Note: The following is an essay that I wrote for an American Film Genres class in 2008 on the topic of the sci-fi genre.
Science fiction has managed to capture the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers alike from its beginnings in such films as Melies’ Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The genre has always been a staple of cinema largely due to its imaginative visuals and philosophical allegories, much like it’s literary counterparts. However, science fiction is increasingly one of the hardest genres to define without resorting to a cryptic sort-of “you know it when you see it” type of argument. For each movie that could be pointed to as science fiction could also be examined as a drama, an adventure, a comedy, a noir, a horror film, and the list goes on. So, while most certainly nobody would deny that science fiction deserves its own catalog of films and its recognition in the history of film, it could be posited that instead science fiction is a conglomerate of all genres and that there are certain aspects that serve to convince a viewer to deem the film “sci-fi.”
The roots of science fiction are murky due mostly to its loose definition and many movies could serve as prerequisites for today’s CGI filled future worlds. David Cook points to early silent films such as Metropolis and Le Voyage dans la lune as movies that started to show elements of the genre; these elements being Metropolis’ future setting and Le Voyage’s space voyage (415). The films of early science fiction can also be attributed to 19th century writings of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The two literary figures were masters of what is now referred to as science fiction and most certainly influenced many filmmakers. One of these filmmakers was Georges Melies, the man behind Le Voyage. Melies was no stranger to the science fiction genre and is considered by some to be an originator of sorts (Cornea 12). Melies was keen on using camera tricks in his film, having been a stage magician before and so ended up pioneering what would become a staple of science fiction movies: the visual audacity that is limited only by the technology available. While they may seem rudimentary now, Melies pioneered several cinematic techniques such as the “stop trick,” which is essentially a jump cut used to simulate disappearance or reappearance or any kind of spatial shift (Cornea 12).
Lang also found himself pushing the technological limits of the early 20th century camera when he filmed Metropolis. The film relied heavily on a technique named after the special-effects photographer Eugen Schufftan (Cook 98). David Cook explains the technique as “miniatures are reflected onto a glass with a magnifying mirrored surface, which is placed at a 45-degree angle relative to the camera lens. This surface is scraped away…leaving holes behind which the actual sets are constructed and lit” (98). This process is still used today and still in science fiction films of more recent, such as Blade Runner in 1982. What Lang and Melies did was not only pioneer a budding genre in film but discover that an important aspect of science fiction was and is the use of camera tricks and technology to achieve futuristic images.
Even though Melies and Lang were making their works of futuristic fantasy in the earlier decades of the 1900’s, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that science fiction truly came into it’s own. This is remarked, by some, as the “golden age” of the genre (Cornea 30). It is easy in retrospect to view fifties science fiction within the context of the atomic age. The fifties were a culture of fear from the realization that while technology improved the quality of life, it was much more advanced in the realm of taking it away. The cold war with Russia was taking place and the threat of nuclear warfare was never more imminent than it was during this time. Cyndy Hendershot explains, “1950s sf [science fiction] films open a window on the cultural paranoia that characterized America at this time…largely triggered by…nuclear weapons” (1).
Science fiction was the perfect genre to explore this. The producers and filmmakers could utilize the future, other worlds, aliens, and foreign and advanced technology as tools to symbolize the dangers of living in an industrialized state of impending doom. It is the “non-realistic qualities” of science fiction in which “fear of nuclear war and other fears could be explored on a metaphorical level” (Hendershot 2). As Isaac Asimov tried to define science fiction, he said it was “that branch of literature that deals with the human response to the changes in the level of science and technology” (Cornea 2). Asimov tapped into exactly what the 1950’s science fiction filmmakers would discover and what ultimately would endure and tie the genre together for generations to come. How do humans and their most primal instincts, love, selfishness, etc., react when faced with circumstances yet to face them?
There are too many science fiction movies that spawned in the 1950’s to note, mostly low budget, B-movies. However, there are landmark films that arrived very early in the decade: Destination Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds (based on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name) and Forbidden Planet. All were notable contributions to the genre and all operated well within it. Certainly one of the more enduring of these films is Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still with its iconic saucer space ship and giant robot, Gort.
The film was one of the first in the genre to take away the focus of the individual and place it on a larger context, in this case the entire human race. The story takes place after the landing of a spaceship and the main character is the human-like alien inside, Klaatu. Spurned by the threat of potential atomic warfare on other planets besides Earth, Klaatu arrives to warn Earthlings that if they bring their violence into outer space they will be obliterated. But perhaps Klaatu should’ve taken the sign when he was shot first coming out of the spaceship. The men seem to no less understand his message of peace than they want to destroy what is unknown to them.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a shining example of the cold war fear that sci-fi films often preyed upon. It’s even directly addressed in the film as one of the women, at a breakfast table, proclaims of the “spaceman” that “I still think it’s one of them,” in a clear reference to the Russians. It’s a fear that transcends race, age, and class as Wise shows shots of everybody standing wide-eyed as the spaceship lands.
It’s an interesting question though, to ask what makes this film science fiction? If Asimov’s definition used earlier is referenced, then it’s the fact that the atomic weaponry referenced in the film is a main driving point for the human reaction in the film. Yet, there’s something more than that, for why not make Klaatu a peace loving man from Africa then? What makes this film more science fiction than political drama is the mere presence of a robot, a spaceship and a man from another planet. Albeit silly, these attributes certainly gain it weight in the genre, largely due to the speculation that the producers and Wise would’ve used to create the alien and his ship.
What makes The Day the Earth Stood Still more unique though is its ability to harness the context of the entire world. Klaatu stresses in the film that he is not there to warn one nation or a few, that he wants to play no part in any type of politics. It is only within the context of the science fiction genre that Robert Wise would have been able to put in perspective the threat of nuclear war on the entire world and not just two, three or more countries.
After 1950’s science fiction, the genre laid low for many years still producing low-level, B-movie trash until, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s notoriously cryptic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. Advertised to some as “the ultimate trip,” the film was meditative, subconscious and surreal at times. As co-writer, Arthur C. Clarke explained in the documentary A Life in Pictures, “if you completely understood 2001, then we failed.” It’s a film that still today is debated over, written about and discussed ad nauseum about it’s meaning and message. Kubrick himself never offered an explanation. Taken from an interview in Playboy in 1968, Kubrick offered insight into his film:
“…to ‘explain’ a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film, but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point” (Fischer 356).
It’s a valid point and indeed 2001 is one of the most mind-bending, philosophical
science fiction movies filmed. The story could be referred to as no less than epic; it spans from man’s ape-like beginnings to his eventual pursuance of outer space voyages. However, Kubrick adds a new twist to the science fiction drama in this way. Again, Asimov has us believe that sci-fi is the human reaction to technology, which is exactly what Kubrick tries to address as one of the major themes in 2001. In the “Dawn of Man” sequence, an ape discovers a dried bone as a tool, as a club, as technology and uses it to kill another ape for control over water. Suddenly, the creature with the tool is the one with the means to survive – Darwin at its finest. But instead of Kubrick’s movie reacting to technologies not yet created, he is leaving the audience to think about technology and mankind in general.
There is purpose in the earlier ape sequence, though inexperienced and ignorant film watchers will question its place in the movie. Perhaps most importantly its there to show that man did not always dominate on Earth and for that matter not always violent. There are particular and intentional shots of one ape being attacked by a Cheetah as well as scenes of early man eating plants alongside other animals. It is only after this group of apes encounters an alien monolith, that they discover weapons and become violent. Suddenly, the ape-men are killing each other and the animals with which they were once peaceful – an early vision of the destructiveness technology has on nature.
Fast forward thousands of years by one of the most striking jump cuts in history and technology has resulted in, for better or worse, man having space travel complete with rotating space stations and moon colonies. All floating aimlessly but purposefully in space to a light-hearted Strauss waltz of “The Blue Danube.” Again man finds the mysterious monolith, this time on the moon and this time is able to recognize its sending a signal to Jupiter. A mission is spawned and the meat of the story takes place on the spacecraft traveling to Jupiter with its passengers Dave, Frank and a HAL 9000 computer that renders itself impenetrable to mistake and perfect.
While it’s easy to say that 2001 is a movie that follows a path of man makes machine, machine destroys man, it goes much deeper than that. Surely that is one of the themes Kubrick intended, but he questions artificial intelligence more than most would venture. HAL starts as an impersonal computer with a relaxing voice and a charming personality, but when he makes a mistake is when he truly becomes human. Suddenly, HAL has fears, jealousies, anxieties – he grows emotions out of his mistake, because he was supposed to be perfect. Simply put, Kubrick is telling us that perfection is out of place in the world of artificial intelligence.
The most chilling aspect of HAL’s place in the movie, however, comes at the end as he is being dismantled. He repeatedly expresses his regrets and fears to Dave and says over and over “I can feel it.” A chilling phrase that makes the audience wonder if HAL really deserves it. What place does man have dismantling something and “killing” it for having made a mistake in an area where man himself may have done the same? Is it fair for humans to create something with life and take it away when they deem fit? All of these are questions that viewers ask themselves as HAL tells Dave his “mind is going. I can feel it.”
Again, the ability to classify 2001 as science fiction is first because of its setting. It takes place in space, with spaceships and in the future. It speculates on futuristic living and technologies not yet available. However, while Kubrick indeed made a science fiction film, he uses no technology that was not already available – its just more advanced in his film. Computers were slowly but surely starting to build and so the HAL 9000 is nothing more than what experts believed to be the direction of computing power. Kubrick uses the genre of science fiction to explore allegories and themes that any other genre would have limited him in his ability to do.
After the 1950’s, science fiction genre can be split into two main manifestations. There were the films that advanced the genre through technological breakthroughs and those that advanced it by mixing it with other genres or ideas. In 1977, a young filmmaker fresh out of University of Southern California film school named George Lucas made a movie that would break new ground in science fiction. That film of course was Star Wars now subtitled with “A New Hope” after the sequels were made.
It can be said that Star Wars was both these types of science fiction manifestations, as the landmark films usually are. Lucas borrowed from many of his favorite genres from the golden age of Hollywood. Han Solo is a character straight out of a Western (its no accident that Luke and Obi-wan find him in a bar or saloon on a desert planet). As well as Darth Vader’s helmet was meant to evoke memories of the samurai films of Kurosawa – even the lightsabers, swords made of powerful light, are references to the samurai film. Lucas effectively took a science fiction setting and genre context but mixed in other types of genres as well.
The film also pushed the limits of technology with the miniature work and effects shot that Lucas had to do to get the desired results of his high-speed, high-flying space warfare (again a throwback to the dogfights of war movies). Another special effect used was a technique called rotoscoping for the lightsabers. It was tedious and arduous work but it achieved the effect of a glowing sword. However, Lucas also used the same camera tricks that Melies was using nearly 80 years before. There are a great many scenes that Lucas uses a twist on the “stop trick” to close space doors fast.
So again, we ask ourselves, what makes Star Wars science fiction? It plays less into Asimov’s definition about humans and technology. Few of the themes go beyond what a general war setting would provide. What makes Star Wars science fiction is it’s setting and its speculative nature. For what else could make this movie science fiction? Its themes and motifs are borrowed from other genres, in some cases its characters. The fact that it’s in space, on other planets and that it features technology unfamiliar to us makes it science fiction. It should also be noted that Star Wars is one of few films that never references Earth humans or current times at all. Everything in the film is alien to the viewer and for this, the film is unique.
While Star Wars was working on its third sequel in 1982, being released was another landmark science fiction film: Blade Runner. The visual style and dystopian world that exists in the Ridley Scott film are the culmination of where the genre was heading. Star Wars showed early signs of it, having gritty and dirty sets and races of aliens that weren’t perfect or significantly advanced.
Like Lucas, Scott borrows heavily from the noir genre in his science fiction venture. Although in his director’s cut, one of the first movies to offer one, the voice over narration is removed, it’s still easy to see through the visual style and tone how one could assume it’s a film noir in the future. The film follows a man named Deckard played by Harrison Ford whose job is to terminate androids, called Replicants, who set foot on planet Earth. In the film, Deckard is sent to “retire” four murderous replicants who escaped from one of the many off-world colonies. The rub in the film is, that the replicants will expire after four years and die themselves – a fail-safe in case any one of them was to go wrong.
Like Kubrick’s HAL 9000, Scott spends the entire film meditating on artificial intelligence and mans responsibility to what it creates. He also poses large questions about the definition of life. The replicants seem evil at first, but as the movie goes on their motivation is revealed to be that they want to live longer than their four years. It’s a question man has been asking God since the beginning of time. All we all want is some form of immortality.
Scott likes to show how lifelike the replicants are throughout the film, especially when they are dying. It grows more and more difficult for Deckard to kill each android as he begins to see that they die like humans and less like robots. Its doubled with the fact that Deckard himself may yet be a replicant himself. There are strong cases for and against that idea and its one of the theories of the film that is debated over incessantly.
Blade Runner is a movie that is undoubtedly science fiction and that can be attributed both to the setting and the issue of technology. The androids play a large part in the plot, themes and motifs of the story. It takes place in the future, albeit a bleak one, and features alien looking cities and places. What makes Blade Runner science fiction is its setting coupled with the fact that it explores themes that are not readily available to explore in present time with robots as deficient as they are.
Expanding again on the idea of artificial intelligence came Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The story was originally written by Stanley Kubrick, who by now, had made two landmark sci-fi pictures in 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. Spielberg inherited the project from the auteur after his untimely death and set out to pay homage to Kubrick in the film. The movie explores the possibility of robots being able to love and have emotions and what the consequences are of this. What happens when man plays God? The theme can be summed up best by a question posed by a woman in an early scene when she asks “if we make a robot love, what responsibility do we have to love it back?”
Spielberg fills the world of A.I. with his colorful, visual and sentimental style. There is a lot of soft lighting and sweeping camera moves that play up the spectacle of the futuristic world. This was one of the first movies that used pre-visual animation as a storyboard tool in keeping with science fiction constantly pushing the boundaries of technology. “Pre-vis” is a computer generated storyboard that allows a director to see what shots will look like in motion and in three dimensions.
What makes A.I. science fiction is again its setting as well as the plots dependency on a technology not yet available. This story would only be able to take place in the future and that inherently makes it science fiction. There are robots, different cars, hovering planes, and flooded cities. It’s a world that is strange and unfamiliar to the audience and it is used to explore themes that would otherwise be impossible to explore in a different setting.
Science fiction is a genre that is very broad and hard to define. Even in the five films studied, as well as countless other films I have seen that would be considered sci-fi, I have a difficult time assigning any defining qualities to them. There is comedy, Back to the Future, action, The Fifth Element, drama, 2001, noir, Blade Runner, war and most certainly aspects of horror – Alien. For every other genre that isn’t science fiction, there is an example of it within the sci-fi genre. There are questions, too, that arise. This summer Pixar studios will release an animated film about a robot going into space in the future called Wall-E. Can animation be science fiction? (A similar question one can ask about whether The Lion King could be considered a musical) Where is the line drawn? Its hard to determine.
For this reason, science fiction is nothing more than many genres combined into one. However, science fiction can clearly be defined by its setting. The setting is often one of the future, with technology that is not readily available in present day settings. This setting and its inclination to technologies we don’t have, is what makes science fiction a viable genre because it can explore themes that we would find exploring in a modern setting. For instance, you cannot explore a robot’s place in the world within the year 2008 and still arise questions of humanity – it would be very difficult.
Science fiction will certainly continue to thrive as a genre, one that is hard to define but easy to see. It has captured the imaginations of millions of movie-goers and filmmakers alike as can be seen by the seriousness that the genre is now approached by such figures as Spielberg and Ridley Scott. No longer is sci-fi the comic book, B-movie fodder that talked of the impending doom of martians with phasers and blasters. Instead, it’s a sophisticated genre that is utilized most often to explore the philosophical and allegorical questions important to our times.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film: Fourth Edition. New York: Norton, 2004.
Cornea, Christine. Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2007.
Fischer, Dennis. Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895 – 1998. North Carolina:
McFarland & Company, 2000.
Hendershot, Cyndy. Paranoia, the Bomb and 1950s Science Fiction Films. Bowling
Green State University Popular Press, 1999.
Rovin, Jeff. From Jules Verne to Star Trek. New York: Drake Publishers, 1977.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Dir. Jan Harlan. 2001. DVD. Warner Brothers.