As a lifelong fan of both film and literary science fiction as well as fantastic fiction in general, I have long been struck by the differences in the way the two have been presented to the general public. Fantastic film in it's sparse beginnings early on in the 20th century at first embraced and then, as the silent era came to an end, largely resisted any influence from it's contemporary literary side. As the 1930s and sound came into full flower, with the exception of some nicely done adaptations of H.G. Wells and seemingly endless rehashes of Shelly and Stoker, Hollywood preferred instead to rely on original screen plays which reflected little love or understanding of science fiction or fantastic literature in general although it was that literature that provided the genesis of fantastic film in the first place. W
hen the boom in science fiction magazines took place in the United States in the mid 1920's it was entirely ignored by Hollywood for more than 20 years. Only with the production The Thing From Another World, (1951), inadequately based on the great short story, "Who Goes There?",(1938), by John W. Campbell writing as Don A. Stuart and the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still, (1951), directed by the great Robert Wise and based on Harry Bates story, "Farewell To the Master", published some 11 years earlier in a SF pulp magazine, did Hollywood take it's first dip into a story inspired by contemporary non-mainstream SF literature. "Farewell To the Master", far from being an SF classic, is a rather scatterbrained story typical of the SF pulps just before the onset of SF's "Golden Age".
Destination Moon, (1950) slightly predated both films and was supposedly based on ideas by the hugely popular contemporary SF writer Robert Heinlein but there is no evidence in the film of the sophistication or nuance of Heinlein's work. Unfortunately that dip by Hollywood into the SF pulps died at birth. Since then there have been fits and starts but even now Hollywood has not fully embraced the vast treasure trove of SF literature. In looking over a couple of lists of the top 100 SF films ever made, the number of films adapted from hard core science fiction literature is only about 1 in 7 or 8 which is staggering and what would be considered the best SF novels and short stories have been mostly ignored though there have been notable exceptions and perhaps half of the best post-1926 SF authors have not had a single work adapted into film.
Such has not been the case with television which from its inception has adapted a large number of classics of short SF. For me, almost the entirety of truly innovative writing in fantastic literature has come from the die hard core group of fantastic fiction writers who apparently can't help but write what they do; this group, mostly science fiction writers, writes with the fan in themselves in mind or SF fans in mind and not the mainstream public and in the old days, with a few exceptions, were published in SF pulp magazines and prior to the existence of such pulps in 1926, in adventure magazines such as Argosy. Argosy magazine of the World War I era helped create the genre which became SF and fantasy or 'weird fiction' as early 20th century SF/fantasy has sometimes been called.
As technology evolved stories which revolved around hard science became ever more popular and typified by early writers about space such as Ray Cummings, Edmond Hamilton and E.E. 'Doc' Smith. 'Planetary' or 'science romance' which was typified by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline and Abraham Merritt went into a decline as WW II approached. By the end of WW II such 'science romance' stories had all but disappeared although it still sometimes had great appeal and shards of it could be and can be today found in science fiction. After WW II writers such as Isac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt were firmly in the frontlines of a much more sophisticated brand of ascience fiction in terms of its ideas, startlingly so, even by today's standards. Fantastic fiction had grown up and film did not follow for reasons that are hard to fathom; certainly special effects were an issue yet early television, with much less time and money available worked around it's shortcomings to get to the meat of the issue which was after all a human one. Television was much quicker to tap into modern genre SF in terms of adapting short SF stories or adopting more mature themes than was the case in film which was relegated entirely to children and teenagers in the 1950s.
James Cameron said of his hugely successful 2009 release, Avatar, that he had wanted to pay tribute to works like Edgar Rice Burroughs', John Carter of Mars. Avatar has a rather more specific homage, interntional or not, to Poul Anderson's bright short science fiction story, "Call Me Joe", published in the April, 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Avatar also has a more than slight similarity to Christopher Rowley's series of SF novels set on the planet Fenrille. Like the moon of Pandora in Avatar, the planet Fenrille has a technologically primitive indigenous species who must live in harmony with a dangerous eco-system, a world forest of sometimes titanic trees. Like the forest in Avatar, the one in the Fenrille series is an interconnected brain which can defend itself. The other similarity to Avatar is that the planet Fenrille has a fabulously expensive item obtainable only on Fenrille which mankind desires greatly and sends mercenary teams to take out of the forest, warring against the natives and their human allies. However original Avatar is or is not, one can only sigh in wonder at what a man like Cameron could have done with the first three novels of the John Carter series which has never been adapted; only recently have Hollywood's special effects and design people been up to such a task. Also, only in recent years has it been the case that Hollywood has had the will and writing skill and the movie going public the taste to approach more sophisticated, less action oriented science fiction such as, for example, a film adaptation of A.E. van Vogt's 1942, "The Weapon Shops", would represent.
There is in Avatar many similarities to Edgar Rice Burroughs works, and the first of Burroughs Martian series, A Princess of Mars, from 1912, is a good example of this. Like Avatar, John Carter finds himself thrust among alien peoples on another planet and must quickly learn the strange customs and language of Barsoom, including weapons skills and the riding of strange beasts, controled entirely, as in Avatar, by telepathy. John Carter's love interest and sometimes teacher, the "incomparable Dejah Thoris," even refers to Carter as a child as does Neytiri to Jake Sully. Also like Jake Sully, John Carter leaves behind his body and is projected into a body on Mars though it seems to be exactly like his own body.
For many people interested in such things, it is Burroughs and A Princess of Mars that started everything in terms of modern science fiction narratives and Burroughs popularity and influence probably cannot be overstated and during Burroughs' heyday there was no other author so prolific and single-minded as was Burroughs and his pursuit of the "planetary romance"; the headlong pacing and creativity of the third novel in the Carter series, The Warlord of Mars, 1913, was such that decades later in the 1960's, it was considered on of the best works of fantastic literature ever published. In film terms however, Burroughs science fiction or "science romance' as it has also been called, might as well have fallen into a black hole while his Tarzan books had the exact opposite response in Hollywood, being filmed many times over the decades following the original publication of the first Tarzan novel in 1912. Though Burroughs is criticized for writing potboilers there is no doubt that he was a writer of endless invention and enthusiasm and there has never before or after been his like. Though Burroughs SF influence tended to be fan based it is nevertheless widespread and has seeped into the culture little by little. John Carter, Carson of Venus and David Innes are not household names with the mainstream public yet they are very much so within the hardcore fantastic literature writing community and Burroughs influence has seeped into fantastic film.
On this fantasy/adventure side of the equation, the genre as represented in literature was largely ignored from the advent of sound pictures in the late 1920's and onwards. This despite the great popularity of such fantastic fiction authors as Abraham Merritt and Robert E. Howard. Hollywood was all over Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan almost from his inception but everything else in terms of literature turned into film seemed to fall in the cracks, including virtually all of Burrough's other much more SF oriented work; this latter is understandable since from a special effects point of view they were unfilmable. Exceptions were the film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She, (1925 & 1935), James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon, (1937) and the now largely forgotten trilogy of stories which is the 1943 film Flesh and Fantasy. Abraham Merritt did have his diabolical Seven Footprints To Satan, (1927), made into a silent film in 1929 and his Burn, Witch, Burn, (1933) was made into a 1936 film titled Devil Doll but the latter work was hardly representative of Merritt who was heavy on prose and light on story. Absolutely nothing was adapted from the stories that were written for the genre specific science fiction magazines that first appeared in 1926 like Amazing Stories and followed by Astounding Science Fiction, Weird Tales and Wonder Stories.
A handful of films that could be considered fantasy were released almost every year in the 3 decades following the inception of sound in films but the core of authors that made up what many considered as hardcore horror/fantasy as opposed to mainstream authors were really nowhere to be found. It is as if such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson and Robert E. Howard didn't exist. Fantasy films in the 30s and 40s were considered fantasy in a stricter though more modern mainstream sense of the term such as The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) and tended to have a higher percentage of them made for an adult audience than did films with an SF element but they simply ignored genre based weird fiction and fantasy. Another example of modern or 'contemporary' fantasy was Harvey (1950), starring James Stewart in one of his most memorable roles. Though it has taken many years for Harvey to find a generational audience, it is today considered a classic of fantasy films and a very entertaining one at that. Another fun fantasy film that has found the opposite generational track of Harvey is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949) and starring Bing Crosby. Connecticut Yankee is a quite wonderful take on the original novel although a musical. Even with the pedigree of having been adapted from Mark Twain's 1889 novel, this musical comedy is all but forgotten.
Yet another contemporary fantasy film from this era is Topper (1937), starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett with brilliant performances by Roland Young and Billie Burke. Based on Thorne Smith more adult 1926 novel of the same name, Topper is about a rich and jaded married couple who die in a car crash and decide as ghosts to haunt a rich banker in a very friendly and interfering manner. The film is hilarious and the special effects uncanny for their day. Much of the comedic tone is taken directly from the book which is very open and visual in its possibility and one can see why the original novel lent itself so well to being adapted to film. Topper Takes A Trip was released the following year with all the cast returning except for Grant and was also based on a Thorne Smith book of the same name. 1941 saw the release of the third and last Topper movie, Topper Returns, made from an original screenplay and this time with only Roland Young and Billie Burke back from the original cast. Incredible special effects and some very funny scenes make this a memorable entry in the series.
Meanwhile, film forays into SF literature were few, far between and largely ill-conceived and adaptations from SF pulps non-existant; the original screenplay was the order of the day and aimed strictly at kids. While Robert Heinlein was dominating SF starting in the 1940's he simply didn't matter as far as filmmakers were concerned; in fairness, there is little evidence that such films would have made much money as the mainstream film going public had absolutely no vocabulary to parse SF written for an SF audience although Heinlein's rather more accessible near Earth orbit tales from the late 1940's typified by short stories such as "The Green Hills of Earth" were mostly published in mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. As I said, fantastic films adapted from literature were culled from a rather more visible and mainstream group of authors who wrote entirely with a mainstream audience in mind and whose best-sellers guaranteed a built-in audience and in the early days these sometimes turned out very nicely as in the case of 2 films adapted from H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, (1933) from the 1897 short novel of the same name and The Island Of Lost Souls, (1932), the latter from the novel, The Island Of Dr. Moreau, (1896); no coincidence that it took a special effects breakthrough to produce the former picture. As a whole, hard core SF fans from the 1930's to the 1950's became resigned to having nothing of their own when it came to films and subsequently, in the 1960s, to having to resort to a much more dumbed down version of their beloved literature when it did at last come to Hollywood.
In the 1960s what I was wondering was, where is the bright awareness of a short story like Alfred Bester's, "Fondly Fahrenheit", (1954), or novel The Demolished Man, (1953), or Clifford Simak's novelette, "The Big Front Yard", (1958), "No Truce With Kings" by Poul Anderson, (1963), "Soldier Ask Not", by Gordon Dickson, (1964), "Neutron Star" by Larry Niven, (1966) and "Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, (1968), by Samuel Delany? I was getting short changed. It's not as if these stories would have required mammoth special effects. Original screenplays built around the limitations of Hollywood special effects and screenwriting as well as the mainstream filmgoing audience's SF vocabulary were what we were pretty much left to sate our appetites with virtually no exceptions.
One early film of the fantastic that stood well on it's own as an original screenplay was King Kong, (1933), a film that was a middle ground between fan based fantastic literature and a more mainstream sensibility in terms of its presentation. In King Kong's own influences, one could argue that King Kong borrowed from fantastic literature although in the main the film was entirely original in concept. The fecundity of the flora and fauna of Skull Island with it's attendant aura of constant menace has echoes in Edgar Rice Burrough's, The Land That Time Forgot, serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1918. Burroughs was still at the height of his popularity in 1933 but perhaps it is both King Kong and Burroughs who owe a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, (1912), especially the former in that King Kong is brought back to civilization as is a pterodactyl in The Lost World. In terms of it's pacing and attention to detail, King Kong remains to this day one of the best pure adventure films ever made. For whatever reasons, Hollywood made no attempt to cash in on the popularity of King Kong and the film remained very much a stand-alone effort other than the 1933 direct sequel, Son Of Kong.
The Shape of Things To Come, a 1933 future history novel by H.G. Wells was adapted for the screen in the 1936 release of Things To Come, a stiff-necked and today curiously entertaining film which was considered ground breaking in its day when it came to Hollywood paying a visit to SF literature; evidence of how little true SF fans had to look forward to.
The supreme fantasy film of its day even though at the time it was far from the status it would later attain, The Wizard of Oz (1939) had to me, a decidedly mainstream approach to its material yet succeeded nicely in acheiving an eccentric flavor that has made it unique among films. The bold art design, presentation and Technicolor make The Wizard of Oz seem like a bigger film than it actually is; Hollywood really knew how to sell itself in those days although one wouldn't know it in reading of the almost paralysing indecision that seems to have plagued its production - in the end, all the right decisions were made and it is hard to find fault with the film, especially to a child at which the film is squarely aimed at.
The Thief of Baghdad (1940) followed on the heels of The Wizard of Oz and though highly thought of at the time it has rather fallen into disfavor and today possesses not a fraction of the great esteem of the Oz film.
When I was in my early teens in the late 1960s, I was thrilling to my wondrous discovery of fantastic literature: science fiction, fantasy and horror. I was immediately keenly aware of how much broader and satisfying an experience fantastic literature provided in comparison to films though I was at the same time totally enchanted with fantastic films, poor cousins that they were. Even such relatively childish novels as Edgar Rice Burroughs', A Princess of Mars, from 1911 or his At the Earth's Core, (1914), were far beyond any fantastic films made for almost 7 decades in terms of their scope, vision and imagination. There was no desire on the part of Hollywood to adapt such books to the silver screen and in any event, special effects until the 1980's and beyond were hopelessly inadequate with the exception of Ray Harryhausen who's film projects not only had nice special effects but wonderful art direction that very much enhanced the films he was involved in. I'm sure the disappointing 1975 film version of The Land That Time Forgot would have been a much more satisfying experience had Harryhausen been involved; Harryhausen very much understood such mater
Ray Harryhausen, the greatest stop motion effects artist ever, did much to ameliorate the lack of quality fantastic films coming out of Hollywood. Jason and the Argonauts, (1963), is one of the most loved films among fantastic film buffs. One of my very favorite films that Ray Harryhausen ever did is First Men In the Moon which I also consider one of the finest SF films ever made. Harryhausen was also a great designer as well as special effects wizard and all his skills come into play in First Men. Based on the H.G. Wells novel from 1901, the film very cleverly has an original bookend story not in the novel that begins and ends in a near future, perhaps 1970, though the bulk of the film which tells the story takes place in 1899. The bookends also create an entertaining mystery whose answer is gradually revealed throughout the film. First Men In the Moon is a wonderfully realized screen adapation and the characterization of the 3 main protaganists is one of the keys to this, with a particularly nice performance by Lionel Jeffries as Cavor. Another standout with the production team of Schneer and Harryhausen was Mysterious Island, (1961), based on the rather tedious novel of the same name by Jules Verne; an impressive musical score by the renowned Bernard Herrmann very much added to the film's presence.
I as well as many others also have wonderful memories of the film The Time Machine, (1960), a much less faithful adaptation than First Men of yet another H.G. Wells work, this time published in 1895. On this occasion the strong hand behind the design and special effects is George Pal, who also directed the film. The scenes in the hero's study at the beginning and end of the film are very well done and in their way every bit as important to the film as H. George Wells adventures in the future. Named for the author in the film version, the hero in the original book was referred to simply as the "Time Traveler". George Pal also produced and did the special effects for an earlier 1953 film adaptation of Well's, The War of the Worlds, (1898), which is another very well remembered SF film, though an utter reworking of the original story.
Looking back now into my own childhood, I remember such films as Jason and the Argonauts and First Men In the Moon as stand outs in terms of being a total package of acting, screenplay, art direction and special effects if still somewhat childish, but most films came up hopelessly short in comparison to the experience I was to enjoy in my books in a couple of years. Dune, by Frank Herbert was being serialized in Analog SF magazine from 1963 to 1965 and was fantastically advanced in terms of it's maturity and sophistication compared to Hollywood films in the same genre produced at the same time. It took some 40 years for the creative element and movie going public to be prepared to really experience Dune as a film. When one considers and compares the maturity and nuance of "Dune" next to Hollywood SF of the same era, the differences are staggering.
I think one can immediately make the argument that science fiction literature, at it's best, going back even as far as 1938, demonstrated a sophistication and depth that was years ahead of hollywood films of the same time frame. Although hollywood was capable of handling fairly sophisticated themes in it's films, for some reason science fiction in film was immediately relegated to the province of mostly monster films with not even a nod to what was happening on the contemporary hard core literary side of the genre. The fact is that literary and cinematic science fiction were routinely worlds apart as early as the beginning of the 40's as exemplified by ambitious, great short fiction such as, "Universe", (1941) and "The Roads Must Roll", (1940) by Robert Heinlein, "Nerves", (1942) by Lester del Rey and "The Weapon Shop", (1942) by A.E. van Vogt.
What is generally considered modern science fiction literature began around 1940 in what has been called it's "golden age", producing stories that even today Hollywood would be hard pressed to present because of the scope and subtlety of it's themes. These stories were published in pulp magazines specific to the science fiction genre and really raised the bar in terms of what they expected from their readers. The king of the SF pulps in terms of great stories was undoubtedly Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine which has had a long life, beginning in 1930 and continuing until today. The heyday of Astounding was the 1940's when an amazing amount of all-time classic novels and short fiction was published in it's pages. The influence on it's content during it literary high tide by it's writer turned editor John W. Campbell was huge and his role in the history of science fiction literature cannot be overstated. Despite the upsurge in really good SF writing, that same decade of the 1940's saw not a single nod from Hollywood to what was happening in those SF pulps; there was a singular disconnect between the two. As in the case of fantasy literature, it was if A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov didn't exist.
I guess you could say that the so-called "golden age" of science fiction can be marked with the publication of "Who Goes There?",(1938), by that selfsame John W. Campbell, Jr., writing in this instance as Don A. Stuart. This golden age was marked by a higher literary standard and more sophisticated outlook than had been in evidence during the previous 10 years but without the sense of condecension and even shame that typified so much work in the decade of the 1960's. Rather, the writers of the Golden Age of SF loved the genre and embraced both it's higher and lower aspirations with love and a sense of pride. I don't denigrate what was published in the SF pulps from 1926 to 1938 as I believe it was all part of a natural and necessary evolution of the genre and there were some really entertaining stories published by some wonderful writers like Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton and Stanley G. Weinbaum to name a few and these stories could be big time fun.
"Who Goes There?" is a contemporary story of scientists trapped at the South Pole with a shape shifting alien they discover and accidentally set loose after it's spaceship had been buried under the ice for thousands of years and a very entertaining and celebrated story at that. In 1951, The Thing From Another World was released and was based on the original novella. While an entertaining film in it's own right it totally abandons the original story and all that is left is the spaceship under the ice and a now arctic location. One can easily say that the original novella had in fact not been adapted at all.
A much more faithful adaptation of "Who Goes There?" was The Thing, (1982) which is a horrifically entertaining movie and a very nice screen play and a film which owes nothing to the 1951 film version and so cannot be considered a remake in any sense of the term. The level of production was quite high and for my money the best film John Carpenter ever made although Halloween, (1978), Starman, (1984) and Escape From New York, (1981) all get very high marks from his fans. The Thing proved the value of trusting in your original material and drawing from it's strengths rather than trying to improve perceived weaknesses. Many of the original stories made into SF films are all-time classics and they have that stature for a reason; best to tread lightly when it comes to the idea of improving the material and to me this has been proven again and again as the best way to go; you don't tinker with such a high level of art. I would put The Thing on a list of the 25 best SF films ever made. Although The Thing can be dismissed as a monster film it's grimness, serious treatment of the material together with the cleverness of the original story take it to a higher level.
When Worlds Collide is a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer first serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1932/33. In 1951 a film adaptation was released. It is the story of what happens when it's learned that a runaway rogue planet will soon collide with us, totally destroying Earth. The rogue planet has a companion planet and scientists determine that if they can build 2 rockets, a type of Noah's Ark, it is possible a few people can cross over to the 2nd planet and survive. Wylie and Balmer were mainstream writers and not part of the SF crowd and the book reflects a more workmanlike, serious approach to it's subject matter. A sequel was serialized in 1933/34, also in Blue Book titled After Worlds Collide and tells the story of what happens to the survivors who reach the 2nd planet and their new home. What they discover are mysterious abandoned alien cities and also evidence that they are not alone. The sequel is a lot more fun than the first novel and though clearly reflecting a more mainstream approach to science fiction also incorporated many elements of the genre as typified by the SF pulps. With few exceptions, the decade of the 1950's was one wherein SF film was relegated to an audience of children and teenagers.
It wouldn't be unfair to say that science fiction literature has been decades ahead of it's film cousin in terms of how much intellectual content it was willing to trust it's readers with. Besides the issue of not wanting to give the movie going public more than it could handle, there was also the issue of accustoming the film going public with the "language" of science fiction. Literary science fiction has a whole host of basic scientific semantics, premises and themes that tend to be specific to the genre, it's own language if you will, and one only begins to feel comfortable reading SF as one's exposure to it's language and themes become more familiar. If, for example, your first experience with reading SF is Dune then good luck. Aside from this there was the simple fact that Hollywood special effects and art design was simply not up to the task of portraying the highly imaginative worlds of literary SF. In terms of screenplay adaptations there was no desire or competence to present what was going on in SF literature to the movie going public. I'm trying to imagine a contemporaneous film adaptation of van Vogt's, "The Weapon Shop" coming out in 1943 and I just can't.
Today, as I write this in the summer of 2010 the film going public has gradually been more and more exposed to scientific premises that those on the literary side have long since been acquainted with. It has been a matter of a slow exposure and education as it were; one cannot lay the groundwork for a larger mainstream audience to become comfortable with science fiction premises all in a two hour film as it would hopelessly hamstring the film and has certainly done so in the past. Today, the film public is much more aware of basic SF concepts like faster than light technology, androids, artificial gravity, kilometer long space ships that are not streamlined because they operate in a vacuum, etc. and so the filmakers can get on with the job of telling the story instead of setting up basic science. The success of the 1987 film Predator reflected this fact. Relatively sophisticated technologicaly used by the alien had no script time whatsoever devoted to explaining what the audience was seeing. By this time the mainstream film going audience understood infra-red, heat sensitive vision, light bending camoflauge, etc., without the film having to stop and give over some kind of an explanation that would hurt the pacing of the film.
The mainstream public has had a lot of basic education that has taken place in SF film and television over the decades and much of it has to do with seemingly trivial details but in SF, it is often the details of a technological society that are the true stars as they provide the background and tone that mainstream film and literature can take for granted; something as mundane as a cup of coffee or a filling station might need to be reexamined in a SF context but must be done so without slowing down the story. Star Trek's spaceship, the Enterprise and some 10 years later, Star War's "star" spaceship, the Millenium Falcon, were the first filmed spaceships to come to grips with the reality that in outerspace, there is no need for a streamlined saucer or torpedo shape; in this regard, SF literature was decades ahead. This may sound trivial but it is an important part of building a credible language to draw a reader or viewer into an incredible world, a type of verisimilitude; even something as innocuous as landing lights on a space vehicle was beyond the ability of films to portray for decades - Hollywood simply did not know how to create a connection to our own world by means of this type of attention and connection to mundane detail in order to help bridge the gap between a reality we are familiar with and the fantastic, preferring instead to create worlds that were utterly divorced from our own reality - in short, when TV and film SF built new worlds they were just too shiny. That is why the little detail of the Pan Am shuttle craft with IBM logos in it's interior in 2001: A Space Odyssey, (1968), and the use of landing lights in Star Wars is so simple and brilliant; in fact, it is the simple transliteration of such mundane details that made Alien work so well as a movie.
In regard to the issue of verisimilitude, ABC's 1972 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, was a seminal event in the realm of the fantastic. The Night Stalker was the first time TV saw little details such as the police acting like the police might actually do in reacting to an out-of this-world situation, a true meeting of the mundane and the fantastic; It was the tone of a surrounding believable reality that made The Night Stalker such a hit at the time. Such a watershed moment is lost in the history of TV now but at the time was a palpable transition from the 1960's and something that is taken for granted nowadays without being aware of one of its important roots.
The first exposure the mainstream public had to a more literary and dreamy side of science fiction on a regular basis was actually in television starting almost from its onset in direct proportion to SF in film. Such programs as Science Fiction Theater, (1955-57), a syndicated SF anthology which had some really wonderful story ideas can be said to have set the stage for The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Just 2 years after the end of The Outer Limits, Star Trek occasionally offered a tantalizing glimpse of the sophisticated depth science fiction was capable of and can be said to be the first time SF's technology became an unspoken environment rather than an end in itself, thus enabling rather more sophisticated stories to emerge. Science fiction films on the other hand were a mostly steady diet of childish monster films from the advent of their popularity in 1950 until Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out in 1977 altho there were, of course exceptions such as Five, (1951), The 27th Day, (1957) and On the Beach, (1959).
The Twilight Zone, (1959-64), gave the public a glimpse of such well remembered writers of SF literature as Ray Bradbury and Henry Kuttner and The Outer Limits, (1963-65), had 2 episodes written by Harlan Ellison, a very well thought of SF writer though of little consequence at that time. Though most episodes of The Outer Limits centered around some kind of monster there were several memorable episodes that did truely attain the level of fine art, evoking emotion and nuance of a kind rarely seen in the film genre such as "The Man Who Was Never Born" starring Martin Landau from the first season of The Outer Limits.
Star Trek, (1966-69), also delivered a number of truely evocative episodes that gave a hint to the general public regarding the unique qualities only science fiction could manifest. A two part episode titled, "The Menagerie", cleverly and penuriously cobbled together from the original unused pilot episode was a new highpoint for SF on the small screen and yet another episode titled "The Empath" is a nice blend of story and emotion. The 1950 novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, by A.E. van Vogt is worth mentioning in the context of the Star Trek television series. Voyage is a novel comprised of 4 short interconnected stories with the same characters on the same ship, a ship that is comprised of a large community of scientists who travel the galaxy with the mission of discovery similar to the crew of the Enterprise. Like the Enterprise the crew of the Space Beagle encounters problematic aliens and the novel is vastly entertaining.
The Irwin Allen stamp made itself felt in force in late 1960s television with shows such as Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants and the much loved and despised Lost In Space.
Science-Fiction films of the 1960s again saw an almost complete disregard for contemporary genre based SF, preferring instead to go the route of adapting the SF work of authors from outside the genre and resulting in films such as Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea, (1961), Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), and Planet of the Apes, (1968). It should be noted that the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage was novelized by Isaac Asimov to promote the film which was itself adapted from a story co-written by Jerome Bixby.
2001: A Space Odyssey, (1968), comes to mind as a "serious" SF film though it seems a stand alone piece that nevertheless had a great deal of influence on subsequent SF films because of it's soundtrack and special effects and changed how mainstream filmgoers viewed the genre; however it's almost documentary-like adult take on SF was firmly in the mainstream and not on the dreaming, literary side of SF. When 2001 used a classical music score it gave the film a dimension and credibility in the minds of the public in much the same way that the Moody Blue's album, Days of Future Past, (1967), did the year before. SF and Rock and Roll were growing up and so was the cultural sophistication of both creators and consumer. More recent films such as the brilliant tour de force, The Fifth Element, (1997) and Gattaca, (1997) are great examples of having finally delivered a taste of what fans of SF literature have been enjoying all along although it is fair to say that film has it's own unique way of presenting science fiction that literature cannot. The Fifth Element in particular has a brilliant use of an editing language specific to film though sadly underused throughout the film industry - too often films are simply a window through which we view events rather than a language that takes full advantage of camera movement and editing though this situation has much improved in recent years. It should be said that there is a time and a place when using a somewhat static "window" in cinematographic terms certainly compliments the material it presents.
2001 has an interesting mystery story that peters out into incomprehensibility by the end of the film and one is never certain if "Hal" is part of the mysterious events or a simple computer breakdown at a bad time. From what I can gather one is supposed to think of the "monuments" as a kind of alarm that sends a radio signal to the mysterious god-like aliens who are manipulating/observing mankind's upward evolution. The encounter by primitive apemen of the first monument in the film is tied in with the point in time when humans' primitive ancestors are first able to use a tool, in this case animal bones. A piercing radio signal is subsequently sent off planet. The discovery of the monument on the moon sends off yet another radio signal to the aliens and so manipulates mankind into traveling to Jupiter where the monument there will set off yet another series of events in mankind's upward technological evolution. It is not clear to me whether the aliens are observing or actively manipulating humankind; perhaps it is observing at first and only giving a technological nudge at the end of the film, perhaps a "You have arrived. Welcome to the rest of the galaxy." moment whereby mankind is now invited to join a greater community now that it has risen to a certain technological level on it's own merits or otherwise. One thing is certain about the film, mankind is being watched and it's evolutionary rise noted, luckily by apparently friendlier aliens than H.G. Wells Martians whose, "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eye".
1977's Star Wars, became a veritable example of the nice attention to detail and the technological world the characters moved about in that finally introduced the general film going public to a world that was influenced by SF literature rather than mainstream "outsiders"; the taken for granted attitude of the film's environment was a part of the story and a rather important part. Though the story line of Star Wars was firmly rooted in comic strips such as Flash Gordon and 1940's serials, the special effects and art direction side of the film was just as firmly rooted in SF literature. Star Wars level of attention to detail was impressive; for the first time we saw people wearing clothes that had smudge marks rather than perfect aluminum foil suits. Spaceships showed wear and tear, language barriers had to be dealt with; the Death Star actually had a place to put garbage, the type of little detail totally ignored previously in SF cinema. Although the theme of the film itself did little to advance the cause of SF literature in the cinema, the props and environments of the film considerably improved the SF vocabulary of the mainstream movie going public. In the second film of the Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, (1980), the "Imperial Walker's" and use of force field technology are quietly brilliant. As a side note, the failure of such convincing details aboard a spaceship are sometimes hilarious as in 1958's, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, when, for whatever reason, a scientific expedition to Mars has loads of guns, hand grenades and of all things, cartons of cigarettes on board.
The second trilogy in the Star Wars saga started off poorly. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, (1999) is a hopeless mess of a screenplay. The humor that was ever present in the original trilogy goes over the top in a way that makes one wonder if the film wasn't entirely aimed at 8 year olds; all it was missing was fart jokes. A character like the unfortunate Jar Jar Binks and the racing sequence in particular, with it's mindless sports humor, stretched credulity even for science fiction. The actor who plays the young Darth Vader was entirely miscast; what this film didn't need was yet another child actor with a haircut from an 80's sitcom that looked like he stuck his head in a bowling ball washing machine. The 9 yr old Jake Lloyd through no fault of his own simply wasn't up to the task and a lisping Anakin Skywalker was less than convincing as a young lad destined for greatness and evil greatness at that.
While the special effects and design of the film are very well done they're pretty much just thrown at you from a bucket and don't have that same type of fun, focus and cleverness and simplicity of design that was so much in evidence in the first 3 Star Wars films as characterized, for example, by the Imperial Walkers sequence; any cleverness is relegated to the level of a roller coaster ride as was unfortunately done in such films as Jurassic Park, (1993) with the unfortunate car in the tree sequence and King Kong, (2005) in the sequence with the dinosaurs trapped in the vines. These types of scenes give one the feeling that you are being set up for some kind of a Disney ride or video game. Props in the form of trees and vines and how they can be used ad nauseum in a single scene are the star and a not so interesting one at that. As regards King Kong, the original film was certainly a superior product and a reminder that writing is the priority and the star and not special effects. In the 2nd Star Wars trilogy attention to detail was no longer a star and the 2 sequels, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, (2005), although better, never really recovered from the mistakes of the first screenplay. Nevertheless, there are a lot of great scenes throughout the entire 2nd Star Wars trilogy although so disconnected in quality that there is no sense of watching a cogent film. Overall, the science fiction film genre was nowhere near the beneficial recipient it had been with the first Star Wars trilogy; in the first trilogy, one got the definite impression of being drawn into a very real and consistant world, largely thanks to design.
It's all a matter of taste I guess but for me it all starts with the screen play and how it is presented, no easy task in any film. For example, I felt the screenplay and it's presentation in the 1999 film, The Mummy was one of the most brilliant screenplays I had seen in a long time. The Mummy is, for me, one of those films where everything seems to work at a high level. Others disagree with me and so it is.
There were some few progenitors to Star Wars that did a credible job at least on some level of of trying to portray a more adult version of SF to the film going public but they were mostly failures and the vast majority of SF films between 1950 and 1977 were original screenplays written by people who seemed to have never read an SF pulp. If you made a list of the 100 best science fiction films ever made, virtually all of them would be films made after 1977. Before that, SF films simply could not escape the "monster complex" and low budgets.
Blade Runner is a truly breakthrough film when it comes to imaginative vistas and art direction and was directed by Ridley Scott, the hand behind Alien. When it comes to art direction and soundtrack Blade Runner is perhaps unequaled in the history of SF cinema for creating a blanketing, complex ambience which wholly transports the viewer to another and entirely credible world of the future. The cogent design and look of Blade Runner is arguably the most seminal and influential ever seen in the genre of SF film. Ruger Hauer delivers the performance of his career and could have easily been nominated to receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The remarkable thing about Blade Runner is that it neatly sums up in many ways why science fiction has such a unique appeal in literature and in film though in part for different reasons. In general, both film and literary expressions of SF allow for stories with combinations of elements that could happen in no other genre and so expand the dramatic possiblities; literally anything can happen. In the case of SF film in general and Blade Runner specifically, the elements that make up film, set design, acting, costume design, etc., are allowed a much fuller expression and at that, an expression mostly not possible in mainstream films. Take sound for example: Blade Runner has to me, one of the most brilliant uses of sound ever seen in film. In fairness to mainstream film, there simply doesn't exist the opportunity to so obviously and dramatically express sound in such a unique way. This example exists on many levels in SF film and, concurrent with the story elements, can make SF an extremely dramatic and dreamy opportunity for creative expression; the original Star Trek television series is another example of sound playing an important part as that series created a whole new set of sounds rather than using the stock sounds common on TV in the years prior.
The earlier mentioned Gattaca from 1997 and made from an original screenplay is a standout SF film on many levels. What some few similar films had tried and failed to do in depicting a certain kind of future society is marvelously realized in Gattaca. Casting, acting, including a standout performance by Jude Law, screenplay, a wonderful musical score, art direction, cinematography all come together in one of SF film's most nuanced efforts to date. Gattaca had the dual problem common in SF films of bringing the viewer up to speed on the film's tech without compromising the story and was helped in this by the public's growing knowledge of such things as genetics thanks to magazine articles and TV forensic and science shows. Thanks to a great screenplay Gattaca was able to seamlessly introduce the required knowledge in a way that was not only not awkward but added considerably to the evocative tragedy that is at the heart of the film. Gattaca's poetic portrayal of the struggle of human frailty and emotion in an almost Orwellian future America is a rarity in SF film, perhaps because of it's financial risk, though much more common in it's literary cousin. Aside from it's SF core Gattaca is also a particularly well-made and tense mystery besides also being something of a love story. The seemingly effortless many layered presentation that is Gattaca is something that SF film has rarely even attempted to offer let alone succeed at. Science fiction's capacity to put forward and redefine human relationships in a unique light in a way that mainstream literature and film cannot is at the heart of the strength of Gattaca and science fiction in general. Gattaca must be considered as one of the very best SF films ever made and an important stepping stone in SF film's ongoing endeavor to at once trust and educate the film going public.
As for The Fifth Element, I regard it as one of the most underrated SF films ever. It is a triumph on so many levels it is hard to find a weakness. Two of the standout cast give the performances of their careers and both Milla Jovovich and Chris Tucker could easily have been nominated for Academy Awards. Bruce Willis also delivers a very fine performance, one of his best. In terms of cinematically engaging its material on a fundamental filmic level, The Fifth Element is unparalleled in the history of SF film. The Fifth Element is a rare example of what film SF can do which literary SF cannot as its cinematic technique interweaves and subsumes its material in a way only film can but so rarely does. The Fifth Element gets very high marks for fantastic editing as story, art direction and special effects as well as being a bright, bright screenplay; there is really no other film to compare it to although, if I may say so, literary SF has been doing its own version of The Fifth Element for decades.
In recent years, SF films have made huge strides in not only a willingness to turn to science fiction's literary origins but also in the ability to create screen plays that can adequately encompass some very difficult and complex themes. There have been misses: One good example of both failure and sucess in terms of a screen play adapting an SF novel is the case of Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune is one of the most thematically sophisticated SF novels ever written and the 1984 attempt to bring it to the big screen was a dismal failure for 3 reasons: there was simply no way to put the book into a single film. Secondly, the film simply didn't trust the film going public to understand the novel's complex make up and there was also the simple inability of the screen writer to write what was admittedly a very tough film treatment of a long and complicated novel. Add to this the fact that the film going public may not, in 1984, been sufficiently exposed to a basic science fiction vocabulary as it were, to have the ability or patience to grasp Dune's thematic concepts.
Finally, in 2000 and 2003, two mini-series encompassing the first 3 Dune novels were broadcast on the Science Fiction Channel and showed a real step up in terms of trusting the public's potential for absorbing a nuanced script and in the ability to write a great screenplay adaptation. The 2nd mini-series in particular, Children of Dune, which adapted the 2nd and 3rd books in the Frank Herbert series, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, was particularly adept in it's casting and the brilliance of the screen treatment and the Children Of Dune mini-series ranks as one of the best and most sophisticated science fiction films ever made. The film does not kowtow to the lowest common denominator viewer with a short attention span and penchant for a monster flick. The Children of Dune mini-series challenges the viewer to step up to the plate and enjoy the more adult world that SF literature can offer without the fun aspect of SF being entirely put aside.
The ambitious screen play for Children of Dune represents a true meeting place of the written word and moving picture the like of which may never have been seen before in the history of the relationship between science fiction film and literature and as such the Children of Dune mini-series is a seminal event. It is a perfect example, in terms of a screen play, when contrasted with David Lynch's 1984 film, Dune, on how not to be overwhelmed by a novel's subject matter and in how to trust the audience to rise to the level of the material. As is requisite in great films, Children of Dune has a musical score by Bryan Taylor to match its subject that is by turns rousing and haunting and very well suited to its material. Children of Dune is a complex story and requires the viewer to be present and accounted for to follow the layered script. The special effects for Children of Dune are very well done, having a look about them that is unique, not an easy task in 2003. Children of Dune also makes its mark with its creative and cogent costume design.
The centerpieces to the Children of Dune mini-serires is the problem of what happens to a ruler who becomes trapped by his own ability to see the future together with the problem of a successful revolt becoming the very entity it originally revolted against. Besides this you have plots within plots and problems within problems and it is easy to see why the mini-series of Children of Dune deserves so much credit for successfully adapting such heavily layered novels.
Dune Messiah, the sequel to Dune, is a particularly difficult novel to bring to the screen. Herbert delighted in dancing around the edges and not saying things outright, leaving clues, darting here and there in what amounts to a type of mystery novel. Other than that, Dune Messiah can be considered a treatise on government and the perils of both a despot and a democracy not to mention being careful with what you wish for. In the end, the charachter of young Leto Atreides in sets about in Children of Dune on a millenial goal, a Golden Path to set humans free from ever again being susceptible to being ruled by a being who can see the future by breeding the ability to hide from prescient beings into humanity as well as undoing the effects of the Butlerian Jihad by encouraging technology and so freeing humanity from its susceptibility and dependence on melange in the form of the Guild Navigators. Of course, what Herbert is really talking about are the dangers of a crushing bureaucracy that accompanies governments that consolodate power at the price of human freedom of thought; nuanced indeed. Of course this is not all laid out in Children of Dune as much of it doesn't become apparent until Herbert's 4th novel, God Emperor of Dune and beyond and beyond that into the fifth and sixth volumes of the series.
Children of Dune, the 1976 3rd novel in the series by Frank Herbert, is a rather slim volume compared to Dune. The fact that it took the mini-series 4 hours to portray this novel heads up the problems associated with writing a screenplay that can do even a minimal amount of justice to so complex a novel and Children of Dune comes at the reader from many directions and operates on a level of base intrique as well as overt mysticism. Like Dune Messiah the novel itself is full of themes about society and government but never to the point of overwhelming the story. The main underlying theme of the novel provides a complimentary basis for the action of the story itself which is that of the new replacing the old and how we need to be careful about what we take with us from our past and what we leave behind. There are passages from Children of Dune that are quite clearly a reflection of what was taking place in government and popular culture in America at the time Herbert wrote the book. Herbert was obviously concerned with the subject of a new generation moving forward at too great a speed. Doing so could mean losing touch with the solid disciplines that had provided the opportunity to move forward in the first place and thus leaving that new generation in a no-man's land in terms of having a new but empty value system. That new value system might be of no use whatsoever once the original impetus had spent itself and the distance back too far to recross. New myths and values would come into play and the future become one of an uncertainty we are now afraid to embrace. The rise of an overly complex government bureaucracy is also a worrying theme in the Children of Dune novel.
Frank Herbert, in the first 3 books of the Dune series didn't turn his back on story and action as did some SF writers in the mid-60's. With the publication of the 4th novel in the Dune series, God Emperor of Dune, (1981), Herbert does turn his back on story and the novel is more of a philosophical treatise about religion and goverment than a story. I think it's safe to say that had the Dune series started with such a work that none of us would ever had heard of the Dune series in the first place. I liked God Emperor of Dune, having read it many times, but it's not for everyone and only a fool would ever think of writing a screenplay of this novel. Oddly enough, the action in God Emperor of Dune is so slight that one could easily compress it into a 2 hour film. The problem is that the story itself is a prop for long passages with a 3500 yr. old sandworm/human ruminating on philosophy and so the action that takes place is far less cogent than it could have been.
Unfortunately, the subsequent sequels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian Herbert together with Kevin J. Anderson do not carry on the tradition of a more sophisticated type of science fiction. Dune 7 and 8, which are Hunters of Dune, (2006) and Sandworms of Dune, (2007), read like graphic comic book novels and not very good ones at that and in no way reflect the mystery and complexity of the original Frank Herbert novels; in fact, they are 2 of the worst SF novels I have ever read and make the mistake of painstakingly setting out to do what Frank Herbert himself never did outright - explain. For example, in the Dune series Frank Herbert refers to a past "jihad" against thinking machines and his son and Brian Anderson translate this into giant, evil robots literally pulling the heads off people that would be more appropriate in an issue of The Fantastic Four. Frank Herbert seemed to be talking about a more philosophical reliance on computers on the part of mankind than thinking machines that actually physically assailed mankind. In any case, the characterizations are wooden and most of the characters have nothing to do and no apparent purpose other than name value from earlier books in the series. Herbert and Anderson's prequels to the Dune series although much better than their 2 sequels nevertheless suffer from being sketchily constructed, almost like the outlines of a novel.
On this subject of trusting the general viewing public with the original subject matter which the Children of Dune mini-series does so well and which the film Dune from 1984 does so poorly, the issue goes beyond only trusting the film going public and screenplay writers would have done well to trust the original writers in regard to 2 SF films adapted from short fiction, both originally written by Henry Kuttner and his wife C.L. Moore. This husband and wife team are generally now thought to have collaborated on much of the short fiction written under their own individual names and various pseudonyms though the progeny is uncertain. What is certain is that 2 classics of short science fiction were published: "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", (1943) as by Lewis Padgett and "That Vintage Season", (1946), as by Lawrence O'Donnell, 2 aliases used by Moore and Kuttner. These stories were adapted into the films, The Last Mimsy, (2007) and Timescape, (1992), respectively.
The original short stories have been included in a multi-volume collection, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1 and also Volume 2A as examples of the greatest short science fiction ever written. Both films would have been better off trusting the quality of the original stories without padding them out with elements that took away rather than added to, the quality of the films. The short story "Vintage Season" in particular is a dreamy, scent filled, highly evocative and lyrical mystery story that ends with a bang and it stands on it's native evocative narrative and not on the story alone, original though that story certainly is. The result in the films is uneven to be sure, happy though I am to have stories so highly thought of by fans of SF literature brought into the light. Both stories would have been perfect choices for episodes of the original Twilight Zone and Kuttner and Moore did have an episode of the Twilight Zone made from their 1945 short story, "What You Need" and a now almost completely forgotten 1953 film made from a 1942 Padgett short story, The Twonky.
Rod Serling certainly understood the evocative and dreaming side of SF and this sensibility was on constant display in the television series. As a side note, Edgar Rice Burroughs character Tarzan has suffered from the same treatment by Hollywood screenwriters from the silent film era to today. In the novels Tarzan was a multilingual and very intelligent and cultured man who lived on a ranch and not the monkey-like, tree house dwelling buffoon so often portrayed in film. Why Hollywood didn't trust the great success of the novels to carry over into film is a mystery although Hollywood did well enough with the Tarzan films as witness the amount of sequels. 1996's TV movie adaptation of the superb 1954 Tom Godwin short story, "The Cold Equations", is another case in point. Science fiction's strength is not clever plot devices or technologies but a representation of the questions of who we are, how did we get here and where are we going. This is why Children of Dune, Blade Runner and Gattaca succeeded versus other films which had good special effects and art direction. Gattaca's plot, interesting thought it is is superceded by a sense of wistful longing to understand what it means to be human and to assert one's humanity and even battle or die for it when denied the oppotunity to do so by circumstances.
Long suffering fans of science fiction literature who dreamed of their wonderful genre being given the credibility it deserves have been rewarded with many films in the last 25 years, both adaptations of SF novels and original screen plays that have successfully demonstrated the capabilities of heavily layered and subtly nuanced story lines. Breakthrough films such as Star Wars and Alien began the trend, not so much in the storyline itself but in the art direction which depicted a technologically credible environment in depth. Afterall, Alien is just a rehash of It! Terror From Outer Space and Star Wars arguably a cowboy western in outer space. For these types of fims it is everything but the story that contains the potential for greatness but this is often par for the course for films in general.
Each of these film presentations and many more have proven to be stepping stones, adding to the arcana and language of science fiction in the cinema, enabling an ever more sophisticated product to be presented to the movie going public which has proved to have an insatiable appetite for the genre. People who have long loved science fiction literature have always known that the mainstream public was missing something and given the chance, would fall deeply in love with the more dreaming and literary side that is science fiction literature. Unfortunately, too many SF films come off as just that, stepping stones, where the full panoply of possibilities in science fiction is simply not realized and one is left with just another missed opportunity. Sometimes this is not the fault of the films themselves but rather it's unlucky and handicapped place in forming an SF vocabulary that was incomplete as far as the mainstream film going public was concerned.
When it comes to a stepping stone perhaps the greatest influence that screen treatments ever had on the general public was The Twilight Zone, whose influence lasted many fruitful years beyond it's original run on television and in syndication lasts to this day. The Twilight Zone ran the gamut of the genre of science fiction, from dreamy and literate fantasy to a harder edged type of SF. Always emphasizing good writing and characterization that challenged the watcher, it is remarkable to look back and see how few klinkers there were in this ground breaking television series that was so greatly loved by the public. The Twilight Zone is arguably one of the most popular television series ever made and a very literate one at that.
Today, science fiction literature presents ever greater challenges to film makers. Recent SF novels such as Jack McDevitt's Infinity Beach, (2000) and Peter Hamilton's, Pandora's Star, (2004) and it's sequel, Judas Unchained, (2005) represent yet another challenging step up when it comes not only to the mainstream movie going public but to screen writers and directors not to say special effects artists. So many great SF novels and short stories wait to be adapted to film that a list of them would easily run to a hundred. One can only imagine how great it would be to have good adaptation's of The Mote In God's Eye, (1974), by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Ringworld, (1970), by Niven, The Stars My Destination, (1956), by Alfred Bester, or The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, (1966), by Robert Heinlein, and A.E. van Vogt's The Weapon Makers (1947) and Lost: Fifty Suns (1952) and I have only mentioned these more or less at random the stew is so rich. Speaking of Bester, Spielberg would have been better off bringing The Demolished Man to the screen than Minority Report which, if you're looking for an edgy high-tech detective story is far superior to Minority Report in my opinion. Everyone will have their own list of great SF novels or short fiction. When looking at various lists of the top SF novels of all time the variety in opinion is remarkable. Wouldn't it be great if Steven Spielberg or George Lucas decided to make A Princess of Mars by the hugely popular creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs? At one time the Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered an unmakeble film project and so now the floodgates are open and seemingly anything is now within reach and ever more competent young screen writers who really get it are bringing quality and possiblities in ever greater numbers and now anything seems in reach of the brilliant special effects artists of today.
A recent trilogy of SF films directed by the great Steven Spielberg consist of the following: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, (2001), Minority Report, (2002) and War of the Worlds, (2005). Although I am obviously a huge fan of fantastic film and greatly admire Spielberg, for some reason these films leave me cold; I just didn't enjoy them and I'm not even sure exactly why. It seems I should have but I just didn't. All 3 films have great special effects and production values but in some manner seem over-worked and over-produced, lacking in cleverness and a sense of wonder. Perhaps a large production budget overwhelmed them and the need to be creative simply wasn't there as there was plenty of money to throw at these projects. Well, there is one element of War of the Worlds that did awaken my sense of wonder and that was the fantastic tripod machines and the utterly bizarre and truly alien sounds they made. So what was the problem? Am I spoiled, are the 3 films an embarrasment of riches I simply cannot comprehend? I wish I knew but the 3 movies are lacking something I cannot put my finger on. They all 3 have production values one could have only dreamed of in the 1960's. I guess it has something to do with something that seems so controlled that the very life of the film is squeezed right out of it. All 3 films were very popular and well-received. I think my quandry is a perfect example of the subjectiveness of such matters.
Serenity, released in 2005 was, for me, a much more enjoyable film than any of the 3 Spielberg films mentioned above. Like those 3 films, Serenity is freed from the constraints of having to educate the movie going public in the language of SF and able to concentrate on the action and story. The by now usual combination of low-brow story backed by a high-brow environment, Serenity is packed with common SF themes with a kung-fu twist, great dialogue and packaged in a manner that is thoroughly enjoyable, devoid of any sense of self-consciousness. In fact, Serenity throws in a little bit of everything: pyschic powers, sword play, space battles, a little cyperpunk, cannibal zombies, love, robbery, and comedy. Serenity immediately entered the short list of SF films that can be considered among the best ever made. Serenity is edgy and original and the complete opposite in terms of having any sense of the apologetic in it's free-wheeling screenplay. Serenity is an off-shoot of a short-lived TV series titled Firefly and together with such TV series as Star Trek: The Next Generation, FarScape, The X-Files, Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 and it's offshoots, they have all had their part to play in accustoming the general public to a now taken for granted panoply of SF themes and it's attendant vocabulary.
Event Horizon, (1997), Supernova, (2000), and Sunshine, (2007) are 3 films made from original screenplays that make the same mistake as was made decades previously in taking the visually fantastic from SF literature and leaving behind the story; they set up to explore and explore nothing. All 3 are essentially empty films that are a waste of good actors, energy, art direction and special effects, concentrating on the boring and ignoring a larger view being essentially SF in a telephone booth; even such a pot-boiler as 1963's Voyage To the End Of the Universe has a more interesting story and I would love to see a remake with the new special effects available. While there are SF films that are pretty much indisputable as to their merits of belonging to a top 100 list which most everyone will agree on, once you get to a certain level the divergence of opinion can be extreme. I recently saw a list on the internet of the top 100 SF films of all time and I would not have included 40 of the films although I understood why they had them on the list.
Since the dearth of good science fiction films makes it almost impossible to put together a list of 100 great movies the above 3 Spielberg films would make it onto most people's list by default if nothing else. A.I. and Minority Report are based on works by Brian Aldiss and Phillip K. Dick, 2 highly regarded SF writers who wrote much of their work in the 50's and 60's. My own personal take on writers like Dick, Harlan Ellison and a writer such as Ursula K. LeGuin is that they tried to think outside the box for it's own sake. They attempted to intellectualize science fiction in a way that sometimes made me feel that they were ashamed of the very genre in which they worked, a type of political correctness before the term was born, especially on the part of the sometimes inept LeGuin, though it is for this very reason that LeGuin does indeed have her fans and in fact has won a ton of SF awards for her stories. Some writers such as Roger Zelazny and especially Larry Niven, were able to rise above transforming the genre for it's own sake while at the same time acknowledging it's past. Larry Niven has two SF anthologies of stories from the 1960's that are arguably the greatest single author short story collections ever written; I'm thinking of Niven's Tales Of Known Space and Neutron Star. Taking the genre of science fiction too seriously is inevitably a death knell for a story.
The problem with the type of politically correct authors I mention is that they seem to not like the story of science fiction in the same manner that so many people today do not like the story of America and so in some manner seek to disavow that story. In the 1960's an avant-garde movement in science fiction briefly held sway and while it's positive and perhaps necessary influence is undeniable and there were indeed great works created, the movement at the same time turned it's back on it's own history in a way that not everyone at the time enjoyed; the avante garde writers were at the very least often guilty of sucking the fun right out of the genre and of confusing the serious with the sober, 2 words the Oscars would do well to think about in relation to SF film. For example, Star Wars may not be a "sober" film, but it is certainly a serious film in the way Lucas approached the project. The problem with some "great" SF novels is that they are supremely boring and taking oneself too seriously seems especially and oddly out of place in a genre such as science fiction. Condecension in SF literature is not all that entertaining. George Orwell's 1984 and Frank Herbert's Dune are both great novels that are as grim as death with not an iota of humor in them but the authors had such obvious fun and serious though not necessarily sober intent in putting them together that we as readers can enjoy them without thinking that we are being talked down to or scolded for being idiots.
The avant garde SF writers of the 60's wanted to be taken seriously and to raise the credibility of the genre to that of fine art and above the level of pot-boilers. The problem with a desire to be taken seriously is that it often requires a "demonstration" of one's intellectual and sophisticated capabilities and these elements are sometimes at odds with simply producing good work, a problem that has wreaked havoc in the fine arts in the United States, especially in the area of photography for example but which science fiction fortunately survived, in large part because SF had to be commercially viable. The great American film director John Ford often took delight in doing the same thing as the so-called avant garde but backwards, producing films in supposedly "low-brow" genres like the Western all the while hiding formal fine art elements that were meant to not be seen by the dismissive cognoscenti even though these elements were right in front of their noses. I am assuming that Ford felt intellectuals were sometimes themselves so hopelessly biased that in watching his films they became effectively blind, ironically the very opposite of what intellectuals are supposedly trying to accomplish. I saw this type of "thinking" first hand in college in a film history class when most of the students dismissively groaned out loud when the teacher trotted out John Ford's, The Searchers; not what the art students were expecting and it was sad to see their expectations bankrupt at such a young age. Well, I guess that's why we go to college; the problem with most colleges is that this type of lesson is taught the wrong way and backwards. This lesson in perception is particularly apt in the case of the genre of science fiction in film and literature since it's credibility as a serious art form has long put SF first in line when it comes to criticism and a poor cousin to rather more mainstream arts when it comes to being taken seriously.
The best example of this John Ford-like penchant in SF film, though for probably totally different reasons in that ultimate monster film, Alien, (1979), directed by Ridley Scott. Alien is riddled with background noise purposefully put into the film which almost no one at the time noticed because it was just a stupid "monster" movie. For whatever reasons, Alien is pervaded with a theme of sexual violence and even perversion that is reflected in elements of it's art direction and design and even some segments of the story itself. There is so much sexual overtone built into Alien that I could never do justice here in attempting to describe the many and varied ways the theme was built into the film. As a contrasting example, the sequel to Alien, Aliens, (1986), a film that is in it's own way arguably as good as it predecessor, takes place totally on the surface as a straightforward action film; any themes Aliens can lay claim to outside of the story itself can be considered almost an afterthought while Alien was built from the ground up to be the more eccentric and atmospheric vehicle it was. In the case of Alien it is a film that scolds the intellectual cognoscenti right back and reminds them that fun and entertainment does not automatically make one a hillbilly nor preclude or confuse the words "serious" and "sober".
2009's Avatar though not particularly original science fiction in terms of it's ideas was hugely popular. Filled with trite stereotypes or potent archetypes, as you prefer, long since explored in SF and mainstream literature, Avatar nevertheless conveys a healthy "sense of wonder" by it's wonderful use of special effects and production design. Avatar is a reminder of the importance of the visual side of science fiction. In the heyday of the science fiction pulps a good cover artist was worth his weight in gold. A good example of this is the relationship between the popularity of the 1960's Ace Paperback presentations of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the superb cover art by Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel. Cover art has been a crucial element in science fiction literature ever since the advent of the science fiction pulps in the 1920's. At that time the cover artist Frank R. Paul was the first of a long line of artists such as Kelly Freas, Lawrence Stevens, Earle K. Bergey and Ed Emshwiller who have proven til the present day how a visual supplement to written story can capture the imagination of readers.
As I've written, when I was a young man of 14 years old and first started reading the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, A.E. van Vogt and Robert Heinlein among many others, I wished at the time that the mainstream public could really know how wonderful science fiction could be and that it wasn't just some childish stories for "weirdos". Beginning with The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and with the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters and continuing on to the release of Avatar, the dream has come true and the mainstream film going public loves SF as I always knew they would. There have been other steps along the way and some of them quite wonderful as filmmakers of the last 30 years have taken advantage of advances in special effects and screenwriting as well as mining SF literature both specifically and in more general terms. Great SF films like Cameron's own Aliens and 4 Terminator films, the Children Of Dune miniseries, Gattaca, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Star Wars films and a host of other have brought the wonders of SF literature into the sunlight. It remains to be seen whether rather more sophisticated and less action oriented stories such as van Vogt's The Weapon Shops from 1942 or Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy also from the 1940's can be successfully adapted into film or accepted by the mainstream public. The dates of these latter two works show how long SF literature has been putting out truly adult and sophisticated work compared to film.
While some have made a big deal of Avatar's possible literary ancestors such as Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe" or Christopher Rowley's Fenrille series, I have simply thought, "finally" and thanks a lot. Science fiction literature has, since the late 1930's, been decades ahead of SF film in it's sophistication but now the gap has closed considerably, at least in terms of potential and it only needs for the sophisticated design of SF films to be matched by story as has been done in the past with Blade Runner, Gattaca and Children of Dune. When I first saw the scene in Terminator 2 where the evil android rose out of a tile floor it had been mimicking, it brought me back to the first time I'd read a similar part as a teenager in A.E. van Vogt's 1940 short story, "Vault of the Beast", and how much I'd enjoyed the wonder of that short story scene's almost identical idea at the time. I wasn't thinking of plagiarisation but rather, okay, here it is at last and that I would have probably done the same thing were I a filmmaker. SF fans who grew up with the old SF greats are almost crusaders in their desire to see their much loved genre shared amongst others and it is in this spirit that I view Cameron's work. I don't think Cameron is a man lacking in ideas but rather has a nostalgic desire to share the books he loved as a child and the unique fun science fiction can be. In any event, taking an idea and bringing it to the screen in a proper way are two different things and in this Cameron has been eminently successful; in this regard and from a film production perspective, I would say the ideas need Cameron more than Cameron needs the ideas.
James Cameron has specifically mentioned wanting to have some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' vision of John Carter of Mars in his film Avatar. Visually I actually I see more of Burroughs Carson of Venus series in the lush forest full of enormous trees and dangerous beasts. I cannot discount and I hope that the fantastic Ace paperback covers for Burroughs stories done by the great Frank Frazetta and Roy G. Krenkel in the mid-1960's have also found their way into Avatar; surely they must have. Burroughs SF books were often referred to by contemporaries as "science romance" and one can see this term perhaps reflected in the color and light and design of the land in which Avatar's indigenous people live but certainly in Avatar's theme of the protagonist's great love for a woman which was central to almost every single book by Edgar Rice Burroughs; in having such a love story you have hard science fiction residing alongside wistful fantasy and romance and in this, Avatar could very much be considered a "science romance" in the Burroughsian sense.
As I write this, Avatar has only cemented the fact that the world at large loves science fiction; it only waited for the right film makers to present SF the way it was meant to be presented and in some cases, as in Burroughs dreaming wonder, it is that wonder that is the end point. I can only hope a trilogy of films comprising the first 3 John Carter of Mars books, an adaptation of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man or James H. Schmitz's short "The Witches of Karres" and so many others will be introduced to the mainstream public. Of course, there will be work like Avatar which is an original screenplay but with nostalgic men like James Cameron, you can bet the spirit of SF literature will still be well represented because Avatar is firmly rooted in hard core, fan based SF. Thanks to people like James Cameron, Captain Future, the Grey Lensman, Gully Foyle and Elliott Grosvenor will live on a long, long time.
Avatar acts as yet another stepping stone in trying to present a more credible SF world; it's use of a language barrier and presentation of an atmosphere humans cannot breathe in a way that doesn't hamper story makes that story just that much more believable and ramps up the movie going public's SF vocabulary just that much more.
Films of the fantastic is a genre going through a renaissance. Part of the reason is because of a backlog of classic literature that cried out to be done but was never done in the past because the level of special effects and screenwriters simply weren't up to the task. This has created rather something of a sense of urgency and enthusiasm singular among all other genres of film. Unfortunately, science fiction's wonderful penchant to look at one's own society from a different viewpoint and other issues of perception which science fiction has the great ability to side step into another world is a quality being ignored if not lost in modern SF film production. While even some of the best SF ever written has a lot of action sequences, this done for its own sake is not the strong point of science fiction.
SF film has reached a crossroads of sorts as the 2nd decade of the 21st century begins. Once thought of as a fabulous future with technology for all in the form of time saving miracle devices, we actually live in that world though it is not the heady vision of the 1930s. Literary SF itself has struggled with being accepted by the mainstream as a form of literature and its author gone through periods of trying to redefine science fiction and what is 'serious' SF. Short stories like "Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany shows that entertainment can mean many things to many people and that 'action' does not preclude thoughtful SF. After all, many of the classics of mainstream fiction are action oriented works. "Time Considered As A Helix..." is a short story that works on an intriguing level of action while casually strewing about for our amazement a future society and at the same time showing off its penchant of self conscious literary qualities.
So what is 'serious' science fiction and of what worth is it? As the years have stretched behind us the question becomes one of perception and exposure. Few people have experience reading all the important works of SF going back to the First World War and so innovation becomes a relative term. What matter if there are authors who blazed trails if those trails are lost in the minds of the public? If an SF film's real artistic goal is to be thoughtful beyond being merely entertaining what is it we are supposed to be thoughtful about? The problem with SF is that it is often thought of as a fine art equivalent to mainstream literature and this is not the case. While it is true that many early SF authors wrote within the genre out of love their stories nevertheless had to sell in the marketplace.
What galvanized the artistic side of SF in the pulps is that once SF pulps became established one did have a sort of fine art analog as the fans themselves considered themselves as alternative readers, beatniks before there were beatniks. No surprise that fantastic literature found so much traction in the counter culture movement of the 60s and beyond. Still, SF literature was always a business and so it found itself less vulnerable to complete subversion into a solely intellectual genre although this sub-genre has existed for many years now and certainly has its adherents. The commercial market place does not allow for total subversion of SF literature as a fine art for fine art's sake and this is especially true when it comes to SF film which relies on its success on mainstream audiences. Those mainstream audiences have been very much educated in a SF genre vocabularly but not on the intellectual side. Mainstream audiences make for casual SF fans and the hardcore SF fan base is not large enough to sustain television and film projects although it can sometimes provide a great deal of momentum for SF TV shows.
The impetus for Hollywood to provide rather more thoughtful takes on science fiction seems to be subsiding as film projects today are in no way casual affairs and every film seems to want to attain blockbuster status. These leaves us with films like Avatar where SF fans must take what they can get and hope for more but 'more' is not something that seems to be on the horizon. While special effects have long been part and parcel of a 'fun' SF film experience, special effects are close to overwhelming the chances of a more literate side emerging in SF film and in this sense SF on film and TV seems more overwhelmed by hardware than even the 30s science fiction pulps were.
Science fiction as a genre has a unique ability to make us sidestep our biases and see them in a new light. One could argue that SF on film and television are missing an opportunity to speak out on controversial issues in a way that, for example, the original Star Trek TV show did in the 60s when it broadcast episodes that were disguised commentaries on birth control, racism and imperialism that would have had trouble making it past the network censors in those days. One could argue that if a controversial theme is 'buried' in the story than it may in fact pass over the heads of viewers and so have little effect. When it comes to SF literature the controversial aspect of challenging norms of society had been going on for some time as SF readers were likely to be somewhat progressive in outlook as a kind of default setting.
With film and TV, the audience is mainstream and in the case of a show like Star Trek you had people of all walks of life and political views watching. SF film and television tend to be self-absorbed in this the start of the second decade of the 21st century. SF on screen tends to be action oriented or concerned with rather pedantic and academic intellectualism. American may be so convinced that censorship is behind them that the writers feel no need to use film and TV as a way to slip in controversial themes or it simply may be that the desire to not offend has as much traction now as it did in the 60s or perhaps the big battles of injustice as seen to be present in the 60s are seen to have been defeated and done away with.
Contemporary SF literature also seems rather absorbed in higher intellectual themes and there seems to be little in the way or portraying, either on screen or in print, current subjects such as illegal immigration, cultural wars, abortion, the media shilling for politicans or illegal wars; District Nine dealt with immigration and racism but in such a historically literal way that the shock value of suddenly realizing we had been duped into seeing ourselves was entirely lost and so went against the strengths of fantastic film and literature when it comes to social commentary. While much of today's science fiction takes place in the future that place in time seems merely to be a stage to use as a device rather than an idea to place ourselves in. The rip roaring attitude SF once had of exploring the future to grasp its benefit and to avoid its perils now seems something we little actually think about. The problem is that if a solution runs up against society's mores then it is simply ignored. While there seems to be a consensus on destructive changes to our planet, the most obvious solution to curb our population is not only ignored but the opposite embraced as governments use growing populations as income and to mimic thriving economies. Any complaint that immigration into the US will destroy the quality of life by leaving America overpopulated and with diminished and compromised natural resource is dismissed as racism and so no reasoned dialogue takes place. What we're left with in terms of fantastic literature and film in the 21st century seems to be an escape from reality that fantatic literature always had the reputation of but which in fact used to be a facing of a hyperreality; SF fans have long explored ideas of the pitfalls of the future that the mainstream public has not even now come to grasp.
An example of this shock value is the famous EC Comics science fiction story "Judgement Day" , an anti-racism story in Weird Fantasy, #18 from 1953 and the height of Jim Crow wherein the last panel of the story has an astronaut taking off his helmet and revealing that he is black. The character in the story has been sent from Earth to inspect a planet of self-aware robots to see if they are worthy of inclusion in a type of galactic United Nations and the character finds that the robots have created an unfair Jim Crow society of blue and orange robots whose internal structures are identical. In the end the representative from Earth, who never takes off his helmet in the story, decides the machine planet is not ready to join the Earth union and back in his own ship, takes off his helmet to reveal he is a black man. The story was a not so subtle criticism of Jim Crow and the Comics Code Authority gave EC Comics blue hell and told them right out that the story could not be printed. EC held their ground, threatened to sue and the story was published.
Today, certainly the field and opportunity for social themes is a wide open one in SF books and magazines as it is a genre traditionally held to be proud of fighting conservatism and calling out injustices and not at all afraid of controversy. In film and TV, other than the traditional theme or shadowy and oppresive big government, little seems to be occuring in the way of social themes. Among my top 10 films of 2000-09, not one takes up the cause of social activism other than in a general way as does V For Vendetta. An opportunity to question many things we take for granted when it come to fantastic literature on the big and small screen is being lost, or perhaps simply ignored. In the 60s shows of the fantastic like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek all took good amounts of screen time in between monsters to invoke a type of evocative poetry centered around challenging our preconceptions. In contemporary television of the fantastic there is little of that and SF on TV seems to be farther away from the Earth than ever before as are films. One can only have so many Phillip K. Dick-like or Matrix films about what it means to be truly human or the nature of reality as a kind of general phony intellectualism to give stature to ascreenplay before it becomes stale.
The problem with today's anti-authoritarian or liberal champions is that they tend to cluster around anti-government and anti-corporate themes as if everything is otherwise fine in the world and so the same stereotypes emerge again and again; while this theme has been around a long time as a fallback, it is the sprawling and invasive government/corporation versus the outcast that is today's equivalent of cowboys and indians in a stupid Western. SF literature has itself had many stereotypes but it has also been a literature of ideas and its protaganists many and varied. As far as social themes, what might be today's equivalent of EC Comics "Judgement Day"? Perhaps specifically one wherein the theme of self-segregation is broached with the questioning of the further relevance of an organization of an NAACP or Congressional Black Caucus. The problem is that the liberal Left in America seems to be the new bogeyman while still considering itself to be the logical inheritors of the men who published "Judgement Day". So it seems that science fiction and fantasy's penchant for calling out hypocrisy is needed now as much as ever but with the shoe somewhat on the other foot and so a new shock to the system is required. Turning a finger at oneself is not so easy at it seems since what is entrenched always see itself as in the right at the time. If the strength of science fiction is to think outside the box, turning the tables so to speak, then it would appear such an influence would be a timely one.
Again I ask, what might be the equivalent of a "Judgement Day" in the early 21st century in America but applied to other social considerations like immigration, reverse-racism, overpopulation, true feminism, inequality and the like? One is not likely to find it in Avatar or the Terminator franchise nor do they pretend to be such vehicles. The strength of fantastic literature and specifically science fiction is its ability to subvert perception but it is battling to fend off its own subversion and appropriation as a playing field for mainstream liberal stereotypes and has been doing so since the 1960s. In the 1960s, as SF literture began to find a more liberal audience people inside and outside the genre either sought to escape what they increasingly saw as an SF ghetto or didn't want to come in in the first place and so sought to redefine the genre in manner that in the end meant an application of mainstream sensibilities about what was and wasn't literature onto a fan based genre; political correctness crept into the field where it had never existed before and tried to suck the fun right out of SF by turning the genre into something that resembled more a filthy job of remodeling rather than an exploration of ideas for the sake of it. All these years later Phillip K. Dick has emerged as the mainstream idea of what should constitute 'serious' SF . Dick has no doubt paid his dues as a genre writer well within the hard core fan based field but was simply not accorded the stature in SF literature in his own day that he has been accorded in film.
Although SF literature itself has not been subverted into a 'fine art' because it remains fan based the film equivalent has when it has even bothered to pay attention to such considerations. As hard core and fan based elements of literary science fiction have crept into mainstream feature film and television, so has the nature and presence of mainstream audiences resulted in a push back with mainstream sensibilities now increasingly taken into account in developing film and television projects dealing with the fantastic; there is no longer such a crusading sense in SF film projects as in the past of converting mainstream audiences to SF. Add to this the mainstream idea of what constitutes 'good' SF literature and you have 8 film adaptations from the works of Phillip K. Dick and one from Robert A. Heinlein's output.
I have no particular bone to pick with Dick as I enjoy his early short stories and like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and am merely using Dick because of his obvious popularity among filmmakers and Heinlein because of his preeminent stature to make a point. While part of Dick's present popularity is undoubtedly as a result of his film adaptations referencing themselves back to him and so in a sense success feeding success, Dick was held in esteem in his lifetime. His The Man In the High Castle won a Hugo Award for 1963 and Flow My Tears , The Policeman Said was nominated for the 1975 Hugo as Best Novel of the Year. Dick novels were also nominted for 5 Nebula Awards. However, it is no coincidence to me that a man who suffered from delusions and drug addiction trumps a saner success like Robert A. Heinlein as mainstream society has now put its middle class and childish beatnik/rockstar On the Road stamp of approval on Dick that Heinlein simply cannot compete with since there is a difference between literal and drug fueled visions and artistic visions. It is for you who read this to decide and much of it is simply a matter of taste but to me the mainstream juvenile entrance of the 'cool' factor into a hard SF genre once thought of as juvenile itself in fact comes to seem more adult than does its mainsteam crowd, either in the form of detractors or adherents; both are guilty of subverting the literary genre and so its film counterpart.
All is far from being lost however as SF literature itself means many things to many people. Some readers love the more hard core techno worlds of a Peter Hamilton or Larry Niven and some prefer those techo worlds to recede a little further into the background as in the case of William Gibson or Phillip K. Dick while larger issues of oppressive goverment or what it means to be fully human are brought into sharper focus but themes perhaps overutilized. Thankfully SF literature provides a virtual cornucopia of many and varied themes in as many ways as a reader could please. While it is true that SF in the '60s transiently experienced a type of subersion and circumvention into a toned downed version of itself because of a 'shame' factor and literary pretensions, the marketplace served to provide balance and today SF literature walks in many directions and with a very large library of the past to also choose from, one could easily get lost just reading sub-genres of science fiction; however there is little doubt that SF literature has fractured with part of the genre walking away from itself while claiming a place in that genre in a politically correct and liberal mainstream version of what is thought should constitute SF.
SF film projects very much rely on the experience and tastes of individuals rather than any kind of consensus and film projects can give traction and momentum to the popularity of individual writers when it come to adaptations of that writers works as in the case of Phillip K. Dick whose popularity when it comes to film adaptations rivals H.G. Wells even though Dick's own place in SF literature has nowhere near that status. Such status is indeed the result of a kind of consensus when it come to SF literature and all things being equal, one would expect many more adaptations of, say, Robert A. Heinlein's works into film but such has not been the case. Heinlein is a more important writer than Dick but his literary output doesn't fit into a somewhat politically correct paradigm, or stereotype, of what in fact constitutes 'good' science fiction. Heinlein's work was more event oriented and Dick's more consciousness oriented. Heinlein moves people in future environments in which they interact and Dick questions man's place in such environments in a more questioning, satirical and irreverent way. While Heinlein was also irreverent when it came to questions of authority his paradigm struggled against concrete systems and Dick's against perception that were part and parcel of authoritarian concepts. Is one better than another? Heinlein was a writer whose influence would be difficult to overstate and his rather more pedestrian approach is only considered so in retrospect as someone had to lay a more concrete groundwork for those who followed such as Phillip K. Dick. In a sense Dick questions worlds that Heinlein created and without a Heinlein there would have been no Phillip Dick; in a very real sense, Dick built on and operated worlds that Robert Heinlein created.
Part of the reason for Heinlein's lack of success when it comes to film adaptations may have to do with an unfair and untrue stereotype of Heinlein as a conservative and his writing as didactically patronising while neither is the case. Dick's reputation as a kind of a beatnik writer has more traction in today's world and the decades in which Heinlein saw his best works published are now decidedly out of fashion when it comes to their social mores and today, the very personal success of Heinlein and failures of Dick work their own magic as failure has come to have a sense of default morality attached to it among intellectuals in the 21st century and success an opposite immorality. Heinlein was a succesful writer and true free thinker and lived his life as such whereas as Dick in his lifetime was a long time inveterate drug addict and failure in financial terms; a great deal of Dick's literary output appears to have been done while high on drugs while Heinlein is not known to have done such a thing and so from whence does creativity stem? Even late in Dick's career he needed guidance and help as a writer while Heinlein seems to have been assuredly his own man when it came to his work.
While there is little doubt that the thrust of Phillip Dick and Robert Heinlein's works are entirely disimilar, in terms of film adaptations, there is equal worth in Heinlein's body of fiction. The simple truth is that Heinlein's place in SF has simply been lost since in his work you can find Heinlein writing as an anti-racist, a pro feminist, an anti-authoritarian who was at one time embraced by the early counter culture because of Stranger In A Strange Land. Since Dick's work has been mostly presented in film as action oriented and fast paced work with his larger issue mostly lost in the shuffle, there is not reason for the dearth of Heinlein adaptations and in any case Heinlein also had larger issues present in his work and Heinlein's stories should in no way as being a type of cowboy genre of SF. A time travel paradox story printed as early as 1941 called "By His Bootstraps" , "All You Zombies" (1959) show Heinlein's place in SF history to be a thoughtful one and there are many more examples one could cite. Heinlein's output is staggering in it competence, creativity, volume and variety and deserves a better place in film than what has happened. Some of Heinlein's work from the early 40's reads as so modern and is so innovative that one is hard pressed to acknowledge that it is World War II era; early work such as "Coventry" (1940), "If This Goes On-" (1940), "Common Sense" (1941), "Methuselah's Children" (1941), "And He Built A Crooked House", (1940) and the novel Beyond This Horizon (1942) all put paid to the notion that Heinlein was anything but a seminal writer of great innovation and technical merit whose work cries out to be adapted to film
Ironically, like Phillip Dick's work, perception is everything and Heinlein suffers only as a result of this and nothing else as he is simply not the recipeint of faddish love; another irony that Dick's short fiction is faced paced and action oriented and lends itself well to film, contrary to the notion of a sort of intellectualism being the primary reason for some of his adaptation into film. Others would argue that Dick's perceptual take on SF is simply more poetic and thoughtful than is Heinlein and entirely explains the difference in how the two authors are perceived. A counter argument is to suggest that Dick's popularity through film has referenced itself back into his work - after all, film reaches far more many people than do books, and in so doing has resulted in even more film adaptations as the phenomenom feeds on itself in an informational rather than artistically thoughtful manner. Having Starship Troopers adapted into a film as it was probably hurt Heinlein rather than helped his case when it came to having his work mined for film adaptations and in the public's mind as any kind of a thoughtful source when it came to SF.
No decade can match the 50s when it comes to the energy and output of pure, mindless fun in the way of science fiction/monster films. If you were young enough (or old enough) to have seen these films when the gloss of modern special effects had not yet been felt, they were in their way horrific and scary films that left an indelible perception on children not only because one knew as a child that they were aimed straight at you but because of the efforts to scare you without the vulgarity and senseless and even disgusting violence that typifies almost all horror films today. One could almost say that it was the low budget of the 1950s SF/monster/horror films that created the much larger budgeted SF films of the modern era as many of the film directors of the modern era seem to have been frustrated horror/monster movie fans and who, when given the chance, have set about to correct the situation; it is hard to overestimate how much these monster movies from the 1950s have entered the zeitgeist of the American public.
The transition from the 40s to the 50s was an abrupt one of style and tone as it was suddenly discovered how much money a teenage audience had access to and how much they loved being catered to with fun based horror films centered around aliens, monsters and ghosts. These films from the 50s were almost all typified by having low budgets and tight shooting schedules and some few actors who becames stars or saw careers revived only within the context of SF and horror.
The phenomenon is generally considered to have kicked off with a rather thoughtful take on the menace from outer space, the aforementioned The Day the Earth Stood Still, now considered an all-time classic and still a very watchable film. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a film that owes little to the original Harry Bates short story, "Farewell To the Master" other than some imagery that apparently affected the film's screenwriter and the film's screenplay can almost be considered to be original. One thing is certain: were it not for the film version of Bates piece, his short story would have remained in obscurity since there is nothing really to recommend it and its status is more or less shared by Bates as an SF writer as well. Lost Continent (1951) with cheesy special effects and starring Ceasar Romero is a take on Arthur Conan Doyle's, The Lost World. A team is sent to a remote island to retrieve the contents of a rocket mission gone wrong. They find a plateau full of supposedly extinct and deadly dinosaurs to play with for the remainder of the film. The cult classic The Man From Planet X from that same year is also a very low budget but well thought of SF low key thriller, now noted for the eccentricity of its tone as compared to similar offerings at the time. The classic The Thing From Another World and When Worlds Collide were also released in 1951.
Peter Graves, who would jumpstart his career in monster /SF films, starred in Red Planet Mars in 1952 though the year was otherwise devoid of much in the new genre.
On the low end of the scale, 1953 saw such offerings as Cat Women of the Moon, Robot Monster, Killers From Space, Project Moonbase and Mesa of Lost Women. There were some interesting offerings that for the first time tried to be more upscale versions. Among these was the classic George Pal production of War of the Worlds which had special effects that are still impressive to watch and a horrific plot as unstoppable Martians invade Earth to the growing realization of mankind that there is little they can do to stop them. War of the Worlds remains a very colorful and lively take on the H.G. Wells story on the invasion of Earth by implacably hostile aliens. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, supposedly based on a Ray Bradbury short story, was the first major effort in the genre by the great Ray Harryhausen who not only brought his fantastic stop motion special effects to the big screen but also a design sensibility that would serve his projects well in years to come. The summer's kids thrilled to the giant dinosaur trampling about New York City and its final demise at Coney Island as did I; no matter what one thinks of its production values, it is an all-time classic of B filmmaking. Things To Come director William Cameron Menzies did a spectacularly eerie job in creating Invaders From Mars, a dreamy film directly aimed at kids and designed to have them picking their feet up off the floor in movie theaters across the country. Superbly art directed, B SF is elevated in a way in Invaders From Mars that assures its status as a classic of the genre. Jack Arnold, a director who did a few notable films in the monster genre, was at the helm for the 3D classic It Came From Outer Space from 1953. Arnold was noted for giving just enough of a twist to monster films to horribly involve the viewer from reality to unreality. The Twonky, directed by Arch Oboler of SF/horror radio fame seems to be a film almost considered lost since it sees absolutely no play on television.
In 1954, Jack Arnold once again directed Richard Carlson as he had the year before in It Came from Outer Space, this time in the all time classic, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, a film that has become the byword for a monster film. A truly eerie struggle developes between a prehistoric and hostile manfish far up the Amazon River in a dead end lagoon and the members of a scientific expedition. Originally filmed in 3D, I remember seeing it in the early 90s at a art house theatre with the 3D glasses and the theater was packed and had a whale of a good time. The direct sequel Revenge of the Creature was just as fun and also originally shot in 3D and released the following year of 1955. The third and last sequel The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) lost the tone of the first two films but is still fun and is mostly notable for having Clint Eastwood in a small role.
The other genre classic released in 1954 was Them, well though of even by serious film historians for some reason that escapes me now, although it was present in my film history text books in college as being a serious film and its cheap special effects was actually nominated for an Oscar. Them is helped by the present of the great actor James Whimore and James Arness , who was the monster in The Thing From Another World is also present. Robots become the protagonists in Tobor the Great, Gog and Target Earth. Fondly remembered potboilers from 1954 include Monster From the Ocean Floor and Devil Girl From Mars. Outside the B move monster genre, 1954 saw the release of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on the Jules Verne classic and a film that itself has attained that stature. 1954 saw the release in Japan of Gojira, the film that would be released in the U.S. in 1956 as a fix up of the original and called Godzilla. In 1955, the Japanese sequel, Godzilla Raids Again was released and would be released in the United States in 1959 as Gigantis the Fire Monster. 1955 saw the release in Britain of The Quartermass Experiment, a film whose success is seen as fueling the impetus for Hammer Films to created its own genre version of SF and horror for some years to come. The Creature With the Atom Brain, The Beast With A Million Eyes and King Dinosaur were the lesser films of that year. Hard to believe Alfred Bester's Fondly Fahrenheit was published this year. SF Film fans had some waiting to do.
1955 saw only one film that tried inject a higher budget and production values and that was This Island Earth, based on B SF pulp author Raymond F. Jones' novel of the same name. Some of This Island Earth's special effects were considered very well done in their day but don't hold up so well now. Ed Wood came out with his Bride of the Monster that year, starring Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi. Ray Harryhausen came up with his second effort in stop motion monster building with It Came From Beneath the Sea. In 1955, besides directing John Agar in the sequel to the Creature From the Black Lagoon, he also directed Agar in Tarantula, a bit of horrific fun as a giant spider makes fast and loose with screaming humans.
In 1956, 1984 starring Edmund O'Brien and Michael Redgrave was released, based on the classic by George Orwell. Less ambitious were the releases of The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues, Fire Maidens From Outer Space, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, World Without End, The Day the World Ended directed by Roger Corman and starring Lon Chaney, It Conquered the World directed by Roger Corman, The Man Who Turned To Stone and The Mole People. There were 3 jewels of note released in 1956 and the first I'll mention is the very well thought of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a wonderful excercise in paranoia come true, based on Jack Finney's novel serialized in Colliers in 1954, The Body Snatchers. Kevin McCarthy does a wonderful job of acting in this horrible drama wherein all doesn't come out quite as sweet as do the vast majoritiy of 50s genre monster films. Invasion of the Body Snatchers ranks high on most lists of the best SF films ever made. Next of the notable trio released in 1956 is the monstrous offering featuring Ray Harryhausen's stop motion special effects and the best to date, Earth vs the Flying Saucers which was a curiously modern film at the time of its release. Earth vs the Flying Saucers has a unique and quite serious tone to it and one is made to believe that the aliens come to take over the Earth are very serious indeed. But the jewel on the crown for 1956 is the all time classic, Forbidden Planet, the colorful treasure of 1950s design sensibility that belongs in a museum on the basis of its look alone. Forbidden Planet, though with a campy look, takes its subject matter seriously as there are a series of deaths involved and the eventual destruction of an entire planet. A space ship is sent from Earth (which itself looks very much like the flying saucers so much on the minds of the American public in the preceding years) in order to check on the status of a small colony on the planet Altair. What they find is a young woman and her secretive father as the 2 sole surviving members of the colony accompanied by the lovable Robbie the Robot. You can pick up a poster or Forbidden Planet for about 8,000 dollars.
1957 continued and considerably expanded the onslaught of B monster films with a whole host of memorable and not so memorable films released, almost all of them considered cult classics because of how bad they were but which had some creepy fun elements when viewed at the time. One I especially liked was The Black Scorpion, a classic monster scenario and every kid's dream come true for a monster film since it had stop motion animation of giant scorpions marauding across the landscape brought to life by the curiously under utilized Willis O'Brien of King Kong fame. Jack Arnold directed the scary and tragic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Another one of my very favorite films released that year was the Japanese SF film that started off a host of SF alien films from that country, the very weird and fun, The Mysterians. Aliens from the already proverbial decimated home planet come to Earth to take over, nice at first but eventually leading to open warfare complete with lots of ray gun action and also a giant robot that emerges from the a mountainside of all places alá Stephen Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
The Land Unknown was another of my favorite films as a kid as seeing people trapped in a prehistoric world with dinosaurs is something boys like for some reason. In this case Jock Mahoney stars as a group of people who helicopter crashes in an unexpected steamy holdover from geologic history in the Antarctic. A particularly pesky T-Rex type dinosaur with a host of slimy friends and the threat of being permanently trapped in a world straight out of Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot make for good film fun. Not of This Earth is a very creepy SF monster film directed by Roger Corman complete with vampiric aliens who make life miserable for all concerned. Did I say it was creepy? It is. Not of This Earth has inspired 2 remakes but neither of them have the creep factor down so well as did Roger Corman, money or no money. When I was a kid we had a Sunday night show called Chiller and it showed these films on a regular basis and the other regular basis was my presence. I just loved these movies.
The Giant Claw, also released in 1957 was another favorite of mine when I was a boy for some reason hard to fathom now since the effects are so dreadful; in their own way the effects are as scary as the monster which is a giant flying bird which is all elbows, claws, beak and feathers but which can fly as fast as a jet plane; in my case it can be said that perhaps my mother did raise a fool since I never missed a chance to see this movie. Invasion of the Saucer Men is yet another film I really loved which is a comedy/thriller about murderous aliens who come to Earth and meet teenagers and nobody understood teenagers better when it came to marketing a film than American International Pictures (AIP) when it came to hot rods, monsters and the beach. Another horrific monster film I liked quite a bit from 1957 is The Monster Who Challenged the World, a bombasticly titled film about what I took to be giant caterpillars. Another great favorite of mine from the year of 1957 is yet another Ray Harryhausen vehicle, and one of his funnest, 20 Million Miles To Earth, about a rapidly growing Venusian beast transplanted back to Earth by way of a doomed expedition to Venus whose sole survivors crash land their rocket ship into the sea off the coast of Italy.
1957's Kronos is about a giant robotic machine that tramps the Earth to drain off our natural resources, a strange and almost haunting vision of a movie, despite its low budget. 1957 saw another film released destined to be a regular of Sunday night's Chiller Theater and that was AIP's The Amazing Colossal Man, followed by a sequel, The War of the Colossal Beast in 1958. With these 2 films, we were getting into pretty bad territory in terms of film production but I blithely enjoyed the terrible special effects from sheer desire to make them work in my mind if nothing else. 1957 wasn't done for me yet as I enjoyed The Deadly Mantis, despite the fact that Hollywood seemed to be already running out of creatures to super-size and send to destroy. I always enjoyed the time of these films where scientists track down evidence of unbelievable monsters which was in fact done to save their bad special effects from being seen to much; I didn't mind. The Brain From Planet Arous starring John Agar was more creepy fun from 1957 as aliens brains flying around a room were too much fun to resist seeing. Other titles from 1957 that remain in peoples memories are She Devil and the Astounding She-Monster, From Hell It Came, Half Human, The Invisible Boy which featured a return of the Robbie the Robot construction used in Forbidden Planet and the giant grasshopper menace, The Beginning of the End.
1958 had almost as many D movies as did the preceding year, only even crazier if such were possible. Attack of the Puppet People was a fun film I remember from my youth, about a group of people shrunk in size and held captive alá Dr. Cyclops from 1940. Queen of Outer Space was some fun nuttiness starring Zsa Zsa Gabor as the queen of Venus which some American men have been unfortunate enough to visit because Zsa Zsa is not a friendly queen. Another giant came to visit care of AIP in 1958 and resulted in The Spider, a fun and not so made but scary thrill of a movie. 1958's is Night of the Blood Beast is another AIP movie and one that I remember as being particularly grim and scary though it is a very low budget film. Today the plot reminds me somewhat of Alien as a hostile extraterrestial guards its eggs it has implanted in a human and in deadly in doing so. I remember most of the scenes taking place at night which made it more atmospheric though it has been many years since I have seen this film.
A film that was supposedly the actual basis for Alien that came out in 1958 is It! The Terror from Outer Space. The plight involves humans returning from Mars trapped aboard their ship with a strong and hostile alien. Their problem is grim and seemingly hopeless at times and the film does a good job of conveying an air of imminent menace despite the fact that one is left to wonder, as I state earlier, why there is such a large supply of guns, hand grenades and most mystifying of all, cartons of cigarettes on board the ship; to a kid it's a pretty thrilling horror ride. Craziest of all and remembered by so many Americans all these years later is the terrible and wonderful Attack of the 50 Foot Woman starring Allison Hayes, about a woman turned into a giant by aliens of all things. 1958 wasn't done yet as we had the spectacle of brains flying about in The Fiend Without A Face, a rarity as it was culled from a short story from a 1930 issue of Weird Tales, the home of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. Roger Corman directed the AIP vehicle Teenage Cave Man, starring Robert Vaughn who would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and which turns out to be an SF movie in a surprise ending. The weird and bubbly H-Man was released from Japan in 1958 and a weird vision of a film it was.
The Colossus of New York is another weird SF film of note. Steve McQueen makes his film debut in 1958's surprise hit, down the line, The Blob, a step up as far as production values go, almost accidentally as it were. The Blob is actually quite an effective horror/monster film as it treats its material in straighforward fashion without a hint of camp and was also helped by the fact that it was filmed in color, giving an air of verisimilitude to its mundane environment; a supermarket and movie theater became that much more horrible as places in to which such a creature would invade. The Blob is considered an all time classic and holds up quite well all these years later. In some strange fashion, the color film stock also helped yet another classic SF horror film from 1958 and that is The Fly, starring Vincent Price in what would be the second of many more genre oriented forays into fantastic films for him after 1953's House of Wax, released in 3D. Like The Blob, The Fly treats its material in a grim and straightforward fashion to truly frightening effect. One of the last scene's of the movie is a classic in horror as is the entire film itself. Return of the Fly (1959) and The Curse of the Fly (1965) were the sequels. From the Earth To the Moon was a noble attempt to adapt Jules Verne's 1865 novel of the same name and starred the veteran Joseph Cotton. Frankenstein 1970 came out in 1958 and starred Boris Karloff in an otherwise forgettable film, even for a genre monster film. I Married A Monster from Outer Space is a bit of atmospheric and eerie fun.
Things began to simmer down just a bit in the film realm of genre monster films but still gave over quite a few D classics. The Angry Red Planet is a memorable film for its portrayal of a relentlessly grim and hostile Mars in which the problems of the astronauts sent to explore only become worse and worse. As a rather haunting depiction of a grim alien environment it is very effective. The scenes on the Martian surface are shot with a red tint and the tragic visit to Mars is one that stays with a kid long after they leave the theater. Monster On the Campus, directed by Jack Arnold is also a memorable bit of B move making and one that was in heavy rotation on TV and movie theaters in the 1960s as were so many of these films. In Monster On Campus, a professor investigation a prehistoric fish once though extinct and accidently ingests fluids from the fish. As a result, he becomes a murderous neanderthal with predictable consequences. 1959 was the year that saw the release of everyone's favorite worst SF movie ever made and that is Ed Wood's creaky Plan 9 from Outer Space, a movie which it seems everyone has seen which is remarkable considering its quality.
One of my very favorite films from 1959 is a film considered as a sequel to The Mysterians, Battle In Outer Space, another effort from the Toho crew in Japan and a great bit of a grim stand off against aliens determined to take over the Earth. Battle In Outer Space is directed by the great Ishiro Honda from a very lively screenplay. First Spaceship On Venus, an east European release, is another film I remember with a great deal of fondness as a fun C movie. Even a slug of a film like The Giant Gila Monster had traction with me as a kid and I saw it at least several times. Other films of 1959 I remember are The Monster of Piedras Blancas, The Hideous Sun Demon, and Have Rocket, Will Travel, with the Three Stooges, the title based on the very popular TV show of the time, Have Gun, Will Travel. 1959 saw the release of On the Beach, based on the same titled 1957 novel by Nevel Shute. On the Beach is a grim and uncompromising look at the catastrophe that could result of the result of the Cold War should a nuclear exchange take place. Some of the scenes in On the Beach are genuinely disturbing as they were meant to be as at the time their was a lot of concern among many around the world of the consequence of the nuclear armaments possessed by the United States and Soviet Union. The Giant Behemoth When I saw The Tingler in the movie theater when it came out I remember a palpable sense of fear and terror which the film's creator's were only too happy to help me with. Produced by William Castle and starring Vincent Price it is a gimmicky film at which Castle was great at and the movie audience felt fun fear and engaged with the movie as well as at one point the movie simulates the film breaking and Price announces the Tingler is loose in the audience and encourages the audience to scream. What more fun could a teenager ask for in 1959? The Wasp Woman
Production of B SF horror shrank considerably in the decade of the 60s, starting with the very first year of 1960. Of the 2 best films of the year, let me start with The Time Machine, based on the H.G. Wells novel. It is the story of an inventor who, at the turn of the century to 1900, uses his great invention, a time machine to voyage into the future. The movie is at some variance with Well's book but is a classic nonetheless. George Pal's love and experience with stop motion animation is made a centerpiece of the time traveler's intial travels into the future and overall, the movie is a quite effective vehicle in portraying the tragic consequences and events of the story. In Wells original book Weena dies and in the movie she does not and it is implied that the time traveler will reunite with her and help to rebuild the civilization of the Eloi. In the Wells novel the time traveler journeys into a cold and distant future Earth where even the sun has dimmed, before returning to his own time. The film is particularly effective is conveying an air of wistful tragedy in the scenes that bookend the film.
The other success story of 1960 is a little remembered Jerry Lewis vehicle titled Journey To A Small Planet which is a quite entertaining and funny SF comedy, better than the run of the mill Lewis vehicles he mostly did. The director of this film, Norman Taurog, had also directed a few Martin and Lewis films. However Taurog had better material to work with this time around in the form of the original story by Gore Vidal first done as a TV presentation 4 years prior and then as a play in New York. Visit To A Small Planet is a lively screenplay and one of Lewis' most memorable and clever comedies and for which is he was perfectly cast; the film is a nice insight into American mores and culture of the time. The third film I have a memory of from that year of 1960 is Dinosaurus. For some reason, the color film stock and depiction of mundane surroundings seemed to bring to life the surrounding fantastic events which involve the resusitation of 2 dinosaurs and a caveman who are frozen. Though a long way from being anything more than a B genre film and with terrible special effects, Dinosaurus nevertheless worked well in terms of addressing and evoking a sense of wonder. Village of the Damned, (1960) was an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos by English authour John Wyndham which had been published in Britain 3 years previously. Village of the Damned is a chiller of a mystery that gets only stranger as the film progresses and is genuinely creepy. Today it is considered a minor classic. A sequel, Children of the Damned was released in 1963 and a creditable remake released in 1995 directed by John Carpenter and starring Christopher Reeves.
By the time 1961 had rolled around it was evident that the super low budget and quickly shot B monster film had seen it best days. Though cheap monsters films would continue to hang around many more years the newer versions had rather larger budgets or originated from outside the US. Master of the World, based on the works of Jules Verne and starring Vincent Price, was something of an aerial version of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 4 genre films from 1961 remain in my memory as leaving an impression. Mothra, a Japanese release once again directed by Ishiro Honda and a harbinger of things to come from Toho Studios left an impression simply because of its utter bizarreness because Japanese monster films simply come off that way to Americans and so are campy to the core. The C movie Phantom Planet, a real potboiler nevertheless left an impression simply because I was young and enthralled by a wooden movie with improbable events, even for science fiction. Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea is, in my opinion, an under rated SF film. Other than one sequence, the special effects are memorable and the production of the original screen play is clean, fast paced and savvy. The plot is a good SF story about the, in real science, recently discovered Van Allen Belt. In the film, this belt somehow becomes superheated and threatens all of the Earth with distruction. Admiral Nelson's remarkable submarine, the Seaview, sails to New York to consult with a meeting of scientists on the best means to solve the problem. Admiral Nelson's solution to fire a missile into the Van Allen Belt is deemed too risky and Nelson and the Seaview barely escape and are later hunted by submarines on search and destroy missions. Meanwhile, the Seaview has to contend with near mutiny, sabotage, a monstrous octopus, an old minefield and hunter/killer teams of subs.
My favorite SF/fantasy film of 1961 is Mysterious Island, based on the Jules Verne book. Ray Harryhausen is at his best in this tale of Yankee soldiers marooned on an island after escaping from a Confederate prisoner of war camp using an observation baloon during the Civil War. A rousing musical score by Bernard Herrmann and the fantastic presention of a great screenplay go a long way to making this a top notch SF mystery adventure film; the team that produced Mysterious Island really knew their business. Gorgo (1961) tried to cash in on the Godzilla craze and does so in a very creditable fashion. Gorgo has some nifty special effects and some good mystery leading up to the appearence of the monster which then turns out to be not the biggest or baddest monter in the film. Little seen on TV today, Gorgo remains a very nicely done monster film.
1962 had very little to offer in the way of monster films or SF. The horrible The Brain That Wouldn't Die was released that year had the low budget Journey To the Seventh Planet, a very low budget SF film about astronauts psychically manipulated by a hostile alien during a visit to Uranus, starring John Agar in a European production. The best film of the year was The Day of the Triffids, based on British writer John Wyndham's 1951 novel of the same name. The movie is terrifically realized and and more than one character viewpoint. The plot is one where anyone who saw a meteor shower on the face of the Earth is blinded and what's worse, the meteors bring killer plants that prey on the blind humans. Both book and film rate high on people's top 100 lists but this may be more the result of exposure than anything else though the movie is a very entertaining one. Dr. No, the first in the famous James Bond movies was released in 1962 and created an instant sensation and Bond movies are still being produced to this very day, a half century later. Terrance Stamp directed this first paen to global jet set elegance adapted from Ian Fleming's novel whose plot uses the old yellow peril device which in this case is a plan by Dr. No to sabotage the American rocket program to introduce perhaps disastrous international tensions. The James Bond films created something of a spy fad in American television and film such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series and the 2 Derrick Flint movies, Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, starring James Coburn.
The 1963 American 'fix-up' version of Ishiro Honda's King Kong vs Godzilla is all the stupid fun a kid could ask for, and shot in gorgeous color too. The title pretty much says it all and a wonderful time was had by all if you were the right age. The best SF film of the year was the now classic Jerry Lewis comedy, The Nutty Professor, an updated and hep take of Jekyll and Hyde. The British film The Damned (US These Are the Damned 1965) is an intriguing and grimly murderous film about radioactive children being held in caves by the government and meant to reseed a post-Atomic War world. Other than the grim and low budget The Day Mars Invaded Earth and Roger Corman's The Man With the X-Ray Eyes starring Ray Milland, 1963 as a whole had little to recommend it when it came to SF or genre monster films. 1963 saw the second of the James Bond films released, From Russia With Love.
1964 saw the release of my favorite under rated SF film, the adaptation of H.G. Wells First Men In the Moon and a wonderful adaptation it is too. First Men In the Moon is yet another successful Schneer/Harryhausen collaboration with wonderful art direction and design and delicately directed and staged. This team of filmmakers really knew how to present some awesome visions of alien landscapes with all the sense of wonder fully intact. Though a B movie, it is nevertheless a very clever one and gets high marks from me as one of the best SF flicks of all time. The only other science fiction movie of note that year was Robinson Crusoe On Mars, a film that was considered somewhat as a cutting edge bit of SF. It is a wonderful bit of fun, combining at first hard science with a story that then opens up to includes aliens complete with spaceships which shoot devastating rays of power; it was a definite favorite with me when I was a kid. Goldfinger, the third James Bond movie was released in 1964. This time the plot involves an attempt by a rich criminal to destroy America's gold supply at Fort Knox, thereby increasing the value of his own hoarded gold by many times. The Last Man On Earth (1964) and starring Vincent Price is based on Richard Matheson's own novel of the same name from 1954. Although retaining much of the novel's interesting story, low production values hurt the movie quite a bit.
The Bedford Incident from 1965 is borderline SF. It is a terrifically realized screenplay starring Richard Widmark and Sydney Poitier about a cat and mouse game between an American destroyer and a Soviet submarine in the far North Atlantic with the possibility of disastrous results; it is hard to find a better movie of its genre. Jean luc Goddard directed Eddie Constantine in the French SF film, Alphaville, a movie that has a lot of appeal in some circles. The mad and wonderful Italian SF camp classic Wild, Wild Planet was released in 1965 and is so bad it's hard to believe it wasn't done on purpose. Crack In the World was a B movie starring Dana Andrews about an underground project gone wrong which compromises th future of Earth itself. The Italian Planet of the Vampires, directed by horror mavin Mario Bava is an atmospheric but terrible movie that has the rumor attached to it that its set design may have inspired parts of Alien. The Satan Bug is a near future SF film directed by the veteran John Sturges and based on a book by Alistair MacClean and largely forgotten now. In 1965 the Terrence Young directed fourth feature film in the James Bond series was released, titled Thunderball, and based on Ian Fleming's 1961 novel which itself seems to have mysterious antecedants. Thunderball plays to the strengths of the James Bond series with women, exotic locales and technology shown off in fine display along with a gorgeous musical score by John Barry, the finest in the series. This time the plot involves an attempt by the criminal organization SPECTRE to blackmail the West by hijacking atomic bombs. Thunderball is as entertaining as any in the series and was well received at the time. Today its modern look has not suffered a wit as retro is very much in style today.
1966 was a seminal year for SF film as he first modern attempt to adapt a work of serious science fiction by a hard core member of the SF/fantasy writing community was the European production, Fahrenheit 451, directed by Francois Truffaut and based on the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name published in 1953. When it comes to the film version of Fahrenheit 451, I'm afraid we're left with an analogy to another European film released in 1966, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because that is precisely what Truffaut delivers. Truth to tell, SF fans are in a position when it comes to film that they are willing to take what they can get. Fahrenheit 451's lasting place on many SF best film lists perhaps owes more to what could have been than what actually was although there are many good moments in Fahrenheit 451. The problem however is that there are many more bad moments and the entire design of the film make it look as though it was shot as a student film without any money. Only in the final scenes of men and women walking in the falling snow in a forest memorizing books do we get even a little taste of the nuance and poetry of Bradbury's version of the novel. As for the novel, Bradbury apparently felt that, as people in American society became increasingly politically fractured, they would become increasingly attached only to those bits of literature that held especial relevance to them with the result that, when it came time for this new generation to write themselves, what they didn't like or acknowledge would be left out in a kind of nefarious self censorship that has become all too true today. Bradbury says that the overall thrust of Fahrenheit 451 was based on a fear of television and how it would eventually disconnect people from reading and it is noteworthy that it is television helicopters, all too present today in car chases, that help pursue Montag in the book. Alice In Wonderland
The other important science fiction film of 1966 was a breakthrough itself and that is Fantastic Voyage. In Fantastic Voyage, we see a near future treated with a good deal of seriousness which was necessary to help convey the outrageous idea, even for SF, of shrinking people and matter for a visit into the body of a human being. Isaac Asimov was asked to write a novelization of the film and the film itself is based on the work of Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby, the latter, like Asimov, considered a member of the hard cord SF literary community, mostly on the strength of his classic short, "It's A Good Life", (1953). Fantatic Voyage's place in SF film history has been neglected but it is the first real taste SF fans had in film, although just a little taste, of what they had been enjoying so much in their beloved literature. 2 weeks after the release of Fantastic Voyage would see the fall television season introduce the original Star Trek TV series for which Bixby wrote 4 episodes.
So now the flood gates were beginning to open for the big screen when it came to film although television itself had been giving the mainstream public a taste of short SF for a decade. Queen of Blood was released by AIP in 1966, a 'fix-up' of a European film starring John Saxon, memorable for its weirdly atmospheric tone. 1966 saw the release of the engagingly camp spy classic Our Man Flint starring James Coburn and directed by the well respected Daniel Mann. Coburn lends considerable charm and authority to the character of super sexy super spy Derek Flint and the film is today considered a classic. The film's sequel from the following year, In Like Flint, suffers from unimaginative direction of a nearly incomprehensible screenplay and the tone of the original is largely missing.
You Only Live Twice (1967) was the fifth feature film in the James Bond series. For whatever reason it seems to have only basically kept the title from the Ian Fleming story it was 'adapted' from. As a James Bond film, it never really seems to hit its mark and the elegance of Thunderball is lost entirely, perhaps missing Terrence Young at the helm as a director although the film did well financially. The screenplay is somewhat an unfortunate one in its decision to immerse Bond and the audience in the Japanese culture and at times is nonsensically slow because of it and at other times just nonsensical, so much so at times that it makes Thunderball look like a documentary or the puppet series Thunderbirds. Sean Connery left the series after this film, perhaps because of some of the dialogue or felt the series had seen its better days. When it came to films from 1967, I'm afraid it was back to the fun factory for the only other 2 films of note that year. King Kong Escapes was another offering from Japan released a year later in the United States and a fun romp it is. On a slightly more serious note, Quatermass and the Pit was an effective and chilling movie about an alien spacecraft found in a subway dig in London and which is eventually thought to have had a psychic and unholy effect on the neighborhood for a very long time, though completely buried; it has what can only be termed unfortunate special effects however. The Night of the Big Heat is a fun little potboiler put out by Hammer Films that same year.
1968 saw the release of an SF film whose influence on subsequent science fiction films probably cannot be overstated, and that is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once again we have a work that based its basic premise on a work of SF by a hard core SF author, Arthur C. Clarke, who also co-wrote the screenplay and promotional novelization of the movie. More importantly, 2001 is an expansion of an idea first presented in a minor short story by Clarke, "The Sentinel", written in 1948. It is the story of an alien artifact found on the moon and thought to be very old and which is found to be transmitting radio signals which stop when the humans interfere with the artifact. The alien 'alarm clock' is the central idea of 2001 as it is the technology whereby the mysterious aliens keep track of the ascent of man, perhaps even being used in the past on Earth itself to educate primitive human beings. More alien 'alarm clocks' are found near Jupiter and are revealed now to perhaps have multiple functions beyond being educators and signaling devices, perhaps being the means to transport matter to other star systems. Some of the special effects in 2001 are so superb that they still mystify decades later, particularly the EVA scenes that takes place outside the Discovery. 2001 wonderfully reintroduces a sense of wonder to even hard core SF fans about things as prosaic to them as a space station and here SF film reveals its visual strength in its ability to convey that which SF literature itself cannot, though a short story collection such as Robert Heinlein's Green Hills of Earth does in its own way. 2001 is suffused with enough mystery and visual wonders to hold our attention until the very end.
The other important science fiction film of 1968 was Planet of the Apes, based on French author's Pierre Boulle's novel. Because of the break through make up effects, seriousness with which the material was treated and efforts of Charlton Heston, the mad idea of a story actually works to suspend our disbelief for 2 hours and today is considered an all time classic of SF film. Rod Serling's left over coda to the film from his gutted script gave SF film one of its most memorable endings and moments ever, and a true taste of the meeting place between SF and mundane reality. 2 years later a sequel was released, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and manages to convey enough grimness to once again make us forget the madness of what we're watching in the first place. Beneath the Planet of the Apes has another surprise and grim ending, once again resulting in SF's strength in putting into perspective that which we take for granted as the destruction of the Earth in the end is shown to us to be without consequence in the larger scheme of the universe as a voice over states the following: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead." Trashy sequels followed and the film was remade once again by Tim Burton in 2001 but its greatest interest was in it individuals ape characters and not the overall story and so the film suffered as a result, once again demonstrating that, in SF film, story treatment trumps special effects and design which, in and off themselves are worthless as note Event Horizon (1997) and Supernova (2000).
The third SF film of note to be released in 1968 is the awful and wonderful Barbarella, directed by the awful Roger Vadim and starring the wonderful Jane Fonda, based on the very naughty French comic strip. Barbarella is a camp cult classic because of its over the top art direction, set design and very well done costumes worn by Jane Fonda. The last film of note to mention from 1968 is The Power, starring George Hamilton which is a well done mystery thriller involving the use of psychic powers. Night of the Living Dead is the first of, to me, unfortunate spate of zombies brought back from the dead which chase around people films that have never gone away and seem to be more popular than ever. Night of the Living Dead is the only good one as far as I am concerned since it is the first and no more needed to be said or done about this insipid sub-genre of SF/fantasy/horror films.
Marooned, (1969) directed by the veteran John Sturges and starring Gregory Peck was a well thought of SF film at the time but the years have not treated it so well. The ill fated The Illustrated Man was released in 1969 and not all the good will on the part of SF fans could save this film from obscurity. Based on 3 tales from the short story collection by Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man seemed dated and time bound even when it was released. The only big time fun from 1969 for fans of fantasy adventure was the wonderful Valley of Gwangi, once again givng a us the Schneer/Harryhause team and to great effect. In Valley of Gwangi, kids have all they could wish for as cowboys and dinosaurs prove to be an imaginative and unbeatable combination thanks to the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. In Valley of Gwangi, old West cowboys accidently stumble onto a hidden valley full of prehistoric beasts, including one very hostile and hungry T-Rex-like beast. Through dumb luck the cowboys capture the dinosaur and decide to put it on display in a side show with predictible but fun results. Valley of Gwangi is similar in plot near the end of the film to King Kong and the death of the dinosaur is every bit as tragic as is the death of Kong.
The 1970s started off well for SF film with A Clockwork Orange and The Andromeda Strain, both released in 1971 and now classics in their own right but adapted from novels by Anthony Burgess and Michael Chrichton, 2 men with no connection to the group of authors who comprised the core of genre SF literature, writing instead with a view to a mainstream audience; as nice as these films were, they were light years behind the work that was being done by authors like Larry Niven whose Ringworld from the year prior won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best SF Novel and is a work considerably more sophisticated than any SF film of it's time or since for that matter. The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston has a lot of cult love for it and is loosely based on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend from 1954. 1971's entry in the James Bond series saw the return of Guy Hamilton from Dr. No as director and also the return of Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. This was the campiest of and least serious of the James Bond films to date and although it is generally well thought of it is considered to be the last of the classic James Bond films because of the departure of Sean Connery. Although Connery would return later to do one more Bond film, an era had passed and could not be recaptured. The Bond series would go on and on but the likes of the first four films in the series was its classic and best run.
1972 saw the release of Silent Running, a film well thought of by many today but which I find somewhat tedious. For whatever reason the film simply doesn't hold my attention although it is interesting to watch at least once and Bruce Dern gives a creditable performance in the lead role. Slaughterhouse 5 is based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel from 1969 and tends to be a movie one likes or is indifferent to. Somewhat dated now, Slaughterhouse 5 is nevertheless an interesting film but little more can be said of it for me although it depiction of middle class American culture and being utterly empty and boring almost mirrors SF fans penchant for the fantastic vs the humdrum. Solaris, produced in the Soviet Union and based on the novel from 1961 by Stanislaw Lem is a much loved film among some, but the snobbish nature of this like which seems to be based on the idea that the faster a film is paced the stupider it is holds no traction for me. I regard the film and its 2002 American remake as little better. Solaris is always ranked high on best SF film lists but I regard it as a film loved by people who don't know SF and can watch grass grow. Thematically the novel's premise is not a terribly interesting one when overly contemplated.
Westworld (1973) is a very fun take on a flawed concept which made for a good film thanks to the serious full steam ahead treatment of its material and the performance of Richard Benjamin and presence of Yul Brynner and spawned a sequel in 1976. 1973 also saw the release of the popular but dull SF comedy Sleeper, starring and directed by Woody Allen. Soylent Green came out this same year starring Charlton Heston and is an uneven blend of a B movie with some very nice scenes, particularly those involving Edward G. Robinson in his last role. Soylent Green is only loosely based on the 1966 and very prophetic novel Make Room, Make Room! by SF stalwart Harry Harrison and is directed by the sometimes bright Richard Fleischer and that is a good way to portray the film, sometimes bright and the design of the film fails to understand SF.
1974 was a dismal year for science fiction in film despite the overrated presence of the bewilderingly loved Dark Star. Zardoz, The Island At the Top of the World and the somewhat interesting The Terminal Man round out the year. Killdozer
A Boy and His Dog (1975) is based on the very bright novella by Harlan Ellsion from 1969 and it is a shame that the film cannot do it justice though it is a cult classic in its way. Walt Disney Studios released Escape To Witch Mountain which is an intriguing story because of its SF elements. Rollerball is a film that is a perfect example of SF in mainstream hands when it comes to its vision and presentation which is lackluster. Forget about how stupid or not the concept of the film is because it is never given a chance to suceed; stupider ideas have been made into good SF films. For any cutting edge commentary about society in Rollerball, it is left up to the viewer to infer and much as possible which SF fans, unfortunately, had become very good at doing thanks to design disasters like Rollerball. Once again Rollerball is on a long list of SF films that have attained cult status, cult invariably meaning bad. The Stepford Wives, like Westworld, does a certain amount of justice to a flawed and unworkable concept and does so with straightforward and grim attention to its subject matter and presented as a mystery thriller; trying to impose art direction or a sense of wonder in either film would have left people wondering a little too much. The Stepford Wives spawned forgettable sequels and in 2008 a comedic remake which is a disaster.
In 1976 yet another well intentioned failure was Logan's Run, based on a 1967 novel of the same name by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. The filmakers tried mightily but Logan's Run just didn't have quite the design sensibility to pull off the film. The unfortunate At the Earth's Core from 1976 is based on the 1914 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs which was the first in his 'Pellucidar' series.
Then came the year of 1977 and with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind everything changed. While neither film was written by an SF writer, they showed obvious influences from a more hard core SF fan base and brought a new level of quality to SF film, most notably in the art direction and special effects, not seen til that time. 1979's SF classic Alien rounded out the decade's trio of SF films destined to be all-time SF classics and relied heavily on an SF hard core literary base for its art directed environment.
The breakout decade of the 1980s started off quietly enough with the release of the 2nd in the Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and the well done Altered States. Similarly, the following year of 1981 had Outlander and The Road Warrior as the only 2 standouts unless one wishes to include John Carpenter's Escape From New York which starts off with some interesting SF elements and quickly devolves into mindless stupidity. In 1982 classic followed classic with ET: The Extraterrestial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the superlative Blade Runner, this last a nod to an SF writer who cut his teeth in the SF pulps, Phillip K. Dick as the film is based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Tron also from 1982 has its fans as it is the first SF film to depict cyberspace/virtual reality alá 1996's Palace by Katherine Kerr and Mark Krieghbaum or similar interface technologies in William Gibson's and Peter Hamilton's novels. To me it is no coincidence that in finally turning to SF genre literature as did Blade Runner, SF film saw perhaps it's most emotionally nuanced and touching movie ever; Tron may be one of the very few SF films to have ever impacted SF literature. Blade Runner is also noted for having perhaps the most influential art direction of any SF film to date. The other great SF film to come out that year which was also adapted from a work firmly within genre SF was the horrific The Thing, based on John W. Campbell's above mentioned "Who Goes There?" from 1938. Although I use the word classic in regard to these films modern SF film is quite clearly caught in the same place SF pulps were in the 1930s which is to say good childish fun with the occasionally interesting idea thrown in and SF films remain so in 2010. Rather more sophisticated relationships between people and an SF environment have been more common on TV through sheer volume if nothing else though there is a more adult approach in some TV episodes simply because there is room for such things because the focus on product is not as unrelenting as it is in film.
1983's only real SF film event of note saw the last of the original Star Wars trilogy released, The Return of the Jedi and the following year, 1984 had, amazingly, 1984, based on George Orwell's classic mainstream oriented novel on the dangers of perception and semantics and also that year came the very well done sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010. 1984 also gave us The Terminator, a bright treatment that once again upped the ante as to what the best in original SF screenplays was now capable of. 1984 was the year in which the ill-fated Dune was released, an SF film that did so much right and ultimately too much wrong to be considered a successful film though it certainly is a fun film to watch up to a point.
The other film worthy of mention from 1984 is Starman, directed by John Carpenter and starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. Starman is the story of an alien who visits Earth in order to contact humanity but his craft is shot down and he assumes the form of a woman's dead husband and proceeds to try and leave Earth with the unwilling and willing help of the woman played by Karen Allen. Starman has some genuinely intriguingly eerie moments in its first part and some warm depictions of an alien coming to understand and interact with an unfamiliar environment. The last third is chase but not badly done.
Star Trek 3: The Search For Spock is a direct sequel to Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and in fact, together with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, all three can be considered one long film. Star Trek 3 is a very nicely done film and continues the wonderful musical score by James Horner from Wrath of Khan. and The very eccentric Repo Man which was a film designed to be weird from the ground up. How people come up with stories like Repo Man and then make them into films is an amazement to me but I'm glad they do. On a completely crazy note is Buckeroo Banzai's Adventures Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), as completely crazy an SF film as you'd ever want to see and starring Peter Weller striking the perfect tone as the title character. Although obviously a satirical comedy, its production values, or lack of them, is a mystery to me as either one of the canniest and brilliant bits of schlock design ever done on purpose or one of the worst designed films in history. One thing is for certain, even the people who made the film could never capture the specific weird tone of that film again. In passing it should be said that John Lithgow is brilliant as a mad alien.
1985 saw one of the best original screenplays to ever be made into an SF film, the superlative Back To the Future, a bright and witty SF comedy and what can be considered a nearly flawness but not overhandled film, and also the release of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, a film that manages to find some wonderfully nuanced moments in between the action sequences. Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a film which has many fans was released in 1985 as was the very well received at the time but now mostly forgotten Cocoon, directed by Ron Howard. One of my favorite films of 1985 is My Science Project, a film also now almost totally forgotten but one which very much typifies the tone and special effects of 80s 'golden age' films. Enemy Mine, a film where 2 enemy space fighter pilots must learn to live together while marooned on a hostile planet rounds out the year of 1985 as worthy of mention.
1986 saw the release of yet another wonderful film destined to be a classic and based on an original screenplay, James Cameron's Aliens, a fantastic upgunning of an SF environment where the tech world /art direction was of as much importance as was the story itself. That year's The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis tried a seriousl dramatic take on the traditional 50's monster movie and succeeded in horrific fashion. A vastly entertaining screenplay makes Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the last movie from 1986 to be worth mentioning.
The following year, 1987, saw the release of another film very typical of the 80s tone and style, Batteries Not Included. The dark horse thriller The Hidden, with Kyle MacLachlan of Dune fame was also released in 1987 as was John McTiernan's seminal Predator, an SF film that took full advantage of the now much more sophisticated SF vocabulary the mainstream film going public possessed to present SF technologies but without ever really talking about them and so giving full play instead to the pacing of the story. Predator also had some major league and innovative cinematography that advanced and enhanced the film's story without being the least bit self-conscious and which McTiernan would go on to perfect in 1988's mainstream action blockbuster Die Hard and 1990's borderline SF film, The Hunt For Red October. This trilogy of McTiernan films were seminal in that they subtly redefined filmmaking presentation in some ways and the "big" telephoto , small depth-of-field look of those 3 films has become a hallmark. 1988 also saw the release of a cult comedy classic, Earth Girls Are Easy and yet another film that has attained a cult following, John Carpenter's, They Live. That last year of the 80's gave us another very well done film by James Cameron, The Abyss. Japanese Science Fiction animei came into its own as the decade of the 80s came to a close with the 1988 release of the very well received Akira and The Venus Wars in 1989.
The 1980s was a golden age for science fiction films with an unprecented number of really entertaining films with high production values although arguably only 2 were truly successful that came from hard core SF authors, those films being The Thing and Blade Runner though some might add Enemy Mine from 1985, based on a 1979 Barry Longyear story originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine; the following 2 decades have come nowhere near matching the nearly frenzied output of SF films that the 80s produced.
Probably the best films to kick off the 90's were Predator II and Total Recall, the latter another adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story; though considerably dumbed down and changed, it is still a fun romp full of advanced tech and strange visions. 1991's Terminator II: Judgement Day presented a completely new vision of James Cameron's Terminator and despite a good heaping of mindless violence, presented some very creative SF technological visions. 1992's only film of note to me was the third entry in the Alien franchise titled, appropriately enough, "Alien 3". Though once again the film is little more than humans trapped with a monster, when it comes to SF film, it is frequently how the story is presented and not what is presented that is the deal breaker for me as ideas, in and of themself are of little worth either in film or literature if they are not told with authority. In the case of SF film, this is even truer for me than in literature as it is the tone of how a story is presented on film that drives SF movies and in this Alien 3 is a success; SF film is after all a visual medium and it is the visual presentation of strange events in strange places that is the strength and also weakness of SF film compared to its literary cousin.
Jurassic Park, (1993), was a seminal event for special effects in SF film as it was the first to convincingly apply digital effects on a grand scale combined with well done animatronics. Although the film starts out promisingly enough, it soon devolves, as is too often the case in this series, into a type of amusement park itself, with boring and over directed set piece thrill rides in the second half. The two sequels, Lost World, (1997) and Jurassic Park III, (2001), had similar overly controled chase scenes. However, while it is easy to dismiss the trilogy out of hand as one which quickly became a charicature of itself, it should be noted that on many levels Jurassic Park remains a cinematic achievement in the realm of SF film. What the series lacks is real tension and heart; the scene in Lost World where the T-Rex goes on a rampage in a modern city should have been a dream come true for long suffering and special effects challenged SF film fans but for some reason the sequence just doesn't have the fun and sense of wonder that a similar Harryhausen stop motion sequence had and there was a distinct sense of anti-climax for me in wondering where the sense of wonder had gone; perhaps the problem resides on a more personal level for me and was just a case of too much too late or perhaps I am simply spoiled because in a very real sense, the Jurassic film franchise is an embarrassment of riches if not the presentation of those riches.
1994 saw the release of a very creditable adaptation of Robert Heinlein's 1951 overly neglected novel of the same name, The Puppet Masters. The novel The Puppet Masters presaged a decade of monster movies and was in itself a strange departure for the usually more literary and creative Heinlein although one could argue that the early date of its publication does not preclude creativity on Heinlein's part. Perhaps the reason The Puppet Masters has been lost in the shuffle is that its place in time has been lost because of the invasion genre that came close on its heels in film. Although a treatise of thoughts of individualism the novel's setting in a future post-atomic world sets it on a slightly higher level.
Stargate, also from 1994 and produced from an original screenplay, was a fun film but did little to advance the cause of cinematic SF though the film certainly has its innovative moments and has rather high production values. What Stargate did do however is serve as the basis of a long running TV series starting in 1997, Stargate: SG-1as well as 2 shorter spin-offs, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe and also 2 made-for-TV movies. Stargate: SG-1 originally started off as a rather boring version of The Time Tunnel but considerably expanded its scope and so its popularity.
In 1995 there were 2 "cyperpunk" films released, Johnny Mnemonic and the better done and more nuanced Strange Days, the former based on a 1981 short story by the man credited with the creation of literary cyberpunk, William S. Gibson; in a sense, in treading closer to its core ideas, Strange Days out-cyberpunked Gibson's adaptation although in no sense was this Gibson's fault. Unfortunately Johnny Mnemonic did little to realize the brilliance of Gibson's visions. That same year also gave us the very well done and well received film by Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys, based on a short 1962 French art film named Le Jetee which was de rigeur for art students to see for many years. 1995's Screamers is a film that starts off with a grim and clever feel and degenerates into a slow chase film increasing devoid of cleverness. The 1953 short story, "Second Variety", by Phillip K. Dick on which the film is based is substantially the same story but with a more straightforward approach; as decent as the story is I'm not sure there is an entire film there and would probably be more suitable in a venue like the 90s Outer Limits show of TV.
1996 saw the release of the terrible and terribly popular Independence Day, a movie I prefer to forget.
1997 gave us Paul Verhoeven's tongue in cheek Starship Troopers, so loosely based on the groundbreaking Robert Heinlein 1959 novel of the same name that I wonder why it was even mentioned. At the same time, Starship Troopers was innovating SF film and its like had not been seen in on the big screen before. That same year, 2 of the brightest films in the history of cinematic SF to date appeared, Gattaca and that superb tour de force of SF film making, The Fifth Element. From this same year, Alien Ressurection came out with the fourth installment in the Alien series and once again starring Sigouney Weaver as the centuries cursed warrant officer Ripley. Alien Ressurection maintains the quality of the preceding films just enough to be vastly entertaining fans of the series.
1997's Contact starring Jodie Foster and based on the Carl Sagan 1985 novel of the same name is a very well highly thought of SF film which strives mightily for verisimilitude but to me is really nothing more than an upgunned hour long episode of The Outer Limits but without the penchant for the evocative which that TV show could do so well. In putting off a rather more literal presentation of an alien culture in favor of tension and mystery, one is rather left with the feeling of an SF film that is ashamed of itself as an SF film although what is presented is very well done but seems to strive to be the opposite of a monster film rather than be itself. Many disagree with me. Contact does very well on its own terms but doesn't strive for all that much; a little more intrigue or dreaminess in lieu of the non-action would have been welcome and some evocative film passages with a musical score like those in The Outer Limits would have gone far to help Contact in turning some of the boringest scenes into the brightest, a simple conversation under a night sky into a brilliant interlude full of the sense of wonder that surely must have been inside Foster's character.
Silly as it sounds, some of the most wonderful moments in SF TV have been comprised of conversations full of pathos, empathy and a sense of the near tragic accompanied by wonderful musical scores and which have provided a meeting place for the mundane and the bizarre which can draw in a unique poetry which is after all at the heart of science fiction at its best. When you make an SF film that skimps on the action in favor or credibility this is the way it has to be as there needs to be a vehicle to provide that sense of wonder in an age where naive amazement of mundane technologies has been overwhelmed by sensory overload; this is not 1962.
1998 was most notable for it's rather ambitious pot-boilers such as Armageddon, Deep Impact, Lost In Space, Soldier and Sphere. The sole exception that year was Dark City, written and directed by Alex Proyas who had also directed the well done The Crow from 1994. Dark City is an indeed dark modernization of the theme of the unwitting human captives of aliens reminiscent of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.
The Matrix from 1999 was probably the best effort for the rest of the decade and very well thought of by some, with an influence from Japanese animei and comic books as much as from SF literary cyberpunk.
2000 saw the release of similarly done hard SF treatments of a manned visit to Mars in Mission To Mars and Red Planet, both very well done films made from original screenplays and both having that Heinlein straight forward, matter-of-fact flavor to them reminiscent of Heinlein's Green Hills of Earth days.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) was the first film to attempt to create realistic characters entirely by the use of computers. It is a very entertaining film to watch and not bad SF as it has what is missing in arguably better films and that is a presentation of a sense of wonder in regards to its material.
For me, the best written SF film of 2002 was M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, unusual for Shyamalan in that it is more than a one-note O'Henry, E.C. comic type of presentation that has legs that enables one to watch it more than once. 2002 also saw the release of 28 Days Later which had a sequel titled 28 Weeks Later released in 2007. In a field of zombies chasing people films already far too crowded for me, I prefer to forget both films. Imposter, a film starring Gary Sinese and based on the Phillip K. Dick 1953 short story was released to little fanfare but is a very interesing story utilizing the usual Dick fare of faux identities and the theme of who is human and what does it mean to be so.
After Children of Dune, the year 2003 was rounded out with the second and third films of the Matrix trilogy and with the very well done third installment in the Terminator franchise, Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines. The Core was released in 2003 and bores into the center of the Earth and into the viewer's patience in equal measure. This is the type of theme that was better done in the 50s and 60s and with lesser special effects. Perhaps when one has no effects money one has to concentrate more on cultivating that sense of wonder; for whatever reasons, The Core is a failure at SF entertainment, perhaps relying too much on the audience simply being in awe of what is taking place without taking the trouble to convey that awe, as did for example, First Men In the Moon when showing landscapes accompanied with appropriate music; one must make the characters and through them the audience viewers in a travelogue of the fantastic. There is a matter of factness about The Core and rushed quality to it that is a result of an unfocused screenplay of an ill advised project. Forget the idea of the failed 'science' of The Core or that the interior of the Earth resembles the interior of Jupiter - it's science fiction, fictional science and a lively screenplay would have worked wonders. With all the wonderful SF novels out there that could have been made into films for half the money, one wonders why the film's source novel, Core (1993) was adapted. It's not so much bad science that kills The Core but a lack of science altogether and respect for its own internal logic with is simply thrown out the window; The Core may as well have used an exorcist to fix the problem as atom bombs. Paycheck was a 2003 adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick short story from 1953, the same early year that "Second Variety" was published and which is the basis for the film Screamers. Paycheck has some interesting story elements involving time paradoxes.
2004 saw new blood injected into both the Alien and Predator series in the aptly named Alien VS Predator, a smashing presentation that once again went against the grain as sequels in this series have maintained an incredibly high quality of story and presentation. In AV, we see humans unwitting pawns in a deadly game of cat and mouse in an Aztec pyramid buried for millienia under the Antarctic ice and the production values all around are stunningly high though for some reason some have panned the film. That same year saw the release of the entertaining but unequal Chronicles of Riddick in which Vin Diesel reprises his role from the 2000 film Pitch Black, to somewhat better and expansive effect. Also that year saw a high point for Japanese animei with the release of Ghost In the Shell 2: Innocence and the brilliant Appleseed which would have a very good sequel released in 2007, Appleseed Ex Machina which has some stunning visuals of a future city and its technology. Scarcely to be mentioned from 2004 is the well intentioned Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, based on sometimes rather specfic imagery from the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from the early 1940s. Last and least for 2004, I, Robot, presumably based on Isaac Asimov's beloved short stories about the problematic relationships in a far future between robots and humans has little to recommend it. The Day After Tomorrow was released in 2004 and made a ton of money. For me this boring SF film about freezing hurricanes and the sudden onslaught of an ice age was a ton of nonsense.
2005 saw the release of the also well intentioned but off the rails production of The Sound of Thunder, based on the all-time classic and greatly revered short story of the same name by Ray Bradbury. The Fantastic Four, a long awaited film based on the Marvel Comics Company centerpiece suffered from poor casting which in and of itself can wreck a film. That same year a reprise of The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy missed the mark and for me never rises to the level of humor the 1981 BBC TV production. Missing the mark might also be said of The Island, a somewhat entertaining 2005 film but one which suffers from a credibility of the underlying premise, even for science fiction; a nice performance by Scarlett Johansson and the usual yeoman effort by Ewen McGregor put off the inevitable disappointment but it was a nice try with, in the end, an unworkable concept. Hard to believe there was so much legal wrangling as a result of the film's release not only because of the sparseness of the story but because it has so many antecedents such as George Lucas' 1971 film, THX-113 but also going back almost 100 years to E.M. Forester's short story, "The Machine Stops".
The last film I mention from 2005 was arguably the best one, at least in terms of originality and not overhandling its own material, and that is Serenity, an unselfconscious and entertaining offering that is an extension of the Firefly TV series. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, is a film, like its prior 2 in the trilogy that is the opposite of a concise archetype when it comes to its background story, which is confusing and could have used some cliche's in its construction for the characters to more sensibly move about in the movie. This last entry in the trilogy that comprises a prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy has some very nice moments for fans of this type of film but the embarrassment of riches in terms of special effects seems to be wasted or squandered at times. The presentation of the story is scattered in such a way that I never bought into the tragedy at the end of the film. The old cliche about a film lacking heart is true when it comes to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
2006 started with the release of A Scanner Darkly, based on a Phillip K. Dick 1977 novel and an author who I may frankly say is highly overrated these decades later in a way that I find disturbingly politically correct, reflecting the avante garde SF of the 1960s. Its like I want to say, who died and made Phillip K. Dick boss? He had some good work and was respected at the time but Dick had a lot of company and he was hardly the SF voice and talent of the 60s. In any event, the ill-advised use of shallow and simplistic animation software used in TV commercials doomed A Scanner Darkly from the start as far as I am concerned. That year also saw the release of the most overrated SF film in recent years, Children of Men; the love so many people have for this film is simply a mystery to me as it is not only derivative and boring but once again shows a love of not trying to be something rather than trying to be its own entity and I am no fan of politically correct and 'serious' science fiction when it is done in this vein. I can only imagine that people who love this film have not read a great deal of rather more classic science fiction as it is an idea that has been done to death and once again is a rare instance where, like Contact, the film could have used a few 'triffids' rather than congratulating itself on how sober it is for being a zombie-less zombie movie because it comes off as a stern and humorless mother's version of 28 Days. I find the attachment people get for such SF films as Children of Men and novels like Cormac McCarthy's The Road from 2006 to be slightly perplexing not to say disturbing.
It is almost as if people still in this era wish to deny the full expression of science fiction as having any 'real' worth, even going so far as, in the case of The Road, as denying it even is SF which it clearly is and boringly derivitive SF at that yet, by denying it's genre, it has won a Pulitzer Prize in what to me is a clear expression of political correctness and slap at the writers of science fiction as bascially juveniles. It's an ironic turnabout from the realm wherein SF literature resides and which its fans and writers view that place, namely one of non-mainstream fine art that resists the corruption of dumbed down mainstream attitudes. The problem is that in the United States, fine art itself has been corrupted and subverted and the result, in my opinion, is the strange traction that movies like Children of Men and novels like The Road enjoy. SF fans and writers alike are left to wonder why someone is being given the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for reinventing a hypodermic needle and this problem with original screenplays by people who have never really read SF, though much improved in recent decades, plagued SF film in the beginning as SF film tended to rebuild SF from the ground up while in literature, they were working on the 50th floor. The novel, The Road and the film Children of Men show, at least in my opinion, that some are still working in the basement. For the unenlightened, they should try reading Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein and then look at the publication date.The idea that the less accessible a story is the better is a cultural conceit among the 'congnoscenti'. Good things are where you find them and not where you expect them. Keep looking in the same old places in the same old way and you'll find very little, dismissing the great and lauding the trite; fun does not equal stupidity and more importantly, soberness is not a mathematical formula for insight - to suggest so is the opposite of insight.
2006 also saw the release of Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington and an intriguing film it is as are all time travel paradoxes done in this vein which seem to come with a healthy dose of wistful evocative feeling as part of the territory as in the film, The Time Machine from 1960, Robert Heinlein's 1956 novel, The Door Into Summer or Peter Hamilton's 2001 novel, Fallen Dragon. Although the comic book creator distanced himself from the film's release, 2006's V For Vendetta was a breath of fresh air in the genre of SF film. Adapted from a graphic novel comic, despite wholesale changes it is hard to argue with the final product.
2007 saw the release of yet another in the hugely popular Alien/Predator franchise, Alien vs Predator: Requiem. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was, having long ago learned to enjoy what SF film has to offer rather than what it does not offer compared to SF literature, it is not well liked by many but the production values and cleverness and adherence to the traditions of the franchise is well done all around in my opinion. Arguing that Alien vs Predator: Requiem is nothing more than a 'B' movie is no argument to me since, compared to SF literature, even the best of Star Wars is a 'B' movie and films like Contact have no special traction for me in this regard; the idea that the less entertainment value the better the ideas is a pseudo-intellectual conceit which is itself junenile. Very few films in the history of cinematic SF have risen to a high level while in literary SF, there are many. Hardcore SF addresses its fans and not the mainstream public and this is why there is so much quality in literary SF but in fairness to film, writing and imagination are virtually free as is the craftsmenship. Transformers is the last film of note for the year to me but only for the attention it got for despite all its bluster it is only an average film which could have used a great deal more focus in its art direction, something that benefitted, for example, a film on a similar level, 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra. Yet another potboiler of a fim that made a lot of money was I Am Legend, the third film based of Richard Matheson's vampirically decimated future world and starring Will Smith. It is uncertain why the film was made as it offers nothing new or exciting in terms of its material. While it is creditably done it is also somewhat boring. Next, starring Nicholas Cage finds his character the unwilling victim of his ability to see into a limited future, based on Phillip K Dick's "The Golden Man".
2008 saw the release of a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still which owes its story to the original 1951 film's screenplay and not to the original 1940 short story by Harry Bates, "Farewell To the Master" but without that prior film's solid presentation. In Bates story no explanation for the alien visit to Earth is ever given and other than a very few scenes the 1951 version lifted from the book, that film in fact is not an adaption of the short story in any real sense but a whole new and far different story.
The 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still is a film with no brightness or awareness of how to excel at presenting its own material and the movie is different enough from the original that the title doesn't even make sense and its screenplay so empty and inept that one wonders how it was used in the first place. The young boy in the film is terribly cast as a terrible actor and has little place in the film other than to take up screen time without the firm place his equivalent character had in the 1951 film. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still is not a film that cried out to be remade, like many, from deficiencies in special effects. This 2008 remake in fact, in terms of its screenplay, a step backwards and so its special effects went for naught.
The Godzilla/Beast From 10,000 Fathoms reprise Cloverfield, suffers from stinginess of material. In an age of special effects, there is no need to suffer through so much film time as we often did decades past simply because it was so difficult or costly to make special effects; doing so to create tension is one thing, doing so to pass film time another. A bright light for 2008 was the release of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, a seachange in SF filmaking and one which will be difficult to duplicate. Rarely has such eccentric material been so delicately handled in fantastic film and it is partially as a result of the filmakers taking their very frivolous material very seriously and to great effect. Guillermo del Toro finely directs his well cast group of actors as if it was Shakespeare on the London stage. Luke Goss in particular, who plays the protagonist Prince Nuada, delivers as finely controlled a use of voice as you are ever likely to see in film and the entire project is a monument to del Toro's commitment to an unvarnished presentation of his vision without regard to a mainstream audience. In 2008, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated feature was released and is an entertaining adjunct to the TV animated series. The film doesn't aspire to be more than it presents and so is successful entertainment.
The last year of the decade, 2009, saw the release of a small tour-de-force of animated film making, Nine, which I found to be as eccentric an animated film and perhaps as brilliant a one as you may ever see. Nine takes place in a near future or alternate Earth shortly after mankind wipes itself out battling machines of its own creation. 9 miniature clockwork Frankensteins, each with some aspect of the sould of the scientist responsible for creating the killer machines struggle to survive against the last remnant of the machine technology. Some of the design of the film, based on depictions of George Orwell's 1984 and H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds are simply brilliant as is the precise attention to detail. No childrens film this, with a nice pace and utterly unpredictable and the artistry of the film is at the highest level. District Nine, a 2009 offering based around South African apartheid but practised on refugee aliens was too literal for my taste and in the end amounted to nothing more than a one line joke though many praise and love the film as a brilliant and creative dark horse and in fact District 9 was very well received. My feeling is that the strength of SF is utterly circumvented by District Nine; if one wishes to make a film criticising apartheid there are more outside the box and not so literal ways to do so. District Nine might as well have just rotoscoped actual black folks since it takes place in an actual slum. One doesn't need SF as a vehicle in 2009 to point out that racism is wrong.
Next for 2009 I bring you G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a film likely to be dismissed because of its comic book nature but which points up the fact that is so common in SF film, it can be the technology and visual effects and design wherein resides a somewhat more nuanced expression of SF; I say that with little satisfaction because it is all there often is in SF film and sometimes you have to take what you can get. Based on the G.I. Joe doll franchise, the film is nicely directed by the brilliant Steven Sommers but not without tongue in cheek. In one extended chase sequence, a good swath of Paris is destroyed with unknown civilian casualties, the heroes arguably wrecking and killing more than they hoped to save in the first place in a scene reminiscent of one in the hilarilously filthy, Team America: World Police from 2004. G.I. Joe is a very fun and well done film if one accepts it for what it is and is and not for what it isn't.
That same year saw the release of Moon, a much loved film in some circles about a man working alone on a mining installation on the moon who discovers that he may or may not be a clone, created for work and nothing else and also with a severely limited life span alá Blade Runner and like Blade Runner, the film Moon explores what it means to be human. Star Trek set in an alternate universe from the one in the original TV series is a bright, energetic and fun film with some marvelous scale to its cinematography. Terminator Salvation from 2009 is the fourth in the immensely popular Terminator series and not a bad entry at all, being somewhat of a mystery. Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis is an interesting murder mystery in a future America where people use android avatars to conduct their lives outside of home. Surrogates neither grasps for or delivers too much and ultimately is a forgettable film. Watchmen is that rarest of all superhero films, a character based action film. Watchmen seems to be one giant special effect but is ultimately a satisfying outside-the-box bit of filmaking based on the Watchmen comic book from the 1980s with wonderful design work and casting as eccentric as the film itself. As the first decade of the once fabulously imagined 21st century has come to a close, action oriented SF film with a little too much emphasis on special effects has come to the fore and one wonders where the next Gattaca or Blade Runner will come from and for at least now, Hollywood seems to have totally turned its back on classic science fiction literature.
Not to be forgotten is the 2009 release of Avatar. 2012, based on the urban myth the the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012 is a blockbuster special effects film that made a lot of money. Unfortunately, it is too harrowing by far as the protagonists flit from unlikely escape to unlikely escape in a manner that stretched even science fiction. Other than those near brushes with disaster, there is not a whole lot going on in 2012. Knowing, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Nicholas Cage is an interesting science fiction mystery story and a sometimes creepy X-Files-like one at that. While its matter of fact screenplay keeps Knowing from moving to a higher level, perhaps it could be argued that staying within itself by not being overwritten or art directed served the film. Presenting itself more like a two part episode of The Outer Limits rather than a great blathering blockbuster works on a certain level though Knowing risks looking more like a made-for-TV movie as a result. A big screen remake of the 2 part Outer Limits episodes, "The Inheritors", would have provided the same mystery and a rather more sensical and straightfoward plot in terms of the altruistic alien motivation than does Knowing; the film's allusion to faith in conjunction with the god-like alien's ability to prophecize utterly and to have the desire and ability to reseed humans on another world is something for us to ponder on apparently.
Not to be forgotten is the realm of fantasy literature which, relatively speaking, has been virtually ignored for most of the long history of the cinema. The brilliant and well received, Lord of the Rings film trilogy, adapted from the cherished novels of J.R.R. Tolkein are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast wealth of great fantasy literature just waiting to be adapted to the big screen. The success in terms of both the production and reception of the Harry Potter novels is further evidence of the great potential of what so far has been a largely untapped well. Fantasy literature, though popular in a modern form for well over 100 years, didn't have a lasting breakthrough with the mainstream public until Tolkein caught fire in the 1960's.
Before Tolkein, fantasy literature had a great and decades old tradition of many fine novels and in widely varying form. From works that captivated the general public such as Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, the tales of Barrie's Peter Pan and Baum's Oz and thence to works that appealed more to folks who had a distinct taste for fantasy literature such as Lilith (1895) by George MacDonald, that obscure tour de force of nightmarish horror, The Nightland (1912) by William Hope Hodgson or the short story, "The Tower Of the Elephant" (1933) by Robert E. Howard, written fantasy had a stubbornly loved place in American culture. Now that fantasy has emerged in the cinema with films that have honored the genre with quality and therefore credibility, one can only hope that someday such now largely ignored classics as The Ship of Ishtar (1924), by the one-time hugely popular Abraham Merritt, Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser stories or The Eyes Of the Overworld, (1966), by Jack Vance, who is as good a prose stylist as American literature has ever seen in any genre, will someday come to the big screen. One cannot mention a prose stylist without mentioning the much loved Ray Bradbury who shared with Jack Vance the rare gift of melding clever story lines with unforgettable prose. In that same prose vein are the arcane and eldritch works of the unique and sometimes great, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. Worth noting here is the BBC's fine and one might say courageous production of Gormanghast, (2000), which was based on the first 2 books of Mervyn Peake's Gormanghast Trilogy. Those novels are, Titus Groan 1946, and Gormanghast, 1950.
The Golden Compass, (2007) Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (2005), are very well done and have been very well received as well. George R. R. Martin's very complicated, popular and long fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, though having only 4 of it's projected 7 novels completed has reportedly been picked up by HBO with the intention of a mini-series; fantasy in the cinema has at long last come of age and it was the Tolkein film trilogy that opened the doors and why not; enjoyed in equal parts by both the mainstream public and by lovers of fantasy it is perhaps a particularly appropriate way to introduce fantasy in a big time cinematic way. As I earlier said, once thought to be unfilmable, the Lord Of the Rings trilogy of films has shown that, when it comes to fantasy, nothing is now beyond the grasp of the cinema.
The world of fantasy film has been shook up with the release of the Harry Potter films which are among the very best that film fantasy has ever offered. Since J.K. Rowling's books are read by children for the most part and who have fueled the series popularity in book form, it is unlikely such a young audience is in any way conversant with classic fantasy and so the verdict for Rowling's writing must be left to a future generation to judge. With the advent of sophisticated screen plays, design and special effects however, the legacy of the Potter films is assured for a long time to come and it is difficult to conceive of fantasy films that could put the series in its place; along with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series of film will be the benchmark by which all other film fantasy is measured for some time to come.
The realm of fantastic literature, unlike it's counterpart in film, is so rich and deep and wonderful a tradition that it sometimes seems an inexaustible source of great reading though those filmmakers who dip into that tradition are sometimes misguided because they are not true fans of fantastic literature.
1951 A Christmas Carol
1954's Ulysses is a fun take on mythology starring Kirk Douglas in the title roll and is another one of those fantasy films that seems lost to the ages. Outside of Turner Classic Movies there are few if any venues on cable TV these days to show old potboiler fantasy and science fiction. A new generation does not like the look, tone and pacing of films they generally consider creaky and nearly unwatchable no matter their pedigree.
1957's The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas like Curse of the Demon, relies on atmosphere and a building of tension to provide the thrills in this British entry into the genre. The final scenes fo the creatures are some of the most memorable in fantastic film. Night of the Demon is a curious film in the genre of 'monster' films because for kids who wanted to see those monsters with the special effects however bad is something of a disappointment and was run in the same theaters on the same bills as other genre montster movies. On the other hand, Curse of the Demon is a slightly more adult take on fantastic film and its atmospheric tone is highly effective to a more mainstream audience. The special effect used to portray the demon is horrifyingly unique and the scare factor of the film on a higher level than most horror/fantasy as it suffuses the length of the film rather than scares only in parts.
1958's Bell, Book and Candle is a light romantic comedy fantasy starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is yet another fantasy project which teams Harry Schneer and Ray Harryhausen and to great success. Never before had such creatures been seen on the big screen and today The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is rightly considered a classic of fantastic film. The Thing that Couldn't Die
1959's Black Orpheus is one of my very favorite fantasy films. It is a movie directed by Frenchman Marcel Camus entirely on location in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The yearly Carnaval in Rio is the backdrop for the retelling of a mythical love story between Eurydice and Orpheus who live in a shanty town. The lack of production values to which we are accustomed today lends a kind of charm and even at time documentary feel to the story. The House On Haunted Hill (1959) was considered a very scary film in its day and is a minor classic among horror films. The Mummy (1959) was an attempt by Hammer Films to create a scary new version of the Universal classics and largely succeeds. Terrence Fisher of James Bond fame is once again at the helm of a Hammer horror film.
House of Usher was the first of Roger Corman and Vincent Price's vehicles based on work by Edgar Allen Poe. House of Usher provides not one moment of fresh air and the sufocating nature of Corman's visions are memorable bits of fantasy/horror filmmaking. Every moment seems drawn out to the utmost in search of tension, mostly to great effect. 1960's The Thief of Baghdad is a good example of how the enthusiasm of a child can make up for bad acting, poor production values and much more as long as the filmmaker's stay true to the idea of delivering unadulterated fantasy with a valiant hero and his love. Steve Reeves plays a lowly thief who sets out to find the Blue Rose, a legendary flower that will awaken a princess from a coma-like spell. In order to find this Rose Reeve's character must go through dangerous and mystical obstacles. A rousing musical score and sense of genuine wonder and fun made this film one of my favorites to watch over and over again when I was a kid. Fallen into obscurity now, it is a fond memory. The end of the film features a battle sequence where Reeve's character is multiplied many times over into an army who fight only with bludgeons rather than spears or swords. Reeves displays a rather more Errol Flynn-like dash in the film than in any of his other efforts, perhaps in homage to Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. Full of invisible capes, faceless men and evil women, The Thief of Baghdad is perhaps the most memorable of the Italian 'sword and sandal' movies to come out of that era. If 2010's Prince of Persia had been made with 1/2 the elan of Reeve's Thief of Baghdad, it would have been some kind of move. Black Sunday is a film I remember seeing lot long after it was released. I loved the movie and remember it as being distinctly creative and original for a genre B film, unrelentingly grim and horrible fun and with that heavy and cloying atmosphere that leaves you wishing for just one sunny day to relieve the tension, as in the Corman/Poe films.
Atlantis the Lost Continent (1961) is a film directed by George Pal but with little of the Pal magic usually associated with his projects. Although fun if you're young enough, Atlantis, the Lost Continent is not a film that is well thought of although it has some intriguing uses of ancient technology. Curse of the Werewolf (1961) saw Hammer Films horror stalwart once again at the helm as director as Hammer made another stab at reintroducing Universal monsters to a new era. Curse of the Werewolf is loosely based on The Werewolf of Paris (1933) by Guy Endore and does a nice job of depicting a more modern and violent version of the werewolf story but little more can be said of it. The Innocents, based on the Henry James short story "The Turn of the Screw" is a wonderfully scary film made all the more so by the fact that the whole thing may be in the overwrought imagination of a highstrung governess. In its style and portrayal of its subject matter The Innocents is unique and something of a triumph; it must be regarded as one of the best films of its kind ever made. The deplorable The Mask is notable for being a late entry in the 3D market and for its promotion being more creative than the film itself. Promotionally minded William Castle directed Mr.Sardonicus, a noble attempt in horror/fantasy at depicting some rather unusual subject matter that continues to have a fan following on a muted level. The Pit and the Pendulum was the 2nd of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe vehicles starring Vincent Price. The design of the Corman Poe films was surprisingly different and effective and the cobwebby eeriness of the films in the series unrelenting. Although sharing a title with Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum there is little resemblence between the two.
1962's The Cabinet of Caligari is an eerie mood piece that tries unsuccessfully to pull horror out of thin air and fails. Eegah! is a horror of a little fantasy about an immortal caveman played by Richard Kiel who played Jaws in the James Bond films. Eegah! is squarely aimed at teenagers as a film to laugh through as its dramatic scences are quite badly done although great fun for a kid at the time. The Premature Burial is another entry in the AIP Roger Corman directed film adapted from Edgar Allen Poe. Corman needs all the cobwebs and atmosphere he can wrangle and succeeds to a certain extent though for a kid it was rather something of a bore. Tales of Terror was another AIP entry from the same year that was exactly what the doctor ordered compared to The Premature Burial. Again directed by Roger Corman, atmospheric scares abound in a trio of shorts all starring Vincent Price and also Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre; all are based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. The Magic Sword is a low budget fantasy film about a too young hero played by Gary Lockwood that is a fairly creative take on derivative fantasy and one which I enjoyed quite a bit as a kid. Zotz! is a now largely forgotten film which I liked quite a bit at the time of its release. It is a fantasy comedy film starring Tom Poston who acquires an ancient magical piece in the form of a coin which grants him magical but problematic powers. Zotz! works well enough on its own level but has little seen the light of day in many years.
Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 release The Birds is an all time classic of weird fantasy. The Birds is based on the 1952 Daphne du Maurier short story about the sudden onset of aggressive hostility of normally placid common birds in a small costal California community. It was a startling film in its day and a horror fantasy that was anything but derivative. Black Sabbath, directed by Mario Bava, was a trio of shorts assembled in one film that always scared me and is a memorable bit of fantasy horror. Diary of a Madman, starring Vincent Price is based on Guy de Maupassant's classic "The Horla", a SF/fantasy short story from 1887 and a quite effective one too - better than the film upon which it is loosely based. The Haunting, directed by the great Robert Wise offers up scares without blood or visuals and is one of the scariest and best horror/fantasies of all time. Based on "The Haunting of Hill House", Robert Wise delivers up a masterpiece of atmoshere with enough real shocks to keep one on the edge of their seat throughout the film. The Raven is a fantasy comedy directed by the busy Roger Corman starring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Despite the veteran trio The Raven never really finds its punch and was little regarded at the time and not particularly funny. Jason and the Argonauts is an all time fantasy classic with the team of Harry Schneer and Ray Harryhausen finely tuned. Jason and the Argonauts is a film that has entirely its own look and tone, being in someways akin to the Italian 'sword and sandal' films but with more of an international feel that is entirely suited to its subject matter as is the largely unknown cast. Bernard Herrmann's deep throated score lends considerable depth to this engaging fantasy as does the superb stop motion sequences by Ray Harryhausen. Jason and the Argonauts seems to be at the top of everyone's list for their favorite Harryhausen film and it is hard to argue the point. Jason and the Argonauts has been a favorite with fans of fantatic films since its inception and its reputation and charm has only grown with the years. Captain Sinbad stars Guy Williams of TV's Lost In Space as the redoutable hero in a film that is now forgotten for the most part but is a fun take on adventure fantasy. Though it could have use the hand of Harryhausen fans of this typle of movie liked it well enough at the time but forget about seeing it on TV.
1964's The Comedy of Terrors is an AIP horror comedy featuring what had become a stock group of Roger Corman actors. Unfortunately this little gem of a film is rather like a lost puppy but I remember enjoying it immensely at the time of its release. James Bond director Terrence Fisher gave some slight atmosphere to the rather forgettable The Gorgon, starring Hammer film stalwarts Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The Masque of Red Death was another Roger Corman directed film adapting the work of Edgar Allen Poe. This offering once again stars Vincent Price in the lead role and is an eccentric film to say the least. Brutal use of color conspire to bring about some truly memorable scenes in a movie that is dripping with hopelessness and immorality. The madly weird Spider Baby has a unique place in C grade horror comedy if nothing else. One can only wonder why somebody would make such a film though it is undoubtedly fun to watch.
The Tomb of Ligeia was the last of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations and like the others in the series lacks hopelessness or sunshine in unprecedented force. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is an adaptation of The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney, (1935). George Pal directs and uses the film as a vehicle for his own experience in stop motion animation. Tony Randall is memorable in the film and plays multiple roles. Mary Poppins is a well-remembered film from this time. The Long Ships is a thoroughly entertaining fantasy that brings together such disparate cultures as Vikings and Moors. It is the story of the search for a fabulous and legendary great bell made entirely out of gold. What The Long Ships lacks in production values it makes up for with elan and the presence of stars Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. The Brass Bottle is a comedy fantasy about a man who comes into possession of a bottle complete with an ancient genie. The Brass Bottle stars Tony Randall, Burl Ives and of all people, Barbara Eden in a charming film that deserves better than the obscurity into which it has fallen.
1965's Repulsion directed by Roman Polansky is a disturbing portrait of a young woman who slowly goes mad in an apartment. She was made into a film by Hammer Productions starring Ursula Andress and the semi-immortal enchantress Ayesha to little effect. Today the film is forgotten and sees little play on cable television.
1966's Batman cashes in on the popularity of the TV series though not to as great an effect as the series itself. One Million Years B.C., at the time, despite its bad science, was an almost cutting edge film, helped no doubt by the presence of the stop motion photography of Ray Harryhausen who delivers a memorable scene of a small T-Rex-like dinosaur little bigger than a man, going against the usual grain of huge dinosaurs, perhaps inspired by a similarly effective encounter in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Back To the Stone where La-ja and Von Horst encounter a T-Rex the size of a "shetland pony"
The Fearless Vampire Killers from 1967 is a strange and lovable comedy about a bumbling Van Helsing analog and his stupid assistant on the track of vampires in Europe. The production values lend an air of credibility and unique look to this B film which is mostly well remembered.
1968's The Lost Continent is based on Dennis Wheatley's novel, Uncharted Seas. I mention the film only because of portions of it which bear a great similarity to William Hope Hodgson's stories of a haunted Sargasso Sea, stories which Wheatley was very much aware of since he edited a series of books about horror among which was Hodgson. Rosemary's Baby is considered a minor classic from this time, though definitely a mainstream rather than genre take on the material.
The Dunwich Horror (1970) is a pig of a film that doesn't even curry the favor of cult status. Often one wants to like a film like this so much that one overlooks the film's faults, but The Dunwich Horror inspires only anger that such a lack of understanding of Lovecraft's work is presented this way. An unfortunate occurence since H.P. Lovecraft's original story is a very bright piece of SF/fantasy that begs to have a film made from it that can do justice to the weird vision of Lovecraft's 1929 story. The Dunwich Horror is one of Lovecraft's most straightforward works in terms of story and prose compared to his usually over the top presentations which nonetheless are very scary. Lovecraft is one of the great horror fantasist's of all time and it is as simple as that. For whatever reasons , though loved and respected, Lovecraft's stories have fallen into the cracks when it comes to film adaptations of merit, and which would be great fun to see if done properly. Dagon was released in 2001, based on Lovecraft's great short story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Tomb in 2007, but bears little relation to the original Lovecraft short of the same name. Lovecraft needs a special director who understands what it is about Lovecraft that is unique and which can be transposed to film, perhaps someone along the lines of a Tim Burton. The fact of the matter is that Lovecraft's stories, for all their weirdness, were also frighteningly atmospheric with a prolonged sense of dread and tension that is only finally relieved at the end of the story; there is little doubt that it will take someone special to transcribe Lovecraft effectively to film. Could it be done, I am certain the films would be greatly popular since Americans love horror fantasy films and suffer through an enormous amount of productions every year that are derivative fluff or unimaginative vulgarity. There are no werewolves or vampires or other usual archetypes in Lovecraft's worlds but things from outside our understanding that shuffle in the dark. H.P. Lovecraft on film is a thing yet to be realized.
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is a bit of bizarreness that has attained the level of a farcical classic, though its production values are minimal to say the least. Despite this, a nice screenplay and the eccentric presence of Gene Wilder centers the movie enough for many people to be able to watch it again and again.
The granddaddy of all horror fantasy from the '70s was the really frightening The Exorcist. 1973's The Legend of Hell House and Vault of Horror round out the year.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) is the long awaited sequel to The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, once again sporting Schneer/Harryhausen as producers.
The Land That Time Forgot (1975), based on Edgar Rice Burroughs 1918 novel was an unfortunate project though popular enough at the time to see an adaptation of Burroughs' 2nd part of the Caspak series, The People That Time Forgot, made into a film sequel - a tribute to what fans were willing to put up with to get just a taste of Burroughs magic than anything to do with the film, which is tepid to say the least. Burroughs trilogy, originally considered one book but divided into 3 by Ace Paperbacks in the 1960s, is a triumph of a weird dinosaur fantasy and a precursor in a way to King Kong. Burroughs lost arctic island with a tropical and prehistoric interior is dangerous with a capital D and implacable in its hostility as an environment. Briilitantly, Burroughs imagined an island that followed evolution itself as one traveled from one end to another, with slimy monstrous lizards in a steaming tropical environment at one end and higher forms of life living in a decidious setting at the other end. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is an all-time classic comedy and one of the funniest and most innovative to ever hit the screen. One can only be amazed at the directorial inventiveness while at the same time unflinchingly delivering funny scene after funny scene with a seeming effortlessness that belies the actual difficulties of the filming itself.
The Sentinel (1977), is a memorable bit of horror that was quite popular among horror buffs.
1979's Phantasm was an entertaining bit of unique scary B fantasy that was the opposite of derivative. Gaining status through repeated showings on television in America the film cried out for a sequel. By the time it was finally done the imperatives that had yielded the films original creativity had died. Phantasm remains one of the most individualistic takes on weird fantasy put on film.
1980's The Changeling is a very effective horror film starring Georege C. Scott.
1981 showed us the last hurrah of film legend Ray Harryhausen with the release of Clash of the Titans. Though by no means Harryhausen's best collaboration it was still an entertaining effort for those attached to such films and was the end of an era. Also that year was the spooky, funny, seminal and crazy innovative film of its day, Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi. Joe Dante's The Howling was a startlingly innovative modern take of werewolf films and spawned a host of sequels, none of them approaching the fine work of the original. Dragonslayer, is a film that at once tried to make a traditonal story about a dragon but with some modern twists. It is a very well done film with some nice visions although with an indifferent bit of casting. Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is a wonderful comedy that is fondly remembered by fans of the Monty Python style of humor. Excalibur, made by John Boorman, is a mammoth bit of Arthurian weirdness without a stitch of humor but is nonethless a fine movie on many levels though decidely uneven in its pacing and in its grasping too hard for epic visions.
New blood was on the horizon and Raiders of the Lost Ark represented a startling seachange and a passing of the torch that made Clash of the Titans, released the same year, look dated and creaky. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best presentations of an original screenplay ever produced in fantastic film and the screenplay itself is a marvel. Although Raiders of the Lost Ark is full of trademark Spielberg traits, he had not yet gotten to the point where he fell prey to self caricature or over drawn out thrill ride type stunts; here, he reins himself in before the stunts became tiresome. Like Back To the Future 4 years later, Raiders of the Lost Ark comes off as a flawless film. Filled with archetypes that seem familiar and new at the same time, Raiders of the Lost Ark was recognized as an instant classic which it assuredly is. Harrison Ford is so perfectly cast that he seems to completely inhabit the character of Indiana Jones, rogue archeologist with trouble for a middle name, not to say a death wish. Indiana Jones is a character who survives by his wits and athleticism, something the producers of the Batman franchise have never been able to figure out is the key to Batman's character as well. Raiders of the Lost Ark owes much to the adventure and super hero serials of the '30s and '40s, so much so that we think in watching Raiders, that we've seen this all before but we haven't. In that sense, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a brilliant bit of homage of to a kinder and gentler time but with some rather rough edges. Raiders spawned 3 sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and the belated, ill-advised and over the top Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Although all the sequels are very well made, they are marred by Spielberg's penchant for caricaturing himself and over thrill riding us once again; it is as if he himself doesn't understand why the original film was so popular in the first place although the last and arguably worst film in the Indiana Jones franchise made a whopping ton of money and they all have been hugely popular. An American Werewolf In London.
In 1982 Conan the Barbarian was released, based on the grand 1930s pulp character created by the much loved Robert E. Howard and directed somewhat unevenly by John Milius, who was not helped by the unfortunate decision to cast Arnold Swarzenegger as the title character, though to this day Milius considers it a stroke of genius. In the Howard pulp stories, Conan is a shrewd thinking man despite his violent streak and Scharzenegger simply wasn't capable of pulling it off. Despite Arnold's prescence there are some good moments in Conan, but ultimately it was a failure on many levels; the 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer was also kind of fun but an even worse effort at trying to capture the unique poetic violence and tension of Robert E. Howard. Oddly enough it was another 'Sword and Socery' film released the same year that out-Conaned the Conan movie and that was The Sword and the Sorcerer starring Lee Horsley, who made a far better Conan than did Swarzenegger. The Sword and the Sorcerer has a much more Howardian tone to it than does Conan the Barbarian and has developed quite a cult following, me among them. The horrific and quite scary Poltergeist was also released in 1982 and made quite a splash as it was a film firmly within the new '80s Golden Age' style then developing that would redefine fantastic film. Much of this style was based on special effects techniques originally developed for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Creepshow is well thought of by many, and closes out 1982.
In 1983 the odd and eccentric science fiction/fantasy film Krull was released and it has garnered quite a following because, on its own terms, it does quite a bit right and there is in fact little to complain about; I think it is a film you either like or dislike but Krull has a lot going for it, with its own odd and distinct tone. Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the 1962 Ray Bradbury novel, fell flat for me as did the original novel which, though I am a huge Bradbury fan, simply held little magic for me.
In 1984 another film with the 80s 'Golden Age" Industrial Light and Magic look, Gremlins, was released, and quite a good film it is too. The comedy classic Ghostbusters also came out in 1984.
In 1985 Ladyhawke, starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderik came out to warm reviews although I have never cared for it one way or the other. Red Sonja, based on a Robert E. Howard inspired character but not story is a weak effort at 'Sword and Sorcery'. Fright Night is a camply and clever vampire movie that came off as very modern and well directed at the time. Ridley Scott's Legend neatly highlights some of the differences between fantastic literature and film when it comes to story telling and the pitfalls of puting too many eggs in a fantasy film's visuals which can be a great temptation. This was perhaps true on a lesser scale than Legend of the 2nd of the C.S. Lewis films, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian from 2008 and its insistence on perfect lighting which perhaps interfered with a more flowing film and made it seem as if it was always late afternoon. When art direction and set design are made to fufill too great a task, a film like Legend comes about which can be viewed as a noble failure or almost an experiment since it seems it was not ready to be brought to the screen in it's final form. Having said that, the desire to like a film like Legend on the part of fantasy fans, particularly in 1985, can be so great as to result in a very forgiving attitude and it should be said that Legend still delivers an awful lot. One problem is that one feels one never leaves giant indoor sets and that the world the characters move in is not a wholly convincing one. Trying to create a cloying and controlled environment can result in great success as Scott had with Blade Runner or a rather mixed bag as in the case of Legend. Although the set design and art direction of Legend is very fine, there is not a lot of story to go with it and one almost feels as if one is expected to simply get lost in the dreaminess of the film as a series of wonderful snapshots. Although Tom Cruise does a fine job of acting in the film he is miscast as his screen persona simply doesn't deliver what it needs to for such a film.
John Carpenter's eccentric Big Trouble In Little China, came out in 1986 as did the well received Highlander and Labyrinth. Labyrinth is a film little seen nowadays which is too bad. Directed by Jim Henson from Sesame Street and starring David Bowie and Jeniffer Connelly, Labyrinth is a wonderful little fantasy that was a flop at the time. Little Shop of Horrors, wonderfully directed by Frank Oz and with a great cast, is a remake of the 1960 Roger Corman cult film and also based on a contemporary New York musical. Oz's version is a seamless blend comprising a musical, comedy and a SF/fantasy in way few could have pulled off.
1987's The Princess Bride is an effectively quirky film whose lapses into modernity not only don't hurt the film one bit but seem to add to it. Directed by Rob Reiner and with a fantastic script, no one ever saw such a fantasy film coming but it was a hit and artistic success. 1987 also saw the release of The Gate, Near Dark, and The Witches of Eastwick, based on the 1984 John Updike novel. A Nightmare On Elmstreet 3: Dream Warriors. Hellraiser.
1988 saw a spate of fantasy films which, however you view them, at least had the distinction of being utterly unique in their tone and look compared to films today which have a trait of often looking disheartening similar due to computer graphics and simple lack of vision. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, directed by the always interesting if not cohesive Terry Gilliam was a mad vision of a period piece unique among fantasy films. Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, is a much loved piece of weird comedy fantasy about a middle class couple who die and are fated to haunt their own house. Big, directed by Penny Marshall has attained something of the status of a comedy fantasy classic. Although the treatment of Big shows the potential it never quite realized, there is still enough in the film to have it be admired by scads of fans down through the years. The now almost forgotten Willow, directed by Ron Howard, was touted as epic fantasy at the time of its release but was quickly consigned to the place where films go which have no staying power, probably more as the result of how it has been packaged for cable than anything else. The Lair of the White Worm, directed by Ken Russell and based, at least in spirit, on the 1911 Bram Stoker novel of the same name. The Lair of the White Worm is an intriguing mystery/horror film up to a point. The Serpent and the Rainbow is the other adult fantasy of note from 1988 and is about voodoo and a scientist on Haiti and quite well done.
1989 saw the release of Always, directed by Stephen Spielbery and a remake of the World War II fantasy, A Guy Named Joe. Always reveals the troubling and wonderful side of Spielberg together as the film struggles with maudlin sentimentality and Spielberg's nearly always present penchant for falling into self parody and having to a tendency to squeeze the life right out of a film. Standout performances by Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss and John Goodman fight againt this and if one buys into the film by over directing it, Always is one of Spielberg's best efforts. In the 1980's no one could swing around a giant camera like Spielberg and when it works, it's magic and when it doesn't, it's self conscious film school show off time. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, was an excellent a creative piece of fantasy/science fiction comedy about a couple of teenage dullards who are given access to a time machine and collect a host of historical figures, bringing them back to the present day. Its sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey was similar and less satisfying fare.
The best fantasy film of 1990 was Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, starring Johnny Depp but for some reason this is a film that has never attracted me and I regard as of little import though it is regarded as a classic of fantasy filmaking by many. The Exorcist III
The forgettable Hook, directed by the usually reliable Steven Spielberg who had already developed the nasty habit of self parodying his own work was probably the most famous fantasy film of 1991.
No doubt the premiere horror/fantasy film of 1992 was Bram Stoker's Dracula, an expansive bit of filmaking with many historic reference to silent cinema. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this production is a hallmark of fantasy film and an adaptation of a hallmark of fantastic literature. A standout performance by Gary Oldman as the decrepit Count Dracula and presentation of a screenplay blanketed in cloying art direction but always to great effect and never overwhelmed by it as was, for example, Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York. There is a lot of substance here and a solid story behind the veneer of an 'art film'. It is a classic.
Although the chracater of Dracula has been popular since the early days of film, Bram Stoker's villain immediately suffered rather the same fate as Burrough's Tarzan when it came to screen treatments. The archetypes that comprised Bram Stoker's novel had been around throughout much of the 19th century in British fiction but it was Stoker's vision that has survived the years, probably because of the date of its publication, 1897, not so far off from the days of film. Universal Pictures 1931 film Dracula, became the basis for America's vision of vampires and the Count for many years and such Universal horror films at the onset of the 1930's kicked off a generation of Universal horror produtions. Univeral horror films were quite stylish and atmospheric through the 30s and almost all are regarded as classics as are many of the Universal potboilers from the following decade. The 1931 production of Dracula was based on a stage play in New York and both play and film were hits. Both starred Bela Lugosi as the count. The movie version bears little resemblence to Stoker's novel and is a wooden production, almost a film version of a play at times yet nevertheless an eerie take on its subject matter and a much loved film. Hammer films revived the count years later in similar film treatments, most notably in Dracula, (1958) and its direct sequel from 1966, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, both well loved because of the Hammer art direction and design and for the presence of Christopher Lee as Dracula.
The vampire in film has never strayed far and in literature went through a renaissance when Interview With A Vampire was published in 1976 and the movie version released in 1994 starring Tom Cruise. I read the first 100 pages of Interview With A Vampire, wished I were reading H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith and stopped reading and never went back; I felt similarly about the film. Mainstream horror is something I've never been a fan of and I found Anne Rice's prose made me want to sleep. As far as the film version went, even Neil Jordan couldn't save such a script and the made for TV movie, The Night Stalker, is a far better film
1993 was not a particularly good year for fantasty and though not particularly liked by many, Disney's Hocus Pocus was probably the top fantasy film released other than Guillermo del Toro's obscure and innovative Mexican fantasy, Cronos.
In 1994 the most notable odd fantasy film of that year was The Crow, starring Brandon Lee as a phantom returned from the dead and out for revenge. A wonderful realization of a screenplay turned this into the sleeper fantasy of the year. Jim Carrey's popular The Mask also was released in this year.
Phenonemon starring John Travolta from 1996 ranks high on some peoples lists as a fantasy film because of its delicate screenplay and intriguing story.
In 1997 the most notable fantasy release came from the world of "Sword and Sorcery" courtesy of Robert E. Howard and his 1930's hero, Kull the Conquerer which is the name of the film. Although unremarkable the film is notable for being an adaptation of one of the men who created a genre all on his own. Supposedly the movie is actually an adaptation of Howard's Conan story, The Hour of the Dragon from 1935.
1999 saw the release of Stephan Sommer's wonderful, The Mummy which he also wrote. The stars were in alignment for this film because besides a very bright screenplay that treads that delicate line between humor and horror as for example Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace failed to do, and stars Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz gave the performance of their careers as perhaps do Arnold Vosloo as the evil high priest Imhotep and Kevin O'Conner as Fraser's distrusted former sidekick. Wonderful special effects, musical score, cinematography and art direction all round out what has to be one of the most impressive fantasy/horror/monster films ever made. Naturally sequels followed and though the second from 2001, The Mummy Returns was a fun film the third, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, was nothing more than running stunts that entirely lost the flavor of the original screenplay. Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, both starring Johnny Depp were both eerie horror fantasies that were quite well done and both released in 1999. The Ninth Gate is an effective mystery thriller about a rare book that people will apparently kill to possess and antiquarian book dealer Johnny Depp gets caught up in more than he bargains for. The Ninth Gate is a very clear and straighforward screenplay that never wavers in understanding its material and how to present it. Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on Washington Irving's 1820 short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and is a film that walks right up to the line of being over art directed without crossing it and so providing a unique, eerie and effective backdrop for its story. Johnny Depp is good as a somewhat queesy policeman sent from New York to look into a small community's murders and the nice supporting cast seem chosen as much for their interesting faces as for their talents. Sleepy Hollow is one of the best fantasy films ever made. The Blair Witch Project from that same year caused a minor sensation among horror fantasy fans both because of its low budget and point of view camerawork which was unleashed again in Cloverfield.
That same year the John McTiernan directed, The 13th Warrior was released starring the always present and accounted for Antonio Banderas. The 13th Warrior treads new ground not really glimpsed in film other than in the 1964 film, The Long Ships starring Richard Widmark and Sydney Poitier, a movie long on story and short on production values which begs to be remade. In any event, what sets apart The 13th Warrior is how much the film stays within itself and doesn't try to be an epic movie with anti-climax after anti-climax. Instead, the film is what it is and you can pretty much either take it or leave it. Not one of McTiernan's best films since the direction is said to have been taken over by Michael Crichton from whose novel the film is taken but a fine one nevertheless. How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
2001 saw a seminal event in the history of fantasy film with the much anticipated release of the first of the movies based on the books of J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. From its inception the Harry Potter films have relied on character development, great staging and art direction and an increasing ability to act on the part of the young group of 3 core actors who turned out to have been brilliantly cast. With fine supporting actors the Harry Potter films have turned out to be a mammoth success in artistic and financial terms and it's hard to imagine the films having turned out any better than they have.
2001 also saw the advent of the first of 2 films in a series, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Angelina Jolie gives a surprisingly fullsome performance which was particularly important as it is the charm of her character around which the film revolves. Fortunately Jolie is well supported by nice production values and it almost seems as if the crazy tone of the film proved to be a liberating one for Jolie as an actress as she is considerably better than most of her films which she seems to walk through with little interest. The 2003 sequel, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, again had Jolie show up as a performer though she professed her lack of interest in doing a third film. Though not particularly important films, the 2 Croft films are done with a sense of conviction that makes them quite fun to watch.
2001 provided another seminal fantasy film to go alongside the release of the first in the Harry Potter series and that was the first of 3 films adapted from J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Once again film goers lucked out as this first film and its 2 counterparts succeeded all around in filmic terms with an excellent cast and very high production values. Though it may be tabu to profess it, the screenplays for the 3 films, substantially altering events in the Tolkein books, actually improved on the original in terms of story and dramatic tension in the right spots. Suddenly fans of fantasy had a decade to come on their hands that would prove to be far and away the best ever in terms of bringing classic and new fantasy novels to the big screen. All three films in the Lord of the Rings sequence deliver the finest moments in film fantasy up to that point in time; Peter Jackson was not one to try and deliver a mainstream sensibility to his project but seems to be a man steeped in a more fan based view of fantastic film and how it should be and needs to be presented. Shrek
Although lost somewhere between the realms of SF and fantasy, 2002's Spider-Man was nevertheless heartily welcomed by millions of Spidey fans around the world and a well done project it was too, sensitive to the earliest issues of the original Marvel Comic and paying its own tribute to Spider-Man's original and marvelously eccentric illustrator for the first 38 issues, Steve Ditko. The 2 Spider-Man sequels fared well and were enormously popular. Withing comicdom, Spider-Man is famous for introducing the continuing soap opera to comic books and so a certain air of reality such as the mundane task of a superhero having to wash his outfit and this aspect is not lost in the film and Peter Parker's woes seem never ending as was the case in the original comic book from the very beginning.
2003 was the year an underdog took the underworld by storm and that was the excellently realized Underworld, starring Kate Beckinsale. With a new and sexy take on the world of vampires and werewolves, Underworld spawned an even better sequel a couple of years later, Underworld: Evolution. Monster fantasy had undergone its own revolution with the production of these 2 films and later films will be hard pressed to follow the creative fun. A third film, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans would follow, without Kate Beckinsale as it was a prequel set hundreds of years in the past. Although a creditible enough film it shows nowhere near the creativity and imagination of the first 2 films.
That same year saw the unexpected blockbuster success of a film based on a rather odd thing, a Disney amusement park ride and that film was Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. An excellent sense of fun suffuses the film that has rarely been seen since a great romp like The Crimson Pirate from 1952 starring Burt Lancaster. Although the 2 sequels were a financial success, they dwindle into ill-paced and overly complex story, staging, cinematography and art direction until they are simply difficult to watch although both films made even more money than the first.
Hellboy (2004), made just enough money to warrant a sequel and lucky for us it did. Van Helsing, directed by Steven Sommers saw him off his game in an over art directed and design crowded supernatural fantasy horror film based in spirit on the old Universal monster offerings.
2005 brought about a revival of the Batman franchise with the successful release of Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale and followed by the even more successful and overhyped The Dark Knight. Although hugely popular with many filmgoers I find both films boring and even almost unwatchable. Hollywood's attachment to Christian Bale as a leading man is something of a mystery to me since he seems overwhelmed by his roles in which he perplexingly adopts a low, scratchy voice. I am very much a Batman fan, being so nuts for the comic when I was a kid that I was nicknamed Batman by some of my friends and I would be at the drugstore the day the new issue of Batman or Detective Comics came out and I very much liked 2 films in the series, Batman Returns, (1992) and Batman and Robin, (1997). The latterday films with Bale have tried to inject an even darker and more serious tone but have failed utterly to do so in my opinion and the art direction, casting and stories of these Bale vehicles have been pure boredom for me; all the Bale vehicles have succeeded in doing is taking the fun out of the franchise. In passing I would like to note that for me, not one Batman film has ever captured the essence of the Batman in the comics which is a man who is not only utterly clever and who relies on his wits but who is a winner. Although the Batman of the comics certainly relies on his little technologies from time to time it is his cleverness and athleticism that carries the day. 3 other notable fantasy failures that year were Bewitched, The Brothers Grimm and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made it's debut in 2005 and was an very creditible effort though ultimately having little spark and the 2008 sequel, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, is also a yeoman though lusterless effort. Altogether the 2 films are fun to watch but nothing to write home about. However it should be said that in terms of their general production values, they outstrip almost every fantasy film made before the the Potter and LOTR films. The 2005 remake of King Kong was a film full of outstanding special effects and design but made what some consider some unfortunate decisions in its screenplay. In the new version, Naomi Watt's character developes an affinity for King Kong whereas in the 1933 original Fay Wray's character has nothing but an unadulterated horror for the beast. Turning the sequences with the stampeding dinosaurs and King Kongs fight with 3 giant lizards into amusement park stunt sequences was ill considered in my opinion and stretches the bounds of the fantastic even in such an obviously fantastic film; suspending the disbelief of an audience is not helped by such stunts. Despite these hiccups, the 2005 version of King Kong delivers some fun thrills and restores the semi-mythical lost sequence supposedly cut from the original film where the survivors of the fall from the log fight it out with giant insects at the bottom of a muddy canyon.
2006 saw the advent of some interesting and rather well done fantasy films starting with The Illusionist, a period piece about a magician's revenge years in the making starring the always excellent Edward Norton. Next we have Pan's Labryinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro in Spanish. Pan's Labryinth was written by del Toro and is the odd story of what happens to a little girl set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Next for 2006 we had The Prestige and for once Christian Bale lives up to his reputation and gives a fine performance along with Hugh Jackman in the story of rival magicians, cleverly adapted from the same titled 1995 novel of Victorian science fiction by Christopher Priest. Eragon.
2007 saw the release of The Golden Compass, an excellent and finely crafted piece of film fantasy based on the 1995 novel, Northern Lights, by Phillip Pullman and both the first in a trilogy although as of 2010 it is in doubt whether in fact there will be any film sequels which would be a shame. That same year saw what may be the most over art directed film ever made, 300, directed by Zack Snyder and based on Frank Miller's graphic comic novel about King Leonidas and his suicidal Spartan's stand against the ancient Persians. Despite the weird tone to the film one can honestly say that it was very much a success on its own terms with some dazzling visuals never seen on screen before. Comic books have had their part to play in influencing fantastic film as it seems as if every kid who ever lived read comics and maybe they did. Critics of the film should remember that the movie was almost literally copied from a comic book and the film has no aspirations beyond that. People who read comics could throw them over for a book should they wish to do so at any time. Although comic books have the power to be genuinely moving or sublimely creative they often choose not to do so as not every moment can be supremely evocative. Although only a 'comic' film, 300 nonetheless caused anger within Iran. Frank Miller speaking on a radio show shortly before the release of 300 according to the 300 Wikipedia page said about radical Islam, "For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people's heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I'm speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I'm living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built." Pretty direct stuff considering it's fantasy.
2007 also saw the release of the wonderfully realized and moving Bridge To Terabithia, adapted from the novel published 40 years before by Katherine Paterson. The film gives one a sense that one also gets from reading Ray Bradbury short stories about children and their active imaginations. That same year we had the sleeper hit comedy, Enchanted which should come as no great surprise really because Disney films' hallmarks for a long time have been in their writing. A standout performance by Amy Adams anchors the film which is partially animated in a traditional Disney look. Tin Man, a mini-series made for television and a modern re-telling of L. Frank Baum's cherished, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared in 2007 in the U.S. on the Sci-Fi Channel. Stardust, starring Michelle Pfeiffer in her fifth film in the realm of the fantastic after having played in Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, Wolf and What Lies Beneath, was considered a 'surprise' hit for 2007. What surprises me is that after all these years no one seems to have figured out that Pfeiffer has been consistently miscast as a performer rather than an actor. Her strongest work are her too few forays into more expressive roles. When you watch Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, she is 'on' for every second of screen time and the more I watch her as the Catwoman the more I am convinced she should have been nominated for an Acamedy Award for that role. Fortunately for Pfeiffer, few agree with me about her ability as just a performer and she has built a handsome career on performance based films but in which I find her boring. Stardust is not quite as bright as it tries to be but should be congratulated for staying within the material it presents. Stardust was based on Neil Gaiman's graphic comic novel turned novel.
2010 Alice In Wonderland, Clash of the Titans
Here is a list of science fiction films in no particular order that I have found particularly important/enjoyable:
The Andromeda Strain 1970
War of the Worlds 1953
The Time Machine 1960
Star Wars 1977
Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977
The Thing 1982
The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951
Blade Runner 1982
Children of Dune
First Men In the Moon 1964
Terminator II: Judgement Day 1991
2001: A Space Odyssey 1968
Back To the Future 1985
Planet of the Apes 1968
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial 1982
Forbidden Planet 1956
The Fifth Element 1997
Here's another list, this time literature:
The Foundation Trilogy 1951-53 Isaac Asimov
1984 George Orwell 1949
Fahrenheit 451 1953 Ray Bradbury
Caves Of Steel 1954 Isaac Asimov
Ringworld 1970 Larry Niven
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress 1966 Robert Heinlein
The Martian Chronicles 1950 Ray Bradbury
Infinity Beach 2000 Jack McDevitt
The Mote In God's Eye 1974 Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Stars My Destination 1956 Alfred Bester
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon 1980 Frederik Pohl
Flowers For Algernon 1966 Daniel Keyes
A Canticle For Leibowitz 1959 Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Reality Dysfunction 1996 First of the "Night's Dawn" trilogy Peter Hamilton
Eon 1985 Greg Bear
The Demolished Man 1953 Alfred Bester
The Door Into Summer 1956 Robert Heinlein
A Princess of Mars 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Lost World 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle
Neutron Star 1968 Short Story Collection Larry Niven
Tales of Known Space 1975 Short Story Collection Larry Niven
The Dying Earth 1950 Jack Vance
Dune 1965 Frank Herbert
The Hugo Winners: Vols I & II 1972
Hothouse 1962 Brian Aldiss
The High Crusade 1960 Poul Anderson
The Nightland 1912 William Hope Hodgson
The Weapon Makers 1947 A.E. Van Vogt
Triplanetary 1948 E.E. Smith
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vols 1 & 2A & 2B 1970-73
Mission To the Stars (The Mixed Men) 1952 A.E. Van Vogt
The Empire of the Atom 1957 A.E. Van Vogt
Legion Of Space 1934 Jack Williamson
Fury 1947 Lawrence O'Donnell (Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore)
Palace (1996) by Mark Krieghbaum and Katherine Kerr. Sequel: The Eyes of God (1998) by Mark Krieghbaum
In Conquest Born (1987) by C.S. Friedman
The War For Eternity (1983), The Black Ship (1985), part of the Fenrille Series by Christopher Rowley
Pandora's Star (2004) Peter Hamilton. Judas Unchained (2005)
Fallen Dragon (2001) Peter Hamilton
Nightwings (1969) Robert Silverberg
Titan (1979) John Varley
Requiem For the Conquerer (1991) Michael W. Gear Book 1 of the Forbidden Borders Trilogy
To Live Forever (1956) Jack Vance
H. G. Wells
Edgar Rice Burroughs
A. E. Van Vogt
E. E. Doc Smith
The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951
Forbidden Planet 1956
The War of the Worlds 1953
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954
On the Beach 1959
Journey To the Center of the Earth 1959
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956
The Thing From Another World 1951
Earth VS the Flying Saucers 1956
2001: A Space Odyssey 1968
First Men In the Moon 1964
The Time Machine 1960
Mysterious Island 1961
Planet of the Apes 1968
Robinson Crusoe On Mars 1964
Visit To A Small Planet 1960
Fantastic Voyage 1966
Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea 1961
Quartermass and the Pit 1967
Star Wars 1977
Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977
The Andromeda Strain 1971
A Clockwork Orange 1971
Beneath the Planet of the Apes 1970
Slaughterhouse Five 1972
THX 1138 1971
The Stepford Wives 1975
Blade Runner 1982
The Empire Strikes Back 1980
Back To the Future 1985
The Return of the Jedi 1983
E.T. the Extraterrestrial 1982
The Thing 1982
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
The Terminator 1984
The Fifth Element 1997
Terminator 2: Judgement Day 1991
Jurassic Park 1993
12 Monkeys 1995
Predator 2 1990
Alien 3 1992
Starship Troopers 1997
The Matrix 1999
Children of Dune 2003
V For Vendetta 2006
Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines 2003
Star Wars Episode 2: The Attack of the Clones 2002
Alien VS Predator 2004
The Fellowship of the Ring 1954 J.R.R. Tolkein
Ship of Ishtar 1924 A. Merritt
Eyes of the Overworld 1966 Jack Vance
A Game of Thrones 1996 George R.R. Martin
The Hour of the Dragon 1935 Robert E. Howard
Black God's Shadow 1977 C.L. Moore - Short stories from the 1930s
The Worm Ouroboros 1922 E.R. Eddison
Dandelion Wine 1957 Ray Bradbury
The Swords of Lankhmar 1968 Fritz Leiber
The King In Yellow 1895 Robert W. Chambers - Short story collection
The King of Elfland's Daughter 1924 Lord Dunsany
Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath 1943 H.P. Lovecraft
Lilith 1895 George MacDonald
Out of Space and Time 1942 Clark Ashton Smith - Short story collection
The Lost Continent 1900 C.J. Cutcliffe-Hyne
The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' 1907 William Hope Hodgson
The Well At the World's End 1896 William Morris
Merlin's Godson 1976 H. Warner Munn
The Blind Spot 1921 Austin Hall & Homer Eon Flint
The Merman's Children 1979 Poul Anderson
Dracula 1897 Bram Stoker
She 1887 H. Rider Haggard