Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The 10 Most Significant Sci-Fi Films

Advance tickets for a small indie film called Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (wink, wink) went on sale this week, smashing box office records for pre-sales and crashing movie theatre websites. The Walt Disney Company release, which doesn't hit theaters until December 18th, is expected to take in $2 billion globally making it the biggest mainstream science fiction film of the decade, potentially the biggest genre film of the century. But let's not forget how the film industry got here.

Douglas Brode is a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, graphic novelist, film historian, and multi-award-winning journalist who has written nearly forty books on movies and the mass media. His latest book Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents
The 100 Greatest Science-Fiction Films is a comprehensive list ranging from today’s blockbusters to forgotten gems, with surprises for even the most informed fans and scholars. We asked Brode to list the ten most significant science fiction films that established the genre as a global industrial powerhouse. The force is strong with this one.
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'The 10 Most Significant Sci-Fi Films'
By Doug Brode

The idea of doing a book on the 100 greatest science fiction films of all time had been dancing around in my mind for decades. Thank goodness I didn’t have the opportunity write it until very recently. While growing up in the 1950s, most of the sci-fi films that I stood in line to see were low-budget affairs, sometimes high-quality (The Incredible Shrinking Man), others less so (Cat-Women of the Moon) – though even the least ambitious films were appealing to the first true generation of American teenagers who became addicted to rock ‘n’ roll music, the then-new medium of television, and anything at all to do with outer space – in large part because that's when the US-Soviet space race began in earnest. So many films of that era played strictly at local drive-In movie theatres or downtown grindhouse bijous that many people forget a simple fact: when feature-length science-fiction premiered with Metropolis in 1927, the genre represented the biggest budget films of the time.

Today, the most important films being produced internationally as well as in Hollywood are almost exclusively science-fiction related. The mainstream has fallen in love with the sort of stories that way back when, in the Dick Clark era, were thought to be marginal. But how did the transition occur? One element of my book Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents is the manner in which step-by-step, high budgets (often accompanied by high quality) gradually returned to this genre.

Here, in their order of their production, are ten of the most significant:

If there was one Hollywood studio that seemed unlikely ever to make a sci-fi film, it was MGM. Here was the home of the greatest musicals, the biggest epics, and more stars than there were in the heavens. Leave sci-fi to the likes of Universal-International, where such B items could be knocked out for about $500,000 per production, invariably in black and white. Then, the seemingly impossible occurred – MGM turned out a $2 million sci-fi color feature with a top star (Walter Pigeon), gorgeous color photography, a sexy female star who appeared in the near-nude (to make clear this was for adults as well as kids), and an irresistible robot named Robby. Here was an early indication of the shape of things to come.


George Pal, the second greatest fantasy-filmmaker in L.A. (only Walt Disney surpassed him as to quality and quantity), wanted to move away from what remained the run of the mill stuff by mounting a full-scale interpretation of H.G. Welles’ The Time Machine. With young rising stars Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, a smart script that updated the classic novel for a new generation, some superb state of the art special effects for the monstrous Morlocks, and the creation of a ruined future world brought to life in vivid color, he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dream.

The Birds (1963)

Rod Taylor again, this time working for Alfred Hitchcock, who up to this point in time had only made ‘realistic’ thrillers – that is, stories which, however unlikely, could indeed occur in the actual everyday world. Then the master of suspense read a short story by Daphne du Maurier and became hooked on the idea of an elaborate special effects project, in which the dumping of rancid chemicals into the earth causes nature to go awry, and that seemingly sweet little thing called The Bird to attack a northern California community. By the way, don’t buy a soundtrack recording of the film’s music – because there isn’t any (music, that is).

No studio would do more to mainstream sci-fi than 20th Century Fox, and this was one of their important efforts to create a big budget item that would appeal to more than merely teenagers out on a date. Raquel Welch, just then achieving superstardom, was cast as one of a group of scientists who, along with their sub, must be shrunk down to sub-microscopic size and then injected into the bloodstream of a dying man in order to perform a delicate operation. The premise allowed for some of the most awesome special effects ever created up until that time. Charlton Heston turned down the male lead, later wishing he’d done it, and after that he appeared in many genre classics.

20th Century Fox followed up Fantastic Voyage with this time and space travel story that did indeed feature Heston in the lead. Pierre Boulle’s literary masterpiece became a huge box-office hit; now, major stars were to be expected in genre films, and everyone would insist that their quality of special effects be on par with this film's remarkable monkey make-up. Intelligent as well as entertaining, this is the one that proved science fiction could make a comeback as a purveyor of provocative ideas alongside pure action.

Barbarella (1968)

Sex sells, or so they say. At the time, this (however mild by current standards) was an adults-only sci-fi item (beginning with Jane Fonda’s spaced-out striptease) for the era in which Playboy magazine dominated men’s publications. Important on so many levels, among them the idea that a comic book (or, as the French already called them, graphic novel) could be the starting point for a major movie project; the Sixties sensibility, with a drug-hippie cultural sensibility; and the post-Beatles pop culture explosion that spawned the pervasive psychedelic imagery of that era.

About as far from Barbarella as a then-contemporary sci-fi film could get! Strip (pun intended) away all the sexy fun in Barbarella and you have a phantasmagoric piece that appeals to the human organ known as the mind. Intellectual and even obscure, here was the ‘trip’ film that transformed Einstein’s theory of relativity into a genre film, while offering a relatively realistic image (in the middle section) of what space travel might actually be like, followed by a journey to the outer limits of human imagination at the end. (And let’s not forget those primitive predecessors to mankind in the prologue). This is the film that established Stanley Kubrick as a one-of-a-kind genius.

Star Wars (1977)

“Cowboys in space!” That’s how George Lucas pitched this ‘space – as compared to horse - opera’ to (yes, again) 20th Century Fox. They were wary – would kids of ‘today’ be as charmed by a Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers romantic adventure as those of the 1930s had been while watching those cliffhangers at Saturday movie matinees, and the children of the 1950s did while seeing them rerun during the early days of TV? Thankfully, Fox executives took what they believed to be a huge gamble. When the film ‘killed’ at the box-office, fantasy style sci-fi was the order of the day once more.

Even while George Lucas was at work on Star Wars, another of the so-called ‘movie brats,’ Steven Spielberg, was designing his own genre entry, this one a salute to Invaders from Mars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and all those other great flying saucer flicks from 20 years earlier. While Star Wars dominated the box-office during the summer of that year, Close Encounters did much the same thing during the Christmas holiday moviegoing season in December. This double whammy insured that the mainstream version of the genre was not going away any time soon.
First contact: Steven Spielberg drew on memories of the kinder, gentler alien invader films from the 1950s, notably The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), for his Disney-like depiction of spiritual star visitors, while employing state-of-the-art F/X for a vivid sense of high-tech grandeur. Courtesy: Columbia Pictures.
Alien (1979)

Ridley Scott took the old haunted house movie, set it in the future in deep space, and revealed yet another of the limitless possibilities for science fiction. One key element here was the creation of ‘hard’ sci-fi films – that is, the industrial look of the equipment in the space ship itself (to see a key predecessor, check out Disney’s excellent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from 1954 and look closely at the sub’s well-worn walls). By this point, every company in Hollywood hoped to make a big budget sci-fi film with top stars, leading to the situation that exists today.

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