On 14th December, the eighth instalment of one of the most iconic sci-fi sagas ever created will arrive in Cineworld.
We are, of course, talking about The Last Jedi, the next chapter in the Star Wars series which made its cinematic debut 40 years ago in 1977 with A New Hope.
As old as the Star Wars franchise may be, the origins of sci-fi movies date back centuries to a time when the idea of moving pictures was unheard of. We suggest you strap in because we’re taking you on a journey through time to explore the history of sci-fi.
Film didn’t enter the frame until the end of the 19th century and the term “science fiction” wasn’t coined until 1929 when it appeared in Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Science Wonder Stories, but the genre itself is commonly understood to have started in 1726 with the release of Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver's Travels.
Swift’s satire arrived long before our common understanding of sci-fi being full of intergalactic travel and futuristic worlds. Swift, however, was ahead of his time in that the utopian and dystopian places the titular character encounters in the novel are now recognised as being fundamental to the genre.
Swift wasn’t the only early sci-fi pioneer. Other works of literature that are also credited for giving birth to the genre include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1815), Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and H.G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895, the same year the Lumiere Brothers exhibited their film Arrival of a Train at a Station).
Cinema: the new frontier
Whilst literature was already an established art form at the turn of the 20th century, film was very much a brand new concept that early filmmakers would spend the next few decades experimenting with (the close-up shot wasn’t conceived until 1911 in the film The Lonedale Operator, for instance).
Unsurprisingly, then, it was one of cinema’s most celebrated pioneers, Georges Melies, who first took audiences in 1902 on a cinematic journey to outer space in A Trip to the Moon.
Using incredible trick photography and inventive special effects, Méliès demonstrated the power of film by illustrating that it had the ability to take audiences to fantastical new worlds.
Said to have been influenced by the early sci-fi literature of Verne and Wells, A Trip to the Moon is often cited as one of the first examples of sci-fi cinema. However, it wasn’t the only piece of early cinema to draw influence from the literary pioneers: Edison, for example, created the first ever film adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910, more than 20 years before Boris Karloff would portray the monster to iconic effect.
German Expressionism, dystopian futures
Although Star Wars takes place in the distant past, its futuristic trappings have long been a staple of the sci-fi tradition.
We can thank Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) for introducing this idea into cinema. Part of the German Expressionism period of early cinema, Metropolis is hailed as being the first feature length sci-fi film, and is celebrated for its use of production design, special effects, and music (the film is silent but in the coming years its score would be performed during screenings).
Whilst Metropolis is now seen as one of the great classics of the genre, the 1920s have been recognised as the being period which introduced many of the common sci-fi tropes into the mix including dystopian futures and mad scientists (and they’ve been there ever since).
Both The Last Man on Earth (1924) and The Man From Beyond (1922, which starred magician Harry Houdini) introduced the idea of a not-so-bright future: Last Man on Earth was set in a plague-ridden 1950 whereas Man From Beyond saw Houdini arrive into a strange new world after being frozen for a hundred years. The 1920s also saw not one, but two adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the same year.
The sci-fi genre was off to a great start, or so you’d think.
A decline in the genre
With cinema now being seen as a more serious art form than a simple sideshow attraction, what is commonly known as Hollywood’s Golden Age was born at the end of the 1920s. Development in sound saw the success of the “talkie” with the arrival of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer (1927).
Whilst the film industry was thriving during this period, popularity of the sci-fi genre plummeted. However elements of the genre were still used frequently throughout many other Hollywood films, none more so than the horror genre. With mad scientists, alien planets, and terrifying monsters, horror was the perfect home for sci-fi to yield its head in classics such as the legendary Universal monster movies Frankenstein (1931) and The Phantom Creeps (1939).
Sci-fi schlock: monstrous B-movies
Despite taking a backseat during Hollywood’s Golden Age, sci-fi was never truly gone; instead it was cast off to the fringes of the low budget flicks of the film industry.
This became more prominent between the 1950s and 1960s when many independent filmmakers began making their own films outside of the studio system. Although many of these guerrilla filmmakers had the passion for filmmaking, they unfortunately lacked much of the required talent and funding needed to succeed, which consequently saw the beginning of an influx of sci-fi B-movies at this time.
Within this period, there are two films that have stood out as being the best of the worst: Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953) and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Described by critic J. Hobberman as an anti-masterpiece that “projects a stupidity that’s fully as awesome as genius”, Robot Monster was one of the first films to be described as “so bad it’s good” – and with a monster outfit as lazy as Ro-Man’s, we can see why.
Likewise, Plan 9 is often considered to be the worst film ever made with Wood credited as the worst director of all time. (His spirit was however honoured in Tim Burton's terrific 1994 biopic starring Johnny Depp.) Though we may mock these films for their schlocky sci-fi premises and poor quality, both are still being talked about today and are favourites of both sci-fi and cult fans alike.
That said the 1950s produced several enduring classics of the genre including 1951's seminal, Bernard Herrmann-scored The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of the most intelligent and atmospheric alien invasion movies ever made. And this boded well for the genre's resurgence in the following decade...
Sci-fi strikes back
After its initial ground-breaking contributions to early cinema, sci-fi soon became associated with cheap B-Movies, but that was all about to change with the release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968.
A ground-shattering piece of cinema in itself Kubrick’s epic was visually stunning, provided a poignant message about technology and humanity, and has single-handedly influenced our perception of intergalactic travel for half a century.
Sci-fi was making a comeback and the next few decades saw the genre become much more than a handful of tropes. Films like Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, John Carpenter's Escape From New York and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (to name just a few) used sci-fi as a means of exploring thematically rich commentaries on society.
Not only that: these movies presented visually artful and overwhelming depictions of future society that both advanced the genre whilst also hearkening back to the influence of Metropolis.
The sci-fi horror subgenre, too, got a terrifying revival. Ridley Scott’s Alien taught us that outer space could be a lonely and terrifying place, while John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s remake of 1950s B-movie The Fly ramped the body horror sub-genre to horrific new heights.
And let’s not forget unforgettable films like Star Wars and E.T that brought sci-fi to a new generation, introducing them to infinite worlds of possibilities, imagination, and adventure.
It's often argued that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's influence forewent the philosophical complexity of much 1970s cinema, instead seducing audiences with a sense of old-fashioned wonderment and emotional directness. In the process this marked another watershed moment in sci-fi cinema, opening the genre up to franchising possibilities and reaping enormous box office returns in the process.
The new age of sci-fi
Now, after an entire century of sci-fi cinema, the genre’s showing no sign of slowing down any time soon. In recent years we’ve already had many acclaimed sci-fi epics including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival alongside incredible indie sci-fi films ranging from time travel head-scratcher Primer to the mind-bending Under the Skin, all of which have all done fascinating things with the genre.
Furthermore, it seems as though a selection of recent sci-fi entries have been revisiting the genre’s 70s and 80s boom whilst adding a unique modern twist. Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant have taken the Alien template and added in philosophical themes of creation; Blade Runner 2049 expanded on the original whilst retaining its incredible visual style; The Void was a love letter to gruesome practical effects; and, of course, The Force Awakens and Rogue One have breathed new life into the Star Wars saga.
With The Last Jedi right around the corner, the sci-fi genre is far from gone. From its humble beginnings in literature, sci-fi has travelled though time, forever evolving to reflect on our modern society, and to set us on cinematic adventures that are, quite literally, out of this world.
Andy Murray is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.