The history of science fiction in movies largely reflects three major points: trends in popular culture, the availability of special effects equipment and technology, and the hopes and fears of their contemporary audiences. One of the first science fiction films was A Trip to the Moon. Released in 1902, the film reflected the hopes that audiences had at the turn of the 20th Century. In one of the most iconic scenes, a group of astronauts is launched to the moon in a cannon-propelled ship. Much of the focus of the silent era of science fiction films featured adaptations of classic literary works, notably Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
The 1930s and 40s were difficult for science fiction films. Due to the commercial failure of many science fiction productions, notably 1930’s Just Imagine, studios were hesitant to spend large sums of money for the sets and equipment needed for sci-fi stories. Instead, serials dominated the genre in the era, leading to the rise of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon series. Looking beyond the shortage of films in the era, the 1950s is regarded as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Science fiction films of the era became a reflection of the paranoia Americans felt going into the Cold War. This is best exemplified in the 1950 film Destination Moon. Destination Moon forecasted the coming Space Race with the Soviet Union and showed the danger of space travel. Monster and alien films also dominated the 50s. The most iconic monster movie of the era, Godzilla, warned of the dangers of unchecked nuclear power. Fear of nuclear technology is also seen in The Day the Earth Stood Still, with a race of benevolent aliens urging the world to be cautious in its use of atomic weapons.
The 1960s saw the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most influential films of the genre. The 1970s saw the rise of sci-fi films that followed space adventure themes. This is best exemplified in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While Star Wars embraced mystical tones, Close Encounters depicted a realistic approach to first contact with an alien race. The 80s saw a multitude of different types of science fiction movies released by studios. While Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial made for family-friendly entertainment, other films, notably the Alien franchise, embraced horror tones.