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Classic Science Fiction

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In this episode David Hast and Scott Vander Werf explore Classic Science Fiction from ‘A Trip To The Moon’ to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey

[Clip from Invasion of the Body Snatchers]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen the remake from the 1970's, but I have not seen the original 1956 version directed by Don Siegel.

DH: You've got to see it. It's iconic. It's one of the classic American sci-fi films from the 50's and 60's.

SVW: And from what I understand it is it's like part of the era, the 1950's. it's of the time.

DH: Yeah, it very much is, because it, first of all, it's a great, you know, just sci-fi film about an evil alien invasion. Most alien invasion movied the aliens are bad. But it also reflects very much the period of time that it was made in, the 1950's. It's kind of paranoid. It's about a fear of the other. The aliens, what they are they duplicate, they look just like humans. So here you are and you see another human being, which is like another person from your little town. And it's like, are they themself or are they an alien? It's interesting because this fear, fear of being different, everything wanting to be the same. Some people have interpreted invasion of the body snatchers as being about the repressiveness of the 1950's, the conservatism and forcing everyone to be the same. And it's like they're controlling our minds and we aren't free. But other people have interpreted it as saying, no, it's about communism.

SVW: The body snatchers are the communists.

DH: They're the Communist Party and they’re going to take us over, which fits with the 1950's. And I believe that Don Siegel, the director, was very cagey about that. He just was no, it's not political, which is not true it obviously is political. But in which way? To me, it's both, right?

SVW: And it fits and it's also within that body of work in terms of the 1950's science fiction movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them, Forbidden Planet…we can talk about these, but let's go backwards to the first really great science fiction movie from 1903, It's from France from Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon.

DH: Right. Its the most famous film from one of the most important pioneers of filmmaking. This is going back to when movies first started and he made this movie that was just a classic sci-fi story. It had already been done in writing in the 19th century by writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells. And it's just some scientists build a rocket fly to the moon. They encounter aliens, they encounter all kinds of weird plants and animals because we didn't know what the moon was actually like. And they encounter aliens who are attacking them and they fight them off, capture one and bring it back to Earth. But it also…the other important thing to say about it is that Georges Méliès invented special effects, right? Stop motion photography, animation, all kinds of interesting special effects…

SVW: Using set design as a special effect, even.

DH: Absolutely because he never moved his camera around or anything was all done on a stage. But it's interesting that it's appropriate that really the person who made the first true science fiction film also did it with special effects, which are so central to the medium now.

SVW: And then that was followed by some silent movies like the original Frankenstein from 1910, adaptation of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde in 1916, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne 1925. But then in 1927, for Fitz Lang makes Metropolis in Germany with the first, arguably the first robot.

DH: Yeah. The movies you first just mentioned are all pretty forgettable. So not really not much happens between A Trip to the Moon in 1903 and Metropolis in 1927. Yeah. It's about robots that again, look like people, one in particular who is, you know, planted there by the owners of the businesses to get the workers to revolt so they can have an excuse to kill them off. It has amazing special effects for the time and it's about robots and the future, and so it's a great, great science fiction film near the end of the silent era. But its German, you know, there isn't much happening in the United States until later.

SVW: Yeah, well, actually, just 3, 4, years later, when in 1931, when James Whale makes Frankenstein.

[Frankenstein Clip]

DH: Universal studios, or Universal pictures was one of the little 3, you know, get a little a Hollywood studio history here. The big ones were MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century FOX and a couple others. Universal was kind of small, but they struck gold when they made Frankenstein and then in the same year they made Dracula. And then they went on to make all these ones that you know, well, they’re household names: The Mommy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and these all became franchises with many, many repeats. Even though Frankenstein truly is science fiction because it is not magic or anything like that. It's scientists in a lab creating a being, it’s science. But the movie, it was the monster that caught people's attention and that's why it really gave birth to the horror genre that universal pictures was behind. So we have to go later to find true science fiction.

SVW: And in the 1940's, there wasn't a lot of activity because, of course, World War 2 was happening. And then in the 1950's, it's really the golden age of classic Hollywood sci-fi and beginning in 1951, With The Day the Earth Stood Still directed by Robert Wise.

[Clip from The Day the Earth Stood Still]

DH: That's a wonderful film. That’s actually about good aliens who come to Earth. Again, movies, particularly science fiction type movies, often capture what's going on in the world at the time. And one of the things that make up sci-fi films of the time is fear of like nuclear annihilation. So these aliens come to Earth, stop everything, the Earth standstill and basically get us to like own up and act correctly, so we don't destroy ourselves by nuclear war.

SVW: And it was remade into a movie that's very forgettable. In 2008, where they instead of a nuclear war, it’s environmentalism, it's a global warming and climate change that the alien is warning us about.

DH: Right. So even if the movies forgettable, it shows you how science fiction movies are. They look at what's going on in the world and in terms of our science and our planet and our politics and they address that and then speculate about what could happen in the future.

SVW: And then in 1956, we have Forbidden Planet directed by Fred Wilcox, which is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. It's a precursor to Star Trek. And it's also a big Hollywood production.

DH: Because, we haven't mentioned yet, but the reason why there are hardly any sci-fi in the 30's or 40's and stuff - it wasn't thought well of as a genre right? It was from Pulp Fiction and no one thought much of it. And even in the 50's or 60's, most science fiction are “B” films.

But you're saying Forbidden Planet was in “A” picture?

SVW: It was an “A” picture. In terms of the marketing and the money for the special effects, and you can see it even today watching it, in Technicolor, it looks gorgeous.

[Clip from Forbidden Planet]

DH: And I always remember this thing, the shows and it's like stories deep. It's like 100 stories tall and it's actually deep into the earth. And it's all the knowledge of in history, like collected its data. It's kind of like a 1950's version of what we might must imagine a Google server farm looks like. So that was kind of a fortuitous.

SVW: And then the same year Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which we started off with and then in 1960, the Time Machine based on the book by H.G. Wells, directed by George Pal with Rod Taylor. And this is a movie both you and I grew up watching like over and over on television. I'm sure.

DH: Yeah, it's so entertaining and probably had a big cast and George Pal's effects and everything. But it's also, you know, H.G Wells translated perfectly.

If you look at what H.G. Wells wrote, there's still the major themes of science fiction movies now, right? The Time Machine is about time travel and it's a warning to what we can do if we don't do things right, War of the Worlds is alien invasion, then you've got The Invisible Man, which is, you know about the mad scientist and he's got it all. So those made great movies, even of course, those have all been remade right? Time Machine, and that Tom Cruise version of War of the Worlds. And another one that I think it as we get later in the 60's and we start to approach the end of what I think we would call the classic era of sci-fi, the great French new wave film director Francois Truffaut made this film in English called Fahrenheit 4.51, which is the Ray Bradbury novel. But that's very important because it's about a future where they burned books and people's ability to learn and be smart is suppressed and its dystopian science fiction. If you look at TV series and movies now, especially TV series, they’re like all dystopian, futuristic sci-fi now.

SVW: It's the Dark Vision.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: As opposed to the optimistic vision. Then at the end of the decade, 2001, A Space odyssey, which one could say is the culmination of classic science fiction and the beginning of contemporary science fiction.

DH: Yeah, I wouldn't even let called the culmination. It was such a huge paradigm shift that it basically said forget all this way of doing science fiction movies. Here's a new way and it changed everything.

[Music from 2001, A Space Odyssey]

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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