Entry updated 21 March 2022. Tagged: Film, Theme.
The basis on which films and film-makers have been selected for inclusion in this volume is discussed in the Introduction to the Second Book Edition.
From the outset, the cinema specialized in illusion to a degree that had been impossible on the stage. Sf itself takes as its subject matter that which does not exist, now, in the real world (though it might one day), so it has a natural affinity with the cinema: the illusory qualities of film are ideal for presenting fictions about things that are not yet real. The first sf film-maker of any consequence – indeed, one of the very first film-makers – was Georges Méliès, who used trick photography to take his viewers to the Moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902; vt A Trip to the Moon). What they saw there – chorus girls and lobster-clawed Selenites – was not exactly high art, but it was, for the time, wonderful. The ability of sf cinema to evoke wonders, for which it is often criticized as being a modern equivalent of a carnival freak show, is also its strength. Wonders themselves may pall, or be dismissed as childish, but nevertheless they are at the heart of sf; sf, no matter how sophisticated, by definition must feature something new, some alteration from the world as we know it (though of course newness can easily become mere novelty). Film, from this viewpoint, is sf's ideal medium.
But from another point of view film is far from the ideal medium. Sf as literature is analytic and deals with ideas; film is the opposite of analytic, and has trouble with ideas. The way film deals with ideas is to give them visual shape, as images which may carry a metaphoric charge, but metaphors are tricky things, and, while the ideas of sf cinema may be potent, they are seldom precise. Also, film is a popular artform which, its producers often believe, is unlikely to lose money by underestimating the intelligence of the public; and the institutional hierarchies of power in the filmmaking process place writers low in the food chain, reporting to a power structure that promotes cinephily and narrative primitivism over conceptual suppleness and genre literacy. Few influential sf filmmakers are literate in contemporary sf; at best, they draw groundwater from their adolescent reading a generation behind the calendar date. So, on its surface, sf cinema has often been simplistic, even though complex currents may trouble the depths where its subtexts glide.
In fact, sf cinema in the silent period did become surprisingly sophisticated, though to the modern eye, which prefers the illusion of photographic realism, the theatrical Expressionism of much early sf cinema – especially in Russia and Germany – is as strange a convention as having people talk in blank verse. Two important early sf films came from those countries and that convention, Aelita (1924) from Russia and Metropolis (1926) from Germany. Nonetheless, Metropolis the first indubitable classic of sf cinema – is, for all the apparent triteness of its story, striking even today, with its towering city of the future, its cowed lines of shuffling workers, its chillingly lovely female Robot. Fritz Lang, who made it, also made one of the first space movies and first Spacesuit Films (which also see), Die Frau im Mond (1929; vt The Woman in the Moon). The debut film of René Clair (1898-1981), one day to be a very famous director, was also sf: Paris qui Dort (1923; vt The Crazy Ray), but this was an altogether lighter piece, a charming story of Parisians frozen in time.
Many people remember the sf-movie booms of the 1950s and the late 1970s, but the first sf boom, that of the 1930s, is often forgotten. Though some sf films were made in Europe at this time, it was in the USA that the most influential were produced: Just Imagine (1930), Frankenstein (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932), King Kong (1933), Deluge (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Mad Love (1935) (see Orlacs Hände) and Lost Horizon (1936). Just Imagine is a forgotten futuristic musical, and Deluge is a Disaster movie which, like the earlier French La Fin du Monde (1931; vt The End of the World), is primarily interested in the effect of apocalypse on human morals. King Kong is of course an early and classic monster movie, with a sympathetic monster. Similarly, Lost Horizon is the most famous Lost-World film, though the theme has never been very important in sf movies.
It is interesting that the remainder – all six of them good films, and mostly well remembered – have in common the over-reaching scientist destroyed by his own creation. This theme, which could be called the Promethean theme (after the hero who stole fire from the Gods – a literal parallel in the case of the Frankenstein films, where scientists steal lightning to create new life), remains a central theme in sf cinema today; it is a familiar paradox that much sf cinema is anti-science, even anti-intellectual (see Anti-Intellectualism in SF), and (especially in the 1930s) cast in the Gothic mode, which typically sees the limitation of science as being its reliance on Reason in a world of mysteries not susceptible to rational analysis – indeed, most of the Scientists who appear in the above films are seen as literally mad. This is true also of several European films of the time, including the archetypally Gothic German film Alraune (1930; vt Daughter of Evil). It is, of course, a Cliché of early sf generally and of sf in the cinema especially that scientists are mad, so much so that we seldom pause to analyse the oddness of this. It is as if these films were telling us that the brain, the seat of reason, is so delicate an instrument that its overuse leads to the very opposite, unreason. Although all these films are undeniably sf, they are generally and rightly categorized as Horror. Also archetypal of the sf cinema is their clear Luddite subtext: the results of science are terrifying. This pessimistic view gave way to Optimism later in the 1930s, but returned with new vigour when the real-world results of scientific advance – the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – proved to be so terrifying. The Bomb was the image that was to loom behind the Monster Movies of the 1950s, especially – not surprisingly – those made in Japan.
In the later 1930s few sf films were made, the most obvious new theme being Space Opera, though this was mainly confined to cheerful juvenile Serial Films such as Flash Gordon (1936, with sequels in 1938 and 1940) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1939). The one adult film made about the conquest of space, the hifalutin', rhetorical and romantic Things to Come (1936), was from the UK; although it flopped, with hindsight we can see it as a milestone of sf film-making. While ultimately optimistic, its vision of the future has many dark aspects, and in this respect the movie is the inheritor of the Dystopian theme of Metropolis.
The 1940s, by contrast, were empty years for sf cinema, though they started well with the sinister Dr Cyclops (1940), whose villain shrank people (see Miniaturization). Medical sf/horror was well represented by The Lady and the Monster (1944), about a sinister excised brain kept alive by science. More typical was comic sf, mostly weak, as in the ever more slapstick sequels to the Frankenstein and Invisible Man movies, both unnatural beings winding up as co-stars with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). The Perfect Woman (1949) is a UK comedy interesting in its exploitation of sf to sexist ends: its underclothes fetishism would have been unthinkable had its robot heroine, played by a real woman, been a real woman. Prehistoric fantasy, which continues as a minor genre today, had a good start with One Million B.C. (1940). There was not much else.
The sf-movie boom of the 1950s, which figures largely in our cultural nostalgia today – even among viewers too young to have seen the originals when they first came out – was largely made up of Monster Movies (which see for details), but the theme of space exploration hit the screens even earlier and was also popular. (There were few monster movies before 1954, the first being The Thing in 1951.) The first 1950s space film to be released was Rocketship X-M, which was rushed out in 1950 to capitalize on the pre-publicity for Destination Moon; it was the latter, however, that was successful. It was followed by such spacecraft-oriented films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), This Island Earth (1955), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). In six of these, probably more for budgetary than for ideological reasons, the spacecraft bring Aliens to Earth; all are monstrous except for the Christlike alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still, who dies and rises again before (in a manner more appropriate to the Old Testament than the New) threatening Earth with destruction if it does not repent its sins. In the remainder the urge for the conquest of space is apparent (as it was coming to be in the real world, with the first orbital satellite, Sputnik 1, launched in 1957), although the religious subtext of much 1950s sf cinema is found also in When Worlds Collide (a Noah's space-ark is used to save a remnant of humanity from God's wrath made manifest as cataclysm) and Conquest of Space (the captain of a spacecraft goes mad because he believes space travel is an intrusion into the sphere of God). The only full-blooded space operas of the period appeared moderately late on, with This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet, but even in these tales the central image is of the destruction that can be wrought by science.
One of the most memorable sf films of the 1950s boom is at first glance not sf at all: the Mickey Spillane-based film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich (1918-1983). This presents a misanthropic view of a seemingly unredeemable mankind. There is a search for a mysterious box which, when opened, emits a brilliant light. The film pessimistically compares the damage done by the moral disfigurements of individuals with the far greater destruction symbolized by the Pandora's Box (the Atom Bomb?), deadly yet somehow attractive, which looses a cleansing radioactivity to greet the fallen world. The cult classic Repo Man (1984) was in many respects a remake of this film.
The Monster Movie, of course, is even more obviously fearful of science: its text is "science breeds monsters". Political Paranoia, a quite different theme (and one to be developed further in the 1960s) also found a niche in much 1950s sf, especially in those films in which creatures that look just like us on the outside turn out on the inside to be monsters or alien puppets (often identifiable as metaphoric stand-ins for such other secret worms in the apple of Western society as communist agents). Invaders from Mars (1953), one of the earliest and best of these (see Monster Movies and Paranoia for other films on this theme), added a touch of Freudian fear to the paranoid brew by making Mummy and Daddy among the first humans to be rendered monstrous and emotionless by alien control. The most famous example is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which, as in most of its kind, the slightly diagrammatic fear of communism is surely secondary to the fear of the loss of affect: the monstrous quasi-humans have no emotions; they are like cogs in a remorseless machine. It is interesting that, although with hindsight we see the Eisenhower years precisely as years of conformity, it was fear of that very conformity that played so prominent a role in the US popular culture of those years.
Where in the 1940s only a handful of sf films were made, in the 1950s there were 150 to 200, their numbers increasing in inverse proportion to their quality: although the years 1957-1959 had more sf movies than the years 1950-1956, they were mostly B-movies from "Poverty Row", which, despite the fact that they include such old favourites as Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Quatermass II and The Monolith Monsters (all 1957) and The Fly, The Blob and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (all 1958), leave an overall impression of sf cinema as both sensationalist and tacky. The year 1959, however, while producing genre movies that were mostly forgettable exploitation material, also produced three films which, while obviously intended for a mainstream audience, had an sf theme: Journey to the Center of the Earth, The World, the Flesh and the Devil and On the Beach. At last some sf themes (Lost Worlds, the Holocaust and the End of the World), it seemed, were sufficiently familiar to general audiences to risk the involvement of big-name stars: James Mason, Harry Belafonte and Gregory Peck. None of these films was especially good, but as sociological signposts each has some importance.
Another phenomenon of the 1950s was the rise of Japanese sf cinema, built largely on the success of Gojira (1954; vt Godzilla), a monster movie. Many further monster movies followed, nearly all from Toho studios, which began working in the space-opera and alien-invasion genres later, as with Chikyū Bōeigun (1957; vt The Mysterians).
By the later 1950s the major studios were abandoning genre sf, and most memorable productions of the period were made by such low-budget independent producers as Roger Corman; the earlier 1950s, by contrast, had been dominated by studios like Universal, Warner Bros and Paramount, which had sometimes used specialist producers like George Pal or even, in the case of Universal, developed their own specialist sf director, Jack Arnold. For the decades since then it has been arguable that much of the inventive energy of sf cinema has continued to bubble up from the marshes of "Poverty Row".
Sf films were quite numerous through most of the 1960s, without many clear lines of evolution being visible, although individual films sometimes showed real creativity (but see below for developments in the cinema of paranoia, and for the new wave of Dystopian films). Hollywood remained fairly uneventful so far as sf was concerned through the years 1960-1967, with silly, colourful films like The Time Machine (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Jerry Lewis made a surprisingly effective sf campus comedy out of the Jekyll and Hyde theme, The Nutty Professor (1963). Roger Corman's low-budget, independent sf features became less common, but one of the last was one of the best: X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). By far the best commercial movie in the genre belonged to it only marginally: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). A revenge-of-Nature film which began a whole trend, this is a particularly surreal monster movie whose paranoid element – intimate sharers of our own world becoming the monsters – showed that the Paranoia theme was continuing strongly in sf cinema, as it has ever since, but with a shift in emphasis. In the 1950s the monster movie had been comparatively innocent, and – not surprisingly with the Cold War being at its height and Hollywood itself about to become subject to investigations designed to weed out left-wingers – regularly featured monsters from outside normal experience; foreigners, so to speak. These films often opened with scenes of tranquillity – children playing, farmers hoeing, lovers strolling. The subsequent violence was almost a metaphor for the irrational forces which peaceful US citizens feared might enter their lives, forces beyond their control, such as (in real life) the Bomb or invasion. By contrast, the subtext of The Birds can, with hindsight, be seen as changing the focus of unease away from the alien monster towards the domestic monster. In the 1960s, elements of decay and division in Western society, especially US society, were becoming more obvious, and 1960s sf reflected this. Working like Hitchcock on the margins of sf cinema, John Frankenheimer was perhaps the most distinguished Hollywood director of 1960s politically paranoid sf, with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966). Conspiracy-theory paranoia of the most extreme kind is the occasion for black comedy in Theodore Flicker's The President's Analyst (1967), in which the Telephone Company is out to rule the world. Even George Pal, of all people, had a very effective exercise in paranoia with The Power (1967), a story of amoral superhumans disguised as ordinary people. Stanley Kubrick, working outside the Hollywood system, made his memorably black and funny sf debut with Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and Hollywood exile Joseph Losey made his nightmare of alienation and radioactivity, The Damned (1961), in the UK. In all of these, it is our own society that is frightening, not some alien import.
The 1960s were, famously, a decade of radicalism and social change, but the English-speaking cinema was slow to reflect this, being more interested in the miniskirt than in, say, the growing power of young people as a political force. Movies of youth revolution like Privilege (1967), Wild in the Streets (1968) and Gas-S-S-S (1970) came only at the end of the decade, in a perhaps cynical attempt to cash in on the flower-power phenomenon, and there were never many of them. Spy movies were immensely popular – a phenomenon perhaps reflecting the idea of a society riddled with secrets and conspiracies but there is nothing remotely radical or even modern about the James Bond series of films inaugurated with Dr No (1962) and going on to include many other borderline-sf films like You Only Live Twice (1967); indeed, their central image of Mad Scientists out to rule the world derives from the pulp sf of the 1920s and 1930s (see also Crime and Punishment). In Europe, however, especially in France, the so-called New Wave cinema was indeed revolutionizing the medium with lasting effect. Many New Wave directors made marginal sf films, typically incorporating sf tropes into a supposedly future but apparently contemporary setting. These included Chris Marker with La Jetée (1963), Jean-Luc Godard with Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1968), François Truffaut with Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Alain Resnais with Je T'aime, Je T'aime (1967), all eccentric and interesting; Truffaut was perhaps the odd man out, as the director least comfortable with future scenarios. The exploitation cinema in Italy had no critical agenda of reform like the New Wave in France, but it had plenty of intelligence and inventiveness, though the results were often extremely uneven; much of the Italian work was Horror, but this often overlapped with sf, as in Mario Bava's Terrore Nello Spazio (1965; vt Planet of the Vampires). Further east, both Russia and Czechoslovakia (see Czech and Slovak SF) made quite a few sf films, including Russia's Planeta Bur (1962; vt Planet of Storms) and Czechoslovakia's Ikarie XB-1 (1963). The sf business in the UK was normally a matter of low-budget B-movies, but some respectable films emerged – e.g., The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Children of the Damned (1963), Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and Peter Watkins's The War Game (1965). This last was made for television but banned from television for giving too realistic a picture of nuclear Holocaust; even today it comes across at least as powerfully as The Day After (1983), made for US television two decades later.
The single most important year in the history of sf cinema is 1968. Before then sf was not taken very seriously either artistically or commercially; since then it has remained, much of the time, one of the most popular film genres, and has produced many more good films. Simply to list the main sf films of 1968 gives some idea of the year's significance: Barbarella, Charly, Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the latter film occasioning one of the first and perhaps the most ambitious gatherings sf and sf-cinema professionals, convened as part of the Third Annual International Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro 22-27 March 1969; several talks by sf figures were assembled as SF Symposium/FC Simpósio (anth 1969) edited by José Sanz. (Less important releases included Countdown, The Illustrated Man, The Lost Continent and The Monitors.) George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead is the exception here in being a low-budget, independent production, but, while it was seen by some contemporaries as being merely another milestone in making the cinema of horror more luridly graphic and disgusting – a key moment in the evolution of the Splatter Movie – its image of humans reduced to deranged, cannibalistic Zombies has an undeniable metaphoric power and even a dark poetry, and it was revolutionary in its discomforting refusal to offer any solace throughout, nor any happy ending. The other four films were commercially reputable products, and interesting for different reasons. Barbarella is second-generation, spoof sf, the sort of film that can be made only when genre materials have already been thoroughly absorbed into the cultural fabric. Charly won its financier and star, Cliff Robertson, the first Oscar for Best Actor given to a performance in an sf movie, a good measure of sf's increasing respectability; the film was based on Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966). Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey are good films – the latter one of the great classics of the genre – both notable for their commercial success and for their use of nonpatronizing screenplays that demanded thought from the audience. Though there were plenty of bad films still to come, sf cinema now had to be taken seriously, definitely by the money-men and to a degree by the critics.
It would nevertheless be another decade before the commercial potential of sf cinema was thoroughly confirmed, in response to the combination of technical developments in special effects, the post-Jaws (1975) blockbuster profit model based around heavily promoted event pictures, and the ascendancy within the Hollywood power lists of a new generation of young, sf-literate filmmakers led by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and the alumni of Corman. In 1977, another watershed year, Lucas's smash hit Star Wars (1977) inaugurated a short-lived boom in space-opera movies, and in the same year Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind also did very well with its blend of sentiment and UFO mysticism, inaugurating the friendly-Alien theme which the film's director, Spielberg, was to exploit with even greater effect in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Another money-maker that began a trend was Superman (1978), which led to a succession of ever-more-disappointing Superhero movies. These films remain, after adjustment for inflation, among the most financially successful ever made. In 1971 the cinema of the fantastic (sf, horror, fantasy, surrealism) accounted for about five per cent of US box-office takings; by 1982 this figure had already risen amazingly to approach 50 per cent, and in 2010 it was nearly 90 per cent.
Though special effects were to usher in a period of sf cinema whose spectacle was more overwhelming than its intelligence, in the late 1960s no vast teenage audience had as yet accumulated to drag down the genre with the commercial demand that it should remain always suitable for kids. A majority of the sf films of 1969-1979 were downbeat and even gloomy, and even in the adventure films their heroes were hard pressed just to survive, let alone survive cheerfully. The three main themes were the Dystopian, the Luddite and the Post-Holocaust.
Luddite films included practically everything made or written by Michael Crichton, notably Westworld (1973), The Terminal Man (1974) and Coma (1978). He had a gift for cinematic narrative, but his tireless replaying of the theme made him seem something of a one-note director. (John Badham, in the 1980s, would be another director to make a career out of Luddite sf movies, with WarGames , Blue Thunder  and Short Circuit .) Other films about the triumph of technology and the subsequent enslavement of humanity (whether actual or metaphorical) included: Colossus, the Forbin Project (1969), computer takes over; Sleeper (1973), machines run amok; Killdozer (1974), a bulldozer goes mad; Futureworld (1976), robots take over; Demon Seed (1977), computer as rapist and voyeur; The China Syndrome (1979), nuclear power station almost blows up; La Mort en Direct (1979), intrusive journalist whose eyes are cameras. In Dark Star (1974), the feature-film debut of John Carpenter and one of the wittiest sf films yet made, a computerized bomb undertakes phenomenological arguments with the crew of a starship.
Dystopian films ranged from the terrible – Silent Running (1971), we've destroyed all plant life; Rollerball (1975), sport is the opium of the people; Logan's Run (1976), everyone over 30 is killed – through the interesting if exaggerated – Soylent Green (1973), Overpopulation; The Stepford Wives (1974), Robot wives replace human wives – to the excellent – THX 1138 (1970), the debut of Lucas; A Clockwork Orange (1971), "ultra-violence" and brainwashing; The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the corrupting influence of human society on an Alien; Stalker (1979 Russia), alien leavings turn out to be fairy gold in a trash-heap world.
Life after the holocaust had been an occasional theme in sf cinema for some time. Stories of survivors and the detritus they live among were becoming more numerous by the 1970s; the iconography of Post-Holocaust cinema regularly includes a few rusting or ivy-clad ruins of twentieth-century civilization, as in Glen and Randa (1971), Logan's Run (1976) or, with more bravura, A Boy and His Dog (1975). The Ultimate Warrior (1975) fights in the rubble, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) mutants live in it. In Zardoz (1974) the greater part of the population has reverted to superstitious barbarism. We see this reversion taking place in Mad Max (1979) and its two entertaining designer-barbarism sequels. Other examples from the 1970s include The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man (1971) and Damnation Alley (1977). This is a theme that suits low-budget movies, which nearly all these were, since the real world produces settings of extraordinary dereliction in profusion.
In the 1970s the low-budget, independent exploitation-movie end of the film business was quite busy making sf movies of other kinds, too, usually borderline-sf/Horror, including Scream and Scream Again (1969), Death Line (1972; vt Raw Meat), George A Romero's The Crazies (1973), Blue Sunshine (1977), Piranha (1978) – a witty partnership between screenwriter John Sayles and director Joe Dante – and Phantasm (1979). But the two outstanding independent directors of exploitation sf in the 1970s (and after) were Larry Cohen and David Cronenberg. The deeply eccentric social satirist Cohen was the inventor of the monster baby, in It's Alive (1973), where it is played by a doll pulled along by a string, and the Christ-figure, in God Told Me To (1976; vt Demon), who is an alien-fathered hermaphrodite. Cronenberg's biological metamorphoses almost constituted a new cinematic genre; his work of the 1970s consists of chaotic, horrific comedies, including The Parasite Murders (1974; vt They Came from Within; vt Shivers), Rabid (1976) and The Brood (1979).
One of the most complex and moving sf films ever made is Solaris (1972), the first sf film of Andrei Tarkovsky, with its delicate meshing of images from inner and outer space. Other films of the decade that at least stimulated discussion – none is outstanding – are Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), The Day of the Dolphin (1973), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). More influential than any of these was the very successful and much imitated Alien (1979), the first sf feature by Ridley Scott, but this was part of the big-budget sf-feature boom of the late 1970s, discussed above, and belongs in spirit more to the 1980s than the 1970s.
The beginning of the 1980s produced several films of interest including Altered States (1980), Battle beyond the Stars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Outland (1981), Memoirs of a Survivor (1981), and the hugely successful sequel Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). But these were quickly superseded by an extraordinary quartet of game-changing films from the annus mirabilis of 1982: E.T., which took Star Wars' place at the top of the all-time charts; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which spectacularly revived both its series brand and the space opera genre after a disastrously shaky start, despite costing a fraction of its predecessor's budget; and two very different films, both flops on their original release, that would turn out to be the seminal works of their era. Ridley Scott's second sf feature, the superbly designed and phenomenally influential Blade Runner (1982), was the last great showcase for traditional in-camera effects on a massive scale, while Tron (1982) was the first feature film to explore the possibilities of computer-generated environments and the narrativity of Videogames. Both Tron's immersive digital gamescape and Blade Runner's shabby, lively, media-saturated city of the near future were also early filmic manifestations of Cyberpunk; a more knowing Japanese version of the cyberpunk ethos – by then almost an sf Cliché – would be found years later in the animated film Akira (1988). Curiously, not many commercial films between these two partook full-bloodedly of cyberpunk thinking, though several small independent productions (see below), including Videodrome (1983) and Hardware (1990), did so. However, the cyberpunk theme of Virtual Reality the notion of consensual hallucination, or of humans entering Cybernetic systems and reading their networks (or being read by them) not just as maps but as the territory itself – became quite popular in cinema. A far from comprehensive list includes the made-for-tv movie The Lathe of Heaven (1980) – based on the 1971 novel by Ursula Le Guin – Brainstorm (1983), Dreamscape (1984) and The Last Starfighter (1984).
The 1980s produced an extraordinary international crop of filmmakers who would develop specialisms in high-end sf and fantasy, including Cameron and Tim Burton in the US, Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in France, Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott in the UK, Hayao Miyazaki and Ōtomo Katsuhiro in Japan, Peter Jackson in New Zealand, and the Dutch export Paul Verhoeven. Some of these would be central figures in their national cinema for the next thirty years. Yet a disappointment of the 1980s was that, sf boom or no sf boom, many spectacular productions were the filmic equivalent of fast food, offering no lasting satisfaction. Also, too much US product seemed to more astringent foreign tastes to be suffused with an oversweet sentimentality, especially following the success of Spielberg's E.T. Films tainted in this way, some of them otherwise quite good, included Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), with its Ewoks, Carpenter's Starman (1984), with its Christlike alien, Cocoon (1985), with its rejuvenated oldies; Joe Dante's Explorers (1985), with its cute alien kids, and Innerspace (1987), with a wimp finding true manhood with the help of a miniaturized macho astronaut; *batteries not included (1987), with nauseating baby flying saucers, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), the nadir of the geriatric-buddy movie, and Cameron's The Abyss (1989), whose threatening aliens turn out to be real friendly Tinker Bells.
An interesting film of 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, had been a successful remake of the classic 1956 film. Along with King Kong (1976) this introduced a series of sf remakes in the 1980s which, contrary to cliché, contain a good deal of interesting work. The time was ripe for remakes because, in the post Star Wars period, Hollywood sf was hungry for cinematically proven source material and conscious of the premium that could be added by contemporary technical values with more graphic and kinetic audience tastes. The two best remakes were probably John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). Also better than expected were The Blob (1988) and The Fly II (1989). Others, mostly poor, were Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), Flash Gordon (1980), Gojira 1985 (1985; vt Godzilla 1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), Lord of the Flies (1990), Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Not of This Earth (1988).
A less welcome phenomenon of the 1980s was the number of successful films to which sequels were made almost as a matter of course, almost never as good as their originals, an observation that spans a variety of films including Critters 2: The Main Course, It's Alive III: Island of the Alive, Highlander II: The Quickening, Bronx Warriors II, 2010, Phantasm II, Re-Animator 2, RoboCop 2, Short Circuit 2, Toxic Avenger 2 and Future Cop 2. Two sequels better than their originals are Mad Max 2 (1981; vt The Road Warrior) and Predator 2 (1990); more impressive still was Aliens (1986), which was directed by James Cameron, the most important sf director to emerge during the 1980s. This trend to sequels has yet to decelerate: as of 2011 there have been eleven Star Trek films and seven each in the Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and Batman franchises, though the last two each include a couple of restarts.
There are many other examples of thematic clusters in the 1980s. Hollywood (and other film centres) had seldom been so narcissistically absorbed – often stupidly – by its own previous productions, with each box-office breakthrough spawning multiple imitations. Dozens of films featured a slow camera track along a giant spaceship (2001, Star Wars) or an alien parasite bursting bloodily from a human body (Alien).
A big hit was the killer-Robot movie, starting at the beginning of the decade with Saturn 3 (1980), Android (1982) and Runaway (1984), and taking off after the success of RoboCop (1987); post-RoboCop examples are Hardware (1990), Class of 1999 (1990), RoboCop 2 (1990), Robot Jox (1990) and Eve of Destruction (1991), but the best by far in this subgenre was The Terminator (1984), which in turn spawned three sequels and a television series from 1991 on.
More seriously gruesome, though not without soap-opera elements, was the spate of nuclear-death Holocaust films beginning with The Day After (1983), Special Bulletin (1983) and Testament (1983), all in the same year with the first two made for television. They were followed by, among others, Threads (1985), also made for television, the cartoon feature When the Wind Blows (1986), and the quietly powerful cult classic Miracle Mile (1988).
Another subgenre of the 1980s was a bastard form, the teen-sf movie, of which the three best were probably Real Genius (1985), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), along with the Back to the Future series (see below). Others were Dead Kids (1981), City Limits (1984), Night of the Comet (1984), My Science Project (1985), Weird Science (1985), Flight of the Navigator (1986), Space Camp (1986), Young Einstein (1988), My Stepmother is An Alien (1988), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Spaced Invaders (1989).
Time-Travel movies made a big comeback in the 1980s, many of them (see Introduction) being not technically sf since their means of time travel was fantastic. Among the genuine sf the best are Back to the Future (1985) and its two sequels, all directed by Robert Zemeckis. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988) and its Science Fantasy sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), are both charming. Others are the entertaining The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) and two disappointments, The Final Countdown (1980) and Millennium (1989).
After the success of Carrie (1976), based on Stephen King's 1974 novel about a persecuted schoolgirl with Psi Powers, films about paranormal abilities, though never becoming overwhelmingly popular, nevertheless remained as a persistent subgenre. The best of these is probably Cronenberg's remorseless Scanners (1980). Others include The Fury (1978), The Sender (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), also directed by Cronenberg, and the dire Firestarter (1984).
The oddest subgenre was probably the Alien-human buddy movie. Enemy Mine (1985), one of the earlier ones, is set on another planet, but many examples are set on Earth. Not just two but four of them feature partnerships between alien and Earth police: Alien Nation (1988), The Hidden (1988), Something Is Out There (1988; a television miniseries released on videotape as a feature film) and I Come in Peace (1989; vt Dark Angel).
Other 1980s films of interest but not fitting neatly into any of the above categories were Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), Strange Invaders (1983), Dune (1984), Brazil (1985), Predator (1987), and Monkey Shines (1988). Terry Gilliam's Brazil is the most distinguished of these, a perhaps too lovingly designed Dystopia; Monkey Shines, also memorable, showed that George A Romero was still a director of real power.
The rise of home video in the 1980s was not only a shot in the arm for the studios' flagging revenue streams from theatrical admissions, but a boost for the thriving market in Cormanesque independent features. For every film as inventive as Blade Runner produced by companies with access to very large sums of money, there were half a dozen thrown up by the shoestring independents. In the latter category, the 1980s produced Scanners (1980), Alligator (1981), Android (1982), Liquid Sky (1982), Videodrome (1982), De Lift (1983), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Cameron's The Terminator, Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984), Charles Band's Trancers (1984), Larry Cohen's The Stuff (1985), Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Making Mr Right (1987), Carpenter's They Live (1988) and Society (1989). If 1980s sf cinema were represented by these films alone it would have to be diagnosed as in vigorous health, though somewhat disreputable and threatening in appearance.
The end of the 1980s was marked by rapid, transformative developments in digital effects, which moved with extraordinary swiftness from the solitary computer-generated pseudopod in Cameron's The Abyss to the hundreds of shots of the digitally created liquid-metal antagonist in his Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and thence to the entire ecosystem of digital Dinosaurs in Spielberg's entertaining, silly Jurassic Park (1993), which briefly displaced E.T. from the top of the all-time charts. But grave financial problems began to spread through Hollywood in the early 1990s, and there were comparatively few big sf glamour spectaculars in the first half of the decade. There was the watchable Stargate (1994), which spawned a significant TV franchise, and, on a rather smaller scale, several movies about future musclemen, Demolition Man (1993) with Stallone, Timecop (1994) with Van Damme and – a smaller budget again – Universal Soldier (1992) with Van Damme and Lundgren. Cut-rate spectacle was also the order of the day with Kirk's (William Shatner's) last gasp in the Star Trek movies: Star Trek: Generations (1994), though this at least passed the franchise baton to the cast of the follow-up series; and with the once adult RoboCop series, whose calculated demographic retargeting at a younger audience did not save it from extinction with RoboCop 3 (1993). A corner was turned when the monstrously expensive Waterworld (1995) defied expectations to show a modest profit; and Roland Emmerich's lavish, preposterous Invasion picture Independence Day (1996) marked a return of popcorn spectacle to the summer schedules, leading to such expensively mixed blessings as The Fifth Element (1997), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) (see Jurassic Park), Men in Black (1998), and Emmerich's own remake of Godzilla (1998). It was against this background that George Lucas finally delivered the long-gestated prequel trilogy Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). Though these were generally received with muted joy, they broke new ground in digital worldbuilding and space-operatic spectacle, as well as moving the series into some surprisingly overt and provocative reflections of contemporary geopolitics.
But spacegoing cinema was in decline, having long since been displaced by episodic television as the natural home of expansive interplanetary narrative, and with even the long-serving Star Trek franchise sputtering towards a final darkness in its second film generation, while the Alien series limped through the very weak Alien³ (1992) and the mediocre Alien Resurrection (1997) before going earthbound for the Alien vs Predator crossover sequels in the next decade. Solar-system interplanetaries were a particularly endangered species, partly as a legacy of the continuing confirmation in the 1990s and beyond that anywhere we might feasibly travel to in our lifetimes appeared notably short on instant gratifications like extraterrestrial life, prospects for habitability, or gateways to transcendence. The cuddly alien uplifters of the 1970s and 1980s retreated in the face of monstrous invaders: Species (1995) and its sequels, Independence Day, Mars Attacks! (1996), The Faculty (1998), Starship Troopers (1998). One continuing paranoiac rivulet of films deals with humans kidnapped by aliens in UFOs; this theme received a shot in the arm back in the 1980s with Communion (1989), based on Whitley Strieber's supposedly factual best-seller, and continued with a neat little film called Fire in the Sky (1993), but it was in television rather than movies, that this particular theme had its apotheosis, with the cult success The X-Files (1993-2002).
Despite the long history of failure in this subgenre, producers insisted on making yet more supposedly humorous sf movies, which included the dire Encino Man (1992; vt California Man), the equally unfunny Coneheads (1994) and the slightly better Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992) (see Honey, I Shrunk the Kids); gentler and funnier than any of these was The Meteor Man (1993); there was a slight sense of strain about the mixture of comedy and drama in Joe Dante's Matinee (1993), which examines the cultural roots of sf/horror pics in scary real-life events, in this case the Cuban missile crisis. A successful French black comedy with a Post-Holocaust setting was Delicatessen (1991); and the end of the decade produced one bona fide comedy classic in the Fandom-based satire Galaxy Quest (1999).
It became obvious in the 1990s that films spinning off from successes in other media, notably Games, Comics and Television – and even including Radio – was a growing part of the business, in part nostalgia-driven, and unlikely to go away. From radio and the Pulps came The Shadow (1994) (see The Shadow). From the world of Videogames came Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994), Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995). Comics – which had already fed into films with movies like Flash Gordon, deeply influenced or begat many more films in the 1990s, most of them fantasy rather than sf, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1991), the three Batman Films sequels, Timecop, The Mask (1994), The Crow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Tank Girl: The Movie (1995), Men in Black, and Virus (1999), as well as the Japanese Tetsuo (1989) and many features from what was to prove a golden age for anime. Out of television nostalgia came, among others, Jetsons: The Movie (1991), from The Jetsons (1962-1963); The Flintstones (1994), from The Flintstones (1960-1966); Lost in Space (1998), from Lost in Space (1965-1968); Wild Wild West (1999), from The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969); My Favourite Martian (1999), from My Favorite Martian; and also, of course, the continuing run of Star Trek movies. One problem with most of these genres is that they combine steady-state series premises with narrative conventions (generally) as rigid and stagy as those of a Japanese noh drama, and this static quality runs counter to what sf does best, which is kinesis: opening out, dealing with change and transformation (see Conceptual Breakthrough).
Although the exploitation-movie end of the market was often highly inventive, there was not much evidence of this in cheap and bloody futuristic thrillers like American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1992), Nemesis (1993) and Man's Best Friend, or two (rather better) future-Prison escape movies, Fortress (1993) and No Escape (1994; vt Penal Colony; vt The Prison Colony; vt Escape from Absalom).
In this period remakes and spin-offs from earlier films included the so-so television movie (released theatrically overseas) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1993), the rather good but black Body Snatchers (1993), and for intellectuals who like their action both bloody and operatic, the strange but semi-successful Kenneth Branagh film, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). In a different league from these, and from almost everything else of its decade, was Terry Gilliam's extraordinary Twelve Monkeys (1995), a feature-length studio adaptation of La Jetée (1962) from the co-writer of Blade Runner, its time-bending elegiac apocalypse no less affecting for its reduction to a superficially conventional narrative form.
Indeed, Time Travel remained a popular theme throughout the 1990s – several other titles belonging to this category having already been mentioned – and while the weepie melodrama Forever Young (1992) may have disappointed, there were two small gems in the period. The first was David Twohy's small-scale but spirited Time-Paradox film Disaster in Time (1991; vt Grand Tour: Disaster in Time; vt Timescape), which proved that not everything made for cable television is awful. The second was a comedy set in a small American town, Groundhog Day (1993), a barely science-fictional, but almost faultless and very amusing, study in predestination versus free will as mediated by a Time Loop, which spawned a long series of mostly dispiriting imitators in the form of Thought Experiment fantasies about male midlife crisis.
The 1990s had produced a new generation of significant filmmakers in the genre, including Paul W S Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Michael Bay, Danny Boyle, Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro, Roland Emmerich, Andrew Niccol, Alex Proyas, Robert Rodriguez, Barry Sonnenfeld, David Twohy, the Wachowski brothers, and Joss Whedon; and a handful of extremely strong (and, in various ways, dark) films: Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (1995) – written James Cameron – Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995), Alex Proyas's extraordinary Pocket Universe fantasy of Conceptual Breakthrough, Dark City (1998), and all bookended by Paul Verhoeven's magnificently deadpan adaptations Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1998). Yet in the perspective of the rapid phase-shifts in the commerce and art of sf filmmaking at the turn of the millennium, it looks almost like a lost decade. A stylistic and thematic turning point was The Matrix (1999), directed and written by Andy (now Lilly) and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski, the most influential of a trio of films which saw Virtual Reality cinema come of age for audiences increasingly comfortable with narrative trapdoor plunges and non-linear storytelling of the kind brought to the mainstream in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1995) and Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995). More impressive still was Cronenberg's Videogame-themed sf swansong eXistenZ (1999); while even the underwhelming The Thirteenth Floor (1999) was part of a significant reconfiguration of the compact between audience, film surface, and narrative reality. All these were effortlessly eclipsed by the literally mindbending Being John Malkovich (1999), in which the hero and the audience are granted a portal into the actor's head. The film was the feature-writing debut of Charlie Kaufman, one of a series of significant genre filmmakers emergent over the next few years who also included J J Abrams, Richard Kelly, Vincenzo Natali, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder. All of these figures would deal at one point or another with shifting realities, tricks with Time and Identity, and science-fictionally themed reflections on the grammar of cinema itself that tap directly or indirectly into a longstanding literary sf tradition of paradox-building and conceptual trapdoors. Major films in this vein include Kelly's Donnie Darko (2001), Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Synecdoche, New York (2009), and Nolan's The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010), as well as Natali's Cypher (2002), Steven Soderbergh's fine Cameron-produced remake of Solaris (2002), Shane Carruth's extraordinary low-budget time-twister Primer (2006), the triple-decker metaphysical portmanteaux of John August's The Nines (2007) and Aronofsky's The Fountain (2007), and newcomer Duncan Jones's highly regarded Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011).
Not surprisingly, Hollywood's favourite sf writer was now Philip K Dick, whose early stories were heavily traded – especially after the commercial success of Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), which established a template for Dick-premised chase movies including Paycheck (2003), Next (2007), and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). In general the tone and effect of Dick's early work were better served by low-budget vehicles such as Screamers (1995) and Impostor (2001), while his major novels found it hard to break out of development hell with the exception of the very finely adapted A Scanner Darkly (2006). Nevertheless, Dick's thematic influence on sf film extends far beyond his (credited) direct adaptations: thus Ubik (1969), the one novel adapted for film by Dick himself, has never been credited but is transparently the basis for Abre Los Ojos (1997) and its Hollywood remake Vanilla Sky (2001), while Time Out of Joint (1959; vt Biography in Time December 1959-February 1960 New Worlds) is strongly recalled by the Niccol-scripted The Truman Show (1998). Otherwise, adaptations from literary sf sources continued to favour the proven hitters Michael Crichton – with the Jurassic Park series, Sphere (1998), and Timeline (2003) – and Stephen King with the bizarre Dreamcatcher (2003) and Darabont's unnerving The Mist (2007). Other films based on famous works of written sf have met with mixed success: The Postman (1997), Battlefield Earth (2000), and A Sound of Thunder (2005) were legendary financial disasters; Bicentennial Man (1999) was a mawkish flop and I, Robot (2004) a glossy travesty; Children of Men (2006) and The Time Traveler's Wife (2009) actually repaired some problematic elements of their sources; Blindness (2008), The Road (2009), and Never Let Me Go (2010) applied an intriguing and partly effective non-genre sensibility to sf novels from authors writing into the field from the outside; while Nolan's virtuosic The Prestige (2006) is a work of ostentatiously dazzling adaptation which reassembles its source into an audacious new cinematic form.
At the same time, the technology of fantasy filmmaking was experiencing a series of revolutions. There was the growing sophistication of digital character creation and the blending of computer-generated characters with live action, pioneered in The Phantom Menace and swiftly a way for sf film to break the constraints of anthropomorphism and puppetry. Now it was no longer necessary for Aliens to look either sufficiently like humans to be played by humans in suits and makeup, or sufficiently mechanical to be played by a physical or digital model. This development found a ready ally in the emergent technology of performance capture, spectacularly showcased in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), which enabled human actors to play only loosely anthropomorphic creatures; while greenscreen technology was newly empowered by photorealistic digital worldbuilding, whose historic showcase was the all-digital settings of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). This last technique, in particular, was as enabling for low budgets as for high. Meanwhile, the delivery systems were changing too. IMAX screens multiplied, and polarizing 3D systems became practical and even profitable, though a clear quality gap emerged between the minority of live action films shot in 3D – spearheaded by Cameron's sensationally successful Planetary Romance, Avatar (2009) – and the majority which were merely retro-converted to 3D for release. Yet at the same time the drift towards digital media and on-demand delivery systems made piracy harder to contain, and revenues from physical and download media increasingly precarious. International markets became newly central to the studios' profit model, leading not just to an increased tendency to internationally synchronized release dates (itself a preemptive anti-piracy manoeuvre) but, more troublingly, to a general lowering of denominators, as the most expensive films sought to appeal reductively to the most generic global tastes.
All this helps to explain why the major new film genre of the 2000s, not merely in sf but in commercial cinema as a whole, was the Superhero franchise. Though several Marvel Comics properties had been in development, the one to break the production barrier was Singer's X-Men (2000) (see X-Men Films); it spawned two direct sequels and two spin-off film franchises, and was followed by the similarly promiscuous franchise-spinner Spider-Man (2002), as well as Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), and Fantastic Four (2005), the last two also generating slightly superior sequels. These early franchises were produced and owned by the major studios, but beginning with The Incredible Hulk (2008) Marvel used an in-house studio arm to produce a still more ambitious slate of interlinked films which would recreate its superhero universe in a cycle of convergent crossover projects, including the very successful Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), which converged with Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) to culminate in the team movie The Avengers (2012) and further sequels beyond it; for an overview of this franchise complex, see Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rivals DC Comics were slower to move, but scored a huge success with Nolan's revival of the Batman franchise with Batman Begins (2005) (see Batman Films) and, especially, its massively ambitious sequels The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (see Batman Films); and less successfully rebooted the Superman franchise after years of dead ends with Singer's Superman Returns (2006), as well as venturing tentatively into a new prospective franchise with the underwhelming Green Lantern (2011). Other notable adaptations included a trio of Alan Moore classics, all disowned by their creator: the lamentable The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), the Wachowskis' misconceived but still resonant V for Vendetta (2006), and Snyder's impressive if overblown Watchmen (2009). Non-superhero comics genres were also strip-mined, as had long been the case in Japan: Hollywood examples include the film-derived crossover AVP Alien vs Predator (2007), Surrogates (2009), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), the Korean manhwa-derived Priest (2011), and Cowboys & Aliens (2011).
More generally, franchised filmmaking proved increasingly important to the studios' profit model in sf as in other film genres, with the diminished artistic returns particularly notable in the Species, Matrix, and Spy Kids series. Straight-to-DVD sequels became common practice even among the major studios, and the drive to monetize existing intellectual property manifested in a mass outbreak of reboots to dormant franchises, including not only Superman and Batman but Planet of the Apes (twice), and an especially brutal forced restart for Star Trek (2009), which wiped clean the entire continuity of all previous series. Casts were increasingly contracted for multiple franchise instalments; while merchandising, a significant part of the studios' profit structure since the 1980s, now created its own monsters in the toy-based Transformers (2007) and its sequels. Remakes proliferated: among the resurfacing classics were The Stepford Wives (2001), Rollerball (2002), The Time Machine (2002), Solaris (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), King Kong (2005), The Invasion (2007), Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), Death Race (2008), Race to Witch Mountain (2009), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2009), and another US Godzilla (2014). Videogame culture penetrated deeper into film through a number of different points of entry: direct adaptations like Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within (2001) (see Final Fantasy), Resident Evil (2001) and its sequels, Doom (2005) (see Doom), and many examples from Horror genres; films about near-future extrapolations of gaming technology like eXistenZ, Gamer (2009), and Tron: Legacy (2011); films that were not overtly about gaming at all, but pointedly projected defining aspects of the gaming experience into science-fictional modes of vicarious estrangement, as in The Nines and Avatar; and films, too numerous to itemize but exemplified by the likes of AVP Alien vs Predator (2004), that simply draw on their audience's familiarity with the poetics of gameplay to encode their plots as minimalist machine narratives built from algorithmic systems of tasks, levels, rules, hints, and rewards. The traffic went both ways, with films often heavily funded by creative symbiosis with tie-in games which in turn influenced the films' own architecture: an example is The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), Twohy's expansive space-operatic sequel to his low-budget hit Pitch Black (2000). The older Star Trek tradition of films emerging from television franchises produced Serenity (2005), continuing and concluding the story arc of Firefly (2002); this won the Hugo and Nebula but was not a commercial success.
Technological advances also played a part in the resurgence of Western animation. This was spearheaded by Pixar Animation Studio and PDI/DreamWorks, who released a string of critically and commercially successful films, including their respective multi-billion dollar fantasy franchises, Toy Story (1995-2010) and Shrek (2001-2011). This increased clout, after several rather moribund years for Walt Disney Animations, was reflected in the establishment of an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001; at the end of the decade, Toy Story 3 (2010) became the highest-grossing animation of all time, surpassing Disney's The Lion King (1994). Whilst traditional anthropomorphic fantasy dominated the output of the two studios, there was also room for more original science fiction than previous studios had produced. Pixar, in particular, released Monsters, Inc. (2001), The Incredibles (2004), WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009). All four were nominated for the new Oscar (winning three) and the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (winning two). In contrast, the two sf films from PDI/DreamWorks – Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) and Megamind (2010) – failed to pick up nominations for either. Meanwhile, Disney released the first sf film in its 64-year history, Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and quickly followed it up with two more the next year: Lilo & Stitch (2002) and Treasure Planet (2002). The reception of these films was decidedly mixed and did not presage a substantial shift in direction for the company, although they did return to the genre with Meet the Robinsons (2007). Other notable films of the period include Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) and Despicable Me (2010). Although most of these films have universal appeal, there has been no growth in animated films aimed solely at adults such as in the Japanese Anime tradition.
Meanwhile the changing climate of postmillennial terrors was influencing the thematic palette of popular fear. The fallout from September 2001 manifested obliquely, and after a decent pause, in a cluster of geopolitically inflected Alien-Invasion films including District 9 (2009), Monsters (2010), Skyline (2010), Battle: Los Angeles (2011) and the Board Game/Wargame-based Battleship (2012); the only apparently menacing alien of the Abrams/Spielberg Super 8 (2011) is an exception here. Frankensteinian and Dystopian fables of genetic engineering included Gattaca (1997), Deep Blue Sea (1999), Code 46 (2003), The Island (2005), Splice (2010), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). AIDS allegories combined weirdly with Survival Horror game adaptations to engender a new race of Zombie-apocalypse epidemics in Resident Evil (2002) and 28 Days Later (2002) and their sequels, as well as Rodriguez' gleeful Planet Terror (2007) and the later World War Z (2013). A gallery of urban and wasteland Dystopias encompassed Equilibrium (2002), Æon Flux (2005), Banlieue 13 (2004; vt District 13, 2006), Renaissance (2006; vt Paris 2054: Renaissance), Kelly's Southland Tales (2007), Babylon A.D. (2008) and The Hunger Games (2012). Global apocalypse was threatened, and sometimes enacted, in Last Night (1998), cause unspecified; Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), Asteroid impacts; The Core (2003), geophysical absurdity, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), computerized nuclear wipeout; The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Climate Change; The Road (2009), ecological collapse (see Ecology), Sunshine (2007), solar cooling; 2012 (2009) and Knowing (2009), solar flares; Contagion (2011), a worldwide Pandemic which in 2020 hindsight seemed eerily prophetic; Melancholia (2011), planetary collision; Oblivion (2013) with its backstory of Alien attack; Interstellar (2014), whose background sees Earth in the last stages of extinction by anthropogenic Climate Change; Transcendence (2014), with an Uploaded human intelligence echoing the menace of Donovan's Brain (1953); and Tenet (2020), threatening the literal End of Time. Scientifically and science-fictionally, most of these must candidly be judged as nonsense. Yet the scale of the cinematic audience, and the viscerally experiental power of its medium, ensure that film remains, above even Television, sf's most potent delivery system to the cultural bloodstream – even if its viral memogens, with their payload of fantastically enhanced mutations of societal dreams and anxieties, are still for the most part injected in the form of radically infantilized subcutaneous narratives. [PN/NL]
The following reading list is highly selective. An early but still useful reference work on sf cinema is the three-volume Reference Guide to Fantastic Films: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror 1 (vol 1 1972, vol 2 1973, vol 3 1974) compiled by Walt Lee. There is much information, with some rather brief and disappointing capsule comments, in Horror and Science Fiction Films: A Checklist (1972), Vol II (1982) and Vol III (1984) by Donald C Willis. Although it does not cover as many titles as these two, The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (1984; rev 1991, 1995; rev vt The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction 1994) edited by Phil Hardy is far more than a listing with credits; the best one-volume guide, it is the fullest coverage of sf cinema to contain detailed description and critical analysis (generally very good), and, with upwards of 1400 films described in the revised editions, covers at least twice as many sf movies as any other critical book on the subject. Even more useful to the researcher is a run of the journal Sight and Sound (or for older items its sister journal Monthly Film Bulletin, merged in 1991), published by the British Film Institute, which give extensive credits for all films released to cinemas in the UK, and normally more complete critical discussion than anything available in book form; its sf critics include Kim Newman (who edited an exemplary selection, Science Fiction/Horror: A Sight and Sound Reader ) and Philip Strick. This was the secondary source most consulted for films from the 1960s onwards in the compilation of this encyclopedia; its critical appreciations of sf films from earlier periods are briefer and far more conservative, and it does not cover the silent period (Hardy's book does). One other reference work extraordinarily useful for its period is Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction of the Fifties: Volume I 1950-1957 (1982) and Volume II 1958-1962 (1986) by Bill Warren. The quality of most general discussions of sf cinema in books is not high; many are promotional coffee-table books of incidental value, or are aimed at a juvenile fan market. An early study of some interest (despite irritating factual errors) is the pioneering Science Fiction in the Cinema (1970) by John Baxter, the first book to attempt some kind of critical sorting of its subject matter. Science Fiction Movies (1976) by Philip Strick is witty, well informed and critically astute, but does not linger long enough on individual films. John Brosnan's Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (1978; rev vt The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film 1991) contains judgments, albeit at greater length, that will already be familiar to readers of the first print edition of this encyclopedia, for which Brosnan wrote many of the film entries. Peter Nicholls's Fantastic Cinema: An Illustrated Survey (1984; vt The World of Fantastic Films: An Illustrated Survey 1985) is an illustrated survey, only partially devoted to sf, which attempts to establish a critical canon for fantastic films. Omni's Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema (anth 1984) edited by Danny Peary is an outstanding collection of essays and interviews on sf cinema from the same period. Harlan Ellison's Watching (coll 1989) by Harlan Ellison collects most of his film criticism since 1965, much of it about sf movies. Two outstanding volumes by veteran sf critics are Kim Newman's Millennium Movies: End of the World Cinema (1999) and Roz Kaveney's From Alien to the Matrix: Reading Science Fiction Film (2005). David Hughes's The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (2001; rev 2008) and Tales from Development Hell (2003; rev 2012) collect revealing case studies of the studio development process at work on films at the top end of the budgetary spectrum.
Academic and theoretical books on sf cinema are somewhat uneven, with reprint Anthologies generally stronger than books of original essays, though the contributions to the bilingual Original Anthology SF Symposium / FC Simpósio (anth 1969) edited by José Sanz are strong if slightly informal, comprising as they do a wide range of comments by many sf authors delivered to a symposium on sf cinema held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1969. In the former category there is much of value in two pioneering works edited by Annette Kuhn: Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema (anth 1990) and Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema (anth 1999). A more accessible volume of critical essays is Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction in Film (anth 1985) edited by George E Slusser and Eric S Rabkin; and two very good anthologies of published criticism are Sean Redmond's Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader (anth 2004) and Gregg Rickman's The Science Fiction Film Reader (anth 2004). Among academic monographs the most rewarding are Vivian Sobchack's Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (1986), a radical expansion of her earlier The Limits of Infinity (1980) and Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993), both of which bring impressive intellectual strength to bear on the attempt to define sf cinema in a Postmodernist context, also the focus of J P Telotte's Science-Fiction Film (2001). Finally, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967) by Carlos Clarens and Nightmare Movies (1984; rev vt Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Film, 1968-1988 1988; rev vt Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen since the 1960s 2011) by Kim Newman are two stimulating books that have a good deal to say, en passant, about sf films. Endangering Science Fiction Film (anth 2016) edited by Leon Marvell and Sean Redmond presents interesting essays on the essential confrontational nature of genre cinema, and its almost inevitable focus on storylines in which the planet itself is menaced (see Fantastika). [NL]
further reading (highly selected)
- José Sanz, editor. SF Symposium/FC Simpósio (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Instituto Nacional do Cinema, 1969) [nonfiction: anth: bilingual proceedings of the Third Annual International Film Festival, held 22-27 March 1969 Rio de Janeiro: pb/nonpictorial]
- Martin Lewis, editor. SF Writers on SF Films from Akira to Zardoz (no place given: British Science Fiction Association Special Editions, 2009) [nonfiction: anth: chap: pb/uncredited]
- Ace G Pilkington and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell. The Fantastic Made Visible: Essays on the Adaptation of Science Fiction and Fantasy from Page to Screen (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co, 2015) [nonfiction: coll: pb/]
- Donna Kornhaber. Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary: War and the Animated Film (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2020) [nonfiction: hb/Mike Brehm]
- David Brin. Vivid Tomorrows: On Science Fiction and Hollywood (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2021) [nonfiction: coll: pb/]
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