The Science Fiction genre has grown over the years from an often ignored niche to the source of many a season’s blockbuster film. Modern hits like “Man of Steel”, “The Avengers”, “Gravity” and “Inception” all have a strong Sci-Fi foundation.
But that was not always the case. Often relegated to B movies and serials, Sci Fi was the unwanted step-child of the film industry. And a lot of the movies that were produced were really terrible.
But not all. Here are 5 that not only stand the test of time, but changed the way Sci Fi movies were both viewed and made.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
While clearly a B picture, this Invasion from Space offering featured a coherent and well scripted plot, exceptional performances by top shelf character actors, and special effects that still are credible even by today’s standards.
Klaatu, played by Hollywood newcomer Michael Renney, comes to Earth from a distant planet in a flying saucer piloted by a giant indestructible robot, and is promptly shot by one of the several hundred soldiers surrounding his recently landed spaceship. His mission is one of peace, but he spends the next several days trying to stay alive in the panic soaked ‘Land of the Free’ that America was turning into during the beginnings of the cold war.
The music was cutting edge, and featured the first major use of the Theremin, thought by many to be the first truly electronic instrument. Its eerie siren like sound went on to be staple on Sci Fi and Thrillers for decades.
Star Wars Episode IV
Without entering into the ‘Which is the Best Star Wars Movie’ debate, this film was a hallmark in the Sci Fi Genre, setting the tone and the bar for every film and TV show that would follow. A credible and engaging plot, innovative and detailed special effects, it was an exciting, fun move that showed Sci Fi could be more than giant monsters and saucers on strings. Avoiding the political commentary of other Sci Fi features, Star Wars highlighted the human condition, often through the eyes of clearly non-human characters.
Probably my favorite of the Giant Creature Features, “Them” follows a group of desert ants mutated to gigantic proportions by the effects of radiation from atomic testing. Unlike many films of this type, very little of the story line is wasted convincing the ‘Authorities’, in this case an FBI agent played by James Arness, of the reality of the menace. He quickly catches on and enlists the help of a whimsical entomologist played brilliantly by Edmund Gwinn, assisted by the professor’s obligatorily beautiful granddaughter. What follows is a compelling story of a fairly competent and systematic search for rampaging giant ants, a job that in the pre-satellite 50’s is harder than you would think. The giant ants are a bit hokey as special effects go, but overall, a job well done by all.
The War of the Worlds
A modern retelling of H.G. Well’s classic, this was an early attempt at making a big budget full color Sci Fi flick by a major studio. Using a cast with slightly higher celebrity rankings than most space operas, the movies designs for the Martian Fighting Machines are still awesome. Though the special effects did show a few not so invisible wires, they produced a film that was impressive and more than a little scary. And the sound effects used to highlight the machines and their deadly rays are considered to be classics.
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The antithesis of the big budget effects movies like Star Wars, this movie was shot on back lots using regular costumes and vehicles. No rays, rockets or rampaging beasts, the only special effects were large vegetable pods. This invasion of aliens sought to conquer not by force, but by replacing living humans with emotionless duplicates fashioned in these space gourds. Even with their small budget, the premise, the writing and the performances produced a movie that was unnerving and downright frightening.