), the ambitious, rather archly serious adaptation of the HG Wells novel The Shape of Things to Come. Co-scripted by Wells himself, it's clunky and slow, his stilted dialogue better read than said, and his ideas are hardly revolutionary: the film places its hope in science and enlightenment to battle the forces of war and barbarism. It's more famous for the fantastic futuristic designs by director William Cameron Menzies - the glass and chrome and sparkling white surfaces on sleek art deco designs of our idealized destiny set against the bombed-out rubble of the holocaust that awaits us if we don't change our self-destructive ways.
In one sense, nothing really changed in the 1940s. The movies gave us more mad scientists (notably in the Universal monster movie sequels) and comic book serials (including the superhero cinema of Batman, Captain America, and Superman): sci-fi as pulp juvenilia. In another sense, the 1940s changed everything: WWII brought a genuine madman to the brink of world domination, introduced rockets in the form of deadly missiles and unleashed the power of atomic energy in a mushroom shaped cloud. All that simply didn't make itself felt in the movies until the next decade.
The 1950s was the golden age of American science fiction. The decade brought forth such masterpieces as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and, from Britain, The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown) (1955) and Quatermass II (aka Enemy From Space; 1957). Finally, Hollywood was creating its own traditions and finding its own uniquely American sensibilities.