Just one of the things science fiction movies and TV shows are known for is their visual style, that look that immediately identifies them to audiences as SF. But even though these shows are generally set in the future, not everyone is aware of how much the look of SF programs is usually taken from already-developed movies from the past, sometimes out of literal whole cloth, to save creators the trouble of reinventing the wheel.
In fact, most science fiction productions have been designed around the visual elements of past science fiction movies that are considered original and unique in their visual style, and popular enough to have become the templates that inspired the movies and TV shows after them. And since some of these influences go back almost a full century, there’s a good chance you may not know much about some of them.
And so, let’s talk about the science fiction movies that have served as the visual inspirations of later SF movies and TV shows. (Disclaimer: This list mostly deals with SF movies and shows exposed to American audiences.)
Arguably the first serious science fiction movie—and unquestionably the first SF blockbuster—this 1926 movie essentially defined the science fiction movie genre. Created by Fritz Lang at the tail end of the German Impressionist movement, Metropolis featured overstated designs, modern fashions, massive and unusual art-deco-inspired architecture and design, cutting-edge industrial elements, and overly-kinetic laboratories.
Add to that a full orchestral score, a rarity in films at the time (this was done in the silent era, when musicians from full orchestras in some cases to single piano players in others, would play the movie’s music from a space under or beside the screen), and the latest in special effects, including models, projected backgrounds, stop-motion photography and elaborate props and lighting, and you have elements that inspired movies from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, and series like Star Trek. Other elements, like the frenetic lab, found its way into horror films like Frankenstein and any others that featured mad scientists.
The movie’s robot character, Maria/Futura, directly inspired the droid C-3PO of Star Wars, so much that they look like they were designed by the same team.
Frau Im Mond
Unlike Metropolis, which was designed around impressionistic grand spectacle, Frau Im Mond was set in its present-day (1929), and the only futuristic elements in it were the featured rocket that took the crew to the Moon. This style of a normal-looking world with just a few notable technological exceptions was a popular one in the 50s and sixties, especially as it kept budgets down; and it was less visually extreme to viewers, making it easier to suspend their disbelief. This more grounded style was also popular with more serious SF productions, especially those that ran on television, and can be found most recently to shows like Person of Interest and Orphan Black.
Frau Im Mond was painstakingly researched to make its rocket and space scenes as realistic as possible, based on the science of the day. On the other hand, it also featured characters walking around in minimal protective gear on the Moon and meeting hostile Moon natives, inspiring many productions about planetary visits and threatening aliens that thrill (or amuse) audiences to this day.
Things to Come
Things to Come was H.G. Wells’ rebuttal to the more fanciful Metropolis. The story started in its present-day (1936), presented audiences with civilization being bombed into ruins, then uses time-jumps to show us the world’s slow recovery from that collapse to a shining new civilization that, in some ways, has the same old human problems. Most notable are the futuristic vehicles, similar to the vehicles of the era but highly stylized, and the city-building montage that reveals a very futuristic city built into the side of a mountain.
The pristine white “perfect future” sets of smooth surfaces and glass became a SF staple, off and on, for a century. Like the sets, the kind-of-ridiculous costumes, with huge wings and Greek-influenced wraps and bare legs, would also contribute to the look of future SF for decades to come.
Flash Gordon, and its later copycat serial Buck Rogers, both starring Buster Crabbe, were presented as episodic shorts before movie main features. These shorts, based on comic book content, featured bargain-basement effects, regularly-reused sets, and elaborate costumes loosely based around those of the comics characters; a lot of epaulets, curved shoulder wings, short skirts, elaborate boots, helmets and tights. Sets and props were garish, and were often parked next to paper-mache rocks and painted plywood walls. And we were introduced to alien races that were always humans in elaborate garb, often portrayed by a single race, like Asians, or with makeup applied to make them resemble some caricatured nationality or group.
These were low-budget series, topped off by swelling Germanic music no-doubt inspired by Metropolis‘ original orchestral score. But the comic-book-like “space opera” elements would be seen in TV shows like The Adventures of Superman (Kryptonian casual wear), The Twilight Zone and many other low-budget productions of the 40s and 50s. Star Trek would put the use of makeup-covered humanoid “aliens” in monostylistic clothing to heavy use in its original series, and most SF TV followed suit for decades.
Forbidden Planet was one of the early SF blockbusters, and it showed: Color, wide screen, quality special effects, its own aesthetic in sets and costumes, a fairly well-written script, and a well-designed robot, elements that came together for an exciting production. Though SF books had often featured space-going military groups, this was the most prominent early SF to depict a military spaceship manned by uniformed marines of a sort, with a clear parallel to the small teams on navy cruisers patrolling territories and outposts. The uniforms were utilitarian, with minimal decoration but a few tools included (like a belt-mounted transceiver). There is no doubt the basic structure of the crews of Star Trek and most other military-in-space tropes came directly from this model.
Many of the effects also directly inspired effects featured in Star Trek, such as the majestically-cruising starship, the hand-animated rays and beams, the flashing and colorful sets and machinery, and the generally intimate scale. The incredible miniature work would find its way into many other movies, notably Star Wars, and its groundbreaking electronic score inspired productions like Tron, and often turn up when the budget for an orchestral score was not available. And elements like the ship model and uniforms made their way into the reusable stock of programs like The Twilight Zone.
And Robby the Robot gets his own shout-out, reappearing itself in other SF productions and as non-SF guest appearances, and inspiring countless other robots in movies and productions like Lost In Space, The Terminator, Saturn V and Star Wars.
After a number of years filled with mostly fanciful (and some downright idiotic) ideas in science fiction, 1950’s Destination Moon aimed to bring us a more practical and realistic version of space travel, the most significantly realistic effort since Frau Im Mond.
Science fiction author Robert Heinlein acted as technical advisor and screenwriter contributor, and astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell created the matte paintings for the backgrounds. Throughout the production, the intent was to be as scientifically accurate about a flight to the Moon as possible, taking into account what we knew about space travel and the Moon itself, and foregoing bits about alien attackers and exotic threats common in other movies. Adding to that effort was a full budget devoted to special effects, on top of its technicolor budget, winning the film Academy Awards for effects and art direction.
Though some criticized it for not being as exciting as earlier SF movies, other critics praised its scientific accuracy and realism, and it became the film to beat for realistic science and quality production for years.
THX 1138 may not be the first SF production to show us a dehumanized, compartmentalized, love-less future of drudgery and fear, all on a shoestring budget, but this movie by a film student named George Lucas has become iconic of that SF style. This dystopian, 1984-ish future, where people live in small apartments in underground cities, wearing white pajamas, taking drugs or speaking to barely-automated recordings and being directed either by faceless monitors or equally-faceless robot policemen, is the very model of the crappy future to come.
Some of its bleak and minimalist elements came from TV shows like The Twilight Zone, or from other movies of the 60s like Fahrenheit 451 and ZPG (Zero Population Growth). Unlike those movies, however, THX 1138 was arguably more about presenting us with a bad future than telling a good story within it. And many other SF movies followed this guideline, worrying more about style than substance, and giving us a movie that was mostly eye-candy.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The seminal movie, 2001, A Space Odyssey, was always intended by director Stanley Kubrick to be “the proverbial serious science fiction movie.” To be sure, there have been other serious SF movies before 2001, but few that were so stylistically iconic and influential.
2001 put a lot of work into its special and practical effects, to the extent that its space scenes, space craft and revolving sets became the benchmark for other movies to hit for decades afterward. The modern and minimalist set styles, full of display screens, mod furniture and blocky fonts, would inform 70s movies and TV shows, especially a lot of the British SF TV like UFO and Space:1999, for the next 20 years. Its psychedelic journey through the stars would also inspire movies and shows trying to create mind-blowing light shows to impress their viewers.
Kubrick’s choice of classical music brought full orchestration back to SF, replacing many bare-bones orchestras and electronic tonalities popular in movies (though orchestral scores were doing well on television at the time). 2001 also tried to dispense with the idea of “sound in space,” the typical sounds of ship’s engines and energy beams typically heard in SF space movies and programs, and replacing them with music or the sounds of astronauts breathing in their space suits. Though many appreciated the effort, this was an idea that didn’t gain much traction, as producers felt space was “too quiet,” and wanted more sound to keep the audience’s attention.
Like THX-1138, Silent Running wasn’t the first SF movie whose theme was the environmental impact of global industrialization, but it became iconic of the genre.
Set in space aboard a freighter carrying the last of Earth’s forests, Silent Running argued for the ecology, and gave us contrasting views of forests set inside domed enclosures, floating through space. The main character, Freeman Lowell, struggled to get his crewmates to appreciate the natural treasures they carried, and had to fight with them when they were ordered to abandon and destroy the forests.
One trademark of this movie was its ship interior scenes being filmed on an actual aircraft carrier, creating a great mix of cramped crew spaces crammed with grimy machinery and cavernous storage areas filled with geodetic crates with familiar logos emblazoned on them. Another were the beautifully-rendered spacecraft, created and filmed by the special effects director of 2001, Douglas Trumbull.
And then there were the drones, ingeniously designed around paraplegics who walked on their hands, and affectionately named Huey, Dewey and Louie. While the environmental theme informed many movie and TV SF productions, the drones directly inspired the droids, like R2-D2, in Star Wars.
Any such list would be remiss if it didn’t mention Star Wars… not so much for being inventive in many ways, but for taking the iconic imagery of so many other movies from the past and combining them as they hadn’t been combined before or as effectively. Wide vistas, space battles, practical and visual effects, alien races, orchestral scores, all had been done before… in separate movies and TV shows. Star Wars brought them all together in one film, as an homage to the Flash Gordon serials of old.
To be sure, there was a significant upgrading of its effects, especially the space effects, thanks to John Dykstra taking what he’d learned on 2001, adding computer motion control on 3 axes, and creating the most dynamic space effects seen on film. Dykstra’s Industrial Light and Magic studio would become THE effects studio for effects for years.
Star Wars also gave us a wider variety of aliens, using combinations of masks, makeup, small people, tall people, robotics and puppetry, ever seen on film. And the droids, like C-3PO and R2-D2, re-inspired movie and TV shows into using men, boys, midgets and even monkeys in metal suits to be their robots.
While most SF movies set in space gave us adventurous soldiers, brilliant scientists or expert astronauts in elaborate high-tech spaces, Alien was one of the few that showed us a blue-collar future in space: Dirty, gritty, retrofitted and jury-rigged as needed. Alien‘s refinery-towing spaceship, the Nostromo, suggested the inside of an oil rig, appropriate for its hard-working, plain-talking crew. The crews’ struggles against a highly-efficient and dangerous alien, juxtaposed against dark and claustrophobic industrial spaces, coincidentally made it easier for the alien to hide, often in plain sight.
The only thing more memorable than the atmospheric nightmare of that ship was the Warrant Officer, Ellen Ripley, who would become the template for smart and strong female heroes in SF movies, a genre that was previously known for gun-toting male heroes always saving the damsels in distress.
Blade Runner gave us the dystopic future city, full of old next to new buildings, garish neon, pollution-fogged skies and distracting searchlights, mixes of seeming every culture stepping each other, advertisements on every surface and on dirigibles floating above the city, artificial beings indistinguishable from the real thing, flying cars, and a detective trying to chase down four fugitive replicants from space.
This was future noir, the seedy underbelly of the future, and the struggling former-cop-turned-detective pressed into service, that is still a popular look in SF TV, starting with Max Headroom soon afterward and branching out to many other SF series and movies.
1984 lived up to its reputation as a movie that scared everybody about the future by giving us a world much bleaker than THX 1138: Tortured, tired, paranoid people living in tiny, oppressive, unpainted granite spaces; doing mind-numbing, demeaning work; always watched by cameras (you know they’re watching because they occasionally address you by name) and by human agents of the government. Citizens either look blasted or terrified at all times. The ever-present cameras and screens rob citizens of privacy. The main character tries to find love to give his life some meaning, and ends up being tortured.
The iconic dystopian story became the iconic dystopian movie; whenever a series wants to show us a horribly ruined future, it pulls out the themes (and often the look) of 1984, sometimes incredibly blatantly (looking at you, Babylon 5) and sometimes sarcastically (now looking at you, Brazil).
The Matrix was Hollywood’s next significant foray into virtual realities since Tron; but this time, the virtual reality turned out to be what the audience thought was reality, while a small band of soldiers fighting the oppressive machines lived in the real reality of futuristic flying craft and hidden enclaves of survivors, the reality beneath “reality.”
The Matrix brought extreme slo-mo back to theaters, becoming a standard in SF and adventure movies, and coined a new phrase: Bullet-time. And while it used a lot of the grunge made famous by Alien in its real reality, it also introduced tinted atmospheres in the Matrix, a slight green filter that represented its digital reality. And it forced audiences to question what their reality was, and how they would know the difference.
Robert Zemekis’ Contact, also set in its present day (1997), featured an attempt to make contact with another space-faring civilization after detecting a signal from space. The signal described the creation of a huge device that allowed Ellie Arroway to take a trip across the cosmos and back, despite earthbound politics and terrorists blocking her way.
Contact gave us realistic, even mundane, scenes of life on Earth juxtaposed against almost unimaginable uber-technology, a combination recently used effectively in movies like Inception, Interstellar and Arrival, creating hyper-believable scenarios that make it easier to suspend disbelief and go with the fantastic elements of the story.
If you think I missed one, feel free to chime in in the comments.
We don’t know what will be the next science fiction movie with such an original look and style that it will inform the look and style of SF movies to come. Will it be a story in space, or on Earth? In the near future, or thousands of years from now? In a spacecraft, or another planet? Or some combination of all of those possibilities? By an A-list director, or a new and unknown talent? There’s no telling. We might not even immediately recognize their work as something that will be the next Iconic Movie.
Or maybe we will. And the wait for the next movie that embraces that new iconic SF style could be unbearable.