Science fiction falls under the umbrella of a genre known as "speculative fiction," in which the scenery and characters deviate from what's known about the real world. Fantasy, horror, superhero tales, alternative history, and magic realism are all encompassed in speculative fiction. While speculative fiction goes all the way back to ancient Greek myths, what we think of as science fiction came about after the scientific method was established in the 1600s.
Science fiction is distinct from fantasy literature and other speculative fiction subgenres in that its imaginings—however wild they are—could be plausibly rooted in scientific study. Such a story might be set in the future, in an alternative past, in outer space, in subterranean or underwater locations on earth, or in another dimension. These worlds are often populated with space aliens, human or animal mutants, or androids, and include futuristic technology such as light sabers, ray guns, jet packs, teleportation machines, flying cars, or sentient computers. While some of these technologies could reasonably be developed in the future, others defy known physical laws, allowing for time travel or spacecraft that can move faster than light-speed.
The Age of Reason in the 17th century led to the creation of modern science and, with it, speculation about what new technology and scientific developments might bring, good and bad. Authors started to write about traveling to the moon or alternative worlds during the Enlightenment. In 1818, Mary Shelley published "Frankenstein," about a "mad" scientist who figures out to create a ghastly 8-foot-tall living being in his lab. As the 19th-century inventors harnessed electricity, developed steam-powered engines, and introduced the telegraph, science-fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne explored the strange and exciting possibilities of modern technology in their novels.
Movie theaters started opening at the turn of the 20th century, spreading the wonder of new-fangled moving-picture technology—naturally, the first science-fiction film quickly followed. Georges Méliès' 14-minute silent film "Le Voyage dans La Lune" ("A Trip to the Moon") depicted, in 1902, a cannon launching a rocketship into space so it crash-lands into the winking eye of the "man in the moon." Other films of the silent era mined Shelley's "Frankenstein," exploiting the concept of "mad scientists" and humanoids born from scientific experiments gone bad.
The Great War, a.k.a World War I, from 1914-1918, created a sense of despair about the future and the horrors that modern technology might bring upon society. "The Lost World," a 1925 movie based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, was the first feature-length science fiction film and one of the earliest examples of stop-motion animation. It posited that dinosaurs might have survived in a remote corner of the Earth. German Expressionist Fritz Lang depicted a bleak future dystopia, with a sentient robot, a mechanized, stratified society, and a mad scientist, in his 1927 masterpiece "Metropolis."
The Great Depression, however, killed interest in dystopian science fiction. Instead, movie goers wanted to escape into cheerful musicals, glitzy romances, fantasy, and adventures in exotic locales. If that exotic locale for escapist adventures happened to be space, Depression-era matinee goers were OK with that. Saturday matinees opened their program with short episodes of low-budget films known as serials, which usually ended with a cliff-hanger. Comic-strip space explorers named Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers became popular serial heroes, employing ray guns and anti-gravity belts while traveling in spaceships.
The monster genre—a hybrid of science-fiction and horror—was first introduced in the 1930s, with James Whale's masterful take on "Frankenstein" in 1931. Whale followed "Frankenstein" with a 1933 adaption of H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man," about a scientist who develops a formula for invisibility. After the success of "Frankenstein," Universal and other studios released a string of films about mad scientists who lose control of their mutant-monsters that go around slaughtering innocent bystanders. These included 1932's "The Vampire Bat" and "Doctor X," 1933's "The Mystery of the Wax Museum," 1936's "The Invisible Ray" and "The Devil Doll," 1940s "Dr. Cyclops," and 1944's "The Lady and the Monster."...
The onset of World War II led to the introduction of superhuman heroes in comics. Often aliens or mutants, superheroes helped America fight Nazis, and their rise usurped the reign of sci-fi astronauts. Characters like the Green Hornet, Captain Marvel, Batman, and Captain America dominated the WWII-era cinema.
The end of the war—with the dropping of the Atomic bomb and the nuclear Cold War that followed—renewed both fears and excitement about new technology. Americans imagined an exciting future in space filled with "Jetsons"-like conveniences while they worried about the threats of nuclear war, radiation poisoning, and automation taking jobs. The popularity of television sets encouraged filmmakers to make movies more titillating while a ruling that dismantled studio monopolies gave independent low-budget studios an opportunity to sell more films to theaters. All of these factors led an explosion of sci-fi films in the 1950s, often called the Golden Age of Science Fiction Films, in spite of the fact that many of the "B-films" in the genre were poorly written, badly acted, and employed cheap effects.
Inspired by German rocket science, after the war, both the Americans and Soviets worked on developing space programs, engaging in a Cold War competition known as the Space Race. Films like "Rocketship X-M" and "Destination Moon," both released in 1950, and "Flight to Mars," 1951, set the stage for movies about space travel for years to come. The smart, influential high budget "Forbidden Planet" (1956) introduced the benevolent and intelligent Robby the Robot.
Cold War paranoia also fed into the proliferation of sightings of "flying saucers" or "UFOs," thought to be alien invaders. Conveniently, the panic about hostile extraterrestrials set up filmmakers to create allegories for Communist invasion and the Cold War. Visitors from outer space descended in "The Thing," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "The Man From Planet X," "When Worlds Collide," "It Came From Outer Space," "Invaders From Mars," "The War of the Worlds," "This Island Earth," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and "The Blob."
When film heroes weren't fighting off aliens in the 1950s, then they had to deal with frightening mutant monsters, often born out of A-bomb radiation, in B-movie "Creature Features." "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," a pre-"Godzilla" dinosaur awakening film, was based on a Ray Bradbury short story and featured the stop-motion animation of FX pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Giant ants ("Them!"), a monstrous spider ("Tarantula"), mutant grasshoppers ("Beginning of the End"), an oversize octopus ("It Came From Beneath the Sea"), a gill-man ("Creature From the Black Lagoon"), and a man-turned-fly ("The Fly") lurked in these films. Radiation caused men to shrink ("The Incredible Shrinking Man") or grow ("the Amazing Colossal Man"). Robots from space and men turned cyborg also terrorized the silver screen. In Japan, the tremendous radioactive dragon creature known as "Gojira" or "Godzilla" was born in 1953. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Hammer Studios' sci-fi Quatermass serials were a hit.
While schlocky Creatures Features were still produced well into the 1960s, toward the end of the decade high-minded directors started to explore the genre's possibilities as high art and social commentary, starting with 1966's adaptation of Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and "Fantastic Voyage," which depicted scientists traveling through a human body. Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" forever altered space fiction with its realism and breathtaking visual effects. Meanwhile, "Barbarella" and "Planet of the Apes" maintained the camp factor.
Space films following "2001" maintained its level of mysticism, especially two 1977 movies "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Wars," a space opera that no one, not even its makers, realized would be such a blockbuster hit. Paranoid themes about ecological, technological, or government threats were explored in "THX 1138" (1971), "Westworld" (1973), "Soylent Green" (1973), "Logan's Run" (1976), "Mad Max" (1979), and "Alien" (1979). In 1979, the beloved 1960s space-exploration TV series "Star Trek" hit the big screen with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
The 1980s saw sequels to "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Mad Max," and "Alien" as well as dystopian visions like "Scanners" and "Blade Runner" and cyborg thrillers like "The Terminator" and "Robocop," counter-balanced by the kid-friendly fare like "Tron," "The Last Starfighter," and "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial." The cyberpunk era of the 1990s brought about "Total Recall," "Johnny Mnemonic," "Strange Days," and "The Matrix."