Since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have been fascinated with the future. The medium has the ability to showcase tomorrow in a way no other art form can. Directors have utilized the fantastic possibilities of the mise-en-scene as backdrops for what are often abstract or introspective conflicts. To suit the needs of the story, these visions of what lies ahead often contrast each other starkly, and more often build upon the visions seen in other films.
Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, the first science fiction film, made in 1902, is impossible to ignore because of its importance to the genre. However, it is not certain whether or not the world that the film exists in is actually the future. The astronomers who go to the moon are dressed in archaic robes and the rooftops that they launch the bullet-like rocket ship from do not suggest anything exceptionally futuristic. It is perhaps more acceptable to postulate that the film has no time period in relation to the present and therefore can be considered neither the past nor the future.
This brings us to an important, if somewhat implicit, point about all the futures this article pertains to. They all potentially exist in relation to the time period in which the films were made; they are projections of reality in years to come.
Now, if Trip to the Moon is the father of the science fiction film, than Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is the more popular and successful son. Heavily influenced by German expressionism and Art Deco, Fritz Lang and his team of set designers crafted one of the most influential visions in cinema. The sprawling, cold, and sterile cityscape of Metropolis became the blueprint upon most directors built their futures. The film is infamous for the fantastic city shots created with miniatures, often aided by the Schüfftan Process with spectacular results. However, Lang is not so much interested in the city, as much as the man’s relationship to it. Metropolis is all about dehumanization; blurring the line between man and machine. Fritz Lang’s future is a place where workers are virtually fed to the machines in order to keep the city moving. It is the perfect setting for the class struggle that the movie catalogs.
In the 1950s, science fiction was ruled largely by what would be considered campy, pulp stories set against worlds that seem to be made exclusively of cardboard and Christmas lights. However, there was an important shift in science fiction: the idea of space became an obsession. Space and the idea of terrifying, dangerous, new civilizations; a lot of this stemming from paranoia spawned by the cold war. This period was not, however, devoid of good pictures; the 1950 film Destination Moon dealt with the realistic problems that occur during space travel. More fantastic, and perhaps more captivating, is the 1956 adaption of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet, the film famous for it’s iconic Robby the Robot. This vision of the future is indicative of the era; it is showy and false looking, ironic since the most fascinating aspect of the film is the exploration of the invisible and terrifying power of the human id.
This phase of science fiction was wiped away in 1968 when Stanley Kubrick created his science fiction epic about exploration and evolution: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick and his director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth created some of the greatest in-camera effects, meaning done practically and without blue screens or mattes, ever attempted. 2001 exists in a sterile, white, delicate future, not completely unlike Metropolis. However, unlike Fritz Lang, Kubrick is not interested in the workers; man and machine work seamlessly together for the majority of the picture in a visually arresting ballet of technology. It is not until HAL 9000 begins to terminate the crew of the Jupiter Mission that man must prove his mastery of all this machinery. 2001: A Space Odyssey has one of the most influential visions of the future that has been emulated countless times, but never replicated with the same majesty.
In 1979, one filmmaker finally rejected the sterility of this future and created an equally captivating, but completely different view of the future. Ridley Scott’s Alien takes place almost entirely aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, a dirty, rundown, clunky, and massive piece of industrial metal. If Scott’s future ever looked like Kubrick’s, it was a hundred years of grime and rust ago. Everything is heavily used in the world of Alien; Scott liked the idea of truckers in space. When the alien quite literally bursts into the film, the dark, dripping, steaming, endless corridors contribute the primary source of tension that runs through the rest of the film. This was an important transition to a more accessible, and arguably more human future.
With Alien, Ridley Scott turned space from the beautiful stage it was in 2001 into a nightmarish sea of dirty blackness. In 1982, he created his own endless city in Blade Runner. The film depicts Los Angeles in the year 2019; it’s what the slums of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis might like if you turned the lights out and caked it in endless rain. With Blade Runner, Scott fused together the science fiction and noir genres, creating a hard-boiled detective story that takes place in a masterfully created tomorrow. Yet, for all its visual splendor, the film is remarkably introspective, posing questions that call the nature of humanity into doubt. This helpless, inescapable, and eerily convincing future impacted the science fiction films of the last thirty years to an incalculable degree.
All science fiction films attempt to put their own stamp on the future; no vision is completely the same. Most make liberties in order to accommodate the plot, because if the films didn’t deal with things unique to their future, what would be the point of creating them? A film that takes place in a future simply replicated from aspects of other films is an opportunity wasted. It is, however, almost impossible to watch most sci-fi movies without seeing a stamp of at least one of the four films discussed.
Visions of the future are constantly in flux. As technology, social interests, trends, and political climates change, so do filmmaker’s movies. The fascinating thing about science fiction is the films’ source material. I have attempted to pinpoint four archetypes of the genre, and they were absolutely influential. However, the true foundation of the genre will always be reality, and as the world we live in continues to change, filmmakers’ dreams of tomorrow will too.
1. Photo from Foxtongue (Flikr)
2. Photo from Wikipedia Commons
3. Photo from Topgold (Flikr)