The First Great Science Fiction Movie

Saturday , 23, September 2017 20 Comments

The late 60s, when Hanoi Jane was one of the sexiest women in the world, and not just a vile leftist betraying American troops.

People have strange ideas about the history of science fiction in film.  Some years ago, a Canadian video games programmer and designer in his early 40s, no fool, sagely explained to me that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) completely changed everything about the genre, and that before then, silly movies like Barbarella were all audiences had to watch.  A fascinating theory!  There are just a few problems;

  1. Barbarella was firmly tongue-in-cheek.
  2. Barbarella was most assuredly not emblematic of science fiction movies of the 60s.
  3. Or of the decades before then, which he seemed blissfully unaware of.
  4. Barbarella actually came out 5 months after 2001.

This isn’t even considering that if you forced me to watch one, I would choose the psychedelic sex comedy in space over Kubrick’s pretentious, ruthlessly boring adaptation of Clarke’s novel.  Now, I don’t consider myself an expert on science fiction in film, and one can write an entire book, let alone a column, about its evolution through the decades. However, I’ve seen enough older pictures to have a perspective, and unlike most cinephiles, enjoy reading, too.

The first “science fiction” movie is widely considered to be George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902).  You can watch it for yourself here. Mythologizing and breathless praise from film snobs about what a pioneering masterpiece it is and how awesome Melies was blah blah…the movie is crap.  It’s shoddy, nonsensical, and dull, with the moon offering a setting for a junior high drama performance. Even its age doesn’t entirely excuse it, since The Great Train Robbery (1903), released only a year later, is light-years ahead of it.  The first Western has a coherent plot, even utilizing a three act structure, action and excitement throughout, and and even a cool closing image, reminiscent of bonus scenes in credits today.

Cool poster, though.

In those early silent years, there was plenty of experimentation with various genres and approaches, but surprisingly little to do with science fiction.  In fact, it’s fair to say that the next major science fiction movie was Fritz Lang’s iconic Metropolis (1927) a quarter century later. It’s impossible not to respect its scope and ambition, a tremendously expensive picture (the equivalent of over $200 million today) in an era where most movies were made relatively cheap and quick.  Or the genius of Lang, truly one of the earliest and greatest masters of cinema.  Still, it doesn’t hold up by modern standards.  The story is simplistic and cliched.  And it’s ironic that the same people thumbing their noses at the pulps regard Metropolis as an all-time, enduring classic.  Virtually any pulp story from 1927 would have been vastly more complex, exciting, and unexpected than the script for Metropolis.

(And on a tangential note, it’s unfortunate that there appears to be an inverse relationship between the quality of Lang’s work and its popularity.  For instance, how many more people have heard and seen of Metropolis versus Scarlet Street (1945), one of the best movies of the entire 40’s, and perhaps one of the best 5-10 pictures ever made up until then?)

While I haven’t watched all of them, after this it appears that science fiction, from the 30s to the 50s, became closely linked with either monsters or aliens of some kind.  Often both.  The original versions of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and the original Vincent Price version of The Fly (1958) all come to mind.  A few of these pictures were good, some were mediocre, and most were forgettable trash whose only possible redeeming quality was being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  However, even the quality ones weren’t much in terms of science fiction.  For instance, the aforementioned Body Snatchers is essentially a noir thriller, even if the framing device is an alien invasion.

So what was the earliest science fiction movie I watched that I considered truly great, and a fine example of that genre? I’ve already shared how unimpressed I was by Kubrick’s 2001.  And yet, it was that same fateful year, 1968, that saw the release of a truly fantastic film, Planet of the Apes (1968).  

It’s easy to overlook or dismiss, on account of how over-referenced and parodied to death it is, and how everyone knows the ending.  Or the inevitably silly, unnecessary cash grab sequels that followed.

So when I actually sat down and watched the original, I was taken aback at what a serious, insightful, tragic, and disturbing science fiction movie it was.  Taylor, played with unabashed verve by Charlton Heston, is a devil-may-care, cynical protagonist in the mold of Sabatini’s Scaramouche.  Landon is the more straight-laced astronaut, who upbraids Taylor for his attitude.  And yet, Taylor is not heartless, and the tragedies that befall the space mission, whether the horrible death by mummification of Stewart, or the lobotomy of Landon by the apes, resulting in him becoming a drooling retard, affect him deeply.  Through it all, Taylor never gives in to despondency and continues defying his seemingly certain doom, all in the tradition of a worthy pulp hero.  Reinforcing this looming dread is a constant eerie, unsettling vibe, first keenly felt when the astronauts are crossing the desert.

A man responsible for much of the quality science fiction on large and small screens in the 50s and 60s.

And the civilization of the apes themselves is well-constructed, logical, and reasonably complex.  There is a caste system and apes contending against one another.  Importantly, they are a series of individuals, as opposed to a mindless collective all behaving in lockstep.  (A common problem in movies depicting alien societies nowadays)  It’s masterful stuff, blending action, suspense, and mystery, complete with archaeological detective work, in a genuine science fiction story.

Of course, much of the credit for the success has to go to the original screenwriter, the brilliant Rod Serling.  In fact, the whole movie plays out like a very long, very good episode of The Twilight Zone.  While a TV series instead of a movie, its effect on science fiction in the moving pictures can’t be understated.

So now I ask the readers; what is the earliest great science fiction picture for you?  Was it the aforementioned 2001, a much earlier movie, or….Barbarella?

  • Eric says:

    Metropolis is underrated. Mostly because the US version was butchered (film reordered, scenes deleted, etc.). If you get a chance, see the restored version of Metropolis – the restored version has a coherent plotline, actual character arcs, and the story is *NOT* simplistic.

    • Vlad James says:

      How can a movie be “underrated” when it’s consistently praised as one of the greatest, most important films of all time since its release, being included on practically every “Top X Movies” list ever?

      And I’ve seen the restored version. If anything, I prefer the “butchered” version.

  • I’d go with “The Andromeda Strain”. I own that film, and it really holds up today. (1971).

    • Eric says:

      A lot does hold up, but dear Lord, the computer systems are incredibly obsolete. When I watched it recently, I kept getting thrown out of the movie by the supposedly cutting-edge computer systems.

      • Henry Vogel says:

        The computers in The Andromeda Strain are advanced for the time in which the movie is set — the early 1970s. Expecting anything else is about as reasonable as being thrown out of The Maltese Falcon because everyone uses rotary-dial telephones instead of cell phones.

    • Vlad James says:

      Definitely one I have been meaning to check out for a long time.

      And I agree with Henry below; who the hell cares what the computer systems look like? The fashion, hairstyle, and diction is usually equally dated, despite taking place in the future. That’s the inevitable result of making any futuristic movie, no matter how good or detailed.

      • The Andromeda Strain isn’t set in the future, it’s set in the 1970s. The technology is extrapolated from the technology of the time–this is what Crichton thought that a secret government research center would have.

        But the real reason that I would class it as the first great SF movie is because it is the first I can think of where the problem was a purely scientific problem. With something like “Invaders From Mars” or “Creature From The Black Lagoon” the monsters were just monsters–the veneer of being aliens or evolutionary throwbacks was pure window dressing. You could call the bad guys goblins or trolls without changing the essential nature of the films.

        Andromeda Strain was specifically about an epidemic and the technological, medical response to it. Neither the problem nor the solution would exist in the absence of the scientific background.

        • Vlad James says:

          Ah, well, that makes Eric’s complaint even more irrelevant, then.

          And that’s a good summary. As noted above, a lot of movies with “science fiction” tags in the 30s through 50s are really just monster movies.

  • Cambias says:

    Forbidden Planet! Still one of the best SF movies ever made.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Second vote for Forbidden Planet. A great movie.

    • Vlad James says:

      True story; one of the reasons I wrote the disclaimer about me not being an expert on the genre, and then a further one about not watching all the science fiction films of the 30s through the 50s, is specifically because I haven’t seen “Forbidden Planet” yet.

    • Chris L says:

      Agree with Forbidden Planet. It looks a lot like an episode of Star Trek, mostly because Roddenberry “borrowed” heavily from it.

  • Ben says:

    My favorite “The First” etc. for Science Fiction movies is “Things to Come” – the 1936 Kordova version.

    I think it was the only H.G. Wells movie where the author had a hand in. It used a much maligned and abandoned trope in science fiction – the “Future History” – maligned and abandoned because the future comes quicker than you think…

    It was a flop at its time – booed out of theaters for predicting another world war at the turn of the decade – the white cliffs of Dover crossed by aereoplanes built for war…

    It caused such disgust it actually changed history – it’s depiction – not gross but still horrific – of poison gas caused the British PM to call Hitler and they both promised in the unlikely event they go to war they’d not use Poison gas. (on the battlefield) Hitler kept his word, having gone through mustard gas twice. Before anyone scoffs or flame wars – think – if you can – look up the “Buzz Bombs” the V2 rockets… Imagine if instead of those things being as much as two airplanes in cost to carry bombs an airplane could a dozen times before being shot down – imagine if they contained some of their better Nerve gas agents? They could have blanketed most cities and likely military sites in Britain with Nerve gas, then marched in 2 weeks later and taken the island with little resistance.

    But, aside from predicting a World War at the end of the decade like all “Future Histories” RL went quite different – or did it? In a way it is an exaggerated version of the 40s, the 50s, and the 60s onwards… The world is crushed by warfare then built again by idealists ready to create utopia at last, but the forced changes to this goal create a dissent ready to destroy this new world from within.

    • Vlad James says:

      To be fair, it wasn’t difficult to predict another world war by 1936. It was only difficult for the worthless, treacherous, idiotic European leaders of the day, who were so convinced Hitler was a great guy (TIME man of the year, beloved in France, Britain, etc., close personal friend and ally of Stalin, etc.) and would finally deal with those awful Jews.

      Thanks to them, 60 million people died in World War 2 instead of perhaps 60,000.

      That being said, thanks; I haven’t heard of the film, and will give it a look.

  • Jack Amok says:

    War of the Worlds. The giant martian machines.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Colossus The Forbin Project

  • Non_Compos_MENTOS says:

    ’50s: Forbidden Planet, Them!

    Early 60s: Village of the Damned

    Late 60s: 2001, Quatermass and the Pit

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