The History of Sci-Fi Films

Sci-Fi films have depicted unimaginable scientific phenomenons since the beginning of time. The category combines the real world with the supernatural to question thoughts of the unknown in science. Over the past century, technology has improved special effects and futuristic elements in these films, which has resulted in a rising popularity and success in this area of the film industry. Here is how the sci-fi genre all began. 

The Era of Silent Film

The history of sci-fi films dates back to the early 20th century in the Silent Film Era. The attempts were usually 1-2 minute short films, shot in black and white, and had a technological theme that was intended to be comical. The first film categorised as science fiction was Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) by George Méliès, telling the story of a spacecraft being launched to the moon in a large cannon. The special effects used in the film paved the way for future sci-fi films, and became very popular after its release. Science fiction literature also had a huge impact on early films. Books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1910) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913) were adapted into films, mixing sci-fi and horror together. 

1930’s and 40’s

Films in the 30’s were influenced by sound, dialogue, and the effects of the Great Depression. The decade however, saw a rise in film serials which were low budget, quickly produced short films that depicted futuristic adventures filled with action and gadgetry. One of the first films was The Phantom Empire (1935), about a cowboy who stumbles upon a technologically advanced underground civilization with ray guns, robots and advanced TV’s. More films throughout the decade continued to use elements like space travel, high tech gadgets, and mad scientists. Most of the successful sci-fi films in the 30s continued in the 40s as sequels. However, sci-fi films were mainly inert throughout the course of the war. 

Post War and 1950’s 

Developments of the atomic bomb and anxiety about apocalyptic effects of a nuclear war strongly influenced the sci-fi genre during the 50s. The Cold War and communist era in the United States also led to an increase in sci-fi films, which later started a Golden Age of Science Fiction. One of the most important films during the time was Destination Moon (1950), which tells the story of a nuclear powered rocket that brings four men to the moon while competing against the Soviets. This film was largely publicised and very successful, which resulted in more financing for sci-fi films. The decade also saw a rise in popularity for alien films. The films featured political commentary mixed with the concept of UFOs. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) became a major success and set a new wave of sci-fi monster films. The film depicts the monster Rhedosaurus destroying areas of the United States after being thawed out by atomic testing. This decade of films include sci-fi and horror with a mix of apprehension in regards to  nuclear technology or dangers of outer space. The success of sci-fi during this decade influenced future success and international growth as a genre. 


In the beginning of the decade, not many films were produced after the rush in the 50s. The films that were produced during this time were either aimed at a child audience or a continuation of 50’s sci-fi films. In the second half of the decade however, many sci-fi films were produced and transformed the genre. Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is a social commentary on freedom of speech and government restrictions and Fantastic Voyage (1966) tells the story of the main character exploring the inside of a human body. Planet of the Apes (1968) was also a very popular film that eventually resulted in four sequels and a TV series. One of the most significant sci-fi films during this decade is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The film tells the story about a voyage to Jupiter with the computer HAL after discovering a dark machine that is destroying human evolution. The film was considered to be groundbreaking for its time in regards to the quality of visual effects, the realistic portrayal of space travel and the legendary scope of its story. After this film was released, sci-fi films that followed would have immensely larger budgets and an improvement in special effects. 


There was much more interest in sci-fi films with a space adventure theme in the 70s. The discoveries made in space during this decade created a marvel about the universe portrayed in these films. In the early 70s, many sci-fi films still included themes of paranoia with a threat against humanity in regards to ecological and technological conflicts. Some popular films during this specific time in the decade were A Clockwork Orange (1971), and the sequels to Planet of the Apes. Conspiracy thriller films were very popular during this time, which emphasised paranoia and conspiracy among national government or corporate entities. Some big successes in the 70s were Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).


Resulting in the success of Star Wars, this decade increases popularity of sci-fi films. Many major studios began to produce many more films. Both the Star Wars and Star Trek films influenced escapism becoming the dominant form of science fiction in the 80s. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) was one of the most successful films of the decade. The distinction between science fiction, fantasy and superhero films were obscured from the influences of these films as well. Every year during this decade saw at least one major sci-fi or fantasy film released. The decade also saw a growth in animation which acted as a medium for sci-fi films. This was mostly successful in Japan where anime started. This industry became very popular and has gradually expanding across the world.   


The creation of the internet led to the emerging cyberpunk genre in the 90s. This genre is a subgenre of science fiction in a futuristic setting that features advanced technological and scientific achievement. Both the internet and the genre paved the way for many internet-themed films. A very popular film that was released during this time is The Matrix (1999), which tells the story of a machine-run virtual prison that was created for humanity. Disaster films still remained popular during this decade and included updated themes to reflect more recent influences. Computers play an important role in the addition of special effects and the production of film. Software was improving rapidly over time which made it easier to produce more complicated effects in films. The improvements of special effects allowed many sequels of films like Star Wars to include features with many enhancements. 


During this decade, films turned away from space travel and more towards fantasy themes. Star Trek and Star Wars film series are the only films that appear in the first years of the decade and in present day. While fantasy and superhero films are vastly popular during this time, earthbound sci-fi films like The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were also popular. Sci-fi films in this decade were used as a tool for political commentary. Films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002) questioned the materialism of today’s world and questioned political situations post 9/11. As the years went on, the theatre audience began to decline due to online streaming services becoming widely popular. 


To conclude, science fiction films have transformed the film industry over the past century. With the advancement of technology, these productions enhance the quality of special effects to make the concepts look and seem more realistic than the audience could ever imagine. This genre is one that is greatly appreciated in the industry for bringing the extraordinary to life on the big screen. 



Katy is Senior at James Madison University back in the United States. She is a Communications major with a Public Relations concentration and a General Business minor. Katy is studying abroad for the semester in London and is excited to travel and learn more about the film industry.