Science Fiction


Mary Shelley's (1797–1851) Frankenstein (1818) is often cited as a crucial literary antecedent to sci-fi films. The novel is of particular interest because of its portrayal of creating life from non-living materials and, equally importantly, because of Shelley's investigation of the ethical ramifications of the human (specifically male) creation of life. Later science fiction narratives about robots, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and cloning clearly owe a debt to Shelley, though few if any authors have surpassed her intense exploration of the sublime natural world. Shelley's legacy can also be found in her tender description of the monster, who is tormented by his own nature. It is here that we find the roots of films in which "unnatural" beings—the replicants of Blade Runner (1982) and the scientist-turned-monster of The Fly (1958, 1986)—question the validity of their very existence. Shelley is one of the few female writers whose ideas have obviously impacted science fiction film; though there are numerous popular feminist authors—such as Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929) and Octavia Butler (1947–2006)—and women, in general, are avid science fiction readers, but as a film genre sci-fi has generally targeted a male demographic.

Many credit Jules Verne (1828–1905) as the true creator of modern science fiction, though one can also trace the genre's roots farther back to seventeenth-century imaginary voyage literature, and even further back to Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Verne's nineteenth-century French novels celebrated technological achievement, describing travel beneath the sea and to the moon in language indicating that he believed such fantastic voyages could actually take place. Verne based his writing on research, which lent a nonfiction quality to his work. He clearly influenced French director Georges Méliès's (1861–1938) technologically optimistic films of the early 1900s, and later films based on his books, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), offered visual celebrations of futuristic machines. Dystopic films such as Soylent Green (1973) and The Terminator (1984) reacted against this earlier celebratory vision, while many more recent science fiction films, such as Independence Day (1996) and George Lucas's (b. 1944) Star Wars franchise, have shifted back towards Verne's vision of technology at the service of humankind.

A number of books by prolific British author H. G. Wells (1866–1946)—such as The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), War of the Worlds (1898), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933)—have been made into films. Wells's War of the Worlds tells the story of a catastrophic alien invasion; with their superior weaponry, the aliens destroy much of the planet until they are finally defeated not by human ingenuity but by their own lacking immune systems: they are killed by earthly bacterial infection. The 1953 film version drains the story of its pessimism, turning it into a Christian allegory. The beleaguered humans hole up in a church and upon emerging and discovering the sickly, fading invaders declare a triumph for God and the human spirit, an ending which no doubt would have appalled Wells, who died a confirmed atheist. Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation stays closer to the tone of the original but is less famous as a successful adaptation than as a scandalous event. A number of listeners who tuned into the middle of the program thought that aliens actually had invaded New Jersey, and panic ensued. H. G. Wells himself was heavily involved behind the scenes in the production of Things to Come (1936). The movie pictures a post-apocalyptic world in which primitive technophobic masses are dominated by elite hi-tech rulers who value the state over the individual. Considered a landmark in cinematic design because of its futuristic sets, the film has been read both as a warning about fascism and as a celebration of fascism. The latter seems more plausible, given Wells's own support of the idea of rule by a technocratic elite, which he conceptualized as "liberal fascism."

Many of the sci-fi authors who had some influence on films were first published in American pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories , which appeared in the 1920s. Comics such as Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century and Flash Gordon built on the popularity of the pulps, and the comics were translated to film in the serial shorts of the 1930s and 1940s. Though these futuristic adventure films did not explore the serious themes of science fiction, they did provide some of the character types and visual iconography that would surface in post-war sci-fi cinema. George Lucas tellingly mocks the optimism of the serials by opening his own dark THX-1138 (1971) with a cheery Buck Rogers theatrical trailer.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), who wrote hundreds of books, published most of his early work in pulp magazines. Though little of his fiction has been directly translated to film, his conceptualization of the Three Laws of Robotics (see his collection I, Robot [1950]) has been influential. Frustrated by reading endless stories of robots gone amuck, Asimov postulated that: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Filmic robots (or computers) are frequently built on these principles, but something, of course, goes tragically wrong (for example, in West world , 1973), thus propelling the narrative. On television, Star Trek: The Next Generation 's Data has been described by some SF readers as an Asimovian robot because of his built-in ethical system, though there are episodes where he does not strictly adhere to the Three Laws.

Robert Heinlein (1907–1988) was one of the earliest sci-fi authors to realistically portray near-future space travel; his novel Rocketship Galileo (1947) was the inspiration for Destination Moon (1950), a showcase for special effects pioneer George Pal (1908–1980). Heinlein was also an innovator in military science fiction; Starship Troopers (1959) is widely criticized (and also praised by fans) for its picture of a future society in which only those who have volunteered for military service are voting citizens. While Heinlein presented his complex sociological world as positive, Paul Verhoeven's (b. 1938) breathtakingly nihilistic film (1997) explicitly reveals the fascism of the story's universe. Heinlein is also notable for having imagined inter-universe travel and the idea of "world-as-myth" (there are multiple universes, all as real as our own, and our own universe may even be a fiction created by another universe). This complex motif is more likely to show up on television programs such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (and also, with great success, on the fantasy program Buffy the Vampire Slayer ) than in films. Importantly, though Heinlein's books were rarely translated to film, he was the first to write bestsellers—such as Stranger in a Strange Land (1960)—that were of interest to non sci-fi fans. Although science fiction films were seen as marginal "kid's stuff" for years, and only gained true legitimacy with Kubrick's 2001 in 1968, Heinlein should be seen as having laid the groundwork for the mass popularization of science fiction as a genre.

Since the 1980s, cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have also found readers in the mainstream fiction market. Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) (which popularized the word "cyberspace") portrays a world in which distinctions between humans and computers are irrevocably blurred, and the existence of a true self is open to debate. Often described as "post-modern," the themes of cyberpunk have appeared in films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), Akira (1988), Robocop (1987), and The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003).

Science fiction films were scant before the 1950s. Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902), an exploration story in the Verne tradition, is usually considered the first sci-fi production. Méliès pictures a rocket ship of scientists who fly to the moon, are attacked by its primitive inhabitants, the Selenites, and return to Earth. The film is notable for its special effects (elaborately hand-painted sets and props, cleverly simulated underwater shots taken through a fish tank) and for its colonialist narrative of the natural superiority of the white, rational scientist over the barbaric, violent people of foreign lands.

After Méliès, the most important pre-1950s sci-fi director is Fritz Lang (1890–1976), who made Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929). While Méliès's vision of lunar travel was fanciful and lacking in scientific detail, Lang was more interested in technical minutiae. For Woman in the Moon he consulted Germany's leading rocket expert, Hermann Oberth, and created an elaborate launching sequence for a multiple stage rocket. This vision was much closer to how actual rockets would later be launched than the depiction in films before and after, which showed rockets being shot off ramps or by guns. Lang also gave viewers the first filmic depiction of a crew floating in zero gravity. Metropolis is frequently debated as a schizophrenic proor anti-Nazi text, though, as film historian Tom Gunning convincingly argues, the film's politics, like its convoluted narrative, are impossible to neatly decipher Me one way or the other. The film was written by Lang's wife, Thea Von Harbou (1888–1954), who later joined the Nazi party. In Metropolis , a futuristic city is powered by laborers who toil on machines beneath the surface. The film's powerful visual design—clearly echoed in Blade Runner —combines gothic and medieval elements with futuristic skyscrapers. An allegory of social power, the film literalizes social relations through topography by putting the powerful above ground and the powerless beneath. Like so many science fiction films that have followed it— Escape from New York (1981), Brazil (1985), Dark City (1998)— Metropolis is a film in which the city is as much a character as any of the flesh and blood protagonists.

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