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Science Fiction
by Sean Axmaker

In the movies, the term science fiction has been applied equally to genuinely speculative flights of fiction and any fantasy with a futuristic setting, a ray gun, an alien monster or a space ship.

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.

Left to its own devices, Hollywood favored spectacle over speculative fiction, which can be seen, for example, in Disney's thrilling live action version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), the not-quite-as-thrilling but gorgeously designed Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), the retro-futurism of The Time Machine (1960) and the inner-space trip into the human body Fantastic Voyage (1966). But science fiction has always been more accurate at reflecting the conditions of its own time than predicting the details of things to come, and 1950s SF cinema is rife with anxiety and paranoia.

Watch the Skies!

It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see the alien invasion films as a veiled reference to the Red Menace, at least not in films like I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) and Red Planet Mars (1952; now there;s a giveaway of a title). "Watch the skies," is the warning given the audience at the end of The Thing From Another World (1951), Howard Hawks's paranoid portrait of an isolated group of soldiers and civilians in an Arctic research station fighting the savage alien survivor of a UFO crash landing. ("An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!") Taut, tense, energetic and bubbling with vivid characters who band together despite clashes, it's classic Hawks (whose fingerprints are all over the perfectly structured, crisply directed ensemble piece, though he only takes credit as the producer) and the first great alien invasion film.

Less allegorical is War of the Worlds (1953), the George Pal-produced adaptation of HG Wells's legendary novel, which he updates to modern day California and fills with sleek, sinister looking jet-like flying saucers in place of the spider-like walkers of the novel. Created on a large canvas, it was one of Hollywood's first attempts to take science fiction seriously (it helped that it came from a respected work of literature) and remains a landmark of the genre. In its wake came Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), famous largely for Ray Harryhausen's images of flying saucers crashing into landmarks in our nation's capital, and such low budget invasion thrillers as Target Earth (1954), in which Earth is invaded by giant robots and the best special effect is the unsettlingly empty city, and Kronos (1957), with its single, skyscraper-sized robot, a giant battery propelled by pile driver feet across the desert.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Don Siegel's paranoid classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the most insidious of alien assaults on mankind, coined the phrase "pod people" and explored the boundaries of conformity. This was an invasion from within as friends and family suddenly become "other," emotionless beings that trade personality and joie de vivre for ruthless efficiency. While it's been identified as both anti-communist and anti-McCarthy, at its core, the film is about the loss of soul and self and remains the most powerful of this subgenre to this day, despite two remakes (Philip Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Abel Ferrara's underrated 1993 Body Snatchers).

Britain's entries into the genre include two hard-edged, smartly written classics - Hammer Films' The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957) (see the Hammer Horror primer for more details, especially on the superior 1967 SF/horror masterpiece Quatermass and the Pit) - and the low budget thriller The Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror; 1958), a minor but memorable assault on the psyches of a small town population by an alien "brain."

Not all films saw the invaders in such black and white terms. In Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space (1953; often cited as an inspiration for Steven Spielberg's E.T.), the visitors are neither marauding killers nor diplomatic emissaries, merely travelers from outer space attempting to repair their ship after it crash lands outside of a desert town. But mutual fear and a breakdown in communication creates a modern mob version of the obligatory angry villagers. Intelligent and strikingly directed, it was the first of a series of excellent forays into the genre for Arnold. Edgar Ulmer explored similar territory in The Man From Planet X (1951) on a much smaller budget (where he created a truly alien atmosphere), and Arnold returned to the theme in The Space Children (1958), an unfairly neglected tale of the bond that develops between a pacifist alien trying to sabotage an atomic experiment and the children who protect the creature.

The most thoughtful of the first contact films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), is as much Christ parable as science fiction film (a messenger from the heavens on a mission of peace is killed by the people of Earth, rises from the dead for a last sermon, and returns to the heavens), yet its message is delivered less like a sermon than a threat. Michael Rennie's alien, though curious about humans, is neither conquering villain nor apologist for mankind, merely a messenger warning mankind to stop spreading atomic war... or else! Handsomely directed by Robert Wise, who places the fantastic elements in a scrupulously realistic Washington DC setting, he gives the film dramatic weight and narrative elegance as well as the most intriguing movie robot ever. "Klaatu barada nikto!"


Most alien encounters tended toward the man versus monster contest, from It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) through the film it inspired decade later: Alien (1979), Ridley Scott's space age gothic horror monster movie. Set in the industrial gloom of a intergalactic freighter, where seven contract employees find themselves hunted by the most perfect predatory organism in the universe, it's an exercise of pure mood and style, lubricated with blood and acid, decorated in grime, and presided over by the most feral space creature to burst from a human chest. The James Cameron-directed sequel Aliens (1986) trades the haunted house mood for war film camaraderie and creates a balls-to-the-wall action film with a conspiratorial undercurrent: Earth versus an army of the acid-dripping creatures. The two form a complementary pair unmatched by any further sequels as well as two of the most adrenaline-driven space adventures from the dark side of science fiction.

The most extreme example of the assault from outer space is Independence Day (1996), Roland Emmerich's high-tech revision of War of the Worlds, where all that stands between the future of humanity and a holocaust from beyond the stars is a computer virus. I prefer Paul Verhoeven's oddly fascistic Starship Troopers (1997), an intergalactic platoon movie with an undercurrent of satire that suggests that the control of information and propaganda and the blind obedience of driven, patriotic soldiers are the costs of victory. For a lighter take, Tim Burton's tongue-in-cheek spoof Mars Attacks! (1996) offers bug-eyed pranksters from outer space with a seriously demented sense of humor who play fatal practical jokes on the population of planet Earth. The script is too loose to call it a story (it was adapted from a series of bubble-gum cards!), but the disjointed series of sight gags and set pieces revels in a love of 50s invasion movies.

Steven Spielberg championed a more idealistic meeting of races in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), a pair of films filled with a genuine childlike wonder. The legacy was continued in Ron Howard's Cocoon (1985) and the Joe Dante's Explorers (1985) - where senior citizens and schoolboys, respectively, discover the benevolence of our brothers from outer space - and John Carpenter's underrated Starman (1984). More ambiguous is The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Nicolas Roeg's trippy transformation of an allegorical Walter Tevis novel into a surreal meditation on an alien and alienating culture. David Bowie is a true stranger in a strange land, a space traveler on a mission to Earth for the sake of a dying planet who becomes seduced by sex, alcohol and the media, his life destroyed from without by some vague conspiracy.

Part offbeat horror film, part UFO conspiracy and part tribute to 1950s alien invasion pictures, Strange Invaders (1983) finds a town that time forgot populated by bug-eyed monsters that shoot lasers while living in Happy Days nostalgia. Michael Laughlin directs the hazy scenes of the stuck-in-the-50s small town like some misty-eyed time warp with a few weird twists. The Brother From Another Planet (1984) is a mute extraterrestrial who crash lands in New York's inner city and is adopted by the community while intergalactic slavers come looking for him. John Sayles's witty, warm comedy is less science fiction than social commentary, but engaging nonetheless.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Scare

Is a giant monster movie really science fiction? It ain't good science, to be sure, but the atomic scare was a very real part of America in the 1950s, from "duck and cover" drills to backyard bomb shelters. The oversized menaces of Them! (1955), a plague of giant ants in a desert community, and Jack Arnold's Tarantula (1955), two of the best of the genre, visualized the unknown in ways both fantastic and concrete. They weren't the first of the creature features - the genre had been largely dormant since King Kong (1933) was revived with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), a pair of low budget spectacles brought to life with Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation. But where these two films featured "prehistoric" creatures revived by atomic experiments, the later films featured the familiar made unfamiliar and menacing. Mutated by radiation, they represent nature reacting to the poison and death that mankind has unleashed on Earth. The roll call of benign creatures turned into giant rampaging monsters is almost endless: The Black Scorpion (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Monster That Challenged The World (a caterpillar; 1958), a whole series of Bert I. Gordon quickies including The Beginning of the End (locusts, 1957), Earth Versus the Spider (1958), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965), the latter with giant teenagers (they don't call him Mr. B.I.G. for nothing), and the infamous Night of the Lepus (1972), an invasion of giant bunny rabbits!

Arguably the greatest of the giant monster movies came not from the US but Japan, a country with a truly horrifying atomic experience. Born in the wake of Hiroshima and America's nuclear tests in the Pacific, Godzilla (1954) was an avenging devil rising from the radioactive ashes of the atomic age, a dark nuclear parable in a solemn key. It spawned endless sequels and fellow giant monsters like Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), and the jet-propelled flying turtle Gamera (1966), a poor cousin to Godzilla that became a hero to children and was then revived in a superior trilogy of adventures in the 1990s. (See the Godzilla primer for more details.)

Jack Arnold, the director of the rangy but likeable Tarantula, also contributed one of the genuine masterpieces of the genre: his adaptation of Richard Matheson's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The title is pulp but the story of a man who suddenly, inexplicably begins to grow smaller after drifting through a radiation cloud is compassionate and intelligent, a portrait of a man who becomes alienated from his own everyday world as he changes. The special effects are tremendous, of course, as once harmless household realities become life-threatening hazards (his battle with a spider, armed only with a sewing needle, is thrilling), but it's the marriage of the physical and the metaphysical that makes his drama so affecting. Bert I. Gordon's The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), rushed to production to cash in on the success, is hardly in the same league but it remains Gordon's most interesting film: the stress and the alienation turns this hero mad and thus into another rampaging creature. And of course, there is Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), for which the title pretty much speaks all on its own.

On the more extreme end of the atomic scare film was the end of the world scenario. On the Beach (1959), Stanley Kramer's adaptation of the Nevil Shute novel, is the most famous of these. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, this heavy-handed, star-studded drama sinks in its own sense of importance (it is rarely filed with the science fiction films in video stores). Less heralded but more interesting are films like Five (1951), The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959), the dramatically tepid but conceptually compelling This Is Not a Test (1962), No Blade of Grass (1970) and Peter Watkins's searing "documentary of the future" The War Game (1966), a devastatingly bleak and unnervingly realistic portrait of what the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust might really look like. Stanley Kubrick, not one to follow fashion, turned mutually assured destruction into a nuclear satire with the black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Dr. Strangelove

The nuclear holocaust drama gave way to other fears in later years but the genre continued to deliver through the decades. The satire and cynicism run deep in A Boy and His Dog (1975), which creatively preserves the tone and attitude of Harlan Ellison's science fiction novella while reworking the details. Don Johnson is a feral human led by an erudite and insightful telepathic dog who lets his libido lead him from the mercenary post-apocalyptic surface world to a sallow underground recreation of "the good old days."

Mad Max (1979) is a kind of Death Wish in a lawless future, with Mel Gibson as a street-calloused cop driven to bloodthirsty revenge with his souped-up hot rod Interceptor as his weapon of choice. George Miller spins the premise into post-apocalyptic drama of good vs. evil and community vs. chaos in a world where gas is gold and speed is power with The Road Warrior (1981). The ultimate comic book film turns Gibson into the latest dark hero in a line that stretches back through Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name," John Wayne's Ethan Edwards and the good-bad guys of the silent era, William S. Hart and Harry Carey, while adding a visceral punch that still packs a wallop.

Click on to Part Two...

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