I’ve been on a little bit of a kick regarding significant science-fiction
films the last couple of weeks, and this week I’d like to come at it
from a slightly different angle. As significant as a science-fiction
film can be, it’s rarely so in isolation: there are years that stick
out as being important for the genre because two or more films cause a
shift in how science-fiction film is seen by the public or by the
industry. Below you’ll find my list of the five years that changed
science-fiction film, arranged by order of their importance.
Easily the most important year in science-fiction-film history — and one of the most important in film history, period — because of (surprise) Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. I went on in detail
about this a couple of weeks ago, but to recap quickly: aside from its massive
popularity, it incorporated a large number of technical advances
for which it was amply rewarded (the film won six
Oscars, most in technical categories) and started a focus on back-end processes that continues to this day. It also
cemented in Hollywood’s mind the idea of the summer blockbuster. Effects-laden, merchandise-driven spectaculars have been a part of the
film industry since the early days, but for better or worse this film pushed
the category into overdrive.
overlooked in the wake of Star Wars, however, is another massively
successful 1977 science-fiction film: Close Encounters of the Third
Kind, released late in the year. It confirmed that Star Wars‘ cocktail
of special effects and science-fiction themes was not a fluke, and soon
after every studio was looking for its own sci-fi spectacular to shove up
on the screen.
Another year with a one-two sci-fi commercial-critical combination: Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Planet of the Apes was
significant not only for its technical and makeup advances (the latter
of which prompted a special Academy Award) but because of another
special effect entirely: Charlton Heston, who was a legitimate A-list
star in an era when A-list stars didn’t do science fiction. After Apes‘
success, Heston would go on to star in other hit science-fiction films
(Soylent Green, The Omega Man), showing other major stars that science
fiction wasn’t slumming.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 tapped into both the space race and the “Tune in, turn on, and drop out”
vibe of young America by offering a film that was simultaneously a
reasonable extrapolation of then-current technology and space
exploration and a psychedelic head-trip experience — both thanks to
cutting-edge special effects that won Kubrick his only Oscar.
Both Apes and 2001 kicked off a run of serious science-fiction films
with sometimes dark social themes — a trend that would continue for
almost a decade, until Star Wars arrived on the scene.
Science fiction got its first top grosser for the year: Frankenstein
(also classified as a horror film), which took home what would be
the equivalent of about $375 million today. Along with Dracula, also a
monster hit that year for the same studio, Universal, it
established the idea that fantastical genre films could be audience
pleasers. Universal certainly didn’t need to be told twice, and in the
next decade it cranked out its classic monster movies, which combined
horror, fantasy, and science fiction in equal measure. Those films would
have an unexpected fringe benefit for Universal: their sets would be
recycled for Flash Gordon, the studio’s cheaply made but highly successful science-fiction serial.
Star Wars and Close Encounters established that science-fiction filmmaking could be epic; in 1982, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial showed that it could have a
heart and that the genre could very successfully (and profitably) marry
itself to a family-friendly story and audience. This would in turn
spawn the eighties subgenre of Spielberg-esque films, featuring a winsome
alien-robot-Sasquatch and leading to various heartwarming adventures. This
subgenre, while profitable at the time, eventually trickled out but has
recently found a second life in the form of computer-animated films such as Wall-E, a clear computerized descendant of E.T.
influence on science-fiction film was immediate and obvious, but the
other major science-fiction film’s influence was not: Blade Runner was
not a financial success on its release, but its visual look dazzled an
entire generation of aspiring science-fiction professionals, from
writers to directors to visual artists, and its influence is felt not
only in science-fiction film but in literature, video games, and graphic
The year that started it all, with Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la
lune (A Trip to the Moon), a film I’ve been noting quite a bit recently,
in fact, so I’ll avoid rehashing what makes it significant. What I will
say is that the film was popular enough to be pirated — by no less than Thomas
Edison, who took pilfered copies and exhibited them in the U.S. without
paying Méliès — proving that the concerns of the film industry today are as
old as the industry itself and that the appetite for science fiction
is just as old too.