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Scifi Movies/How has sci-fi movies evolved through history


Hello Miss Baker,

I'm doing research for my school research project in my final year and I sincerely would like to know how sci-fi movies has evolved as whole throughout the years. Such as: has sci-fi become more realistic? Is the quality of sci-fi films nowadays better and what are the changes of sci-fi film over the years that really caught you eye and you thought was noteworthy? Finally I would like to ask which sci-fi movie had such a great impact that it changed the whole film-industry, according to you?

Thank you for your time,

Greetings Mia

Dear Mia: You have asked a big, complicated set of questions here, which I cannot answer sufficiently in a short response. Normally I don’t do school work, but in this case I will address parts of what you asked, and give you some suggestions for additional research that would be far more suitable for a research paper than any website. You don't note if you are at the secondary school or university level, but I do know that as a professor, I would consider citations from books or journals as far more legitimate than citations from an answer website, even one with experts (in fact, I often forbid my students to use information from such sites, but I am guessing your teacher does not).

The first thing I will note is how difficult it is to even define the SF genre--some consider only those films that deal plausibly with science, while others would include horror and fantasy films. This has been true from the start of cinema, and films like Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902), widely viewed as the earliest SF film. I tend to see SF as type of speculative fiction, which would include SF, Fantasy-Adventure, and Horror as strands that interweave in various ways. Thus science fiction would tend to be those films that use hypothetical science-based elements and themes, usually set in the future (although not always), set on earth (or a place similar to earth) or out in space. John Scalzi, in The Rough Guide to Science Fiction writes that science-fiction movies take place in the future or alternative timeline, "it uses technology that does not exist" (p. 3) and is based primarily in science or rationality (thus no magic or supernatural). Yet that clearly is not the definition most popular writers would limit themselves to, as any cursory search of SF Films shows--for 2015 alone that would include films more traditional SF like The Martian and Ex Machina with films like Jurassic World, Mad Max Fury Road and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. For example, AFI's defines SF films as "usually scientific, visionary, comic-strip-like, and imaginative, and usually visualized through fanciful, imaginative settings, expert film production design, advanced technology gadgets (i.e., robots and spaceships), scientific developments, or by fantastic special effects" (see

With that in mind the answer to your first question as to whether or not SF has become more "realistic" is almost unanswerable without knowing how you intend to not only define SF but justify that definition. Film in itself is hardly "realistic," but some might say that the use of CGI effects in films like Gravity and The Martian lead them to be somewhat true to real life. Yet are they really any more so than classics like George Pal's Destination Moon (1950) or Kubrick's 2001 (1968)? And then some would make the opposite case, that SF actually has become less "realistic" because of the increasing use of special effects (SFX) and the inclusion of fantasy films into the mix, with their fairy tale elements of archetypal heroes and villains. As for the "quality" of such films, that is a subjective judgment that completely depends on how you define "quality" and is not really the proper question to ask, in my view. Many earlier films are quite good in terms of filmmaking, as well as in conveying their stories, but so are current ones. The changes to technology over the years are such that this question cannot really be answered.

As for noteworthy or important SF films there are far too many to choose just one. Below I will list a few that I think are significant in the history but there are so many more I could add (and others would give you a different list). The first would be Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), a film so highly influential filmmakers still reference it. The next would be James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) for its impact on both horror and SF.  The 1950s were considered a golden age of SF films, and many could be seen as very influential, but my choice is Forbidden Planet (1956) for its mix of both myth and science—a popular film that clearly is referenced in films by Spielberg and Lucas later (Star Wars in particular owes a debt). Then I would choose 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it was just amazing when it came out—one of the earliest uses of computerized effects combined with a complex, philosophical storyline that has affected many subsequent films. And while many would not include it as SF (just as many others would), Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars IV: A New Hope) revolutionized the use of SFX as well as the idea of using all kinds of different genres (westerns, creature-features, samurai films, WWII films, etc.) within what is a somewhat classic fairy tale story. It also ushered in a real focus on spectacle, which was present in other, more traditional SF films of the time (such as Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, also in 1977). Later, The Matrix (1999) which blended in cyberpunk, postmodernism, and anime elements (as well as philosophy), had a similar effect. This list could go on, but many contemporary films borrow so heavily from the past that it is hard to tell what will have a major impact on future filmmakers—it is possible that films like Nolan’s Inception (2010) will be equally influential, along with others more recent (this list also is very much US-centric, and does not include many influential films from other countries).

I have some suggestions for you for future research—while not the newest publications, these will give you a grounding in SF films beyond what I can say in a short post (and personally, as a college professor, I would consider such works much better resources for a senior level research paper):

1. Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science-Fiction Film (NY: Unger, 1993 for 2nd edition). This is a classic book, the first full-length, comprehensive study of the genre which grapples with the definition of the genre.
2. Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, Science-Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace (London: Wallflower Press, 2000). A personal view of several different SF films
3. John Scalzi, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies (NY: The Rough Guide, 2005). A basic history of the genre.

There also are some good collections of articles with contributions from various scholars—often heavy going, but good resources none-the-less:
1. Annette Kuhn, Ed. Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction (London, Verso, 1999). The first Alien Zone (also edited by Kuhn) also is interesting
2. Sean Redmond, Ed. Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader (London: Wallflower Press, 2004

I hope this gives you some ideas for your research paper, as well as places to go (assuming you’ve not looked at some of these already).

Dr. Barbara L. Baker

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Barbara L. Baker


I am a professor of communication at a midwest university, with expertise in film. I can answer most questions on the original "Star Wars" trilogy, and some on the newer trilogy. I also have expertise in general science-fiction film (both history and theory), especially in the United States. For movie titles, I need to have the release date (or a date range, or at least when you saw it). It is better if you note significant, major plot details and characters rather than minor plot events, and it is even better if you can recall an actor or director's name, and if it is a film or TV movie. Plesse do not just provide a set of links to someplace else (e.g. imdb discussion threads). I am less able to answer the following, although I will do my best to track down an answer for you--recent SF films, horror films, or made-for-TV movies. Most SF films from other countries are out of my areas of expertise. In addition, I cannot answer questions about animated SF films, anime/manga, television series or shows, or about film collectables. Nor will I answer obvious homework (although I will point you to resources to help answer the question, if asked). I also can't help you find movie stars, movie memorabilia, or tell you how to break into the business.


Coursework in science-fiction and fantasy films, plus teaching courses in the subject for several years; I've also conducted research into SF and fantasy films and TV.

Ph.D. in Communication, with emphasis on film and rhetoric.

Awards and Honors
A dissertation award from a national organization and various paper awards.

Past/Present Clients
My students.

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