INTRODUCTION: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION FILM

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker[1]

Science fiction film is essentially as old as film itself. Science fiction was, for example, central to the work of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès, who found in the genre a perfect opportunity for the exploration of his belief that the true potential of film lay not in the simple photographic representation of reality but in illusion and visual trickery. A magician by trade, Meliés made dozens of films that relied centrally on what would now be referred to as special effects to create worlds of visual fantasy for his audiences. By 1902, he had made what is still his best known film, the fourteen-minute Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). This work of whimsical imagination, based on a novel by Jules Verne, was a major milestone in cinema history and still has the ability to entertain and fascinate audiences even today.

Following the work of Meliés, films that might be described as science fiction quickly became a staple of the new industry, though many of these early works might equally well be described as horror films, establishing a generic uncertainty that continues to the present day. Thus, the Edison studio had, by 1910, produced the first film adaptation of Frankenstein, and, in 1920, German expressionism came to the screen with the production of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), which deals with a sort of mad scientist but which, more importantly, features extreme lighting and distorted sets that effectively combine to create a mood of strangeness and horror.

Similar techniques were put to good use in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), in many ways the culmination of German expressionist cinema and a film that is widely regarded as the first truly great work of science fiction cinema. Metropolis involves a towering futuristic city in which the rich live in utopian luxury while legions of poor workers slave away like automatons beneath the surface, tending the gigantic machines that power the golden world above. The filmincludes numerous visions of advanced technology, the most important of which is the humanoid robot developed by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), which is used to impersonate the woman Maria (Brigitte Helm), spiritual leader of the workers. The ersatz Maria leads the workers in a doomed rebellion, presumably to preclude the possibility of a more genuine (and successful) revolution, though she is ultimately destroyed by the rioting workers. The real Maria is saved from the clutches of the deranged Rotwang by Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), son of the city’s ruler, who then serves as a mediator between his father and the workers, heralding a new era of cooperation between the classes.

Many critics have complained about the facile ending of Metropolis, which certainly makes it weak as a film about a class-based revolution, but this is a film in which image and atmosphere are far more important than plot or characterization. The special effects (especially those involved in the scene in which the metallic robot is transformed into a Maria lookalike) are quite impressive and have been widely imitated. However, the real secret to the success of Metropolis is the ability of the expressionist lighting and sets to convey effectively the feeling of a machine-dominated urban future, even if the actual details are not particularly convincing or realistic.

Envisioning the future is very much the project of the British-produced Things to Come (1936), which is probably the first truly important science fiction film of the sound era. Scripted by science fiction pioneer H. G. Wells based on his book The Shape of Things to Come (1933), this film well illustrates Wells’s belief late in his life that a utopian future was attainable, but only after the current order of civilization had been destroyed. The film is a speculative “history” of the future that projects the development of human civilization over the next hundred years, beginning with a thirty-year-long world war that begins in 1940 and eventually leaves civilization in ruins, largely as the result of bioweapons that trigger a deadly plague that sweeps the globe. It focuses on the city of Everytown, which begins as a London-like metropolis, but which, by the end of the war, is in decay, ruled by a warlord engaged in primitive warfare with the surrounding “Hill People.” The city, like the rest of civilization, is then rebuilt under the leadership of a visionary group of aviators and engineers who use technology (and superior air power) to enforce their vision of an enlightened world government.

By the year 2036, Everytown is a high-tech paradise, a futuristic city of light and open spaces, almost entirely lacking in the ominous undertones that inform the city of Metropolis. The city’s leaders, however, are not content to rest on their accomplishments but now set their sights on outer space in the belief that humanity as a species must face continual challenges in order to flourish and prosper. Some in the population bitterly oppose this new project, believing that the insatiable drive for progress only threatens to undermine what is already an idyllic life for the citizens of Everytown. However, these protestors are unable to stop the initial launch in the new space program. As the film ends, they angrily look on as a rocket is fired toward the moon from a giant “space gun,” ushering in a new era of exploration. “All the universe or nothing!” cries the leader of the city’s ruling council. “Which shall it be?”

Directed by William Cameron Menzies and produced by Alexander Korda, Things to Come was a big-budget film whose impressive scenes of a futuristic city made it in many ways the direct forerunner of later science fiction blockbusters from Star Wars to The Matrix. Its images of the urban future (and the costumes of its future citizenry) would set the style for any number of future films, just as its basic faith in technology and its vision of a humanity that could never rest until it had explored the stars would remain crucial components of science fiction in both the cinema and television for the rest of the century.

Other than monster movies such as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), American science fiction film of the 1930s was largely confined to low-budget serials, such as those featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers as the protagonists, all of which starred Buster Crabbe in the central roles. These serials were based on popular syndicated comic strips, and they definitely had a comic-strip quality to them. Produced in episodes of 15-20 minutes in length, each serial ran for 12–15 episodes that were shown weekly in theaters in an attempt to attract young audiences. By today’s standards (or even in comparison to a contemporary film such as Things to Come), the special effects of these serials were extremely crude. However, to a generation of young Americans, they offered thrilling images of other planets and other times that presented an exciting alternative to a dreary Depression-era world that was drifting toward global war.

American science fiction came of age as a film genre in 1950 with the release of Destination Moon, directed by Irving Pichel and produced by George Pal, who would go on to become one of the leading figures in SF film in the next decade, when his productions included such films as When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), Conquest of Space (1955), and The Time Machine (1960), the last of which he also directed. The Hungarian-born Pal, who had worked as a production designer for Germany’s UFA Studios (makers of Metropolis)before fleeing Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, served as a sort of transition between the early achievement of European SF films and the later dominance of American SF films. Pal’s films typically feature higher budgets, better special effects, and better acting than most other SF films of the 1950s. In addition, several of Pal’s films gained respectability by drawing on the works of major science fiction writers, as in the case of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, both based on novels by Wells, still at that time the best known international writer of science fiction. 

Destination Moon was based on Rocket Ship Galileo, a 1947 juvenile novel by Robert A. Heinlein, who also co-wrote the script. Heinlein himself would go on to become one of the best-known novelists in SF history, though he had not yet written any of the classic novels (The Puppet Masters, Double Star, The Door into Summer, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress)on which his later fame would be based. Filmed in brilliant Technicolor, Destination Moon projects the first American trip to the moon. It includes a number of realistic details that combine to convey a very believable picture of future space travel. Meanwhile, the film clearly shows its Cold War context, while strikingly anticipating the coming space race. In particular, the American mission is propelled by the perceived urgency to reach the moon before some less scrupulous nation (obviously meant to be the Soviet Union) can establish a base there. And the success of the American effort is a distinct victory for free-market capitalism, not only over communism, but over government in general. The mission is a purely private affair, funded and carried out by enlightened capitalists, who in fact are forced to overcome opposition from the United States government in order to complete the mission.

Destination Moon ends with the vaguely utopian message “THIS IS THE END OF THE BEGINNING” displayed on the screen, suggesting that this mission has initiated a new era in human endeavor. In retrospect, the message also announces the way in which the success of the movie would usher in the 1950s craze for science fiction films, many of which seemed to go out of their way to reproduce various elements of Destination Moon. The Pal-produced Conquest of Space (directed by Byron Haskin) may be the best example of a film that attempted a realistic portrayal of space travel in the manner of Destination Moon, but there were many others.Indeed, Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M was rushed through production and released slightly before Destination Moon, attempting to ride on the coattails of the advance publicity of the latter film. This attempt was so blatant that Rocketship X-M, originally conceived as a story about a trip to the moon, was reformulated as the story of a trip to Mars after a threatened lawsuit from Pal.

Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), one of the most stylish SF films of the decade, also drew upon interest in the future possibilities of space travel. Memorable for the technological marvel of Robby the Robot, this film nevertheless warns against the dangers of science and technology, which in this case threaten to unleash sinister and devastating forces. Indeed, the SF films of the 1950s were remarkable for the way in which they reflected the various anxieties and tensions of the era. A large number of alien-invasion films addressed the widespread sense among Americans of the time of being surrounded by powerful and sometimes mysterious enemies. Meanwhile, a side genre of monster movies reflected a similar fear, while often directly dealing with the threats posed by the nuclear arms race. Finally, a plethora of postapocalypse films also spoke to the decade’s fears of potential nuclear holocaust. At the same time, looked at more carefully, most films in all three categories reflected not only anxieties over international threats to the American way of life but concerns that the American way itself might have a decidedly dark and dehumanizing side.

Some SF films of the 1950s, including Invasion U.S.A. (1952), Red Planet Mars (1952), and The 27th Day (1957) overtly promoted a paranoid fear (and hatred) of communism as a dehumanizing force, often with aliens standing in for communists. On the other hand, Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1954) features benevolent aliens who stop off on earth simply to make repairs and find themselves confronted by hysterical violence at the hands of humans. Meanwhile, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is essentially a plea for global peace and understanding. Here, in one of the first alien-invasion films of the decade, the Christlike alien Klaatu (Michael Renny) is essentially benevolent, though he also issues a stern warning: the earth will be destroyed if it seeks to extend its violent ways beyond earth. This rejection of the Cold War arms race was a courageous gesture in a film that was produced at the height of American Cold War hysteria and at a time when Hollywood itself was under siege by anticommunist zealots in Washington. The success of the film thus demonstrated the way in which science fiction, because it is perceived by many as divorced from contemporary reality, can serve as a venue for trenchant social and political commentary that might have been judged too controversial in a more “mainstream” form.

Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (also 1951) was more prototypical of the alien-invasion films to come in the next decade. It was also more representative of American paranoia in the early 1950s, when Americans felt threatened not only by the Soviet Union but also the impoverished masses of the Third World, with which America was increasingly coming into contact as a result of the global politics of the Cold War. In this case, the eponymous Thing, a sort of vegetable creature (it is described at one point in the film as “some form of super carrot”), has come to earth to colonize the planet for itself and its kind, planning to use the human race as a source of their favorite plant food, blood. The Thing is powerful, highly intelligent, and able to multiply rapidly, thus posing a very serious threat to the earth, though it is, in fact, defeated relatively easily. Then again, the most important and interesting battle in the film is not between the Thing and the humans, but among the humans themselves. In this sense, the primary opposition is between the military men and the scientists, with the film ultimately siding with the former, though only after Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) defies the military bureaucracy and obeys his own judgment in destroying the Thing.

Even more paranoid about alien threats is Menzies’s much-admired Invaders from Mars (1953, remade with tongue in cheek in 1986 by Tobe Hooper), though there is a vague suggestion that the invasion of that film is really a defensive measure designed as a preemptive strike against the U.S. space program to prevent the earthlings from reaching Mars. In the film, young David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt) can initially get no one to believe that he has seen a Martian saucer land, especially as the saucer has taken refuge underground, doing its work there by sucking anyone who approaches down through the sand that covers it. David watches in horror as his parents and various other adult authority figures turn into robot-like zombies, controlled by the Martians. Luckily, he is eventually able to get the authorities to believe his story, and the U.S. military quickly dispatches the invaders, thus providing audiences with at least some assurance that the military would be able to repel whatever threats that might arise. Perhaps the most memorable thing about Invaders from Mars, however, was the design of its aliens. In particular, the head Martian is a metallic-looking creature that is essentially all brain, living in a glass globe, waving its weird tentacles, and controlling, through telepathy, a troop of drone-like mutant slaves, who do all of its physical work.

Haskin’s The War of the Worlds, again based on a Wells novel, was probably the slickest and most technically impressive of all of the science fiction films produced by Pal during the 1950s. In the film, the Martian invaders are quickly opposed by conventional military forces after scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a famous “astro- and nuclear physicist,” learns of their existence and alerts the authorities, who quickly mobilize. Unfortunately, the Martians prove invulnerable to conventional attack, surrounding their hovercraft with force fields that are impermeable to the bombs and bullets that are launched against them. Desperate, the top American brass order an atomic attack, but the Martians prove impervious even to a bomb that is “ten times more powerful than anything used before.” All seems lost, when the Martians suddenly die off due to their lack of resistance to the germs that inhabit earth’s atmosphere. This is literally a deus ex machina ending, the Martians having been destroyed by what is essentially presented as divine intervention. As the film closes, church bells ring and a chorus sings “amen,” while the narrator informs us that the Martians have been killed by “the littlest of things, which God in His wisdom had put upon this earth.”

If War of the Worlds privileges religion over science, This Island Earth (1955) is far more positive in its figuration of science, though its alien invaders are themselves scientists. These aliens, from the besieged planet of Metaluna, have come to earth, not to colonize the planet or to prevent the evolution of earth technology, but to recruit earth scientists to help them develop better sources of nuclear power so they can fight off their enemies on the neighboring planet of Zahgon. We are told that this recruitment is necessary because most of the Metalunan scientists have already been killed in the war, but it is fairly clear that the depiction of the Metalunans picking the brains of American scientists in this film heavily partakes of the same mindset that convinced Americans in the 1950s that the primitive Soviets could not possibly have developed nuclear weapons without somehow stealing the technology from their more advanced American rivals (who had boosted their own scientific advancement by importing former Nazi scientists after World War II). In the film, he-man scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and beautiful female scientist Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) are able to escape from the Metalunans and return to earth, where they will no doubt get married and breed several beautiful and intelligent American children.

Scientist Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and new wife Carol (Joan Taylor) have a similarly bright future at the end of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), but only after helping to mobilize the American military-industrial complex to defeat an invasion of aliens, who again do not seem all that evil, other than the fact that they hope to come to earth to live, their own planet having been rendered uninhabitable. But this in itself is a frightening prospect, just as Americans of the 1950s were widely hostile to the idea of all those Third World masses moving here to take our jobs and use up our resources. So the relatively peaceful aliens are greeted with military force, resulting in an all-out war. The earthlings win, again providing a reassuring ending.

If the aliens of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are forced to turn to violence largely because of the belligerence of the earthlings who greet them, there is no such ambivalence in the depiction of the aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), perhaps the signature alien-invasion film of the 1950s. Here, alien replicants begin replacing the inhabitants of a small California town, with the clear implication that they plan eventually to take over the entire country and perhaps the entire world. While this film is particularly easy to read as an allegory about the threat of communist infiltration in the U.S., it is also a complex film that can be read as a commentary on a variety of domestic threats, including conformism and McCarthyism.

Gene Fowler’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers in its paranoia about aliens who look just like us, but also indicates the extent to which anxieties over gender roles were central to the decade. In fact, in its focus on male aliens who have come to earth to mate with human women in order to save their species from dying out, this film addresses a number of concerns surrounding the centrality of marriage and family to American life in the 1950s. It was unusual for the time in that the lone individual who warns of the alien invasion is a woman, who thereby finds herself aligned against Norrisville’s masculine authorities, most of whom are already aliens. Nevertheless, the film, despite its apparent suggestion that you never know when your spouse might be an alien, or a communist, or something similarly sinister, ultimately makes a statement in favor of the conventional nuclear family. Indeed, the aliens are finally routed by a group of responsible males who have recently performed their familial duties by producing offspring.

In some cases, such as The Blob (1958), the alien invaders in 1950s SF films do not resemble humans but are quite clearly monstrous. Here, the line between alien-invasion and monster films often becomes quite thin. Also notable are films in which the monsters were created by radiation, addressing the decade’s fear of nuclear catastrophe. One of the earliest of these films was Sam Newfield’s Lost Continent (1951), in which a team of scientists and soldiers goes to a remote Pacific island to try to retrieve some crucial data from an experimental rocket that has crashed there. Not only are the prehistoric monsters that inhabit the island apparently the result of the high levels of radiation on the island, but the team is also racing to retrieve the top-secret rocket before the Russians can get to it. The monsters of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1960) are all either produced or stirred to aggressive action as a result of nuclear testing or radiation experiments.

One of the most interesting sequences of monster films from the 1950s was the trilogy The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and The Creature Walks among Us (1956), the first two directed by Arnold, one of the most prolific directors of the decade. Clearly reptilian and thus seemingly just as foreign to the human species as the insects and spiders of Them! and Tarantula, the creature is nevertheless a biped, essentially humanoid in its overall shape, as is indicated by the tendency of the humans in the films to refer to it as the “Gill Man.” It is, in fact, an evolutionary missing link between reptiles and mammals, discovered in the remote Third World setting of the Amazon, where one might expect such primitive beings to live. The basic primitive-critter-from-the-Third-World premise of the creature sequence also places those films in the tradition of King Kong. Moreover, the creature itself follows very much in the huge footsteps of Kongin that it is ultimately more sinned against than sinning, so sensitive to the cruel treatment meted out to it by its human captors that audiences could not avoid feeling a certain sympathy with it.

If the Gill Man is almost human, it is also the case that many films of the 1950s blurred the boundary between humans and monsters in general. In particular, unrestrained scientific research always threatens, in the science fiction films of the 1950s, to deprive humans of their humanity in one way or another. In Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958), for example, well-meaning scientist André Delambre (David Hedison) develops a teleportation apparatus, then teleports himself as an experiment. Unfortunately, a common housefly accidentally gets into the machine with him, and, when they come out on the other end, their atoms have become intermixed. Though a somewhat silly film, The Fly supplied one of the iconic moments of 1950s science fiction film in a scene near the end in which the fly with a human head, trapped in a spider web, cries out “Help me!” in a tiny voice—only to be smashed with a rock by Police Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall). The film became a cult classic and was eventually remade into a much more interesting film by David Cronenberg in 1986. In Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), radioactive pollution causes protagonist Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams) to shrink continually, until he literally fades out of existence. This film, however, stands out among the SF films of the decade in its focus on the psychic impact on Carey of his gradually decreasing size. At the other end of the size spectrum was Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan), the protagonist of Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), who grew to colossal size (but also experienced 1950s-style existential trauma), as did Nancy Fowler Archer (Allison Hayes) in Nathan Juran’s cult classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958).

Roger Corman, whose trademark campy, low-budget films would make him an important force in American cinema, began his SF film career with the postapocalypse film The Day the World Ended (1955), which also featured a humans-into-monsters motif. Like most of the films directed (or produced) by Corman, The Day the World Ended, however silly, has its interesting moments. In a graphic reminder of the horrors of radiation, the film suggests that radiation poisoning can transform humans into monstrous mutant cannibals. In the end, one man and one woman survive, preparing to restart the human race, Adam-and-Eve style. Hackneyed plot, stock characters, and cheesy-looking monster aside, The Day the World Ended is still notable as one of the few films of the 1950s that actually showed the effects of radiation on humans, however unrealistic its depiction of those effects might have been. It thus differs from the most popular post-holocaust film of the 1950s, Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), which shows no such effects. Here, a global nuclear war has apparently destroyed all human life everywhere on earth, except Australia, which has been spared because of its remote location. Unfortunately, the clouds of deadly radiation that cover the rest of the globe are headed for Australia as well, so the Australians themselves have only a few months before what seems to be inevitable death. The film concentrates on the attempts of the various characters to cope with their impending doom. Indeed, while the how-could-we-be-so-stupid senselessness of the nuclear war looms in the margin as a message throughout, Kramer also seems to have wanted to make the film a sort of universal commentary on how human beings come to grips with the realization of their own certain mortality.

Other post-holocaust films of the long 1950s were even more indirect in their representation of nuclear war and its aftermath. For example, in Edward Bernds’s World without End (1956), the nuclear holocaust is projected hundreds of years into the future, and the film itself is set hundreds of years after that, when radiation levels have essentially returned to normal. Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of Wells’s classic 1895 novel The Time Machine also focuses on a far-future postapocalyptic world. At one point, Pal has his time traveler (who begins his journey on New Year’s Eve, 1899) stop off in 1966, where he is nearly killed in a nuclear assault on London, placing the nuclear holocaust itself in the near future of the film. Then, he travels into the far future (he ends up in the year 802,701, just as in Wells’s book), where the human race has evolved (actually, devolved) into two separate species. The passive Eloi live on the gardenlike surface of the planet, enjoying lives of mindless leisure. They are completely indolent, illiterate, and incapable of creative thought or action. Meanwhile, the aggressive and animalistic Morlocks live beneath the surface, where they still have at least some operating technology. It turns out that they are raising the Eloi essentially as cattle, taking them, at full maturity, beneath the surface to be slaughtered for food. The time-traveling protagonist (Wells himself, played by Rod Taylor) stirs the Eloi to revolt, destroying the Morlocks. As the film ends, he returns to 802,701 to help lead the Eloi in their attempt to build a new world and regenerate their ability for creative action.

By 1962, science fiction films began to deal a bit more directly (and less optimistically) with nuclear holocaust, though a film such as Ray Milland’s Panic in Year Zero still resembles On the Beach in its focus on the human drama of the survivors of the disaster, not the human tragedy of the victims. There are again no actual signs of nuclear destruction, though the film does depict certain negative consequences, such as the looting, rape, and murder that occur in the wake of a nuclear attack. By and large, however, Panic in Year Zero is essentially a survivalist adventure, in which the resourceful Baldwin family meet all challenges and ultimately survive the nuclear war unscathed.

The cycle of postapocalyptic films that marked the 1950s came to a close in 1964 with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This highly effective absurdist farce brilliantly captures the insanity of the mutually-assured-destruction mentality of the arms race and may very well have made a significant contribution to the easing of the anti-Soviet hysteria that had marked the 1950s. On the other hand, by providing a sort of final word on this hysteria, the film also brought to a halt the Golden Age of SF film production that had marked the earlier decade, though it was certainly the case that numerous other aspects of American life in the 1960s created an environment in which SF film did not thrive. The decade’s emphasis on “relevance,” and the clear importance of such phenomena as the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s movement, made SF film seem frivolous to many.

Some SF films of the 1960s, such as Roger Vadim’s sex farce Barbarella (1968), attempted to appeal to the ethos of the decade in intentionally frivolous ways. On the other hand, films such as François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968), the latter of which would become one of the signature films of American popular culture, attempted seriously to engage the issues of the day. Meanwhile, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) strove more for artistic seriousness, bringing unprecedented critical attention and respect to the genre of science fiction film.

In the wake of the success of such films, SF cinema made something of a comeback in the early 1970s. A cycle of SF films in the first half of that decade continued to strive for relevance and artistic seriousness, usually with a dark tone that reflected the era’s growing skepticism and increasing sense (driven by such events as the Watergate scandal) that the new and better world envisioned by the political movements of the 1960s didn’t seem that different from the old and darker world that had preceded it. In 1971 alone, several films projected a dystopian future, including Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971). Other dark visions of the future followed, including Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975), and Michael Anderson’ Logan’s Run (1976). These dystopian visions of the future set a precedent for important films such as Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), perhaps the most important of all dystopian novels. By contrast, Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) was a farcical parody of the dystopian genre, while former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam followed in 1985 with Brazil, which also presented what was essentially a parodic dystopia, though one that continued to make many of the same serious satirical points for which the sub-genre is well known. Films such as John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997), Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), and Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium (2002) continued this tradition into the twenty-first century.

One of the most visually effective dystopian films of the early 1970s was THX 1138 (1971), the first film by Star Wars creator George Lucas. Then, in 1977, Star Wars itself took science fiction film in whole new directions. Star Wars appealed greatly to the sensibilities of a late-1970s America that, after the disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate, was hungry for a rousing, old-fashioned adventure in which good triumphed over evil. Moreover, Star Wars defined “good” in traditional America terms in which individual conscience trumped obedience to official authority. In addition to its charming optimism (and its targeting of juvenile audiences, which was also a key to its commercial success), Star Wars was a technical triumph that wowed audiences with its unprecedent,ed special effects. In many ways the most successful SF film of all time, Star Wars began one of the most important phenomena in the history of science fiction cinema. For one thing, Star Wars inspired no fewer than five sequels (so far), including The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Return of the Jedi (1983), The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005). Star Wars also took the phenomenon of merchandising to unprecedented levels, as a seemingly limitless array of related books, toys, and various kinds of collectibles produced even more income than the blockbuster films themselves.

Star Wars appeared at the beginning of a several-year period that was the richest in the history of SF film, while its old-fashioned, nostalgic appeal also marked the beginning of a rightward turn in American politics that would lead to the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. Indeed, looking at the Cold War years of the 1950s, then at the late 1970s and early 1980s, some critics have concluded that science fiction film seems particularly to flourish in conservative times, perhaps because of their escapist appeal to audiences appalled by contemporary reality. Even seemingly “liberal” SF films of this period—such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released the same year as Star Wars—contained as strong escapist component. Here, however, the escape is not from what many saw as the leftist drift of global politics but from the soul-destroying nature of life in modern capitalist America. The box-office success of the more adult-oriented Close Encounters verified the commercial potential of SF film that had been suggested by Star Wars, while demonstrating that such film could appeal to a variety of ages and ideologies. On the other hand, Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) turned back to a more youthful audience, aiming more at the sentiments than the intellects of its viewers—and with hugely successful commercial results.

Partly inspired by the recent commercial and technical success of Star Wars,Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was an attempt to update the Star Trek franchise for a new generation of fans, building upon recent dramatic advances in special effects technology. With nearly three times the budget of Star Wars and with special effects wizards such as Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra on board, Star Trek is indeed an impressive-looking film, even if it is not really groundbreaking in the way Star Wars had been. It is grander than Star Wars (and intended for a more adult audience), but the plot is a bit weak, and the interpersonal relationships (especially among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy) that had provided so much of the energy of the original television series never really quite come off in the film. Still, the built-in audience from fans of the series made the first Star Trek film a substantial commercial success, leading to the longest series of sequels in SF film history. For most fans (and critics), Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was a great improvement over the first film, returning more to the spirit of the original series. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) found fans as well, though the aging original cast was beginning to creak a bit by the last film. Star Trek: Generations (1994) handed the mantle over to the younger cast of television’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, who continued the film series in Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). Together, these films represented a rare example of SF crossover from television to film (the reverse is more common), though one might also mention Rob Bowman’s The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) as a fine SF thriller based on the popular X-Files television series. That series, incidentally, drew much of its inspiration from the same 1960s-style oppositional politics that had fueled the original Star Trek, except that The X-Files series and film were both heavily influenced by the greater cynicism and skepticism of the 1990s.

1979 also saw the beginning of another major SF film franchise with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Mixing the genres of horror and science fiction with an unprecedented sophistication—and presenting film audiences with a dark, but detailed vision of future technology that they had never before seen—Alien was a genuine breakthrough in SF film, not the least because of the effectiveness of its presentation of a tough female heroine, the formidable Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Meanwhile, the titular alien was one of the most effective-looking SF film monsters of all time, impacting the look of any number of future alien creatures in SF film. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) was in many ways an even greater success, while David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s visually striking Alien Resurrection (1997) were solid efforts as well, with the latter adding new touches of irony and humor to the sequence.

Blade Runner (1982), Scott’s own follow-up to Alien, was perhaps the most visually influential SF film of all time, rivaled only by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Together with Alien it ushered in the postmodern era in SF film, a phenomenon that has drawn substantial attention from academic critics, who have found science fiction film (and science fiction in general) to be among the paradigmatic cultural expressions of postmodernism. Blade Runner was distinctive for its blurring of the boundary between detective fiction and science fiction, both in its plot and its visual style, while its interrogation of the distinction between humans and the products of their technology addressed numerous contemporary concerns about human identity. Meanwhile, the dark, oddly indeterminate, multicultural city of the film provided some of the most striking visuals in the history of cinema.

Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner also announced a new level of maturity for SF film in which the genre felt able to tackle some of the same kinds of serious issues that had long been the stuff of science fiction novels and stories. Dick’s stories, for example, provided the basis for such successful later films as Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). On the other hand, the adaptation of serious SF literature to film is a difficult project that has generally met with relatively little success. Even David Lynch’s Dune (1984), which provides some striking examples of the director’s unique visual style, was largely reviled by fans of the classic Frank Herbert novel—and ultimately rejected as a failure by Lynch himself.

1984 also saw the release of James Cameron’s The Terminator, another key example of postmodern SF cinema. This film made Arnold Schwarzeneggera star, made the SF action film a major genre, and triggered any number of imitations, including its own two sequels, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). One of the films influenced by The Terminator was Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), a work that included a substantial amount of social satire but also provided ironic commentary on the science fiction genre itself. Both The Terminator and Robocop showed a fear of the dehumanizing potential of technology that was typical of the Reagan years, in which nostalgic visions of a return to a simpler past were prominent in the popular American imagination. Indeed, by the end of the 1980s, SF film itself had begun to take a new kind of nostalgic turn enabled by the fact that the genre had become so well established that all subsequent works inevitably entered into dialogues with their predecessors. Even a film as innovative as Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) had underwater-adventure predecessors such as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), while reaching back to The Day the Earth Stood Still in the way its alien visitors use their advanced technology to try to put a stop to the Cold War arms race.

The Abyss, however, went well beyond its undersea predecessors in the quality of its special effects, which among other things pioneered computer generated imaging (CGI), leading into a new era of special effects–driven films that relied heavily on such techniques. Though itself a thoughtful film, The Abyss in this sense continued the movement toward increased emphasis on special effects that had been a key factor in the evolution of SF film from Star Wars onward. This tendency reached new levels in the 1990s with the production of a number of big-budget, high-profit special-effects spectaculars, including Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), Roland Emmerich’s Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996), and Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997).

The latter two films were indicative of other new trends in SF film in the 1990s as well. Featuring advanced aliens who warn the earth of the follies of the Cold War arms race, The Abyss joins The Day the Earth Stood Still as antiwar SF films that bracket the Cold War years. Meanwhile, the Cold War had provided background for any number of science fiction films during those years, suggesting that the genre might move in new directions after the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s. For example, cultural historians such as Richard Slotkin and Tom Engelhardt have argued that the national identity of the United States has from the beginning been defined in opposition to enemies who could be constructed as savage and evil.[2] With the loss of the Soviet bloc as such an enemy, American culture seemed to be seeking new enemies to be defeated, as reflected in such films as Independence Day and Starship Troopers.

The computer simulation of reality was the other major new trend in SF film in the 1990s. While the video-game inspired Tron had explored virtual reality as early as 1982, the growing importance of computers and the internet as part of the texture of everyday life in America in the 1990s led to the production of a number of virtual-reality films, taking SF film in genuinely new directions. Such films included Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), and Virtuosity (Brett Leonard, 1995). Films such as Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), and Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor 1999) took such films to a new level of sophistication in the late 1990s, though by far the most important of such films was Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), which was followed by two sequels in 2003, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Appropriately enough, virtual-reality films (especially the Matrix trilogy) were among those that made the best and most innovative use of computer-generated imagery in the production of special effects.

If such films were made possible by advances in computer technology in Hollywood, they were made popular by computer advances in the world at large, in which the growth of the internet and video gaming and spurred a popular fascination with the possibilities of virtual reality. But this fascination also grew out of a growing sense of the unreality of reality itself. As described by cultural theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, life in the postmodern era (especially in the United States) has been characterized by a growing sense of unreality and by a collapse of the once seemingly-solid boundary being fiction and reality, between authenticity and simulation.

This phenomenon would only become more prominence in the early years of the twenty-first century, just as CGI became increasingly important in SF film. Computer simulation is especially important in a series of films in which the technology allowed comic books to come to life. Many of the latter were semi-SF superhero films such as Sam Raimi’s hugely successful Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), though films such as Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) fit more comfortably into the category of science fiction. CGI was also ideal for the conversion of popular video games into film, among which Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) and Alexander Witt’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) were particularly interesting. Films such as Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004) drew upon the classic science fiction of the past (in this case the robot stories of Isaac Asimov from the 1950s) as material for special-effects extravaganzas. Kerry Conran’s  Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), like Star Wars, looked back to the 1930s, while introducing new CGI techniques in which virtually everything except the human actors themselves (and even one of the actors) was computer-generated.

The campy nostalgia of Sky Captain also placed it in the tradition of films that have played with science fiction convention, sometimes in highly ironic ways. Of course, the addition of an element of camp to SF films goes back at least to the 1950s, when campiness in the films of directors such as Corman sometimes compensated for budget shortages. Campiness in SF film reached its zenith in Jim Sharman’s ultra-campy cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a comic rock sendup of the horror genre that includes numerous science fictional elements as well. Indeed, the film’s opening number is a 1950s-style rock homage to 1950s-style science fiction, including references to such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, but treating the genre as the stuff of late night double features. The film’s central figure, transvestite Frankensteinian mad scientist Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry, in an inimitable performance) turns out to be an alien emissary from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy Transylvania.

In the 1980s, films such as Lamont Johnson’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) employed campiness to beef up weak plots and low-budget looks, though the latter also uses its cheesy feel to cloak an extremely serious—and unusually radical—critique of consumer capitalist society. It was, however, in the 1990s that the addition of campy elements to basic science fiction plots became a major strategy of SF film. For example, the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Demolition Man (1993) is essentially an action film (with a futuristic setting) in which unconventional cop John Spartan (Stallone) battles against arch-criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). It is also a dystopian critique of conformism in its future society, though not a very inventive one. Most of its ideas are mere clichés, though it is an entertaining film, not only for its spectacular action scenes but also for its humor and for its clear understanding that it belongs to a genre that is always in danger of plunging into silliness. Snipes’s campy performance as Phoenix is particularly effective, though Stallone has some good comic moments as well, especially in the (potentially prophetic) scene where Spartan, having been transported into the future from 1996, is stunned to learn that Arnold Schwarzenegger (in whose shadow Stallone remained as a SF action star in the 1990s) has served a term as President of the United States.

In a similar way, Stuart Gordon’s Space Truckers (1996) seems awful on the surface, but is actually a perfectly effective medium-budget space opera that scores a number of satirical points about the excesses and abuses of capitalism. It also substitutes campiness for big-time special effects and draws considerable energy from the over-the-top performances of Dennis Hopper (as a working-class space pilot battling against his exploitative corporate bosses) and Charles Dance (as a former corporate scientist turned rapacious—but hilariously dysfunctional—cyborg). Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl (1995) lacks the satirical punch of Space Truckers, though its vision of an evil corporate entity that controls the water and power supply of a postapocalyptic future world has some possibilities. The film proudly displays its origins in a British cult comic-strip, and what could have been a truly awful film has a number of highly entertaining moments thanks to the sheer excess of Lori Petty’s performance as the ass-kicking title character and the very zaniness of concepts such as an underground guerrilla band of half-man, half-kangaroo freedom fighters.

In other cases, relatively high-quality, high-budget films used campy, comic elements to good effect, mixing farce with genuine drama in a highly postmodern fashion. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), for example, is a superb time-travel thriller in which scientists from a dystopian, postapocalyptic future send agents back to the past to help them learn more about a deadly plague that wiped out most of the earth’s population in 1996 and 1997. In a twist on the usual time-travel plot, the film stipulates that the past cannot be changed, so that there is no question of averting the plague. Instead, the future scientists hope simply to gain information to help the human race to fight the plague in the future. The film features some of the same weirdly old-fashioned “steampunk” future technology that had marked the distinctive visual style of Gilliam’s Brazil, supplemented by excellent lead performances from A-list actors such as Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe. However, some of its most memorable moments come from Brad Pitt’s (Oscar-nominated) over-the-top performance as a mental patient and would-be terrorist—not to mention the whacked-out future scientists, who in many ways recall the strange hospital doctors of Dennis Potter’s classic BBC miniseries The Singing Detective (1986).

In Twelve Monkeys, Willis plays a genuinely vulnerable man on the verge of complete mental collapse.In Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), he returns to his more usual role of action hero (much in the vein of his portrayal of troubled cop John McClane in the Die Hard films). This time, Willis plays a retired military operative who returns to duty from his job as a cab driver (in a futuristic hovercraft cab) in order to save the earth from total destruction. Little else about this film is predictable, however, as it plays with a number of SF clichés. To save the earth, Willis’s Korben Dallas must locate and retrieve the five “elements” of an ancient high-tech weapon, the fifth of which is one Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a sort of goddess whose physical perfection becomes a running joke throughout the film. In fact, though the action plot is perfectly functional and though Willis and Jovovich perform well in the lead roles, the slightly excessive visuals and the outrageous performances of Gary Oldman as a key villain and Chris Tucker as a glitzy media personality lend the entire film a campy air. The Fifth Element is a virtual compendium of SF film elements, all of which seem just a bit out of kilter, making the film both a successful space opera and a running commentary on the entire genre of SF film.

Other SF film parodies have addressed specific individual predecessors in the genre. Death Machine (1995) is largely an extended riff on Alien, with clear echoes of Robocop and The Terminator tossed in for good measure. Actually, Death Machine, directed by Stephen Norrington (who would go on to direct the 1998 vampire action flick Blade and who had worked on the creature effects crew for Aliens), is a fairly effective (and rather dark) SF thriller. However, the performance by Brad Dourif as a crazed sex-maniac mad scientist adds a strong dose of campiness to the mix, as do the often light-hearted allusions to other films—including the use of character names such as “John Carpenter” and “Sam Raimi,” nodding toward the well-known horror-film directors, as well as “Scott Ridley,” “Weyland” and “Yutani,” which wink at the director of Alien, as well as the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation that figures so prominently in the Alien films.In a lighter vein, Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987) is a hilarious spoof of the Star Wars franchise (with side nods to a variety of other SF films), employing an unending stream of sight-gags and puns that work only because Brooks can assume that his audience has extensive familiarity with the works being parodied. Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999) similarly relies largely on references to Star Trek (and the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom), though it also gains energy from the presence of SF superstar Sigourney Weaver as the actress who plays busty blonde space babe Lt. Tawny Madison (the antithesis of Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien films) in a television series that bears a remarkable resemblance to the original Star Trek.

The frequent excesses of the alien-invasion genre have made it a prime target of SF films spoofs. For example, in Ivan Reitman’s Evolution (2001), David Duchovny virtually resurrects his wise-cracking Fox Mulder character from television’s alien-invasion drama The X-Files, complete with an evolving romantic tension between himself and a red-hairedgovernment scientist (played by Julianne Moore) who looks a bit like Gillian Anderson’s Dana Sculley. Orlando Jones adds comic energy as well, and this tale of alien microbes that arrive on earth inside a meteorite then evolve at breakneck pace into more complex (and more dangerous) alien invaders definitely has its moments. However, Duchovny and Moore’s characters lack the on-screen chemistry of Mulder and Sculley, while Reitman’s obvious attempts to draw upon his own Ghost Busters (1984) formula are unable to keep the film from going flat about halfway through.

Sometimes, as in the notorious case of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), alien-invasion films had been so awful as to be unintentionally self-parodic. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) drew upon Wood’s campy reputation in a fine non-SF film, then Burton himself, in Mars Attacks! (1996) made what may be the finest—or at least funniest—comic science fiction film ever made. Like Ed Wood, Mars Attacks! plays on nostalgia for the notorious science fiction films of the 1950s and even earlier. The title, for example, looks back to the 1938 Flash Gordon serial Mars Attacks the World. Burton’s film draws much of its plot and imagery from classic alien-invasion films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, though it functions particularly directly (and effectively) as a parody of Independence Day, a huge blockbuster that had been released only five months earlier. Mars Attacks! is one of Burton’s campiest films and, as such, it tends to make the films on which it is based seem a bit ridiculous. At the same time, it remembers those films almost tenderly, seeming wistfully to wish for a time when it was possible to make such simple films in a (mostly) serious way. Mars Attacks! itself is anything but simple. A relatively big-budget production, it features an impressive all-star cast (headed by Jack Nicholson) and an array of expensive high-tech special effects, thus differing dramatically from the 1950s films to which it centrally refers. At the same time, the film also includes a number of cheap, old-fashioned effects, as when the Martians zap earthlings with hokey ray guns that look like children’s toys or when they approach earth in an armada of 1950s-style flying saucers that one character describes as looking suspiciously like hub caps. In the end, the earthlings triumph in a way that comments on the unlikely nature of such triumphs in many earlier films: it turns out that the Martians have no resistance to the music of Slim Whitman, the sound of which tends to make their brains explode.

Mars Attacks! may have a great deal of fun at the expense of science fiction, but it also draws much of its energy from the same phenomenon. The same might be said for another alien-invasion comedy, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black (1997) and its sequel, Men in Black II (2002). The films have a great deal of fun with the whole tradition of UFO lore, positing the presence on earth of a wide array of bizarre alien invaders and the existence of an extensive secret organization that battles against the invaders. Both films star Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as the titular men in black, agents of this secret organization. Partly building on Smith’s momentum as a central figure in Independence Day, the Men in Black films together grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide, making them easily the most commercially successful comic SF films ever.

If comedies such as Men in Black and Mars Attacks! gained ironic energy from a certain nostalgia for earlier SF films, it is also the case that turn-of-the-century SF film seemed in general to look backward more than forward. For example, not only was the the second Star Wars trilogy (released in the years 1999–2005) a prequel to the first trilogy, but it clearly built on nostalgic memories of that first trilogy, which had appeared almost a generation earlier. The years 2000 and 2001, meanwhile, were marked by a series of Mars-exploration films, which clearly looked back to such predecessors as Rocketship X-M, Conquest of Space (1955), and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), while renewing a fascination with the planet Mars that had marked science fiction since the time of Wells. Some of these films were quite ambitious. In Mission to Mars (2000) renowned director Brian de Palma produces a film that contains some genuine moments of wonder, while working hard to place itself within the tradition of SF film. Visually and thematically reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey,the film focuses on the first manned mission to Mars, and particularly on a rescue mission mounted when a strange phenomenon kills off most of the members of the first expedition. This second mission leads to the discovery of a repository left behind by an ancient, highly-advanced race that once lived on Mars. The virtual-reality archive left in this repository reveals that Mars had been rendered unlivable by a sudden catastrophe, apparently a strike by a large asteroid. The inhabitants of the planet were thus forced to evacuate to the stars, though they also sent a ship to earth, seeding it with DNA and leading to the evolution of life on earth. Humans are thus in a very real sense the cousins of the ancient inhabitants of Mars. In fact, one of the human astronauts, Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), rather than return to earth, decides to stay on the alien ship that is in the repository and that is about to take off, presumably to follow its makers to their new home in the stars.

In the somewhat confused Red Planet (Antony Hoffman, 2000), overpopulation and environmental degradation on earth have forced humanity to look to Mars for a new home. However, a project to terraform the planet by sending algae there to grow and produce oxygen has gone awry and oxygen levels have started inexplicably to drop. The film begins as an American crew travels to Mars to investigate the situation. A solar flare damages their ship severely just as they reach Martian orbit, triggering a series of misfortunes (including the by-now-obligatory damaged robot that turns on the crew) in which three of the original five crew members are killed. However, they also find that oxygen levels on Mars have now risen dramatically, so much so that humans can breathe on the surface. Mission Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) and mechanical systems analyst Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer) survive to return to earth and report that the surface of Mars is now swarming with “nematodes” (of unknown origin and looking more like insects than nematodes) and that these creatures have eaten the original algae but are now themselves producing oxygen in large quantities. The implication is that the human project to colonize Mars has been saved, though it is not at all clear that the nematodes (who had already almost completely depleted their algae-food supply) can survive long-term (and co-exist with humans, whom they also find appetizing) on Mars. Meanwhile, there are vague attempts at quasi-religious hints that the nematodes may have a supernatural, even divine origin.

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001) is more of a pure action flick. Here, a mining operation on a colonized and partly terraformed Mars uncovers the ghosts of an ancient Martian civilization. In an attempt to defend their planet from human occupation, the ghosts then possess the miners, turning them into crazed killers who then attack every human in sight. After a terrific, high-action battle, the ghosts seem to have been defeated by a contingent of Martian police, led by Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) and joined by notorious criminal James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube). Unfortunately, the ghosts reappear, attacking the major human settlement at Chryse. Ballard and Williams prepare to rush back into battle as the film ends.

One of the most obvious signs of a turn to nostalgia was the number of remakes of earlier SF films that appeared at the beginning of the new century, starting with John Harrison’s Sci Fi Channel miniseries remake of Dune (2000), which sticks more closely to the original novel in plot but falls far short of the original Lynch film as a work of cinematic art. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, is vastly superior to the original as a work of visual art, but falls far short of the original’s intelligent social and political commentary. Simon Wells’s The Time Machine (2002) lacks Burton’s special visual flair but still makes good use in advances in special effects technology to spice up its look, though somehow lacking the energy and impact of the original. Big-time action director John McTiernan remade Rollerball in 2002 with even worse results, turning a film that at least attempted to critique our culture’s fascination with violence into one that simply celebrated violence as spectacle. Finally, in 2005, Spielberg directed a remake of War of the Worlds (2005), updating that classic with state-of-the-art big-budget special effects, while in many ways remaining more faithful to the original Wells novel than had the 1953 film adaptation.

With the notable exception of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds,almost all of these remakes fall far short of the originals, suggesting that it takes more than impressive special effects to make an effective SF film. It also suggests that SF film may be at its best not when it looks back to the past (including its own past) but when it looks toward the future. Thus, while the new century did not get off to a particularly good start in the production of interesting science fiction cinema, the form remains a prominent element of American popular culture—and certainly remains commercially viable, as the spectacular box office success of Cameron’s cliché-ridden Avatar (2009), which became the top grossing film of all time, amply demonstrates.

An environmentally devastated future seemed to become almost a given in the future worlds depicted in the science fiction films of the new millennium, though other sorts of postapocalyptic scenarios appeared as well, as in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), in which research into the biological bases of human violence lead to a plague of ultraviolent killer zombies. Meanwhile, films in all of the major science fiction genres continued to appear, some of which were quite distinctive and quite good, as in the case of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) and Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005), and others of which were colossal hits at the box office, including the robot action narratives I, Robot (2004), Transformers (2007), and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).

All in all, though, the major developments in science fiction film in the new millennium have not involved the production of striking landmark films so much as the rapid evolution of techniques of computer animation for use in the generation of special effects—or even entire films. In the long run, these technological advances may bode well for the future of science fiction film, though in the short term they seem to have led to an emphasis on action and special effects at the expense of serious and thoughtful explorations of serious issues. Of course, the use of computer-generated imagery in science fiction films dates back to the 1970s, but by 2004, with the release of such films as the Japanese Casshern, the French Immortel (ad vitam), and the American Able Edwards and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (the latter actually a joint British-Italian-American production), it was clear that science fiction film had reached the stage when entire films could be shot in front of green screens, with all backgrounds and science fictional devices added later by computer.

In 2009, Cameron’s Avatar took the wow-factor initiated by the special effects of Star Wars to a whole new level, employing extensive computer animation and ushing the envelope of state-of-the-art 3D imagery. Meanwhile, the rapid increase in the percentage of scenery filled in by computer animation in science fiction film paralleled developments in animated film itself, where computer animation became the dominant technique, especially in America, where Pixar, a company dedicated from its beginnings to the production of computer-animated films, became the most successful producer of animated films for children. Pixar’s films, meanwhile, frequently involved elements of sf, up to and including the 2008 film WALL-E, a purely science fictional film that employs a variety of science fiction motifs, including that of an environmentally devastated future earth.

Meanwhile, the case of Pixar is indicative of one additional important development in science fiction film during the period 1990–2009: the increasing importance of animated films in the world of sf. Many of these were children’s films, and animated children’s science fiction film gained an unprecedented prominence during this period, especially in the United States. Indeed, animated science fiction became so associated in American culture with children’s films that animated science fiction films for more mature audiences, such as Titan A. E. (2000) or Battle for Terra (2007), struggled to find an audience. Even The Iron Giant (1999), a brilliant film that could appeal to both children and adults, was a box-office bust, finding no market niche though gaining considerable critical acclaim. However, animated science fiction films that seemed clearly aimed at children found considerable box-office success, with WALL-E leading the way with a worldwide gross of over $500 million. Meanwhile, the situation was somewhat different in Japan, where the rise of anime sf films—typically oriented toward mature audiences—represented probably the most important new contributions of Japanese film in the realm of science fiction since the early days of Godzilla. Meanwhile, though the world of science fiction film continued to be dominated by big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, there were signs by the early years of the 21st century of increased activity from a variety of countries around the world (such as France and South Korea), while international co-productions continued to be extremely common.

The decade of the 2010s was one of unprecedented commercial success for science fiction film, even as some observers felt that excessive reliance on computer-generated special effects was beginning to curb genuine thoughtfulness and creativity in the genre. The growing emphasis on blockbuster films with huge takes at the box office was also seen by some as a negative development for science fiction film. In any case, the tendency toward big-budget blockbusters was the defining phenomenon of the decade, spurred in particular by the increasing dominance of the giant Walt Disney Company in the genre. This dominance was secured by two defining corporate business maneuvers: the acquisition in 2009 of Marvel Comics and the acquisition in 2012 of Lucasfilm, for a bit over $4 billion each. The first of these acquisitions gave Disney control of what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a sequence of films (and works in other media) set in a common universe that became the biggest event in American popular culture. The second acquisition, meanwhile, gave Disney control of the Star Wars franchise, which they quickly converted into additional billions in income by producing a new trilogy of Star Wars films, beginning with Stars Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Disney then further strengthened its position in the science fiction film industry with the 2019 acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox, a long-time major player in the field.

Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars franchise was simply one of a number of franchise reboots that constituted one of the major phenomena of science fiction film in the 2010s. The J. J. Abrams–led reboot of Star Trek in 2009 continued with two additional films (in 2013 and 2016), both of which were quite successful—though not at the level of the new Star Wars trilogy, led by The Force Awakens, with over $2 billion in gross worldwide box-office receipts. Indeed, the Star Wars trilogy was so successful that Disney released two other Star Wars films during the decade outside the main narrative continuity and has already announced plans for another trilogy of Star Wars films to run through 2026. Meanwhile, Fox (before the Disney acquisition) also released a highly successful reboot trilogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise during the decade. Fox was also behind Ridley Scott’s somewhat less successful extension of the Alien franchise with Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017).

There were also several individual-film remakes, reboots, or sequels to major science fiction films in the 2010s. The most anticipated of these was Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), which received largely positive reviews but was not a success at the box office, given its high production cost. Remakes of two classic science fiction films directed by Paul Verhoeven—Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2014)—were also box-office disappointments, though newer box-office powerhouses did arise. Michael Bay’s much-maligned Transformers franchise moved into the new decade with considerable momentum as Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) each grossed more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the Hunger Games series of young adult dystopian novels was converted into a major new sequence of four science fiction films that together grossed roughly $3 billion worldwide.

Probably the least critically successful of all the major franchise extensions in the 2010s was the attempt to re-energize the Terminator franchise with Terminator: Genisys in 2015, though that film did reasonably well at the box office. After that, Cameron regained creative control of the Terminator franchise and tried to get it back on track with Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), co-produced by Cameron and directed by Tim Miller, who had made his directorial debut in 2016 with the highly successful superhero film Deadpool. Deadpool, meanwhile, was one of many superhero films with strong science fictional elements that became the biggest box-office phenomenon of the 2010s. Deadpool himself is a Marvel Comics character associated with the X-Men franchise, the film rights to which were sold by the then-struggling Marvel to Fox in the mid-1990s. Deadpool and its sequel (as well as all of the numerous X-Men films)were thus distributed by Fox and were not part of the MCU juggernaut. Most major Marvel characters did participate in that phenomenon, however, which ultimately resulted in an initial cycle of no less than 22 films (extending from Iron Man in 2008 to Avengers: Endgame in 2019), which grossed an average of roughly $1 billion each, with the culminating Endgame topping the cycle at roughly $2.7 billion in worldwide box-office receipts. All of the MCU films include heavy doses of science fiction iconography and narrative elements, especially the sequence of four Avengers films that are the heart of the first MCU cycle. Thus, The Avengers (2012), for example, the superhero team of the title must fight off an alien invasion, while in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), they battle against a sinister artificial intelligence. Avengers: Infinity War is essentially a space opera, while Endgame is first and foremost a time-travel narrative.

The attempt of rival DC Comics to convert their characters into a successful film franchise within the “DC Extended Universe (DCEU)” was somewhat less successful, though was still a major money maker. Meanwhile, the immense success of the MCU films, with their strong emphasis on science fiction motifs suggests both a promise and a threat in terms of future science fiction films. On the one hand, the success of these films with audiences composed largely of younger viewers might be seen as creating a new generation of moviegoers who already find science fiction motifs familiar and attractive. On the other hand, the MCU films have been so profitable that studios might be tempted to encourage the makers of future science fiction films to follow their lead in putting their emphasis on spectacular scenes of combat produced via computerized special effects, with less regard for the thoughtful exploration of important issues (such as racism, sexism, militarism, nationalism, or environmentalism) that science fiction films have so richly engaged in the past.

It should be noted, however, that smaller (and in many cases quite thoughtful) science fiction films have continued to be able to find a niche, even in the age of the juggernaut franchises and the superhero blockbusters. Moreover, the increasing internationalization of science fiction film has begun to produce more variety in the genre outside the mainstream franchises. Finally, phenomena such as the growth of on-line streaming platforms have created new venues in which smaller science fiction films (produced by filmmakers from around the world) can be seen. Netflix, for example, has been particularly active in the production of original science fiction films in recent years, leading to still more diversity in the genre, with films such as the food-industry satire Okja (2017), from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, deserving to take their place among the most important science fiction films released in the past decade.

NOTES


[1] Adapted from M. Keith Booker, Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Praeger, 2006) and M. Keith Booker, Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema, Second Edition (Scarecrow Press, 2020).

[2] See Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture (Basic Books, 1995) and Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century American Culture (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).