Since the first film exhibition near the end of the 19th century, a countless number of science fiction films have been released. Here, Russell Hill selects the very best of the genre…
Outer space has always intrigued mankind. Is there life outside of Earth? And will this life form be friendly? Apparently based on the director’s own experiences as a child, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) has always been highly regarded as a family favourite and is home to some wonderful moments. Picture one of the first opening scenes of E.T. being chased, and you’ll see likenesses with the forest scenes in Disney’s Bambi (1942) due to the director’s fondness for it. Throughout, there is always the possibility that the alien will be captured by government figures and he won’t be allowed to return to his planet. At no point does he pose a threat to his human friends and this cinematic trait acts as very much a child-like character for Spielberg.
Following this same narrative aspect is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It too features aliens but they, like E.T., are friendly and only wish to communicate with the humans. Towards the end of the film when we see the aliens lit remarkably well, which is reminiscent of the aforementioned E.T. scene, they possess technology far beyond our own as they are able to fly countless light years just to return the humans they took. This shows immense kindness when, like in the films which will be mentioned later, they could have killed them instead.
One further example of this is Starman (1984). Telling of a friendly alien who is invited to Earth by the Voyager space probe, it’s quite a strange morphing of technologies in this film as our own technology both entices Starman to our planet but at the same time forces him to stay until he can be rescued by his own kind. The juxtaposition in this film is odd at times when compared to what is happening on screen such as the brightly shot scenes of Starman cheating on a casino fruit machine or making love with the wife of the dead husband he takes the form of.
A secondary sub-genre of science fiction which can be related to many films is what could be called “Horror Sci-Fi”. This is where Earth is visited by aliens who want to destroy humans, or they retaliate when provoked. Remade many times since its initial release, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) remains a classic. Telling of pod people who take over the bodies of small-town American citizens, thus killing them in the process, the film’s anti-Communist tendencies struck a chord with audiences at the time largely due to the similarities with Senator McCarthy’s “Witch Hunts”. Unlike the “monster movies” released during this time, the evil creature could be anybody. Like Hitchcock did in Psycho (1960) four years later, the murderer could be a family member and it is scenes like this which make this film shocking over fifty years after its release. This occurs all throughout the white picket fenced town that this film is set in. Picture the scene in this particular film when Kevin McCarthy realises that the woman he loves has changed into this pod person with no physical change in her whatsoever.
Although mocked by many, Independence Day (1996) tells of how Earth is attacked by alien forces through no fault of their own. It is similar to the previous film as the humans see no reason why they are being attacked, and the special effects are spectacular fourteen years after its release. This film is merely popcorn material with no oblivious political message at all, but when you see the realistic scene of Will Smith’s character seeing the alien spaceship hovering over his backyard you see similarities with him and Kevin McCarthy shortly after he saw his loved one killed by the pod people.
It could be said that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role in The Terminator (1984) uses the same character aspects of Starman and the pod people as he takes the form of a human but is more violent in doing so. This film features darker scenes, such as when The Terminator locates his target in a bar or at the films conclusion when Sarah is chased in a factory, and could be seen as an indication of the director’s vision of how bleak the future will be if this machine is not stopped. What is interesting in this film is that the technology which is used to create The Terminator was originally designed by the humans after they allowed themselves to create machines which were that intelligent they could overpower us, and it was the humans’ fault that the machines could send such a machine back in time to destroy us.
Although not set on Earth, Alien (1979) seems to be the complete opposite of the previous films. Instead of Earth being attacked it is humans who seem to be the violent creatures especially when you consider that it is the AI life form Ash that was created and programmed by humans to invade a planet and take one of the alien life forms by force. But what seems remarkable about this film is its claustrophobic scenes. There seems to be no escape from the intensely packed spaceships and with the darkly lit scenes it creates an unfriendly situation that acts as the complete opposite of the serene surroundings lived in by Kevin McCarthy.
Apart from aliens, there is one other enthralling element to Sci-Fi and this is technology, particularly when it turns evil. Released as the first in a trilogy, The Matrix (1999) does not include aliens in its narrative but is the result of machines taking control over the world which humans once ruled and changing it so they can survive. This is best represented in the scene where the machines are seen harvesting humans. This is chilling to view, and seems to hark back to the artistic aspects used throughout Alien. Although this particular moment is created through CGI it has the potential to shock and make the audience believe that with the advent of one robot after another around the world this situation may become a reality.
Released in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey tells of a future where machines have been invented to such a degree that humans think of inter-galactic journeys as the norm. Astronaut Dave is on such a trip to Jupiter and is assisted by fellow astronauts along with the ship’s onboard computer HAL. HAL has evolved in such a way that it undertakes human emotions and kills one astronaut with it nearly being successful in doing the same to Dave. What is astonishing in this film is how the humans have become robotic and it is the machines they invented which have become the humans. Take the juxtaposition scene of the space ships docking, and it seems like they are dancing whilst The Blue Danube plays. This film made space travel a possibility for the future of the human race and its special effects were that realistic that many of them created for this very film, such as the huge projectors for the opening ape scenes, are still being used to this day by filmmakers.
Some argue that Blade Runner (1982) is one of the best examples of sci-fi and in many ways those plaudits are right. Set in a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019, the human race is up against an enemy it created; the Replicants. Invented to be slaves on Earth’s off-world colonies, Blade Runner uses many of the elements of the aforementioned films discussed and brings them together in a cohesive structure that has the power to terrify. As in The Matrix, the non-human life form depends on their inventors for life especially when the Nexus-6 models invade Earth in order to increase their life span. This point is represented best when the leader of the Replicants, Roy Batty, tells Harrison Ford’s character how he wants to stay alive for he has seen marvellous events, with perfectly good human emotions on display. Blade Runner was made before the advent of CGI so, just like in 2001, many hands were responsible for some of the exquisite shots seen in the film such as the gloomy Los Angeles street scenes with flying cars hovering around the dirty streets.
Whatever the future holds for sci-fi films, the likelihood is that directors, producers and filmmakers alike will continue to invent a new way of bringing their terrifying entertainment to the silver screen. What must be taken into consideration is whether or not they will include in these narratives the same aspects which have been present in previous films and if they do, will they build or improve on them?