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By Riley Webster · September 17, 2013
George Lucas' Star Wars changed the entire movie industry. It almost single-handedly (along with Jaws) created the "Blockbuster Age", which Hollywood is still sitting in. It also revolutionized the genre of science fiction; what was often thought of as either silly Saturday morning fluff, or a great way to make an allegorical film with a message, was now The Big Way To Make Money.
Sci-fi has continued to evolve, or devolve, ever since (Lucas himself couldn't make lightning strike often, with his horrible Star Wars prequels tarnishing the great original sequels). But I like to watch how sci-fi filmmakers worked their magic before Lucas changed everything. Often they were more innocent and cute — other times, they were far more dark and violent. The special effects were rarely as good as what Lucas achieved, but sometimes the brains behind the brawn were far greater.
This is a very not-comprehensive list of my favourite pre-Star Wars (so before 1977) science fiction films. There are literally hundreds more out there, and some very famous ones I haven't yet seen (like Forbidden Planet, Soylent Green, Logan's Run, etc). But from what I've seen, these are some damn good ones, and can stimulate the imagination as much as impress with their visuals and creativity.
10. War of the Worlds (1953)
Perhaps the quintessential "alien invasion movie" from the 50's, War of the Worlds is glorious cheese, an adventure movie without an intelligent or evil bone in its body. Steven Spielberg's remake in 2005 was much maligned (mostly because of its dopey ending), but I actually think it's far superior, and takes what was silly in this version and made it rather terrifying. But for audiences back in 1953, most of Worlds was scary, and intense, and eye-popping. The special effects are corny now, of course, but that's part of the appeal, and in fact the movie is very funny today. It may not have been the filmmakers intention, but at least it survives, and images of the alien invasions linger in the pop culture stratosphere.
The movie delivers the goods with the alien attacks; despite the hokey effects (the most famous mistake being that you can still see the wires on all the flying spaceships), the action scenes are still somewhat effective, and were most impressive at the time. The story is nonsense, and the character interactions are hilarious to put it mildly (when the alien craft first lands, most of the townspeople check it out, shrug, and say "let's go to the town dance!"). But as a piece of 50's sci-fi fun, War of the Worlds is still worth the 90-minute investment. Just don't take it too seriously (and also, please try the remake again; it honestly is terrific).
9. Andromeda Strain (1971)
This very faithful adaptation to Michael Crichton's first novel is an odd one. Nothing much happens in it. That's not so much a criticism as an honest observation — despite the "fate of the world" hanging in the balance, the movie is hardly a white-knuckle thriller, and the deadly alien disease at the movie's core kinda just resolves itself. But for some reason, the movie is consistently engaging. It's what I would imagine Bill Nye's favourite sci fi flick would be, because it makes "science cool". Indeed, the whole film is about science, and how the study of science can tackle something extraordinary. It could've been dry (and occasionally it is), but for the most part, Andromeda Strain is intriguing.
The film follows a group of scientists brought to an underground lab, because a satellite from space crashed in a small town and everyone there mysteriously died, except for an old drunk and a baby. The rest of the movie focuses on these scientists (who are never really given much in the way of personalities), as they use the "high-tech" computers and medical stations to figure out what the alien disease is, and how to stop it. It's definitely a movie where gadgets and mathematics are the main characters, but I appreciate the film's cold, calculated resolve.
8. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Often called the very first science fiction film, George Melies' A Trip to the Moon is whimsical, delightful, and rather wonderful. One of his few films to survive history (if you've seen Scorsese's brilliant Hugo, you know all about how most of Melies' adorable films were smelted into women's shoes, rather than preserved), but Moon is the pinnacle of what remains. The story is simple, and brisk (because the movie is ony 13 mins long). A group of astronauts travel to the stars, smacking the face of the moon in a much parodied shot, and then discover wonderful things once there. Of course, it's all silly and ridiculous, but that's part of its charm.
Thanks to Hugo, Melies' work is gaining wider recognition, and Moon is the highlight. I haven't seen many of his films, but there's no denying that he was, in a way, the George Lucas or Steven Spielberg of his time; a shame he wasn't as appreciated or nearly as successful. But the make-up and in-camera effects utilized in Moon are actually still impressive, over a hundred years later. Check it out, if you haven't already (the entire thing is on Youtube).
7. Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Robert Wise's film is one of the most famous and well-known on this list. A Cold War allegory that was shocking in its non-subtle, no-violence message, the film used the pretense of an alien invasion movie to tell a story, and message, that was about a lot more than that. Today, we look back on it and can giggle at how heavy-handed the film's approach to that message is — but back in the early 50's, with the constant threat of nuclear war upon the world and the memory of Hiroshima still very much lingering, the movie spoke strongly to millions of people.
Many images from the film are still famous to this day, particularly Gort, the giant robot who first emerges from the landed space craft, followed by Klatuu, played rather well by Michael Rennie. If you've seen the 2008 remake (which is honestly nowhere near as bad as people pretended), you know more or less where the story goes, although Wise's version is more innocent, and more intelligent. There aren't too many massive action set-pieces, but then that's not the purpose of the film, and it reminds us of how science fiction is often used to hide an allegory or symbolism that would be too obvious in a regular drama.
6. Solaris (1976)
A deeply hypnotic venture into the human subconscious, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris is possibly the most audacious and epic of all his films. But it's still a Tarkovsky movie, which means that I was very glad to have seen it, and might not ever watch it again. His films are a bit like taking a really important class in school; you'll get something out of it, but you probably won't enjoy it much. It took me about 5 times to make it all the way through Solaris without drifting off, which says something both about the languid and incredibly slow pace of the film, but also its hypnotic, dream-like, disquieting effect. It's often called Tarkovsky's answer to Kubrick's 2001, and while both share a visionary outlook on the future (and a really slow pace), Tarkovsky's is indeed the more humane, and emotional, of the two films.
Solaris follows a scientist who ventures to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, and finds that the planet's ocean's make "Guests" appear — images extracted from people's conscience, come to life. Now the scientist is faced with his dead wife, who killed herself 10 years ago, and no matter what he does he can't get rid of this new version, nor stop himself from falling in love. The story is, again, told at a very leisurely pace — if 2001 is a slow stroll in the park, then Solaris is sitting down on the park bench and barely moving a muscle. But it's that relaxed atmosphere that makes it so visually involving, and the difficult questions it raises about who we are, and what makes us human, elevates it to be an extremely important and influential science fiction film (also, this may sound like a broken record, but the remake by Steven Soderberg is also very much worth watching – same story, told in half the running time).
5. Fantastic Planet (1973)
What a trippy, psychadelic, bizzaro film this is! Animated in the flat Soviet style and with music that would make Pink Floyd blush, Fantastic Voyage is a surreal trip down the sci-fi rabbit hole. The French film from director Rene Laloux is bursting with ideas and creativity, while happily borrowing some of the most identifiable science fiction traits (you probably won't miss the Avatar connections, among many others). Because the movie is so endlessly weird and kinda creepy, it's difficult to either watch it on any given day, or to invest much care and sympathy for the main characters. But hey, that's all true with Kubrick's 2001, too, and that doesn't stop anyone from labeling it a masterpiece.
Fantastic Planet throws us into the world of giant blue aliens, and the humans who are about the size of a small hamster to them. Most disregard the humans, others find them dangerous to their lifestyle (much like farmers do about rats or gophers), and still others, like the lead alien child, find they make great house pets. The symbolism of the working-class struggles are apparent, but the film works best as a trippy animated adventure flick rather than a series of metaphors. Visually, it's unlike anything else I've ever seen…imagine the animated segments of the Monty Python films through the eyes of James Cameron, and you'll have somewhat of an idea. Make yourself a drink (or whatever else you might want to get into the 60's spirit), and get ready for your eyes to pop open.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Everyone knows the premise. Everyone knows the (still awesome) twist ending. Everyone knows the line "Get your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" But what everyone SHOULD know is that the original Planet of the Apes is still a really, really, really good movie. Very little of it has dated; sure, Charleton Heston was never a miraculous actor, and there are times the make-up looks a little funky. But for it to be as old as it is, Apes holds up incredibly well. It's screenplay (co-written by Rod Serling, the man behind The Twilight Zone) is tight and taut, and consistently interesting despite the lack of endless action scenes. The direction is assured, the make-up is still mostly impressive, and the avant-garde music by Jerry Goldsmith is among his best.
Apes shows a world run by intelligent simians, while all the humans are dumb, mute primitives. Heston is an astronaut who crash lands on the planet and tries to make sense of it all, befriending Cornelious (Roddy McDowell) and antagonizing Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), before the whiplash twist ending throws the entire movie in a different perspective. The film might have been hampered by its legacy, but truth be told the sequels are actually pretty good too, and the two reboots (Tim Burton's 2001 take, and Rupert Wyatt's brilliant Rise of the Planet of the Apes from two years ago), were both better than they should've been. The original still stands the tallest, but the entire Apes series is well worth watching.
3. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang's silent film masterpiece is still among the greatest movies of all time, and regularly regarded as such. It's also often considered the granddaddy of sci-fi filmmaking; movies like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Star Wars itself all owe a debt of gratitude to the special effects and deep imagination put forth by Lang and his team. But if that's all the worth Metropolis had, it would be regarded as a good, yet dated, piece of fantasy fiction, and nothing more. But Metropolis has a wealth of pleasures to be taken from it — the epic story that becomes more religious and spiritual than expected, the mystery and thriller elements regarding futuristic hit-men, the robotic woman who controls men's minds with a hypnotic dance put forth by a shocking montage….it's all just so amazing.
Metropolis' plot is very dense, and actually more complicated than most of the so called "epic" films we have today. In terms of acting, music, or special effects, I guess you could claim some of Metropolis as dated, but then you don't pop in a silent film to expect the most topical movie ever made. The story is timeless (the working class rising up against the rich is a common staple of science fiction), and the creativity and imagination inherent in every frame of the movie makes this (despite it's almost 3 hour running time) an endlessly entertaining flick. I just freakin' love it.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick was clearly one of the greatest directors of all time, and while I feel he had one more masterpiece up his sleeve even better than 2001, there is no denying this movie's placement in the canon of science fiction. Perhaps the "hardest" of all hard sci-fi, 2001 is not only a cold, clinical mystery about where we came from in the universe, but also a deeply confusing mind-trip that still has people endlessly analyzing and discussing. Despite its infamously glacial pace and lengthy run-time, 2001 is a film of endless treats for those with patience, and it's stature will likely never be diminished.
Kubrick worked alongside sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke while writing both this film and the book. His attention to detail is exhaustive, and he was able to make many predictions (alongside scholars and technicians, of course) about deep space travel that wouldn't be proven right for decades later. The movie is divided into sections, each with their own levels of personal interest; the most famous is the part where the HAL-9000 computer on a space station begins offing the astronauts, but my personal favourite is the mystical head-trip of an ending, which becomes a kaleidoscope of fantastic and nonsensical imagery. It's the ballsiest moment of a very ballsy film, and truth be told, almost no other movie I can think of has ever been this audacious.
1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Simultaneously disturbing and exuberantly alive, Clockwork Orange is unlike any other movie, before or since. At time's it's so nihilistic and violent that you can't bear to watch; at other times, it's aggressively passionate, with the director Stanley Kubrick almost bouncing out of the film and shaking you out of apathy. The film doesn't just tell a science fiction allegory that ranks as one of, if not the, strongest of all time. It makes you question, to some extent, EVERYTHING — society, the role of violence and government, teenage rebellion, the filmmakers, and yourself. It's a stunning work of art, and among the top 20 films of all time, of any genre.
Kubrick's ode to joy (see what I did there?) follows Alex de Large, a young, despicable hoodlum who commits a series of horrible crimes alongside his gang, but is then thrown into prison, made the result of scientific experiments to make him more "human", and then set back out to the world. First, the lead performance is astounding; Malcolm McDowell gives one of the best portrayal's of evil I've ever seen. Secondly, the story and screenplay ingeniously adapted a near-impossible book, and make Alex both a horrible monster and a sympathetic victim. And third, the visuals and aesthetics of the film are absolutely perfect. Kubrick was never better, both with his infamous dolly-shot camera's, impeccable set design, aggressive classical music, and absolutely bizarre editing.
Is Clockwork Orange perfect? Probably not. It does indeed go a little too long, and the middle section is a slight disappointment after the stunning brilliance of the first. But these are nitpicks when compared to the over-arching work of art that Clockwork is. Clearly, the film isn't for the faint of heart (it was banned in Britain until Kubrick's death in 1999), and it still has the power to shock, titillate, and provoke. But that's what all great sci-fi should do, and Clockwork is the best of the bunch, shaming the silly timidity that Star Wars unfortunately made popular.