Science Fiction Movies History – Film Genres and Hollywood


Hello everyone! Welcome to Ministry of Cinema’s web series Film Genres and Hollywood. I’m Bradley Weatherholt, and I’ll be your
host on this exploration into genre filmmaking. In this episode we voyage space and stars
as we trek Hollywood and the science fiction film genre. It’s important we describe what we mean
by science fiction, especially since the genre is so diverse and not easily defined. For instance, where does one draw the lines
between science fiction and its sister genres of fantasy and horror? Is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a science
fiction tale or a fantasy adventure? Is Frankenstein and his monster a story of
horror or a fiction of scientific magnitude? For our sake, science fiction is a genre that
satisfies two criteria: first, theres a scientific plot element, be it advanced technology, extraterrestrials, future societies or foreign worlds; and second, science fiction generally explores a philosophic theme or asks a metaphysical question. For the most part, science fiction is a genre
which aims to engage an audience both with their brain and their eyes. Because of this, science fiction has deep
roots in literature and is often on the cutting edge of special effects technology. With definitions and descriptions out of the
way, we can now begin with the earliest science fiction films. Science fiction’s first patron was film
pioneer Georges Melies. Melies’ A Trip to the Moon serves as an
origin for science fiction pictures. A Trip to the Moon was a 15-minute landmark
showcasing special effects decades ahead of its time. A quarter of a century after Melies’ landmark
film, German expressionistic director Fritz Lang produced his science fiction magnum opus
Metropolis. The film introduced many of the genre’s
seminal themes. Alongside the thematic, Metropolis also pioneered
some of the genre’s most iconic and repeated imagery. One of Hollywood’s early pioneering efforts
at science fiction was the Flash Gordon serials starring Buster Crabbe. The success of the franchise’s first serial
Flash Gordon: Space Soldier led to a string of sequels including a Trip to Mars and Flash
Gordon Conquers the Universe. Serials serve as an exaggerated form of genre
filmmaking in that they provide the studio with easy to produce narratives, a set of
reusable props and costumes, and easy to shoot scenarios to the highest degree. In 1945 a significant geopolitical event shook
the world: the dropping of the atomic bomb. Never before had the magnificent power of
science been so obviously displayed. The public’s fear and fascination with science,
and by extension science fiction, rapidly expanded in the decades to follow. We now loosely define this period as the Golden
Age of Science Fiction, primarily for the prolific literary figures of the time such
as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. This literary renaissance spilled over to
cinema, where science fiction films flourished in the 1950’s. Because of the political environment of Red
Scare and the start of the Cold War, many of the critical successes of this time explored
a similar theme: that of the threat of invasion from an alien race or way of thought. In The War of the Worlds the human race is
threatened with annihilation by a superior alien force. War of the Worlds invites many interpretations,
for instance the the War of the Worlds could be a symbolic fight between super powers,
and the fear of imminent annihilation already loomed in the air due to threat of atomic
war. Released in the same year as The War of the
Worlds, Invaders from Mars, was the first science fiction film to show aliens in color. Rushed to beat the release of War of the Worlds,
the film is now praised for its groundbreaking special effects by the famed art director
William Cameron Menzies in one of his directorial works. Fear of invasion came to a head in 1956’s
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the ultimate fear of the Red Scare comes to life
when extraterrestrial invaders duplicate human beings to a race of “pod people.” The crowning achievement of this era of science
fiction was MGM’s Forbidden Planet. The film marks many firsts for the genre. For instance, it was the first to take place
entirely on an outside planet that must be reached by human starcraft. Much of the film’s success can be explained
by its landmark fully electronic score, its introduction of a sophisticated, personable
android called Robby the Robot, and its literary aspirations, having many allusions to Shakespeare’s
The Tempest. Special effects have always been a crucial
element to the science fiction genre, and during this period of Hollywood, film wizard
Ray Harryhausen’s groundbreaking effects heavily influenced filmmaking. The work of Harryhausen, particularly his
stop motion breakthroughs, were the go-to source for many science fiction pictures. The Harryhausen legacy carried on with the
next titan of film magic, Douglas Trumbull. Trumbull served as special effects supervisor
and was responsible for many of the photographic effects in some of science fiction’s most
important pictures, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
Blade Runner and Tree of Life. Douglas Trumbull’s career is expansive. The massive body of work stands as an unmatched
achievement in the genre. One of Trumbull’s films wa Star Trek: The
Motion Picture adapted the popular television series for the big screen. The Star Trek franchise started in 1966, but
was canceled by the network after only 3 seasons. When it was syndicated, the series caught
on, becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Another major science fiction franchise to
capture the public was The Planet of the Apes. The original films starred Charlton Heston
as an astronaut who crash lands in a mysterious place where the society is dominated by hyper-intelligent apes. Apes was a critical and commercial success,
spawning many sequels and multiple reboots, and still to this day features one of cinema’s
greatest twist endings. Released in the same year as Apes, science
fiction’s tour de force 2001: A Space Odyssey is often cited as one of the greatest films
of all time, and for good reason. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the standard by which
all science fiction films should be measured. Steven Spielberg called the film the “big
bang” of science fiction, having come on to the screen in a burst of brilliance which
opened an entirely new dimension for science fiction films to be made. In many ways, modern science fiction begins
with 2001. No exaggeration, the film is ground breaking
on every major level, thematic and technical. The narrative is a series of vignettes jumping
through different periods of human evolution and our contact with a mysterious alien monolith. Thematically through these vignettes, Kubrick
delves into some of the genre’s major themes: man vs technology, government conspiracy,
artificial intelligence, evolution, extraterrestrials and extra dimensions. Because of the sheer bulk of information,
as well as Kubrick’s reluctance to spoonfeed the material, the film warrants multiple viewings. However, even on the first viewing the technical
brilliance of the film shines through. Even by today’s standards meaning of the
effects and tricks of the camera performed in 2001 are astonishing–and this is after
almost half a century has passed! Kubrick’s next film, A Clockwork Orange
took a different approach on science fiction. The film explores the controversial psychopath
Alex and his set of goons as they terrorize the streets of dystopian England. The work of Kubrick has influenced many directors,
particularly those of the science fiction genre. Among those directors, Steven Spielberg, drew
upon Kubrick’s work in producing his own science fiction classics. Spielberg’s first science fiction film,
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is a sentimental, awe-inspiring spectacle about our first contact
with extraterrestrials. The film’s smokey visuals and unique emotional
resonance are trademarks that the director later displays in other science fiction classics
like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, another charming picture involving alien contact. Impressed by Spielberg’s work, Kubrick entrusted
his final project to him after his passing. After A.I., Spielberg’s interest in science
fiction renewed with Minority Report. After Minority Report, Spielberg teamed up
with Tom Cruise again in his retelling of War of the Worlds. One of Spielberg’s contemporaries, George
Lucas had another successful career in the science fiction genre. His first feature, THX 1138, was an extension
of a short film he produced years earlier. After THX, Lucas directed his masterpiece,
science fiction classic and pop culture landmark Star Wars. Star Wars ignited the public’s interest
in space and adventure. The success of Star Wars allowed the studio
to commission two more films to the trilogy, and a generation later, Lucas returned to
the saga with a new prequel trilogy. The science fiction renaissance of the 70’s
that saw films such as Close Encounters, Star Wars, and Logan’s Run, also experienced
the extraterrestrial thriller Alien, a film which feared audiences with the horrific side
of the genre and starred Sigourney Weaver in a breakout role directed by Ridley Scott,
a director that would make science fiction history twice. Three years after Alien, Scott directed Blade
Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Blade Runner follows Rick Deckard, a man who
hunts down replicants. Blade Runner is a delight for the eyes, but
it’s also an in-depth inquiry into the nature of humanity and artificial intelligence. The film’s thematic complexity and philosophical
pursuit make it an acclaimed classic. Four years after Blade Runner, a sequel to
Scott’s Alien released. This film, Aliens, took the series even further
and was shepherded by blockbuster director James Cameron, a filmmaker who had made a
name for himself the sci-fi action classic The Terminator. The success of these two films paved the way for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron’s masterpiece. Judgement Day brings to life Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
iconic role in a twist on the series’ original take. Schwarzenegger by this time had reached the
heights of Hollywood stardom, featured a year earlier in Total Recall, another Hollywood
adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work. By this time Hollywood adaptations of science
fiction literature was commonplace. In 1984, surrealist auteur David Lynch ambitiously
tackled science fiction’s quintessential novel, Dune. The project had many setbacks, and some argue
it was doomed to fail, but nonetheless Dune stands as an interesting case study in science
fiction adaptation. The 1980s also saw a few other notable science
fiction pictures, including Disney arcade adventure Tron and Terry Gilliam’s dystopian
satire Brazil. Also, the 80’s brought to life sci-fi blockbuster
Back to the Future. A decade later, disaster film producer Roland
Emmerich directed the science fiction blockbuster Independence Day, the highest grossing film
of the year. The following year saw the release of Gattaca,
a box office bomb at the time that eventually reached cult status for its masterful exploration
in eugenics and the limits of biology. Similar to Gattaca, 1998’s Dark City was
another box office flop that wasn’t recognized until after its release. However, sci-fi favorites are not always box
office bombs. At the end of the century, Wachowski siblings
directed their cyberpunk masterpiece The Matrix, and the film was a massive commercial success. This Western philosophical background was
combined with an Eastern take on action and visual style, drawing heavily upon martial
arts films and Japanese anime. Four years into the new millenium, writer/director
team of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry joined forces for one-of-a-kind science fiction
romcom dramedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is unique in its blend of existential
inquiry and emotional romance as it follows Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a lovesick
couple that decides to erase part of their memories to start over. A year after Eternal Sunshine, Joss Whedon
brought a more traditional science fiction picture to the big screen with Serenity. Later into the decade Disney/Pixar produced
animation film Wall-E about an adorable robot who falls in love with EVE, a sleek state-of-the-art
robot who would appear is way out of his league. In the following year, the science fiction
experienced a trifecta of successful films. On the smaller end, indie film Moon, directed
by Duncan Jones, was a knockout investigation into the nature of identity and self. Another of the year’s successes, this one
with a bigger budget, was also directed by a young, upstart director. District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, was
an innovative pseudo-documentary that featured South Africa in a symbolic allegory for apartheid. The final sci-fi film of that year, this one
with a massive budget, was Avatar directed by James Cameron. The film’s high budget paid off for the studio,
as Avatar’s record breaking theatrical run makes it the highest grossing film of all
time, topping the previous record holder, Cameron’s previous film Titanic. In the summer following Avatar, popular director
Christopher Nolan released Inception. By this time, Nolan had become a household
name from films such as The Dark Knight and Memento. He leveraged this clout to get the financial
backing to pull off some of the most spectacular practical effects in recent memory. These practical effects are all the more impressive
considering they come at a time when Hollywood’s initial reaction to any cinematic scenario
is to rely on computer graphics and special effects. Despite this trend, another director, Alfonso
Cuaron, has filmed some of the greatest practical effects that have ever graced the screens
of cinema. Cuaron’s masterpiece Children of Men starred
Clive Owen in a dystopian about crumbling world order due to two decades of human infertility. But its the film’s intelligent script, dense
with many themes and contemporary references, as well as the highly innovative camerawork
that make the film a classic. The film contains multiple single-shot action
sequences, massive, stretched-out sequences where the camera tracks a dizzying amount
of action. Cuaron furthered this style in Gravity, another
technical piece of mastery. The film’s impressive visual effects comprise
around 80 of the film’s 91 minutes. Like Children of Men, the film is packed with
symbolism and philosophical themes. Fortunately, unlike Children of Men, Gravity
was a massive box office success and earned widespread public acclaim at its time, including
multiple Academy Awards including the Best Picture. Science fiction has a reputation for asking
big questions. As technology continues to transform our society
into the 21st century, we can expect Hollywood to continue to produce science fiction films
which not only ask big questions, but continue to inspire us with a sense of awe and wonder.

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