Humanity has always been entertained by the thought of ‘What If?’ Even from the early days of cinema, science fiction has been a genre of adventure and excitement, a place to break new ground, both in storytelling and with moviemaking techniques. From extra-terrestrial life to alternate realities, science fiction is where anything can happen.
Widely considered the first science fiction film, La Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès revolves around a group of people who travel to the Moon, and escape the clutches of lunar inhabitants. This was the first time film had captured anything of that scale and was heavily influenced by Jules Verne’s novels Around the Moon and From the Earth to the Moon. Shot in 1902, sci-fi took off and has become a pillar of cinema. During the 1950s, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet became hits, with many studios producing multitudes of sci-fi films to capitalise on its popularity. Throughout the next several decades, sci-fi has played home to Oscar winners, technological breakthroughs and rich ideas.
Science fiction films often share several themes, from a long list of ideas and characters. Common themes include technological advances, space travel, distant worlds, extra-terrestrial life and humanity’s struggle. It is not uncommon for the genre to blend with others such as horror, romance, and adventure. Lead characters will often be the intrepid hero, like Star Wars’ Han Solo or someone initially out of their depth who rises to the occasion, such as Alien’s Ripley.
Like any genre, there are milestones within its history that are worth noting. The aforementioned La Voyage dans la Lune is still a worthy watch, with its own charm and unique visual style; its most well-known shot being the Man in the Moon with the travel pod stuck in his eye. The style influenced many films and was imitated heavily during the period.
In more recent times, the music video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ song ‘Tonight, Tonight’ uses a visual style very similar to the film, and was nominated for Best Music Video at the 1997 Grammy Awards. Again, the previously mentioned The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet both demonstrated new ideas in the genre, about extra-terrestrial life on Earth and on distant worlds.
Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, with rich themes of existentialism, artificial intelligence, and mankind itself. It is noted for having an accurate portrayal of space travel, and its minimalist storytelling with eerie imagery will leave a lasting effect on viewers time after time.
However, in 1977 one film was released that changed the future of science fiction filmmaking – Star Wars. A financial, technological and cultural smash hit, Star Wars paved the way for countless sci-fi films. Its fast paced action, groundbreaking special effects, and simple but effective storytelling captivated cinema-goers around the world. It pushed science fiction back into the mainstream, with studios rushing to greenlight anything they thought could have a similar effect.
Sci-fi moved on from this to mix with other genres, 1979’s terrifying horror Alien, with its sequel Aliens, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day melding action with it.
There are several directors closely associated with sci-fi, with some of their most well-known and critically acclaimed work being within it.
Cameron made a splash with his futuristic thriller The Terminator, with its fast-paced action and well-written script pleasing both critics and audiences alike. Cameron went on to direct Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens, as well as the mega-hit Avatar.
Alien and Blade Runner were Scott’s second and third feature films respectively. Achieving cult status, the two films unique visual style and excellent world building solidified Scott as a sci-fi master. He recently returned to the genre with Prometheus and The Martian.
While Lucas has received criticism recently for his directing skills, there is no disputing the impact he had on modern cinema with the release of Star Wars. Say what you will about the prequels, but Star Wars opened the door for many sci-fi films to be made, right up to today.