Star Wars has been around since 1977 and fundamentally changed the sci-fi landscape, but a lot of people don’t realize how many science-fiction films have come before the tumultuous space opera. Admittedly, before Star Wars, science-fiction films were for more of a niche audience, or were more laughable than fascinating, and were not as well-produced and respected as they are today. Much of the genre was simply not taken seriously before George Lucas came around, and great genre films like The Blob and Godzilla did not receive as much love from the Academy Awards, being dismissed as B-movies by critics and cinephiles (until they received intellectual reappraisals over recent decades which explored their brilliance).
However, there have been a handful of science-fiction films that have stuck out among the crowd and remain beloved to this very day, even without the need for watered-down franchises to follow them. Here are the best science-fiction movies before Star Wars was released in theaters.
7 The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
No, this isn’t the off-beat, if visually stunning, Keanu Reeves movie. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still centers around a flying saucer that landed in Washington, D.C. The saucer harbored an alien named Klaatu and his robotic companion named Gort. Looking at it from a contemporary time period, the film is very dated and the robot costume for Gort is laughable, but beyond that, the film is noteworthy for its detailed exposition of the human race and how the ideologies of peace are often traded for war and avarice. The film was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry in 1995.
6 The War of the Worlds (1953)
Another original, alien-centric film remade in the 2000s (with Tom Cruise) was The War of the Worlds, the 1950s flying saucers classic based on the groundbreaking H.G. Wells masterpiece. The only difference is that the aliens don’t come in peace this time. The creatures from outer space land on Earth and, soon after, all hell breaks loose as the monsters go on a killing spree to take over the world. The aliens are foiled by the bacteria in the atmosphere foreign to them as they die off. Potent, riveting, and ambitious even for a B-flick, the film was a step forward in science-fiction and even won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
5 A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Admittedly, the film is only fifteen minutes long, but in that short amount of time, audiences were brought into a brand new world of imagination and innovation– science-fiction cinema. The short film sees a group of astronomers traveling to the moon where they find a slew of other lifeforms. Given that A Trip to the Moon was released in 1902, its inventiveness and visual effects are fantastic. Director Georges Melies planted an idea of exploration beyond that of the Earth’s exosphere long before space travel was even feasible, and changed the film industry forever in the process.
4 The Time Machine (1960)
Before Star Wars and, more appropriately, Back to the Future, were released, Rod Taylor starred in the classic movie The Time Machine. It explored the themes of time travel and progress for the sake of science. George Wells (an obvious nod to the author H.G. Wells in this other adaptation of his) is a genius inventor who convinces his science-minded friends that he has discovered the secret of time travel. After his friends rebuff his claims, Wells decides to travel into the future, seeing what progress mankind has made. The movie is nostalgic, clever and wonderfully acted by Taylor. It proves to be thought-provoking and stellar in its storytelling and structure.
3 Metropolis (1927)
This 1927 epic was a brilliant metaphor for both industrialization and capitalism, and proved to be Fritz Lang’s magnum opus. If A Trip to the Moon was the beginning of science-fiction films, Metropolis was its first masterpiece, and began to shift sci-fi toward the mainstream. It has a sense of wonder, using technology as one of its themes throughout the runtime, and its awe and majesty have been inspirational to countless films since.
2 Planet of the Apes (1968)
Keep your bad reviews off this movie you damn, dirty critics! This gorilla-sized fable tells the tale of a small group of astronauts who land on a different planet that is inhabited and run by walking, talking primates. In all fairness, while it is somewhat ridiculous, it did actually spawn tons of merchandise and a franchise, but it was bastardized or cheapened with excessive and pointless sequels and reboots (though the recent Matt Reeves editions have been surprisingly excellent). Planet of the Apes, despite its now-cheesy makeup and effects, has become a hallmark in movie history. It was a feat of provocative intellectualism which showed that sci-fi could be heavily conceptual and engage deep political and social issues, and has transcended its time period and subverted the genre with a twist ending that left jaws agape.
1 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Yet another 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey used technological progressivism in a way that has redefined every sci-fi trick in the book and has been remembered for generations after its release. The film explores deep philosophical issues of existentialism and the evolution of technology, humanity, and the universe; it may even hold the true secrets of the cosmos which have probably just flown over people’s heads. It also sports HAL 9000, the calmest villain ever put on the big screen. The machine’s collected demeanor and sophisticated, condescending tone and voice are enough to anger anyone, and it makes it that much more satisfying to see his downfall. Nevertheless, the film is a testament to the intellectual and visual power of science-fiction, and paved the way for movies like Star Wars to be beloved by critics and audiences alike.
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