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10 Best Early Sci-fi Movies You Shouldn’t Miss

02 September 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Matthew Benbenek

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Science fiction is one of today’s most popular movie genres, with its movies making up most of the year’s box office smashes. The possibilities of science fiction are what make the genre so exciting for both filmmakers and audiences alike.

The futuristic intrigue resonates with viewers even more strongly than fantasy films because much of the wondrous elements in science fiction films seem more conceivably possible. When you throw in today’s advanced visual effects, this elevates the movies of the genre to very involving and relatable levels.

Although the genre has become much more successful in the second half of the 20th century, thanks to the popularity of franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, science fiction has been a subject for filmmakers ever since the beginning of movies.

Early pioneers like Georges Melies and Thomas Edison started the craze and the genre soon took off in many different directions. Many early science fiction movies focused on alien encounters or monster attacks while another subset tackled the subject of the future of humanity.

To modern eyes, the special effects in these films are extremely cheesy, which adds a certain charm, but if you get past the dated visuals there are often very captivating, sometimes thought provoking, stories being told.

 

10. This Island Earth (Jack Arnold & Joseph M. Newman, 1955)

This Island Earth

Like many of the other science fiction films of its time, This Island Earth was based on a successful novel, this one by Raymond F. Jones. Rex Reason stars in this intergalactic adventure, playing Dr. Cal Meacham, an aviation scientist who becomes entangled in otherworldly affairs when he and his former lover are abducted by a race of aliens called the Metalunans.

The Metalunans want Meacham’s help in fighting off an enemy race called the Zagons, but when things get violent, Meacham has to find a way off the planet and return to Earth.

Despite being acclaimed upon its release as a revolutionary science fiction film with incredible special effects, This Island Earth’s reputation has declined over the years.

It even was subject to the farcical show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which somewhat unfairly made people think of it as just another “B Movie” even though it is of much higher quality than most of the films that are featured in the show. Despite some shortcomings in the film’s acting department, This Island Earth is a highly engrossing space adventure with amazing visuals.

 

9. The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953)

The War of the Worlds

Taking its name and basic concept from the story by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds is the first and best movie adaptation of the breakthrough science fiction novel. This George Pal production takes Wells’s story and resets it from Victorian England to 1950s California. Haskin’s story starts with a martian aircraft crash landing in Southern California.

Initially nobody knows what to make of it, but after lasers from the ship start killing people, the army gets involved. Soon, the martians are destroying buildings and killing scores of people and our hero, nuclear scientist Clayton Forrester, must fight to try and save humanity.

Some might argue that the campiness and the now aged special effects of this classic make it lesser than some of the other adaptations, most notably Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake. While the new film certainly has more advanced effects, the slightly cheesy, Technicolor manta-ray ships of the original film give off an aura that is just as eerie.

Unlike many of Pal’s productions during that time, The War of the Worlds actually features some worthwhile thematic content, such as the clashing of religion and warfare, as well as many genuinely thrilling moments.

 

8. Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani, 1936)

Flash Gordon

This classic campy serial remains one of the most innocently fun, over the top science fiction adventures of all time. Released in thirteen parts, this space epic stars Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, a space ranger who gets caught up in many thrilling adventures, with his main focus being to take down his adversary Ming the Merciless. He is accompanied through space by his companion Dale Arden, played by Jean Rogers, and meets many other colorful characters along the way.

Flash Gordon was a success and inspired several other science fiction serials that followed, including Buck Rogers, also starring Crabbe. The serial itself was based on a comic strip and the characters have been revived in several other serials, as well as more modern movies.

Flash Gordon’s success has only increased over time and now the film and character have a sizable cult following. Reportedly, a new adaptation of the comic is currently in the works.

 

7. The Lost World (Harry Hoyt, 1925)

The Lost World

This landmark film, based on the novel by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, was one of the most important breakthroughs in special effects throughout film history.

The story follows members of an expedition who set out to rescue the explorer Maple White. His daughter, Paula White, leads the initiative and is accompanied by several others including a professor and a newspaperman. They journey to a plateau in Venezuela where they find the land is inhabited by many ferocious dinosaurs.

While the plot and performances are good enough to convey an exciting story, the real reason for the continued fame of this movie is the animation of the dinosaurs. Willis H. O’Brien, a pioneer of stop motion animation who would go on to create the monsters in King Kong, shocked the world with his revolutionary effects.

The exciting battles between the dinosaurs were like nothing ever before seen on film and caused an international sensation, bringing about the popularity of more effects driven films in Hollywood.

 

6. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Master of the “Monster Movie,” James Whale struck another enormous success with this pre-Code flick based on a novel by H.G. Wells. Having reached great fame for his masterful gothic adaptation of Frankenstein a few years earlier, Whale continued his career with this “monster” movie.

Claude Rains, in his first American role, stars as the titular figure, Jack Griffin, a scientist who has discovered the secret to invisibility. Unfortunately, the chemical that makes him invisible is also turning him insane and Griffin starts off on an endless murder spree.

This surprisingly dark and fresh entry into the early horror/sci-fi genres shot Whale and Rains to stardom and helped popularize the craze of the monster movie. Like the novel, the film also raises some interesting thematic ideas.

The science fiction elements of the story are not as grandiose as in many of the other films on this list, instead playing a more subtle and realistic role. The film spawned many sequels in the years that followed but none came close to the great atmosphere and story set up by Whale in the original.

 

 

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  • Veronica Clarke

    Great list, thank you.