Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Focus on Sci-Fi Part 1: The Early Years

As part of our ongoing look at science fiction, this week's focus is on the early years of Science Fiction, centering on the first 50 years of its existence in film media. Below you will find explorations of some of what we felt were the most important films of this time period, including each title's influence on movies that followed it.

Metropolis (1926)The first great sci-fi feature film was a silent masterpiece of German Expressionism by Austrian director Fritz Lang. At the time, it was the most expensive silent film ever made, costing approximately 7 million reichsmark (about $200 million US equivelant). It is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and deals with the then-and-now politically relevant theme of capitalism vs. communism.

The themes, effects and characters in Metropolis have been the inspiration for many of its successors. It was also adapted into an anime feature in 2000.

The original German version remained unseen for many decades. Of this version, a quarter of the footage is believed to be permanently lost. The U.S. version, shortened and re-written by Channing Pollock, is the most commonly known and discussed.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
This film is considered by many to be one of the greatest films in Science Fiction. It set the tone for many of the Science Fiction films that followed it, and even spawned some of what we now consider to be cliches of the genre: a race of killer robots, the silver space-suit, flying saucers, etc. As it was filmed entirely in black and white with minimal but effective special effects, it also stands on its own as a model of economic film making.

What really makes this movie stand out, though, is its bleak outlook on mankind-- a rarity for films in the 1950's. It is also known for its soundtrack, which makes ample use of the theremin-- one of the first fully electronic musical instruments which also carries the distinction of being the only instrument that does not require any physical contact of any kind.

The Day The Earth Stood Still

Things To Come (1936)
This 1936 British film is heralded by many as one of the most important Science Fiction Films of all time, and is considered a landmark of cinematic design. The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells. The movie predicts such marvels as television, the jet engine and, strangely enough, World War II.

The rough-cut reputedly ran to 130 minutes; the version submitted to the British Board of Film Censors as 117m 13m; it was released as 108m 40s (later cut to 98m 06s) in the UK, and 96m 24s in the United States. The standard version available today is just 92m 42s, although some prints are in circulation in the United States that retain the additional scenes that constitute the original American release.

Things To Come

When Worlds Collide (1951)
All those people out there that have spent the last decade or so discussing the evils of "Armageddon", this is the movie you should be thanking. This is the movie that started the planetary disaster theme in science fiction.

The film centers around a scientist (not Bruce Willis) and his lackey (not Steve Buscemi) who work to construct a safe haven of their own after the rest of the human race ignore their warnings. The special effects were wonderful for the time, but it's probably its landmark premise of impending global doom that has marked it as a classic.

When Worlds Collide

War of the Worlds (1953)
This story is probably familiar to most people out there, thanks to Spielberg's latest remake of the classic, but the original 1956 stands as a classic for reasons beyond its effects wizardry. The War of the Worlds story was best known from the radio play adaptation of the ground-breaking novel that featured something that had not yet been brought to the table: Alien Invaders.

Perhaps the movie's greatest achievement was in Special Effects. It earned an Oscar for its ingenuity in this field, while many of the sounds became mainstays in science fiction sound design in future films and television shows. The ray gun, for example, hasn't sounded the same since this movie's release.

War of the Worlds

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Inspired in many ways by Shakespeare's The Tempest, this is an extraordinarily sexy science fiction adventure-- in 1956's terms at least. It marks the debut of Robby the Robot, one of the most beloved robots of early science fiction. The movie served as inspiration to many future film and television directors, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

This movie is particularly notable for its employment of the first entirely electronic score. As such, it paved the way for electronic music as a whole, including its place in the orchestral realm.

Forbidden Planet: Ultimate Collector's Edition

Join us next week as we explore more of the wonderful world of science fiction in Part 2 of our focus: Alien and Monsters and Bots, Oh My!

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