Science Fiction on the Big Screen

The first science fiction movie I ever saw on the big screen was Forbidden Planet.

When I was a kid we went to the movies frequently, at least once a week. We might have gone during the week, accompanying my mom when she went shopping downtown (no shopping centers in those days—going shopping meant going downtown), when we all piled into the car to go to the drive-in, or at a kid’s matinee on Saturdays. However, my parents’ tastes ran to musicals, comedies, westerns, and soap operas like those grand, lurid Douglas Sirk movies of the 1950s. Yes, I saw them all on the big screen. Not science fiction.

But one day much to my parents’ surprise a letter addressed to me arrived in the mail. It contained a ticket to Forbidden Planet. Quaker Oats and, possibly, the local newspaper had been running a promotion, I sent in my box tops, and, when the movie opened, I received a ticket to the movie (presumably, accompanied by a paid adult admission). So to Forbidden Planet I went.

I loved it. Adventure. Exotic landscapes and beasts. Robots. Spaceships. Rayguns. Mysterious creatures. I wasn’t old enough at that point to appreciate Anne Francis wearing the abbreviated chiton-like costume she wore in the film.

After that for number of years most of the science fiction movies I saw in the theater I saw at kids’ matinees: Invasion of the Saucer Men, Rodan, The Spider, The Blob. Pickings were pretty slim.

I think it must be hard for modern audiences to realize how much of a game-changer 1968’s 2001: a Space Odyssey was. It was big, glossy, epic, sophisticated, scientifically plausible. And it was shown in Cinerama (a widescreen process in which three 35mm projectors are used to project onto a screen made of hundreds of small strips arranged in a curve). In science fiction movies there had never really been anything like it.

Unfortunately, 2001 proved to be very much a one-off, possibly due to the mixed reviews but most likely because it wasn’t a box office smash. Although 2001 is now one of the top grossing pictures of all time, it took six months for it to gross its production costs. It’s said to have grossed $56 million but a) its production budget was about $10 million; b) that’s $10 million in 1968 dollars; and c) gross earnings is over the period of the last 30 years.

However, 2001 did spawn offspring. Its most notable offspring opened just over 33 years ago (8 years after 2001. Star Wars, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV. Star Wars combined the epic scope and high production values of 2001 with the action, adventure, and gee whiz! quality of Forbidden Planet and the rest is history.

I was one of the hardy few who stood in line for hours in May 1977 for the premiere of Star Wars. IIRC it opened in only three theaters in the Chicago area. Times have changed.

8 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    Times have definitely changed. Try getting a studio to let you keep merchandise rights as Lucas did with Star Wars.

  • Try getting a studio to let you keep merchandise rights as Lucas did with Star Wars.

    I think that’s because the studios, with a judgment founded in experience, didn’t believe that there was a mass market for science fiction. From their point of view it was a boutique segment.

    Clearly, they didn’t see the writing on the wall. Star Trek’s following only grew through the years. 2001 demonstrated the ability of science fiction to reach a different demographic.

    Look at the top grossing pictures over the last 20 years. Most of them are science fiction, fantasy, or full length animated cartoons. Drill down to the top grossing pictures for 2011. Of the top 10 grossing pictures eight are fantasy, science fiction, or full-length animated cartoons.

    That was unheard of when Star Wars was released. Science fiction and fantasy were niche businesses. Full-length animated cartoons were on their way out, in a death spiral.

    As I was writing this comment my wife reminded me that my idea for Remains of the Day action figures didn’t really go anywhere.

  • michael reynolds Link

    As you know I’m in young adult science fiction (broadly defined) and as usual I’m trying to suss out the market. The giant hole I see out there is in fact the Star Trek hole, which I see as essentially utopian, rather than the easier and more widespread dystopian view.

    At least in YA we are ass-deep in dystopias with nary a utopia to be found. Unfortunately it’s not my style so I’m probably not the guy to exploit it. But some bright creative type out there should ask himself why Trek has endured so long, and why it remains essentially unchallenged.

  • I’m no science fiction writer but I can tell you with some authority that the motifs that went into Star Trek have a venerable history. I think it’s a direct descendant of Van Vogt’s 1939 short story Black Destroyer, the story generally credited as kicking off the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I think that Van Vogt’s fictional universe is an unfailingly optimistic one, unlike the H. G. Wells or Olaf Stapleton dystopian pessimism.

    The next major influence is, obviously, Forbidden Planet. The starship crew in it is so similar to the crew of the Enterprise as to be unmistakeable. I think that’s very much WWII-flavored. Add a soupçon of Horatio Hornblower, maybe a dash of H. Rider Haggard.

    The history of modern science fiction since its beginnings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been one of a conflict between optimistic utopianism (typified by Jules Verne) and pessimistic dystopianism (typified by H. G. Wells). If the history is any gauge, one of the reasons that the pessimistic view is easier than the optimistic one is that the optimistic view has generally required more real technical savvy.

    The “hard” science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, a genre nearly extinct now, is generally optimistic. I guess the closest contemporary analog is steam punk.

    BTW, for sheer gloom in pessimism it’s hard to beat the British writer M. P. Shiel whose The Purple Cloud is probably the all-time best end-of-the-world novel.

  • Another footnote. I think that an updated version of Talbot Mundy’s Lobsang Pun stories has real potential in an ultimately optimistic direction. The underlying concept is a dedication to nurturing the few remaining seeds of goodness in a world gone mad.

  • michael reynolds Link

    If the history is any gauge, one of the reasons that the pessimistic view is easier than the optimistic one is that the optimistic view has generally required more real technical savvy.

    I think that’s exactly right and a very astute observation I’d not thought of. It’s certainly true in my case. I don’t have the hard science chops. There are ways around that — place your characters in an environment that is simply assumed and not explained.

    Also the internets are very helpful for basic facts. I wish we’d had the modern web when we were writing Animorphs. We worked pretty hard to get the animal facts right (if not the physics) and spent a ridiculous amount of time learning about tigers or ants. I know way too much about buteo jamaicensis and was able on a recent trip to a rather hideous zoo to bore the hell out of some kids.

    Strange how they liked it in the books and yet it didn’t translate into wanting to hear an old man ramble on about the difficult relationship between red tail hawks and golden eagles. Rotten kids.

  • Oddly enough, Forbidden Planet was the first SF film I saw by myself. I was intended to go see something else, forbidden to see Forbidden Planet, but the demon took over. It must have been the Monsters from the Id that took over… It was a well-spent dollar.

    I’ll argue about the lack or demise of hard SF, though. There’s lots of it: Bear, Brin, Baxter, Benford, Gould, Haldeman, Hogan. The list just goes on. Not everything they write is hard SF–Orson Scott Card and Iain M. Banks, for example, seem to float in and out of the sub-genre.

    I generally had my fill of the dystopias in the 70s and 80s. I don’t delve much into fantasy, but make exceptions for people like L.E. Modesitt and the Alt Histories of H. Turtledove.

    It’s weird, but I find I rarely enjoy SF written pre-2001 (the year, not the film). I’m lucky in that my county library has buyers who like the SF genre, even if the people who put labels on the books can’t tell the difference between SF and Fantasy.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Okay, that does it. I’m going to download Forbidden Planet.

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