In an article last week, we took a look at Science Fiction as it grew from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, through Jules Verne, to the pulp magazines with Isaac Asimov. Today, we are going to take a look at how sci-fi has evolved on screen, from silent films, to Star Wars, and now shows like Black Mirror.
It’s both easier and harder to write about science fiction, then to create it. When you write sci-fi, you can come up with anything in the world, and don’t have to worry about how that looks, or the physics would specifically work. The downside is that you can’t handwave your way through the story, you have to come up with reasons for things to happen, even if they are made up words, like reversing polarity. When you film sci-fi, you are always limited by the technology of the real world to symbolize the fiction, but you don’t have to have answers for everything. You can show something on screen, and the audience can fill in the blanks of how that works.
When the time came to begin filming sci-fi, the first major attempt was in the 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon. The movie showed astronauts being shot to the moon, via cannon, and interacting with aliens. In the movie, many new filming techniques were used, both in editing as well as set construction. The director, Georges Méliès, was a fan of the stage first, and explored how to bring theatrics to the screen in a way that hadn’t been done before.
In 1927 came one of the most influential sci-fi films ever, Metropolis. This film had the first instance of a sentient robot, which has been copied multiple times, most notably and closely as C-3PO. This film also was one of the first ever dystopian films.
In 1956 two of the most popular sci-fi movies hit theaters, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet. Invasion is on several lists of best sci-fi movies (American Film Institute), horror movies (Bravo!, Chicago Film Critic Assoc.), or just great movies in general (Library of Congress, Time Magazine). Forbidden Planet on the other hand was almost a parody of what science fiction had become. It was seen as silly and fun, bringing a lightheartedness to science fiction.
“More than another science-fiction movie, with the emphasis on fiction; it is a genuinely thought-through concept of the future, and the production MGM has bestowed on it gives new breadth and dimension to that time-worn phrase, ‘out of this world.'”Los Angeles Times on Forbidden Planet
When television joined sci-fi, the first few were based on the pulp magazines, such as Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. Buck Rogers was a World War I vet who, due to a mining accident, was in suspended animation until the year 2419, where he helps the contemporaries with his advanced combat expertise. This wasn’t the beginning of the idea of suspended animation, but none others had lasted for 500 years, which allowed a more expansive view of the future to take hold. Flash Gordon was one of the most popular sci-fi pulp stories ever, and was an inspiration for later characters like Superman.
Eventually, it was time to leave the pulp magazines, and let modern science fiction evolve.
Star Trek is extremely important to science fiction because it wasn’t aimed for kids reading fun fantastical stories. The intended demographic were adults, and so the stories revolved around slavery, warfare, and discrimination. It tackled real world issues in the “safe-space” of safe space. A focus on inter-racial friends and relationships was a hot topic in the ’60s, especially having a Russian crew member, and the first on screen interracial kiss.
I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch. [She told King about her plans to leave the series.] I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t. You’re part of history.’Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) on meeting a fan.
Star Wars took the pulpiness out of sci-fi. Star Wars was the first time that the world created felt “lived in,” meaning that it didn’t feel like a representation of what could be, but instead was a fully living and breathing world. Whereas Star Trek had everyone living in pristine ships, not needing pockets because of a lack of currency or other material needs, Star Wars had a hive of scum and villainy. If you compare the interior of the Millenium Falcon to the interior of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701, you’ll see what I mean. There are entire articles/videos/podcasts/documentaries dedicated to how Star Wars is influential and important, so I won’t spend more time on it here.
The Matrix was an incredible jump in modern sci-fi, showing how modern computer graphics could really expand the kinds of stories that we tell on screen. Star Wars and Jurassic Park are known for having more practical effects than you would originally imagine, but The Matrix, between the enhanced cyberpunk style and the heavy CGI really helped expand what modern science fiction is.
Obviously as science fiction has evolved a lot over time, and there are now distinctions and sub-genres.
The major distinction in sci-fi is if it’s “Hard” or “Soft.” Hard sci-fi focuses on scientific accuracy and logic. Popular Hard sci-fi stories include:
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for it’s focus on how the submarines worked, to a level that is accurate to today’s technology.
- Jurassic Park, for it’s focus on gene-splicing in labratories, and how genetic mutations occur, even within a controlled experiment.
- Blade Runner, for it’s focus on A.I. and the Turing Test, or a natural progression of American and Asian cultures into megalopolises.
Soft sci-fi on the other hand, focuses more on cautionary tales and metaphors, that use sci-fi as a level of separation. Popular soft sci-fi’s include:
- Fahrenheit 451 was set 50+ years after it was published, and didn’t have much “highly advanced” technology, but instead focused on what the future could hold in regards to high government control and restrictions.
- Gullivers Travels is rarely described as a science fiction, except for the focus on the ideas of a utopia/dystopia, which is a strong sci-fi backdrop.
- The Giver, a story about how people remove negative feelings from their society as a whole, and how that breaks apart and eliminates the joys that come on the other side of suffering.
Interestingly, the George Orwell novel 1984 falls into both categories, as much of the technology used came to pass, such as screens that can monitor your eye-movements and large government oversight, called Big Brother. However, the point of the story was cautionary and, at times, extremist, in how it saw the worst version of the future.
Next we have two sub-genres, so they aren’t in every science fiction story, Utopia or Dystopia. When you are telling a story of the future, your views on the world will lead you to the future being a better place, or a worse one. A Utopia is a perfect society, like in Star Trek, where there is no need for currency, property, or the Industrial-Military Complex. The world is safe, accepting, and people can work together to focus on exploring the universe and making life better.
A Dystopia is the opposite. A belief that the future only holds more suffering, on the lower class, controlled by the upper class or government. A great dystopian sci-fi from recent years was The Hunger Games, where the government, and those lucky enough to be born in the capital, have amazing lives, and everyone else works themselves to death, have very little food or water, and might have to fight to the death as children for the entertainment of the captial, as well as a reminder that they cannot revolt.
The last major sub-genres of sci-fi are “punk”; either Steam, Cyber, or Diesel.
Steampunk was the first, originating properly in the ’50s and ’60s, but was inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells sci-fi writings. The idea revolves around Victorian fashion and ideas, and adds in steam-powered technology, or tech that existed at the time. Steampunk most notably has evolved into a subsection of Cosplay, taking popular characters and giving them a steampunk filter.
Cyberpunk was the the next, originating from ’70s stories like Judge Dredd and Neuromancer. The core of cyberpunk is the expansion of cybernetics and artificial intelligence, mixed with societal breakdown. The next major cyberpunk property will be the video game Cyberpunk 2077, starring Keanu Reeves.
Lastly there is Dieselpunk, a less common name, but a style you will definitely recognize. Like how steampunk focuses on the technology and transportation of the Industrial Revolution, Dieselpunk focuses on World War 1 to the Cold War tech and styles. We see this style with the 1989 Batman, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
The most modern version of science fiction is, in my opinion, Black Mirror. In large part because this shows how misuse and lack of respect for modern and post-modern science can be ultimately detrimental, just like it was in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This full circle of sci-fi is interesting, because no matter how science fiction grows, the biggest fears are still whether or not future technology will be used and abused by those with selfish and shortsighted agendas.