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Science Fiction


There is nothing quite like a science fiction movie to make you think and imagine and wonder, and there was always something special about going to see the latest film showing at the Saturday matinee.

Science Fiction is defined in the dictionary as “a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation“.  Whatever the media (books, movies, etc.), these are fictional creations that use scientific discoveries or advanced technology (or possibilities) as part of the plot or background of the story.

Through science fiction we can explore social, philosophical, technical and intellectual issues.  The settings take us to other places and times as the characters explore and discover extra-terrestrial life forms, alien worlds, and time travel, encountering spacecraft and robots along the way.  Science fiction movies let us enjoy intellectual and physical adventures, and often times leave us wondering “what if?”.

Like all genres, there is no specific definition for science fiction movies.  For the most part, however, science fiction leads us to a world of imagining the future, where technology is the reason things are different and magic is rarely involved as it would be in fantasy.

One of the most important characters in science fiction is the scientist.  Sometimes the scientist is the hero, the only person who can find the scientific cure for whatever problem is threatening mankind, and sometimes he is the villain, the one causing the problem as in “Dr. Strangelove”, released in 1964 and directed by Stanley Kubrick.  If their super powers were obtained “scientifically”, superheroes are also the heroes of some science fiction films

Usually, but not always, the adversary in science fiction films is an alien life form.  Often the alien appears in a human or human-like form.  Monsters also feature as the villain in some science fiction, generally when the existence of the monster can be attributed to science—an experiment gone wrong, or a nuclear accident.

The stories of science fiction films regularly center on the threat of disaster of some kind.  Aliens may arrive on Earth with evil intentions toward humanity as in “War of the Worlds” (1953).  The threat could also be environmental—a meteor or comet about to crash into the Earth like “Waterworld” (1995), or a plague of some sort as in “Things to Come” (1936) starring Raymond Massey and “The Andromeda Strain” (1972).  The threat can even be from technology itself, where computers or robots threaten to take over the world as they do in “The Terminator” (1984).  A post-nuclear world also forms the story for many films, including “Planet of the Apes” (1968) and “Mad Max” (1979).

Robots are a subject that is explored in many science fiction films.  Robots can be good guys, helpers or sidekicks, like Robby the Robot in “Forbidden Planet” (1956), or villains like Ro-Man in “Robot Monster” (1952), a robot intent on destroying the earth.

Time travel is another intriguing element in many science fiction films.  The concept of time travel was the basis for a trilogy of movies “Back to the Future” (1985), “Back to the Future: Part II” (1989), and “Back to the Future: Part III” (1990), all directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Released in 1902, the fourteen minute silent film “A Trip to the Moon”, directed by Georges Méliès, is the first science fiction movie.  During the early years of movie making science fiction films were usually B-movies shot in black and white, although some were color tinted.  Some of the earlier movies were “The Master Mystery” (1918) directed by Burton King and starring Harry Houdini.  Bruce Gordon directed and starred in “The First Men in the Moon” in 1919.  John G. Bystone directed “The Last Man on Earth” in 1924.  In 1929 Lionel Barrymore starred in “The Mysterious Island”, directed by Lucien Hubbard.

Through the 1930’s and 1940’s most science fiction films were still B-type movies, but there were several big budget films also being produced.  It was in this era that the first United States made feature-length science fiction film, “Just Imagine” (1930), was produced, directed by David Butler.  This time period also marked the debut of science fiction serials, such as “Flash Gordon” (1936) and “Buck Rogers” (1939). Larry 'Buster' Crabbe starred in both serials.  Gene Autry even starred in a science fiction serial titled “The Phantom Empire” in 1935, directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason.  “King of the Rocket Men”, is a twelve chapter serial directed by Fred C. Bannon and distributed by Republic Pictures in 1949, starring Tristram Coffin as Jeff King/Rocket Man.  The “Rocketman” character would be featured later in others serials such as “Radar Men from the Moon” and “Zombies of the Stratosphere”.

Although always somewhat popular, science fiction’s popularity boomed in the 1950’s.  The first science fiction film in color, “Destination Moon” (1950) was directed by Irving Pichel and starred Warner Anderson and John Archer.  “Attack of the 50 ft. Woman”, directed by Nathan H. Juran (Hertz) and distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation was released in 1958 and is another offering of 1950’s science fiction.  As movie-making technology advanced, special effects and settings became ever more fantastic.  “Rocketship X-M” (1950) was directed by Kurt Neumann and starred Lloyd Bridges.  George Orwell’s “1984” was directed by Michael Anderson and starred Edmond O'Brien, Michael Redgrave, Jan Sterling and Donald Pleasence, and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959) directed by Henry Levin, and starring Pat Boone, took us on an amazing voyage.

Although the number of science fiction films made during the 1960’s diminished compared to the previous decades, movies like 1960’s “The Time Machine”, directed by George Pal and distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (Academy Award winner for Best Effects, Special Effects-1961), 1964’s “The Time Travelers”, directed by Ib Melchior and starring Preston Foster, and 1966’s “Seconds” directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Rock Hudson were popular offerings.  “Fantastic Voyage”, a film released in 1966 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, and directed by Robert Fleischer.  The film starred Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch and Edmond O’Brien, and inspired the 1968 animated television series of the same name, produced by Filmation.  This is also the era of some of the greatest science fiction films of all time where Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and Frank J. Shaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” (1968) took advantage of the improving technology to create dramatic visual effects and realism.

The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a resurgence in the popularity of science fiction films following the successes of “2001: A Space Odyssey’ and “Star Wars” in 1977.  The popularity of big budget films with lots of special effects was also fueled by the public’s interest in the manned space flight program.  Other great films of the era were “Silent Running” (1972) directed by Douglas Trumbull and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), directed by Steven Spielberg.  The Walt Disney Company also released several family-oriented science fiction films during this time, including 1974’s “The Island at the Top of the World” (directed by Robert Stevenson) and 1989s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (directed by Joe Johnston).

A Trip to the Moon” is the first science fiction film.  Released in 1902, it was directed by George Méliès, and distributed by his brother, Gaston Méliès.  This 14 minute long black and white film chronicles the adventures of six astronomers (there were no astronauts yet) who embark on a trip to the moon aboard a bullet-shaped rocket ship shot into space by cannon.

Another silent film from the early years of movie making is “Metropolis”, distributed in 1927 by Universum Film A.G (UFA) in Germany and by Paramount Pictures in the United States and directed by Fritz Lang.  The film stars Alfred Abel as Joh Federson, the leader of the city, Gustav Fröhlich as his son Freder, and Brigitte Helm as both Maria, a teacher and an evil machine version of her.  The story is set in a huge, futuristic city where society consists of two classes; the elite who live high above the city in luxury, and the workers who work and live underground.  When Freder becomes aware of the horrendous living and working conditions of the workers, compared to his luxurious life, he enlists the assistance of Josephat, one of his father’s employees, to help the workers.

1933’s “The Invisible Man”, directed by James Whale and distributed by Universal Pictures is an example of the blurring of genre lines.  This film can be considered a horror film, but is usually classified as science fiction due to the fact that human invisibility is involved.  A man appears, a hat on his head, dark glasses covering his eyes, and his face and hands covered in bandages, at an inn in Sussex, England.  Dr. Jack Griffin/the Invisible Man (Claude Rains) has been experimenting with the drug monocane, and has discovered that its use will cause invisibility.  Unknown to him, a side effect is that the monocane also causes madness.  Wanting only to be left alone, he goes mad when he is interrupted in his rooms and his secret is revealed, and so begins a series of murders.  Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart) is his fiancée, and Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) is the Invisible Man’s former partner.

Serials were still very popular in the 1930’s, and “Buck Rogers” was one of the most popular.  Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind, “Buck Rogers” was distributed by Universal Pictures in 1939 as a twelve chapter serial.  Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) and his sidekick Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran) have lain dormant for 500 years after their blimp crashes, having been preserved through the use of Nirvano Gas.  When they awaken they find they are in a new world that is ruled by a ruthless dictator, “Killer” Kane (Anthony Warde).  A scientist, Dr. Huer (C. Montague Shaw) runs the “Hidden City” in resistance to “Killer” Kane’s control of the world.  Buck Rogers joins forces with Dr. Huer, and he and his sidekick travel to Saturn to try to enlist aid for their struggle against the evil “Killer” and his forces.  (The serial was edited in 1953 into a feature film, “Planet Outlaws”, and edited again in 1965 as “Destination Saturn” for syndication to television.)

1951 saw the release of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, directed by Robert Wise and distributed by 20th Century Fox.  When a spaceship lands in Washington, D. C. its captain, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), emerges and announces that he has come in peace with a message for mankind.  Through his encounters with Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), her son Bobby (Billy Gray), Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), and others Klaatu becomes distressed by the people of the Earth’s tendency to war and destruction, and warns that the inhabitants of other planets are concerned for their own survival since the people of the Earth have developed atomic weapons.  In order to get people to listen to his message, he demonstrates his powers by neutralizing all electrical power on Earth for a half hour.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is the only science fiction film produced by Walt Disney himself.  Distributed by Buena Vista Distribution in 1954, the film was directed by Richard Fleischer.  Based on Jules Verne’s book, the movie tells the story of the adventures of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas) and Conseil (Peter Lorre) aboard the Nautilus, a fantastic “submerging boat” captained by Captain Nemo (James Mason).  During their voyage they encounter cannibals, a giant squid, and other threats.

Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea” is a 1961 disaster science fiction film directed by Irwin Allen and distributed by 20th Century Fox.  The movie stars Walter Pidgeon as Admiral Harriman Nelson and Robert Sterling as Captain Lee Crane, with Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, Michael Ansara and Peter Lorre in supporting roles.  A meteor has pierced the Van Allen radiation belt and the belt has ignited, causing temperatures all over the Earth to rise to deadly levels.  The movie relates the adventures of the nuclear submarine “Seaview” and her crew as they attempt to save the Earth before time runs out.

Acclaimed for its prosthetic makeup techniques created by John Chambers, “Planet of the Apes” is a 20th Century Fox film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and released in 1968.  Having journeyed through space for 2006 years (but only aging 18 months due to time dilation) astronauts Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Stewart (Dianne Stanley) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) crash land on an unknown planet in the year 3978 A.D., to discover that this unknown world is controlled by apes.  Gorillas are the police and military, orangutans are the administrators and politicians, chimpanzees are intellectuals and scientists.  Humans, now mute, are considered vermin and are hunted and killed, or enslaved as manual labor and scientific experiments.  The parts of some of the apes are played by Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Dr. Zira, and Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, Minister of Science.  Wounded in the throat when he is captured, Colonel Taylor fights to communicate with the apes to convince them he is an intelligent being, and not just an animal.  The groundbreaking original film was followed by four sequels, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970), “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971), “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972), and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973).  The story was also used for two television series, “Planet of the Apes” in 1974, and an animated version “Return to the Planet of the Apes” in 1975.

Based on the comic book character of the same name, “Superman” is a 1978 movie directed by Richard Donner and distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures.  The story follows Superman (Christopher Reeve) from his infancy on the planet Krypton and growing up in Smallville, Kansas.  Assuming a disguise as Clark Kent to hide his true identity, Superman works as a reporter, and becomes romantically involved with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).  Superman has extraordinary powers on Earth due to the Earth’s weaker gravity and weaker sun compared to that on Krypton, but he has kept his powers hidden until Lois Lane’s life is endangered in a helicopter crash and he flies to her rescue.  When he then sets out to do good, thwarting robberies and saving lives, he comes to the attention of criminal genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who sees Superman as a threat to his evil plans.  The story continues as Superman battles his archenemy.  Superman has been a popular hero for decades, and the 1978 movie was followed by “Superman II” (1980), “Superman III” (1983), “Supergirl” (1984), “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987), and “Superman Returns” (2006).

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a Steven Spielberg, Ambling Entertainment science fiction film distributed by Universal Pictures in 1982.  This blockbuster film is probably also one of the best –loved for its heartwarming story and lovable “alien”.  When a group of aliens are forced to flee the Earth suddenly, one is accidentally left behind, and he is soon found by Elliott (Henry Thomas) and lured home with him when Elliott leaves a trail of Reese’s Pieces candy.  Soon, “E.T.” (for extra-terrestrial) is discovered by Elliott’s older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and the children conspire to keep E.T. hidden from their mother and everyone else.  Elliott and E.T. soon become friends, and a very close mental, physical, and emotional bond is formed between them.  E.T. learns to communicate with the children, and convinces them that he must return to his home planet.  They help him to arrange to contact his home to be rescued, and to evade government authorities when they learn of his existence.

As we watch science fiction movies today, especially the earlier ones, we have to sometimes marvel at the way some of these fictional scenarios, or at least parts of them, have become fact, and that leads us to wonder what parts of the more recent movies will also become fact.  So get comfortable, select several of the older and more recent movies offered here, and let your mind and imagination take you to other worlds and explore the possibilities.

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