Most people have no idea how science fiction was started in film. The genre itself is one that has been considered for a long time to be something that the serious filmmaker or those of higher taste could not take seriously. A great example of that is the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences treats the genre in general. Although if you really take a look at the history of science fiction. It has shown when a film or series was taking seriously or to precise was given serious thought when made, major contributions to society were made. One obvious example that comes to mind is the Star Trek communicator . Look at our cell phones today especially the flip style cell phone that started in the late 90’s (Motorola’s StarTAC, created in 1996) or the iPads, flat screen TV’s etc…. You think that any other of those genres could entice or stimulate the imaginations of so many to come up with such devices. To me that in itself puts this genre ahead of any other. That is why it was fascinating for me to go back to the grass roots of the industry to see where it all began and take a look at the first 20 odd years that these films were made.
When you look back at these films they were very simple and the first ones had a lot to do with slapstick and comedy and started a slow evolution towards a more serious position on sci-fi. Even back then there were a handful of films that took the idea of sci-fi and fuse it with problems facing society. Ethical questions of science and how humanity was developing more dangerous weapons to destroy each other. Those first sci-fi film makers opened up an avenue to future film makers to build on . An avenue to disguise ethical questions to an audience without breaking any laws. A way to express opinions and to give the audience a new way to look at the problems of the day. And of course a new way to entertain and make the cinema experience more fun for theater goers and later for all the rest of us couch potatoes.
So lets first start with the obvious question . What is the definition of a science fiction film ? Well I found two really good definitions both found almost in every googled reference I could find including Wikipediea which I will use as the source for now .
Other definitions can be found at the Google search page forScience Fiction
So what and when was the very first science fiction film and who filmed and created it ? As far as I could tell it was a french short film called La Charcuterie mécanique released in 1895 and was created by the Lumière Brothers. The Translation of the title means mechanical butcher. Though from the true plot of the film it may fit weekly into the Sci-Fi category in my opinion. However the The Overlook Film Encyclopedia which was edited by Phil Hardy had inserted it in the class of science fiction. You can judge for yourself with this short I found on Youtube
As you can see it shows a pig being placed in a machine and fully produced pork products come out the other end. Not much in the terms of sci-fi except it had to do with a futuristic machine.
But it was three other films that are also French shorts that soon followed that showed signs of trulyy being sci-fi that may the real first wave of sci-fi films . In 1897 there was a film called Gugusse et l’Automate or The Clown and the Automaton by Georges Méliès which is now considered a lost film about a circus performer producing an automaton that grew in size, before chasing the clown and providing slapstick. Followed by two other Georges Méliès films one in 1902 called the Le Voyage dans la lune(Trip to the Moon) and 1907’s 20.000 Lieues Sous les Mers (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).
A Trip to the Moon (French: Le Voyage dans la lune) is a 1902 French black-and-white silent science fiction film. It is based loosely on two popular novels of the time: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.
The film was written and directed by Georges Méliès, assisted by his brother Gaston. The film runs 14 minutes if projected at 16 frames per second, which was the standard frame rate at the time the film was produced. It was extremely popular at the time of its release, and is the best-known of the hundreds of fantasy films made by Méliès. A Trip to the Moon is the first science fiction film, and uses innovative animation and special effects, including the well-known image of the spaceship landing in the Moon’s eye.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (French: 20000 lieues sous les mers) is a silent film made in 1907 by French director Georges Méliès, based loosely on the novel by Jules Verne of the same title. This became one of the first color films when it was hand tinted, frame by frame, by female factory workers.
Three films to follow were of British origins. All three by Walter Booth . The first in 1909 was a film called Airship Destroyer which is about a war Zeppelin like aircrafts destroying civilian areas and is finally brought down by remote missiles and the second film called Aerial Submarine in 1910 followed by Aerial Anarchists in 1911 which finished off the trilogy of films that related to his futurist vision of aerial warfare.
Airship Destroyer happens to be the only one I could find of the trilogy on youtube the rest seem to be lost or not available through copyrights.
The US had its first entry into the genre in 1916 with a version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea directed by Stuart Paton. The story is based off of Jules Vernes novel of the same title which introduced some ground breaking underwater photography by George M and J. Ernest Williamson. Here is a quick piece of entertainment trivia. This film was made by a non major company called Universal Film Manufacturing which was later called Universal Pictures. Hmm I think they ended up ok. What do you think ?
There were 2 other films from the same year that were also considered science fiction . One was a serial film called Homunculus and the other was I had to go to Silent Era.com to get some information the Homunculus a 1916 German film that was a serial of Six episodes and was directed by Otto Rippert but it had little plot summary . Although it had all the other facts like what film that was used , who starred in it etc….. Then I stumbled on to the Nitrate Vault and it had a summary of all six episodes plus some other added tid-bits.
Verdens Undergang or the End of The World is a 1916 Danish science fiction drama film directed by August Blom and written by Otto Rung, starring Olaf Fønss and Ebba Thomsen. The film depicts a worldwide catastrophe when an errant comet passes by Earth and causes natural disasters and social unrest. Blom and his crew created special effects for the comet disaster using showers of fiery sparks and shrouds of smoke.
Here is a video I found on Youtube. It is obvious it has been edited from the original with a new eerie score but it has the main parts of Verdens Undergang .
1918 started to see the rise of ethical questions of science and mans desire to become master of his own faith through science. There was film called Alraune directed by Michael Curtiz and Edmund Fritz and starring Géza Erdélyi. Accoring to Wikipedia the film has been lost and little is known about this film except it was a sci-fi / horror film whose plot was based on the original legend of Alraune in which a Mad Scientist creates a beautiful but demonic child from the forced union between a woman and a Mandrake root.
Another film of 1918 was what I would call an interesting German film in which a Doctor uses the sperm of a dead man to impregnate a prostitute. The resultant child then grows up only to turn against the man who created her. Sounds pretty modern of a theme if you asked me. The film was called Alraune, die Henkerstochter, genannt die rote Hanne and was directed by Eugen Illés and Joseph Klein and starring Max Auzinger.
1918 and 1919 also saw a serial film in which Harry Houdini stared called The Master Mystery. The plot of the series which you can find on the Great Harry Houdini.com has “Harry Houdini as Quintin Locke, a secret service agent battling an international conspiracy to suppress any sort of scientific progress. Among the conspirators are the vicious DeLuxe Dora (Ruth Stonehouse), the “Madagascar Strangler” (William Pike), and a strange would-be robot known only as Q. (Floyd Buckley). The ubiquitously imperiled heroine was played by Marguerite Marsh, the older sister of Griffith star Mae Marsh. Despite Houdini’s enormous fame, The Master Mystery proved a disappointing failure. The problem, apparently, was the great escape artist himself who, a stickler for authenticity, escaped his many perils too easily.” There were 31 reels in this series and was directed by Burton King and Harry Grossman.
The last two films of 1919 that dealt with a science fiction theme were 1) a British film called The First Men in the Moon and 2) a German film entitled Die Arche.
First Men in the Moon is based off of H.G. Wells 1901 Novel of the same name . Although this film is another one to believed lost there is some considerable mention of it on various sites. One particular site in which is very in debt in plot and background information on the film is called BFI.org. The reason this film gets a lot of attention in the history of the genre is because it is believed to be the first based on a novel.
The second of these films is one called Die Arche (aka The Ark) which is also a 1919 silent science fiction film that starred Leo Connard and was directed by Richard Oswald. It is a two part German epic based upon a novel by Werner Scheff. It follows the story of a near future in which civilization has been destroyed. Which I guess would make this the second film based on a novel.
So there you have it the first 20 or so years of science fiction on film. They were very experimental back then and most effects had to be improvised by the cheapest source around. There was no sound in those films just a theater band playing behind the film , so the audience had to reach into their imagination and fill in all the gaps. Something that maybe todays audience may be missing. Those films usually were done on the fly with flubs and all. But with all those disadvantages they somehow manage to spark an entire genre that kept growing and growing . Refining effects , sound , and plots until it reached the sophistication of todays films. And it looks like the industry is not done yet with 3D getting better and better. Who knows what another 100 years from now what films would look like and how it will stimulate our imaginations. But however the industry will evolve it is still will have these early pioneers to thank for laying the foundations that they have built on.
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