The Origin of Movie Genres: Science Fiction

What are your favorite movie genres? Action, horror, sci-fi, drama, superhero? Have you ever wondered where those genres got their start? With every genre there is an obvious beginning, a pioneer to blaze the trail and inspire future filmmakers.

I’ve had a book for a while that was recommended by a friend; 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Seems like a pushy title but sure. It’s actually a terrific book if you’re interested in film history or just discovering new movies. You can pick up the latest edition here. Flipping through the different era’s of influential film history, I realized I had no idea what these early trend setters were and it would be fun to learn and post about them.

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I have the 2015 edition. If you love film history or just discovering fantastic movies, this is a great book you should consider picking up.

This post we’re going to take a broad overview look at the first entry in the book which showcases the beginning of the science fiction genre; one of my personal favorites. Try thinking back to the oldest sci-fi movie you can remember. For some memory may only go as far back as 1978’s Star Wars, others have seen 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, to see the first, we have to go further back still. Much further.

The first known science fiction film was created in 1902 by the French cinema pioneer, Georges Méliès titled Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). This was a time when cinema was in it’s infancy and dominated by short films showcasing people in the daily routines of life.

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George Méliès and his impressive ‘stache.

Méliès made hundreds of movies over his career and revolutionized cinema in ways that we still enjoy today. He was the first to make a movie based on a fictional story, to incorporate special effects into his films including camera tricks such as splicing, multiple exposures and time lapse photography among others. He was also the first to create elaborate, often times hand painted, multi-scene sets. All of these characteristics define A Trip to the Moon and made it one of the most famous films of the era.

Unfortunately, he was not able to keep up with the much larger competing film companies and retired broke in 1912. Many of these rival companies (including Edison’s in the United States) pirated and sold Méliès films without paying royalties back to Méliès company, Star Films. I guess it’s true what they say after all; “piracy is not a victimless crime.”

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A theatrical poster for A Trip to the Moon.
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A rough sketch of a movie poster design Méliès created himself.

A Trip to the Moon is only 14 mins long which was actually far longer than the standard 1-2 min films that were common in his day. Many were even shorter than that. This “extended” run time allowed Méliès to create a surprisingly complex story totaling 30 different scenes in all. His budget for such an elaborate endeavor was unheard of; 10,000 francs which would be roughly the equivalent of $50,000 US today. This film was the summer blockbuster of the time period.

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A Trip to the Moon had un-paralleled set design for it’s time.

A brief summary of the plot: a group of scientists headed by Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès himself) travel to the moon in a bullet shaped rocket, shot from an enormous cannon. While exploring the surface, they encounter and are captured by a race of moon aliens known as Selenites. The group manages to escape and fight their way back to the rocket, successfully traveling back to Earth with a captured Selenite. The group is celebrated as heroes and receive a parade in their honor.

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The cannon that blasts the rocket ship towards the moon.

Méliès drew from multiple sources for his film including the literature of his time such as Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1901).

“The idea of ‘A Trip to the Moon‘ came to me when I was reading a book by Jules Verne called ‘From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon’. So I imagined, using the same means as Jules Verne(shooting a projectile from an enormous canon), landing on the moon, in such a way that I could put together some arresting and amusing fairy tale images, show the outside and the inside of the moon, and some monsters that might live on the moon, add one or two artistic effects.”

Méliès also incorporated his knowledge from past careers as a magician and theater owner with elaborately designed sets and sensational special effects. I watched the film before knowing his professional background and various scenes in particular actually made me think of a magician such as when the Selenites disappear into puffs of smoke after being struck, Professor Barbenfouillis’ umbrella changing into a mushroom, or even the acrobatic showmanship of the Selenites (who were actual acrobats Méliès hired for the part).

Watch the first sci-fi movie:

Being that this movie is in the public domain, it’s easy to find on YouTube. Here is the original black and white version. When it was originally released, the film was silent, and a live orchestra would play various pieces while the scenes were narrated.

There is also a color version that was thought to be lost but has since been found and restored over several years by a group called Lobster Films and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. The French electronica duo known as Air also created an “official” score to accompany the film. If I’m being honest the score is creative and fun to listen to, but I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t fit with the music of the time period. At the very least it’s interesting how much impact music has on the tone of a film.

After watching A Trip to the Moon, much of it will seem completely absurd. In fact, you could probably turn the number of scientific laws broken during the film into a fun drinking game. One of my favorite moments happened when to travel back to earth, all that was required was pulling the rocket over a cliff and then gravity took over. The movie is littered with moments like this.

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The statue erected to commemorate Professor Barbenfouillis’ return. Most historians believe this scene is part of the political satire Méliès weaved into the film.

Film historians believe though that much of the ridiculousness is because the film was intended to be satirical in nature. Méliès was mocking the scientific community of his day as well as injecting the film with strong anti-imperialist themes. So not only is Méliès the first movie maker to bring a fictional story to life, he’s also the first to use that story to convey a larger message to his audience.

It’s also fascinating how the basic themes of sci-fi movies haven’t changed much in last 116 years. Sure things are more elaborate now, but A Trip to the Moon has all the major story beats still seen in movies today: Flying through space in a rocket ship, landing and exploring the moon, encountering an evil alien race, bringing an alien back to Earth. Méliès technically even setup the possibility for a sequel with the aliens coming to earth for revenge! Think of the franchise possibilities! Just kidding.

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The most famous scene of the film; the scientists’ rocket lands on the moon…or more like shoots the moon in the eye, sending blood or some kind of weird moon juice squirting from the point of impact. Gross.

Next time you go to watch your favorite sci-fi movie, think about this first example; how far the genre has come and how much the themes honestly haven’t changed too drastically over the years. Also don’t forget the name George Méliès. He was extremely influential to cinema and will be popping up again in a future genre posts.

Sources:


Schneider, Steven Jay (2015), 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hauppage, New York. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. p. 20.

Wikipedia – A Trip to the Moon

AMC Filmsite

TCM Biography of George Méliès

Netflix is Rebooting Lost In Space: Here’s the Trailer!

Netflix is bringing back the 1960s sci-fi television hit about the Robinson family getting, well…lost in space. Check it out:

The show was also rebooted into a 1998 movie you may remember, but it wasn’t quite as sucessful as the original. A series really is the best format to let a story like this properly simmer…which the people at Netflix seem to understand.

This trailer looks incredible…at least visually. Shows like this, Altered Carbon and others are really blurring the lines of production value between movies and television. Another couple years and it may be virtually impossible to tell the difference.

The robot is a completely different design than either previous version; the trailer even hinting at it being some type of alien now. I think it was a good choice to mix things up and do more of a humanoid look. He still has his classic line though!

It is too early to tell how the story and character arcs will be, but Netflix has had many more hits than misses so far. I’m interested to see the nefarious Dr. Smith gender swapped this go around and played by Parker Posey.

The trailer does an excellent job of drawing interest without giving anything significant away. Time will tell, but I’m definitely excited about this one.

What are your thoughts??

Lost in Space airs on Netflix April 13th.

Trailer 2 for Pacific Rim Uprising Released

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of giant monster movies..and giant robot movies. Combine those two, and you hit the glorious level of giant monsters vs giant robots. 2013’s Pacific Rim was director Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to that genre. Now we are finally getting a sequel titled Pacific Rim: Uprising, starring John Boyega as the son of Major Pentacost from the first film. Del Toro will be returning, but in the capacity of executive producer.

Steven S. DeKnight will be taking over the director’s chair, who has a great resume so far: creating, writing, and producing the hit Starz show Spartacus (along with working on the follow-ups), as well as being the show runner for the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil. He’s also been involved with shows like Buffy, Angel, and Smallville, so DeKnight should definitely know how to tell a good story.

This is the second trailer for Pacific Rim Uprising and gives a little more intro into the story for the sequel. Take a look:

While I’m personally hyped for this movie, I’ve seen quite a bit of negative reactions so far compared to the first; specifically that it doesn’t seem as dark and that the feel of the new one is too similar to that of the newer iterations of transformers or power rangers. There’s even been some super nerdy complaints that the Jagers are moving faster than machines their size should be able to.

I see where those complaints are coming from, but at the end of the day we’re talking about a movie where monsters attack from another dimension, and the people of earth build giant robots they can pilot to fight them. Maybe if I were an engineer it would be harder to overlook, but accepting the premise of the movie, I’m willing to throw physics out the window for 90 mins. It is hilarious to hear people crying out in anger, like the first film was some sort of cinematic masterpiece. Even though I enjoyed the hell out of it, let’s be clear: it was not. However what made Pacific Rim great is that it knew what it was and was not…and it stuck to it

Uprising, at least from the trailer, truly does not look as “dark” as the first. However, the reason for that is 90% of the first movie took place at night, whereas this trailer shows nothing but fights taking place during the day. I think that will end up being a smart change of pace to keep the visuals fresh.

I will say that I hope at least one fight takes place at night, as one of my favorite scenes from the first is the Hong Kong battle. The neon lights of the city reflecting off buildings and contrasting with the darkness was straight up eye candy. Most of the Kaiju’s had sections of their bodies which even glowed neon, which of course stands out better at night.

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Pacific Rim 2013
Pacific Rim Uprising

I’m excited that most of the original cast (that survived) is returning, and I honestly think John Boyega will do a better job than Charlie Hunnam did as leading pilot. I’m also curious to see how Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son, does in his role. This movie obviously will not be for everyone. As a huge fan of the first though, I say bring it on!

Pacific Rim Uprising releases March 23rd in theaters. Are you excited for this movie or just kind of meh?