Whether depicting the Earth being invaded by robots or a futuristic world devastated by some manmade disaster, science fiction has long been a staple of Hollywood. Starting as a speculative genre of what was possible for mankind, science fiction was transformed by Cold War paranoia in the 1950s and became more allegorical of man's deep-rooted fears. Limited filmmaking technology often relegated these to B-movie status until daring filmmakers like Robert Wise and Stanley Kubrick elevated the genre to new heights.
By the time George Lucas shattered box office records with his famed space franchise, science fiction had left behind its more allegorical roots as technology appeared to be something of a means to an end, though the genre itself was more popular than ever. Here are seven science fiction classics spanning four decades.
20th Century Fox
Before he won Best Director
for the musicals West Side Story
(1961) and The Sound of Music
(1965), Robert Wise was a master of all genres and made one of the great sci-fi classics of all time with The Day the Earth Stood Still
. Using the plot of an alien invasion, the film transformed a genre that had failed to rise above B-movie status to become a well-crafted, well-acted film that in some ways echoed the life of Jesus Christ while touching upon themes of violence, humanity and peace in a world that seemed destined for nuclear annihilation. Starring Michael Rennie as the benign alien Klaatu and Patricia Neal as a widow who becomes one of his few friends, The Day the Earth Stood Still
is a masterpiece even by today’s standards and was remade as a ho-hum summer blockbuster in 2008 starring Keanu Reeves.
MGM Home Entertainment
Directed by Fred Wilcox, Forbidden Planet
was groundbreaking in both its use of special effects and for being the first science fiction film to take place on a planet other than Earth. Actually a take on William Shakespeare
’s The Tempest
set in the 23rd century, Forbidden Planet
focused on a crew from Earth that travels to the isolated planet of Altair-4, where 20 years ago another ship crashed and left only one survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). Upon their arrival, the crew discovers that Morbius has used an old alien race’s leftover technology to increase his own intelligence and build an extraterrestrial paradise for himself and his daughter (Anne Francis). Featuring Robby the Robot, the first robot with a personality, Forbidden Planet
was a big influence on the sci-fi genre, particularly Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek
Republic Pictures Home Video
Also one of the great horror films
of all time, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
was one of the first hybrids to blend that genre with science fiction. The result was a frightening tale about a small California town that becomes ground zero in an extraterrestrial invasion where aliens take over humans by inhabiting their bodies and destroying their personalities in order to propagate their own species. Instead of blood and gore, Don Siegel’s film relied on creeping paranoia that drew obvious inspiration from the fear perpetrated during the McCarthy Era, and later spawned remakes
in 1978 and 1993 while inspiring numerous other films.
MGM Home Entertainment
Based on both a novel that was written simultaneously written during filming by Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick
’s monumental science fiction opus was an hypnotic film that used groundbreaking special effects and influenced countless movies that followed. An hallucinatory allegory on human evolution, 2001: A Space Odyssey
traced mankind from its ape-like origins to 21st century space explorers thanks to the constant presence of a mysterious black monolith that seems to trigger changes in human development. At the center is Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), who encounters a monolith discovered on the moon and later enters a stargate that eventually transforms him into an extraterrestrial being. Touching upon themes of evolution, humanity, technology and alien life, 2001: A Space Odyssey
was a hugely influential and pioneering film that earned Kubrick an Oscar nomination for Best Director, while the film itself was conspicuously snubbed for Best Picture
20th Century Fox
More space opera than straight-up science fiction, George Lucas’ film was a labor of love nobody wanted to make and has since become one of the most lucrative film franchises in history. Star Wars
followed a farm boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who dreams of leaving his desert home to fly fighter ships against the Galactic Empire and later finds a greater purpose in following the ways of the Jedi. Along the way, he joins a ragtag group that includes a deviant smuggler named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a captured rebel princess (Carrie Fischer) and an old man (Alec Guinness) who was once a Jedi himself, and helps save the rebel forces from destruction by the powerful Death Star. Drawing from ancient myths, Westerns
like John Ford
’s The Searchers
(1956), Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces
, Akira Kurosawa, transcendentalism, Flash Gordon and even World War II dog fights, Star Wars
was in a word groundbreaking and not only redefined a genre, but permanently altered the nature of filmmaking itself.
A confined horror movie set in space, Ridley Scott’s original Alien
(1979) was a masterfully suspenseful thriller that kept audiences on the edge of their seats while deftly satirizing corporate greed. Starring John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver, who became a star as lone survivor Ripley, Alien
depicted the crew of the towing ship Nostromo
as it picks up an unwanted guest that proceeds to tear them to pieces one at a time. Largely hidden from view, the rapacious Alien was that rare terrestrial being that lack technology or higher ambition and instead focused on its survival through propagation of it species. A huge box office hit, Alien
spawned three sequels, three prequels, and numerous offshoot media like comic books and video games.
Though it was a box office flop
upon release, Ridley Scott’s adaptation
of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
has since become a cult classic. With equal parts sci-fi and film noir, Blade Runner
starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a retired cop in futuristic Los Angeles who’s called back into active duty as a blade runner, a detective who hunts down and kills runaway cyborgs known as replicants. Deckard hast to track four replicants, including Rutger Hauer, while falling in love with a newer model of cyborg (Sean Young) that is unaware of its true nature. Gritty and far ahead of its time, Blade Runner
was dismissed by critics and the public upon its release, but has risen from the ashes to be widely hailed as one of the best science fiction movies of the last 30 years.