I owe another “Thank You” to Scott and Miles from The SciFi Diner Podcast for their generous permission in allowing me to post another of my Top 5 lists that I recorded for their show. Please give their outstanding show a listen!
It took awhile, but I have taken up your challenge for the five most important science fiction movies. This was much harder than the television list because not only was the field much larger, SciFi cinema stretches back 110 years. It also spanned enormous changes in technology, production and storytelling – far more than television. Actually, science fiction movies have pushed much of the innovation in movie making generally.
As before, I am focusing on Science Fiction and not any related genres. I am also focusing on most important, not best. Finally, this time I’m giving the list in chronological order, not order of importance. I just don’t believe it’s possible to triage this list by rank.
With that said, on with the list!
1. A Trip to the Moon
Made in 1902, this 14 minute film is the one that started them all. It is widely acknowledged as the first science fiction film and while it may not be entirely true, it was certainly one of the very fist. Regardless, this is the film that spawned the genre. It was loosely based on Verne’s From The Earth to the Moon. It included multiple scenes, special effects including the famous “Man in the moon,” dissolves, superimposition and even exploding aliens. It is considered the most innovative film of its time.
Another silent, made in 1925, released in 1927. This German film was huge a innovator with its use of groundbreaking miniatures, superimposition (Shufftan process) and other special effects. It also introduced the “Machine Man” that would become the inspiration for C3PO in Star Wars, though it was more of an android than a robot. Techniques pioneered here are still in use today. Rather than something light and fanciful, this full length feature was a dark work addressing serious social issues of the time; very Wellsian in it’s dystopian projection of the future. The film is long, even by today’s standards – nearly 3 hours. Yet even with the length and being silent it is still a compelling story. If you do watch it, make sure you get the restored version that has most of the missing footage recovered.
3. Forbidden Planet
We now jump forward 30 years to 1956 for the next of the top 5 list. This is the film that ushered in the modern era of Science Fiction movies. Forbidden Planet was fairly high budget, with outstanding animation effects for its time and had a top notch cast. They managed to pull in one of the best Disney animators for its effects. No monsters with a zipper or visible wires, here. The space scenes were the most realistic possible. And in my opinion, Forbidden Planet is the father of modern “techno-babble” with its attempt to incorporate science fiction concepts like faster than light travel and realistic energy weapons. This was the first film to truly put man out into the stars with SciFi’s first human-built interstellar starship. The movie is not earth-based at all. It was also the first movie with a fully electronic score. In spite of all the special effects eye-candy, the movie still made a serious exploration of the id and subconscious.
This movie was also extremely important for one of its main characters. No, I don’t mean Leslie Nielsen in a serious role. I’m referring to Robbie the robot, who largely stole the show. He was the first robot since Metropolis to not look like a box and tin cans. He was also the first robot to follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, introduced just a few years earlier.
Finally, this movie was an important inspiration for Science Fiction to come. Both Star Trek and Star Wars owe a debt to Forbidden Planet. Even Joe Straczynski in my beloved Babylon 5 was inspired by this movie. The Great Machine of Epsilon 3 is a direct homage to the Great Machine of Krell.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
What happens when you pair one of the deepest science fiction writers of all time with one of the deepest movie makers of all time? In 1968, we found out. You get 2001. This movie not only is one of the most important Science Fiction movies, but one of the greatest movies of all time regardless of genre. From the opening three minutes of blank screen, 20 minutes before the first dialog and massive orchestral score to incredible scientific accuracy and a psychotic computer brain, 2001 set a bar that few movies of any genre can meet even today. This is a movie of Man’s “becoming.” Using very little dialog Kubrick and Clark wove an intense story that has people arguing about the interpretation even today.
The special effects were of such groundbreaking quality that they still look amazing 45 years later on my 1080p BluRay. From advanced modeling to rotating sets, new camera techniques and help from NASA – they even got access to the Vomit Comet for the scene when Bowman gets back to Discovery – no effort or expense was spared.
Every part of this movie took a chance and it all paid off in the end.
5. And finally
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
…there wasn’t A New Hope,
…Darth was a first name not a title,
…and Han shot first.
The inclusion on this list is for the 1977 original theatrical release of Star Wars, not Lucas’ version du jour. Also remember this list is for “most important,” not “greatest.” While it’s a fantastic adventure story, I’m sorry, but Star Wars is not great – or even good – Science Fiction. That said, after 2001, SciFi movies once again descended back into the realm of B schlock. I’m not going to spend time on the mind-boggling effects and battles or the legendary mythos. We are all familiar with those and while they are important they are not what is most important for Star Wars.
You see, in 1977, Star Wars made it OK for Science Fiction to be a big-budget blockbuster. And while Star Wars may not have been good Science Fiction, it is because of Star Wars that we got a lot of great SciFi cinema. Sure, we got Empire Strikes Back (thank you Leigh Brackett). And we got the Star Trek movies, though some, like the first and fifth, weren’t that good. We also got Alien. Blade Runner. 2010. We got Terminator. E.T. Close Encounters*. Without Star Wars, most of these and many others would have never occurred. And that doesn’t even touch the impact on television.
Well, that’s my list. I would include some honorable mentions, but this has already gone rather long. For that, I ask you and your listeners your forgiveness. However, the reasons behind the choices needed some explanation. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.
* – Yes, I’m aware that Close Encounters was released the same year as Star Wars; Christmas and spring releases, respectively. However, CE3K was late, over budget and in trouble. Star Wars contributed to both its release and having an audience primed for its success.