Last year science fiction films turned 110. Filmmakers have tapped into science fiction since the beginning of cinema, usually reimagining science fiction novels. You can see the elements of science fiction films evolve from the earliest of movies. Europeans dominated early science fiction movies and are credited with some of the most ground breaking movies in the genre. All of the films on this list are in the public domain and can be found on YouTube. Enjoy!
1. Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902)
Well of course we had to include Georges Méliès’ seminal masterpiece. Méliès invented the science fiction film. Le Voyage dans la Lune was the first science fiction film ever made and remains relevant today. We’ll let you take that in for a moment. The very first science fiction film. Damn.
Le Voyage dans la Lune follows the journey of some very ambitious astronomers as they fly off to the moon. They manage to fight off the moon people before returning to Earth as triumphant heroes. It is important to view this film in context. Science fiction novels had been around a long time but film was still in its infancy. When Georges Méliès decided to put some of these science fiction concepts on the big screen, he created a film that continues to be a huge influence. The HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998) features an entire episode devoted to Le Voyage dans la Lune. The Martin Scorsese modern masterpiece Hugo saw it resurrected from the ashes of lost films. The Smashing Pumpkins video for “Tonight, Tonight” pays homage to this early science fiction classic.
The most remarkable thing is the vision of the filmmaker. In 2013 the view of the moon may seem silly, but Méliès created the look over 110 years ago, almost 30 years before we knew Pluto existed and 67 years before anyone actually landed on the moon. So this film is really quite marvelous and forward thinking.
2. A Trip to Mars (1910)
Not to be outdone by the French, early filmmaker and famed light bulb creator Thomas Edison directed the first American science fiction film. America doesn’t just want to settle for a journey to the moon! Heck no. We’re going all the way to Mars. Despite being made almost 10 years after Le Voyage dans la Lune, there is a lower quality feel to this film. It is a very simply told story of a man creating “reverse gravity.” With his invention he is able to travel to Mars where he comes across quite a few issues. He finally makes his way back home relatively unharmed. The effects are simple. Although it is short film (approximately 5 minutes long), it paved the way for the American exploration of the science fiction genre.
3. Frankenstein (1910)
The Thomas Edison Company wasn’t done experimenting with the science fiction genre. It should come as no shock that the first mad scientist in cinematic history would be Dr. Frankenstein himself. This vision of Frankenstein differs significantly from both the novel and the famous 1931 version with Boris Karloff as the creature. Frankenstein follows Dr. Frankenstein as he creates his monster and then deals with the consequences of interfering with life and death.
Frankenstein sees the beginning of the mingling of science fiction with horror. The monster in this film is just incredible in terms of costuming and the early use special effects. It is interesting to watch the filmmakers use a mirror to create early film magic. No doubt this was one of the first times this effect had been used.
4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)
We continue our cinematic exploration of the mad scientist with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The thing that is most remarkable about this film is that we can see an evolution in editing. In many early science fiction films, illusions were based on theatrical tricks, the literal use of smoke and mirrors. But with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde we begin to see filmmakers using the medium of film itself to create the special effects. A very cool evolution that is most evident in the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. Again, the interplay between science fiction and horror is wonderfully presented.
Another interesting thing about this era of films is the timing. These early films rely on very concise storytelling and manage to fit entire stories into the span of a short film.
5. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea further experimented with special effects and editing. The film is best known for its underwater shots which were created using tubes and mirrors. It is also incredible to see the use of such large sets, most notably Captain Nemo’s submarine. Submarines were just beginning to be widely used at the time. This film is a steam punk’s dream come true with sea monsters, submarines, and disclaimers about innovative and radical technology.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the first feature length film in this series and reflects the growing interest in the creation of science fiction films.
6. The Mechanical Man (1921)
By the time the 1920s roll around, we begin to see the early versions of many of our favorite science fiction tropes. This early Italian science fiction film introduced us to evil killer robots. Unfortunately, like many films of this era, a great deal has been lost. Only about a half hour remains of the original footage.
In The Mechanical Man, a scientist creates a robot only to have the robot stolen from him. The robot ends up in the hands of a woman named Mado who commits crime by robot proxy. Eventually there is a robot battle when a duplicate is created. Which is pretty damn cool. It also has a great use of color schemes to indicate dark, light, and even fire. And of course the robots are amazing!
7. Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)
Aelita: Queen of Mars isn’t the first to explore space travel, but it is one of the first films to explore some of the more human aspects of space travel, like love and nationalism. The film was made in post revolution USSR and it infuses elements of socialism and national pride. Before Captain Kirk had a green woman in every spaceport, Aelita: Queen of Mars had it’s own strange intergalactic love story between our cosmonaut and the Queen of Mars. She has fallen in love with him while viewing him through a telescope. The concept that we are looking off into outer space and it is looking back at us in a very cool concept. They eventually join forces to overthrow the Martian Elders.
This film has been praised for its costume and set designs. Both of which are futuristic and imaginative. It influenced a great deal of the science fiction films that came after it. Especially atomic age science fiction.
8. The Lost World (1925)
As science fiction leapt forward into the imaginary future it also looked back to a fantasy past, taking audiences from space travel to dinosaurs. Adapted from an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, The Lost World follows an expedition guided by a diary that leads explorers to living proof that dinosaurs are still wandering the Earth. When the explorers attempt to bring the dinosaurs back to England they run into more than a couple problems.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about The Lost World is its use of stop animation. The special effects of this film were incredible by 1925 standards and helped to perfect the use of claymation. It is also the first feature film to focus on dinosaurs and it would clearly influence films from Godzilla to Jurassic Park. And of course it helped cement the career of special effects genius Willis H. O’Brien who would continue to perfect his work on films like King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).
This is another easily accessible public domain classic that you should check out. If not just to see what scary claymation dinosaurs looked like in the prehistoric days of 1925.
9. Paris Qui Dort (The Crazy Ray) (1925)
Mad scientists adventures continued in this French science fiction film. A mad scientist uses a freezing ray on people in Paris. But not everyone is affected. Those unaffected run around Paris looting, rioting, and having a good time. Its premise is very original and creative. Paris Qui Dort adds to the rich European science fiction films of the era. It is also one of the longer science fiction films on this list, clocking in at about an hour. The plot has obviously influenced a number of the atomic age science fiction films. Because, ya know. Ray guns are cool.
10. Metropolis (1927)
Georges Méliès may get the credit for creating the first science fiction film, but Fritz Lang gets the credit for perfecting it. Metropolis is considered one of the best science fiction films to this day. It is also an excellent example of German expressionism.
Metropolis follows a classist dystopia where the very wealthy have total control over society. They live in opulence above ground while people in poverty live below ground and keep the machinery of society running. All this is going just fine until the Master of Metropolis’ son falls in love with a subterranean radical schoolteacher named Maria. And together they must destroy this dystopia from the inside. But Maria’s place as a figure head for a peaceful tomorrow is destroyed when the Master of Metropolis creates a robotic double that is programmed to encourage violence and rioting.
Metropolis remains as interesting and relevant today as it was when it was new. The film was also prophetic. Science fiction novelist H.G. Wells criticized its warning about the drudgery of technology, wondering how technology could lead to misery. Clearly our view of the film has shifted in its almost 100 years.
As with all of these films, the special effects are very impressive for their time. Maria’s robotic double influenced George Lucas when he created C3PO. Besides this obvious connection, Metropolis has touched almost every science fiction film in the genre.