The Important Science Fiction


“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”

While I like to use the word “film” to mean “talking pictures” and leave silent movies as a separate art form, it’s impossible to speak about the important science fiction films without talking about Metropolis. Perhaps the greatest silent film, Metropolis influenced the plots, themes, film techniques, and particularly, the design, of science fiction films up to the present. It set a precedent for using SF to discuss class divisions, though few would call Metropolis’s story, or theme, deep. I am taken by the sheer beauty of the film, the great towers and spires, and the remarkable robot (which Lucas used as a basis for C-3PO in Star Wars).

Fantasy (of which Science Fiction is a sub-genre) is belittled by supporters of “the main stream,” both in literature and in film. This is a strange, modern development as the greatest works of literature are fantasies. The Iliad, Beowulf, and Hamlet are all works that shaped the arts, and all are fantasies. More →

Science Fiction is a much larger genre than Film Noir or Swashbucklers, overlapping almost all other genres (there are SF mysteries, SF Swashbucklers, SF Film Noir, SF Westerns, SF war films, SF comedies, and SF romances, to name a few).  That means there are a lot more films that have influenced the art form, but that didn’t make coming up with a list of teh any more difficult. While there are a lot of important SF films, the top 10 stood out. It didn’t hurt that I left out Metropolis because it belongs to a different art form (call it creative bookkeeping), giving me an extra slot.

Comparing this list with the ones I made for Film Noir and Swashbucklers points an important difference between Science Fiction film and those genres: the golden ages of those two genres are past while SF is still doing fine. With SF, the early years of film were weak. It wasn’t until the end of the ’60s that things really took off.

Come back to this site later, and I’ll have an expanded critique of each film (as I do currently for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet). Now, this is a list of the 10 most important science fiction:

Frankenstein (1931)

While generally classified as horror, it is also a foundational Science Fiction film. A scientific advancement (the ability to create life) forces an examination of “our” views; that’s what Science Fiction is all about. But Frankenstein is not a simple tale of the evils of science as “The Monster” is not monstrous; he is an innocent soul. The evil is in society, in the mad scientist, his assistant, and in the shortsighted average citizens. This story is told in a dream-like world of slanting walls and broken tombs. Everything is just a bit askew, and really beautiful. Frankenstein has become famous on a level that surpasses Mickey Mouse. The movie has become part of our society, and has effected film for the past seventy years.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still introduced a liberal direction in Sci-Fi films; instead of the “kill anything different” view, here the alien was good, human prejudice and nationalism were the problems, and arms-control was a must for survival. The theme is ironic since the aliens live in a police state. The robot Gort has become a SF icon, and the phrase “Gort. Klaatu barada nikto” is part of the lexicon. The film was made with moderate skill, at best. The Camera work is simplistic, the dialog is often stilted, and the acting is nearly cartoonish, yet it is one of the most effective movies ever made. Its theme is clear and understandable and presented in a way that made (and still makes) people think about it. Many modern SF movies are far too clever for their own good, blurring their meaning in tricky twists that cause the whole thing to miss the target. The Day the Earth Stood Still should be a lesson to all filmmakers that clarity is a virtue. Also, the message is accessible because the aliens have not solved the problems we still have by reaching inner tranquility, but rather by understanding their own flaws and setting up a system to deal with them—sure, it’s a system of killer robots, but a system is a system.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

The flip side to The Day the Earth Stood Still, this is all paranoia and fear. It is often taken as a pro-McCarthy, anti-communist rant, and so it is, and as such, it is the most persuasive argument for The Right I’ve ever heard. But it works even without politics as an existential piece about isolation. It pulls you slowly, very slowly, into its world, and traps you there in a hopeless situation. To twist things a little more, it isn’t clear that a pod-people world wouldn’t be better than a human one. If the aliens hadn’t shown a distain for love (an out of place add-on, but fitting if anti-Soviet propaganda was the plan) then their victory would certainly be an improvement. (Full review)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey takes old ideas in SF literature, and brings them into film. There was nothing new for those used to reading Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, but for a less literate film community, this was shocking stuff. Essentially a silent film made up of pieces of old Clarke stories, 2001: A Space Odyssey pulled SF film out of the cheap monster business. Afterwards, it was possible to see films where space was soundless and traveling distances took time. It wasn’t that SF film became intelligent, but rather that it stopped being quite so stupid.

Soylent Green (1973)

The late ’60s and ’70s were a time of activist SF films, and strangely, arch-conservative Charlton Heston was in three of them. Soylent Green took on overpopulation, but to a greater extent, it was about how we treat the world now, and how we don’t cherish what we have. It also brought Film Noir elements into SF, the first step toward CyperPunk, thus influencing Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and William Gibson (the novel Neuromancer). The best moments of the film are not the action scenes or even the generally known ending, but rather the conversations between Heston’s detective and his mentor and friend played by Edward G. Robinson; the emotions are as real as film gets.

Star Wars (1977)

As 2001: A Space Odyssey increased the intellectual level of SF films, Star Wars dumbed it back down, but it did it in such an enjoyable manner that it’s impossible to be unhappy about it. There is very little of science in this Science Fiction. Weapons make big bangs in space. Space ships moving at enormous speeds have guns straight off of WWII bombers, yet they hit things. And wizards rule. But that’s all OK too. This is a western, but instead of the annoying dirt and six-shooters, there are star-fields and light sabers, and that really does make it better. The story is simple “heroic journey” stuff, but sometimes, those stories are the best. It’s strange for a movie with so many flaws to be so good. Sure, the acting is weak (even Alec Guinness comes off as an amateur) and the dialog is unbelievable, but the visuals are amazing. Star Wars strikes something very basic in human nature and does it with spectacular shots and mesmerizing fights. For the thirty years since Star Wars came out, every studio has attempted to recreate it.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

1977 was a big year for SF film. While Lucas made his space opera, Steven Spielberg was creating a very different type of Science Fiction. He was putting wonder into the genre. An incredibly optimistic film, it never explains what it is optimistic about. At the end, I didn’t know who the aliens were or what they wanted or why they did what they did, and I didn’t care. Spielberg creates an awe for the universe, the aliens, and the unknown, that is normally reserved for deities and displays it better than the biblical epics. It is a personal film, without giving us much depth in the main character. Instead of observing Roy Neary, we are asked to step into his place. For those viewers who are willing to do that, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is a near religious experience for the unreligious, and a beautiful film.

Alien (1979)

Hollywood had been mixing horror and Science Fiction since the beginning, but had never made it frightening. The ’50s were filled with monsters from space that chased teenagers down rural roads and not one could coax a chill from me. That changed with Alien, a haunted house film where the house was a mining spaceship and the ghost was an ooze-covered, multi-mouthed…well…alien. Director Ridley Scott elevates the monster film with low level shots, precision editing, and claustrophobia-inducing sets. But what makes it special is the design work of avant-garde artist H.R. Giger, who made it exotic.

Blade Runner (1982)

As important to Science Fiction as it is to Film Noir, this is thinking-man’s cinema, with chases and gun-fights thrown in. It created a new sub-genre, changed the look of film, made careers, and created unforgettable images. I’ve spent more time dwelling on the themes in Blade Runner than on those of any other film. When I need to argue film as art, Blade Runner is the film I use as an example.

The Matrix (1999)

The third film on my list with Cyberpunk influences, The Matrix is probably most “important” to film due to its special effects, which have been copied over and over again. It couldn’t stand without them, yet it has an interesting, and, for film, innovative story. It also could be the most exciting, action-filled SF film. Two lesser sequels have not lessened the impact of the original.

While not in the top 10, the following “also sees” say a lot about the genre:

War of the Worlds (1953)

The ’50s were filled with alien invasion films; The War of the World is a high gloss example. All of the social issues central to the H. G. Wells’ book were removed, leaving a straightforward story of aliens and a terribly athletic, he-man physicist. The “Martians” kill without thought, the females scream, the yokels stand in front of heat-beams and point, and the soldiers order in more tanks and die. In the end, none of it matters as God saves the day. Apparently, faith is what’s vital when evil destroys the world, although it would have been nice if God had arranged the world to take out the aliens before their rampage of destruction and death, but God has a wacky sense of humor. Watch the film for the imaginative flying attack ships.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Take ’50s repressive political and social attitudes, add in primitive special effects and laughable acting, simplistic Freudian psychology, and an interesting take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you get Forbidden Planet, an excellent mess. There’s so much good here, and so much that’s embarrassing. I am opposed to remakes, but this is an exception. Keep the long dead ancient race; keep the scientist-wizard; keep the idea that our own deepest thoughts are deadly, and keep The Tempest, but replace the rest and you could have a great film. (Full review)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A darkly funny social satire, A Clockwork Orange, is filled with over-the-top violence, rape, and torture. It all seems shocking, yet each thrust is so deep into irony that I can sit back and enjoy a bit of the old ultra-violence put to the tune of “Singing in the Rain.” And that’s what’s suppose to happen as Stanley Kubrick was never interested in a passive audience—he wants us in the film. We are invited in by Alex, a sociopathic punk harlequin wickedly brought to life by Malcolm McDowell. Alex speaks to us, expecting us to understand the joy he took with his gang as they beat an old man and rape a woman in front of her husband. We go with him to prison where he points out the real meaning that comes from the Bible, that of orgies and sadomasochistic beatings (it gives a whole new perspective on the scriptures). At one point he tells us that we are his only friends, and so we are. It’s hard to reject him. When the government uses mind control to turn Alex into an acceptable part of society, things get worse, at least for Alex, and as we are there with Alex, for us too. A Clockwork Orange rips apart everything, but it leans toward the side of individualism over society. There’s no good here, so choose which evil you like best. Alex, humiliating the government, and planning payback on all who have opposed him, has chosen his, and like the rest of the film, he’s invited us to come along.

Altered States (1980)

A visually intriguing movie by rightly acclaimed author Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States takes SF out of the adventure genre and into the realm of thoughtful drama. William Hurt, in his first lead role, plays Dr. Jessup, a man obsessed with finding ultimate truth. He pushes the edges of science to leapfrog religion in his painful, all-absorbing search for something to give meaning to his life. While Jessup is an extreme, he represents the search by so many for an external justification for their own existence. The theme is a powerful one; such searches lead to only despair as there is nothing to find. Jessup eventually discovers what life is about as he hovers on the edge of a literal abyss. While sometimes impressive, the special effects and makeup fall short in other cases, and the drug trip scenes go on far too long with the volume of symbolism nearing the absurd, but the good far outweighs the bad.

The Terminator (1984)

Yet another Cyberpunk related film, Director James Cameron keeps paranoia alive and well in SF with his story of an unstoppable killing machine from the future sent back to stop a child from being born. This is a dark, sad tale, but also an exciting one. It’s edge-of-the-seat viewing with interesting, if doomed characters. It’s hard to imagine that the man who is responsible for the corpulent, flaccid Titanic once made such a lean film. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed keen insight by choosing a character that fit his acting talents—an emotionless android.