Today: June 22, 2024

Classic Sci-Fi – Ten Of The Best

Cinematic sci-fi has a long history – almost back to the dawn of cinema with Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.  Yet while films made before 2001 A Space Odyssey are often dismissed by modern fans for being silly b-movies, many not only shaped our modern understanding of the genre but film as a medium. Ed Boff looks at ten notable titles from the era before CGI spaceships came along …

The first ‘modern’ science fiction film definitely proved to be a trendsetter in more ways than one. It firstly was massively influential in terms of its visuals. Not only are the images of the massive city and the technology within instantly recognisable today (even if you haven’t seen the film) but their influence is everywhere. For the effect the cityscape had, look no further than Superman (the name of the city is no coincidence) or Blade Runner.  The robot Maria in this film is the direct ancestor of many cinematic androids, especially C-3PO from Star Wars.  But Metropolis’ more lasting impact is the fact that it firmly cemented science fiction as a platform for allegory and satire.

Things To Come
Apparently, after seeing Metropolis, HG Wells set out to write a book, and later a film screenplay, to act as a rebuttal to it.  The end result was (The Shape Of) Things To Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies (who later did Invaders From Mars).  Taking an even larger scope in terms of time, the film covers a period of one hundred years for the city of Everytown.  Chillingly, for a film made in 1936, it got a lot right in its early section showing a World War just around the corner (It wasn’t far out on the date either).  From there it shows a ruined world, in scenes very reminiscent of many post-apocalyptic movies since, and then posits a utopian society based on science.

War Of The Worlds
By far one of the most impressive sci-fi productions of the fifties in terms of visuals alone, this is still the gold standard by which alien invasion movies are and should be judged.  In fact, many more invader movies since follow roughly the same story-beats; Independence Day is a perfect example, even down to the nuke scene. The Martians here are the perfect unstoppable menace, and their weapons have some of the most instantly recognisable sound effects in film history. Fun fact: Not only did Steven Spielberg do the remake, but the look of the Martians in this inspired that of ET.

Destination Moon
There was quite a lull in science fiction films during the ‘40s, apart from the odd Republican serial, but with the dawn of the atomic age came a flood of new interest in the genre.  One of the first to capitalise on this was George Pal‘s production Destination Moon.  Based on a book by Robert A. Heinlein, this movie told a very hard sci-fi, nuts-&-bolts story of the first rocket ship to reach the moon, and the dangers involved.  It was the first sci-fi film to win the Academy Award for Special Effects – and with good reason.  While Destination Moon is an important film in terms of its technical achievement, it has not aged well.  The fifties style dialogue does grate and the film’s main point of real drama only turns up twenty minutes before the end.  It’s still an enjoyable watch though, especially for having one of the best ways to cover a complicated exposition scene ever – have it in the form of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

It Came From Outer Space
From a story by Ray Bradbury comes one of the first movies to actually subvert the whole alien invasion trope in a pretty major way.  In a story involving one man learning the truth about townsfolk being replaced by alien beings (three years before Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), it soon turns out that they have no interest in takeover at all.  In fact, they just want to repair their ship and go, and their actions are simply an attempt to hide from the paranoid locals.  It’s a refreshing change of pace for a film which was made just as the cold war was heating up.  It’s also notable for being one of the first big titles of the original 3D boom of the 1950s.

The Day The Earth Stood Still
A spacecraft lands right in the heart of Washington D.C., bringing with it a humanoid alien, Klaatu, and a powerful robot, Gort.  Klaatu has a message to deliver to the whole world but when official channels fail him, he decides to go undercover and find another way of getting the message out there. This is an astonishing piece of filmmaking, especially when one considers when it was made.  The Cold War had only just started by 1951, yet here was a film putting a magnifying glass up to the mentalities behind it.  It’s also bold of the film to have a plot which is such a barefaced allegory for the story of Christ – although the studio did insist that it be toned down in one scene.  On top of all this, though, the film is just smart and slickly directed by Robert Wise.  Forget the Keanu Reeves remake, stick to this, and learn where Ash’s magic words in Army Of Darkness really came from.

Watching this film for the first time, you may be forgiven for thinking you’re watching the wrong movie.  The early parts of this film play out like a police procedural, albeit one with very odd clues (like a corpse full of formic acid).  When the giant ants do turn up, they’re consistently shown as a very down to Earth practical problem, with no ‘silver bullet’ needed to kill them.  This is a perfect example of how to give a monster movie that important feel of plausibility – have everything around it as real and grounded as possible.  Bonus points for also having a very competent and sympathetic lead scientist, who rather than wanting to preserve the monster is actually the first to say “no, kill them all, they’re too bloody dangerous!”  The end result is one of the best atomic monster movies of the ‘50s, but it’s not THE best …

Gojira/Godzilla, King of the Monsters
Nuclear weapons and radiation were a common monster origin during the fifties but for one of the few to actually consider what that concept means we must turn to a country that experienced such a threat first hand.  Godzilla was a very brave film, for having its monster be a full-scale embodiment of the atomic threat.  The only difference between Godzilla’s rampage here, and the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, is that the monster took its time doing it. Most Kaiju movies since then have been big, silly action spectacles, but to see how smart the genre can be, look no further than the original.

Forbidden Planet
The absolute pinnacle of big screen sci-fi in the ‘50s. The visuals in this film are still awe inspiring to this day.  From United Planets Cruiser C57-D, to Robby the Robot, to the exploration of the great machine left by the Krell species, to the invisible force that roams the planet.  The production is of a scale unlike anything else in the era.  What’s more, it’s also a smart story, bringing to the screen the sort of literary sci-fi concepts that readers of Astounding Stories of the time were enjoying.  It not only brings concepts of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the space age, it also has a whole other dimension based on Jungian psychology.  Pretty heady stuff for a movie from the director of Lassie Come Home.  This has been hugely influential over the years (without this, there’d be no Star Trek), and it’s only a touch of ‘50s-ness that holds it back from being the perfect sci-fi movie.

Village Of The Damned
To wrap things up, here’s a British production based on one of the best remembered sci-fi authors of these Isles – John Wyndham.  Best known for The Day Of The Triffids, this film is based on his novel The Midwich Cuckoos and makes for an excellent adaptation.  This story of a small village plagued by a strange event that leads to the impregnation of all the child-bearing women in town builds up tension well.  From the initial ‘blackout’ to the birth of the children, and to the revelation of all they are capable of, it’s an engrossing storyline.  It also touches on some big concepts; on our fear of how our own young will turn out, and of the future in general.  What’s more, the (possibly alien) children’s ultimate purpose remains vague, and that coupled with the fact that the terrible things they do are mainly in self-defence leads to a fascinating ambiguity.  This and its sequel Children Of The Damned show how even a smaller scale production can engage with huge concepts.

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