Between the death of Neil Armstrong this week, the recent death of Sally Ride, and all of the high-resolution postcards from Mars that Curiosity has been busy sending back to Earth, we’ve had space on our minds quite a bit lately. Generations of scientists have been captivated by the prospect of space travel, but prior to the first human actually leaving the Earth’s atmosphere in 1961, it was up to science fiction to imagine what that experience might be like. Film offered the perfect medium for envisioning the desolation of hurdling towards the stars, the exotic landscapes of faraway worlds, and the alien creatures that we might encounter there. We’ve put together a list of ten classic sci fi films that predate cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space. From the realistic to the campy, science fiction film remains one of the most imaginative genres.
La Voyage dans la lune (1902)
Considered to be the first known science fiction film, the 14-minute-long La Voyage dans la lune (also known as A Voyage to the Moon or A Trip to the Moon) is a showcase of technical advances in filmmaking. Georges Méliès innovated various special effects and animation techniques to shoot this story about a group of six astronomers who launch themselves in a giant bullet toward the moon. The lunar surface is depicted as a cavernous, mushroom covered landscape inhabited by a race of insect-like aliens called Selenites. This classic film has received considerable attention since being restored with hand-colored frames for a re-premier at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (along with an excellent new soundtrack by Air). Martin Scorsese’s Hugo also features the famous moon landing scene, and even incorporates Georges Méliès into its storyline.
Long before Tarkovsky, Russian film began its cosmonautical love affair with Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita, the first feature-length science fiction silent film. The story follows a man who, after arriving on Mars by rocket ship, starts a Martian revolution and becomes the love interest of the voyeuristic Queen Aelita. Elaborate costumes and fantastical set designs abound.
Frau im Mond (1929)
Fritz Lang’s silent film, Frau im Mond (released as Woman in the Moon in the UK and By Rocket to the Moon in the US) was one of the first films portraying modern rocket technology in a realistic way. The main characters of the film make the surprising discovery that there’s no gold on the moon. It does, however, turn out to have a breathable atmosphere.
Rocketship X-M (1950)
Even astronauts make a wrong turn or pull off at the wrong exit from time to time. In Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M, a crew is on an expedition to the moon but winds up going to Mars instead. The first of many sci fi films to feature a theramin score.
Destination Moon (1950)
George Pal’s depiction of a rocket launch to the moon, done in a documentary style, is one of the first science fiction films to offer a realistic portrayal of a successful space flight program. The film also offers interesting connections to the more recent cuts on government funding for NASA, suggesting in a rather Cold War-inflected tone that the future of space travel will be dominated by private interests. Watch the full movie here.
Project Moonbase (1953)
Richard Talmadge’s Project Moonbase is most interesting for what was at the time a highly progressive, realistic vision of a future in which women are given egalitarian treatment, anticipating the progressive tone of many other famous science fiction classics, such as Star Trek. It’s even better with the MST3K commentary.
On the other end of the science fiction spectrum is the famous screwball comedy team’s movie about a pair of astronauts heading for Mars who inadvertently take a detour to New Orleans Mardi Gras, get hijacked by bank robbers, and end up on Venus. Watch the trailer above.
Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
Arthur Hilton’s Cat-Women of the Moon is the height of campy ’50s sci fi movies. An expedition discovers a race of — you guessed it — Cat-Women living on the moon, who attempt to use their feminine guile to distract the male crew members and hijack their spaceship. As you could probably guess of a movie about alien Cat-Women, love becomes the source of their undoing, as one of the aliens gives away the sinister plot to one of the handsome astronauts.
Conquest of Space (1955)
Another venture in realism by George Pal, the tagline of Conquest of Space reads: “See how it will happen in your lifetime!” While the film dutifully portrays the hardships of space travel and a refreshingly uninhabited and inhospitable Martian landscape for ’50s, the movie ends on a rather heavy-handed improbability: The thirsty crew is inexplicably saved by a Martian Christmas snowfall. A precursor to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians , perhaps?
The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Imagining what extraterrestrial life might look like has played a prominent role in the history of science fiction film. One possibility, explored in Ib Melchior’s The Angry Red Planet, is a grotesque hybrid of a bat and a spider. But let’s hope not.