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The early history of Sci-Fi films

13th February 2012

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The early history of Sci-Fi films is vibrant, colourful and revolutionary. It is generally believed to be the pioneering genre in special effects and has offered a wide range of innovations that have been used across the film world.

Le Voyage dans la luneSix categories are primarily associated with Sci-Fi: time travel, alien invasion, disaster films, robots,  mind and identity and monster films. The early 20th century wrote the code for all these aspects of the genre and the period deserves more credit than it is given. The 50s and 60s are largely thought to be the start of the genre’s journey; however, it was born well before this and faced a long uphill struggle to be taken seriously.

The first Sci-Fi films were no longer than one or two minutes and were intended to be humorous and light-hearted. Not till later would the genre start to focus on serious social aspects of humanity and develop an avid fan base. Nevertheless, everything has to start somewhere and the first Sci-Fi film was Le Voyage Dans La Lune created by George Melies in 1902.

You may be familiar with the 2011 film called Hugo directed by Martin Scorsese which focused on George Melies’s life. ‘Le voyage’ showed a rocket being fired from a cannon into the moon, it had a comic effect and the inspiration for the spaceship was drawn from writers such as H.G Wells and Jules Verne. The contributions of this film would be felt in the industry for decades to come; Sci-Fi had taken its first steps to revolutionising the way films were made. 

Throughout the early 1900s there were many great adaptations of books that were classed as Sci-Fi. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was adapted in 1910 and in 1916 Jules Verne’s 20,000 leagues Under The Sea was made into a feature film. Frankenstein was particularly revolutionary as it overlapped horror and Sci-Fi which has encouraged a whole lot of films to settle in this mixed genre. The Lost World written by Arthur Conan Doyle was made into a film in 1925 and is one of the first examples of stop motion animation.

So, if you’re a fan of ‘SMA’, your thanks should be with the first national pictures who started it all off. Stop motion made many films in the future possible, including the much loved Wallace and Gromit. It wasn’t just techniques in filming that were being revolutionised, the industry lacked originality and most of the films were adaptations of books written in the late 19th and early 20th century. The world needed something new, and in 1927, it got it. Metropolis wasn’t an adaptation; it was always destined to be a film and would’ve worked no other way.

It was the first time a Sci-Fi flick had properly looked at underlying social aspects of humanity and applied it to modern day events. It was made in Germany and was directed by Fritz Lang, its special effects were superb, making use of miniatures of cities, swinging cameras and mirrors which were used to ‘place’ actors in small sets. The film shows a future where the capitalist ‘high rollers’ live in skyscrapers surrounded by a world of luxury and the working class live in absolute squalor in the streets below. It explores a social crisis between two very different societies and reflects the emerging nature of Europe at the time. Sci-Fi had taken its first steps into becoming something more than a joke; the genre wouldn’t be under estimated from then on. The emerging genre could now evolve into something we’re much more familiar with and the decade that followed would see a new breed of Sci-Fi film come in to being. These films would contrast greatly with Metropolis but would pave the way for the likes of Star Wars, James Bond and Terminator…

Flash Gordon hit the screens in 1936 and was one of the first films to bring action and adventure to the Sci-Fi setting. The ‘over the top’ hit would be deemed as ‘silly’ or ‘cheesy’ in today’s film world but it was meant to be fun, unlike Metropolis. The film was a serial and therefore had 13 episodes culminating in about 245 minutes of films. This type of cinema went out of fashion but the films that 'Flash' spawned certainly didn’t. It led the charge in creating super villains that we would remember forever and caused an abundance of successful and unsuccessful film writers to draw inspiration from it. We only have to look at the plot of the first film serial to see that it is the framework for many great modern day movies. A planet called Mongo which is ruled by Emperor Ming is on a collision course with earth and when Dr. Alexis Zarkov, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden arrive on the planet, Flash is forced to fight in Ming's arena but Ming’s daughter wants to spare Flash’s life… Names like Emperor Ming and planet Mongo have probably lost their originality now but back then, it was incredible story telling. The film has now rightfully earned its place in the National Film Registry and has been deemed to be culturally significant to the USA, albeit just as important to the world of film in the UK.

Two other film serials that have had a wide reaching impact upon the film world are Buck Rogers and Dick Tracey. These both have their own wacky evil villains, such as: The Spider, who is in the latter and then there is the sinsiter ‘killer’ Kane from Buck Rogers.

Flash Gordon

The power of storytelling in Sci-Fi is one of the greatest and because of its overlapping similarities to the fantasy genre, an abundance of great stories can be written. Star Wars has used both elements and a new ‘in-between’ genre has formed, called: Space Opera. This uses elements of fantasy and Sci-Fi. Combined with advances in technology and the film creator’s own imagination, the genre is one of the most brilliant forms of film.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, many great adaptations and unique creations would come into being such as as 2001: A Space Odyssey, War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Of course, there were many that weren't so good: Robot Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

Such brilliant names and yet such terrible films! The early history of the genre was clearly not always perfect but it was certainly pioneering, risky and providing in a wealth of new and brilliant films to the world. 

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