On June 5, 2012, renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away after a long battle with illness at the age of 91. Bradbury was a celebrated writer of speculative fiction, a genre in which much of the story’s content acts as a representation or parallel to current events and technologies as well as posing various “what if” questions. Bradbury’s notable works include “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man.” In honor of both his work and his influence, we’ll be taking a look at the evolution of science fiction in cinema.
Science fiction is a genre that has gone through many phases in cinema. It has a multitude of subgenres that range from reality-based “hard science” fiction to more speculative “altered histories,” as well as oddities such as the space opera or space Western. While the genre may have become more dignified through the years, its life in film has been one of several ups and downs.
The earliest science fiction film is George Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon,” which wowed audiences with its use of trick photography. While that film takes on a more light-hearted tone in the vein of Jules Verne, later films would be hybrids of science fiction and horror, such as the adaptations of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Other filmmakers of the time used the genre for social commentary. For example, the dystopian epic “Metropolis” painted a grim picture of world in which the upper class “thinkers” ruled over the working class with an iron fist.
In the 30’s and 40’s, many of the early trends were repeated. There were more adaptations of “Frankenstein” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” as well as milestone films such as the original “King Kong.” At the same time, we also saw the adaptation of many science fiction comic strips such as “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” into Saturday adventure serials, paving the way for what people refer to as “the golden age of science fiction.”
The 50’s brought a renewed fascination with science, particularly space travel. This led to a mix of low-budget cash-ins and high budget blockbusters such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The War of the Worlds,” based on the novel by H.G.Wells. A big milestone from this period was the use of stop-motion effects, pioneered by Ray Harryhausen, who was the protégé of “King Kong’s” animator, Willis O’Brien.
Another milestone from the 50’s is the classic monster movie “Gojira,” better known as “Godzilla.” While there was an abundance of low budget schlock, “Gojira” was a film that was more of an allegory to the destruction wrought by nuclear weaponry, and thus hit home for a lot of Japanese audiences.
Sci-fi hit a bit of a dry spell in the 60’s as people’s fascination with science began to wane and give way to the more pressing concerns of both the Vietnam and Cold wars. During this time, we were given social commentary films such as “Planet of the Apes” and a film version of Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” The biggest, most influential entry into the genre was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which offered a far more realistic and philosophical portrayal of space travel and ground-breaking special effects.
Thanks in part to the manned missions to the moon, science fiction saw a resurgence. During the early parts of the 70’s, we saw films that deal more with paranoia and conspiracy, such as “THX 1138” and “A Clockwork Orange,” as well as classic blockbusters such as the first “Star Wars” film. Because of the success of “Star Wars,” studios saw the profit to be had in science fiction cinema, which led to the production of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” as well as Disney’s “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Flight of the Navigator.”
The 80’s brought about what I like to call the “cerebral blockbuster,” which are films that are made to make money while addressing darker themes. Films such as “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner” address not only our dependence on technology, but where it might take society as a whole.
We also saw sci-fi films that took place in more contemporary environments, such as the previously mentioned “Terminator” film as well as “Back to the Future,” which both involved time travel.
As we move to the 90’s and beyond, we see more and more films that are either speculative about current technologies such as the internet, or return to the roots of the genre with films such as “Avatar” or the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Today, we have a wider range of science fiction stories to choose from as studios now seek to appeal to the mind as well as the lowest common denominator.
What new technologies and events will guide the genre to its next state of evolution? Will we see films that address technological issues such as ubiquitous computing, or the overuse of smartphones? Might we return to a time of low budget schlock and philosophical quandaries? Only time and money will tell.
Next week, we’ll take a look at how musicals have shaped history both on stage and on screen.