Hollywood’s rocky history with science fiction


Photo by Ellie Montemayor

Over the decades, science fiction films have evolved in scope, script, theme and general relevance to the greater world as they become and increasingly intertwined part of popular culture. Each passing decade brings a different take on the concept of “science” and “science fiction,” with films’ development teams raised in the wake of the prior generations’ development.

For decades, the American film industry, colloquially known as Hollywood, has for decades been spurred on by the allure of telling immersive fictional stories that knowingly bend or break common established physical laws while still grounding the audience to their suspension of disbelief. Films relying on “Hollywood science” to tell their stories perch themselves on a commercially-successful middle ground—more grounded, realistic and almost-feasible to the average theatregoer than high fantasy but still more accessible to escapism than theatrical realism.

Surprisingly, science fiction films have continuously dominated media both in the short term and in the long term. The current decade puts “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021) as its highest-grossing film to date; the 2010s, “Avengers: Endgame” (2019); and the 2000s, “Avatar” (2009). The 1990s’ “Titanic” (1997) allows for a brief interruption from this trend—though it is followed by “Star Wars: Episode I” and the first “Jurassic Park” film—but the trend trails back to the 1980s with “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and the 1970s with “Star Wars” (1977).

The topics explored in these big-budget blockbusters have been sampled, though to a smaller degree, as far back as the industry’s conception.

This all began with 1902’s space-focused short “A Trip to the Moon,” an iconic influential work of the silent-era and widely considered the first science fiction film. Its unusual use of special and practical effects—coupled with its Jules Verne-inspired fantastical plot—captured audiences world-wide and has since become a kind of progenitor of the industry’s modern state. In its stationary point in theatrical history, it traces the roots of the close relationship between advances in cinematic technique and technical effects and the ever-grander films birthed from the visionary mind.

It is from this context that the so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction” took place, a three-decade timespan from the 1930s to the 1950s that saw science fiction rise as a respectable genre not just in the theatre but also in other avenues of the artistic world. This era saw the release of what are now some of the most culturally significant works by the film industry, beginning with horror-infused films like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) and “The Invisible Man” (1933) that paved the way for alien invasion works such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and “The War of the Worlds” (1953).

It is notable to mention that the bulk of cinematic science fiction leading up to this point is almost nothing more than a fancy high-budget echo of its literary counterpart, its identity reliant on the prolific worlds created on-paper by the likes of Verne (active 1850–1905), H.G. Wells (active 1895–1946) and the “Big Three” (Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein). Another decade full of book-to-film dystopian firefighters, dystopian apes and the ambitious, “darkly apocalyptic” masterpiece that is “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) would pass before the genre would experience its next big shift.

The following decades would see the cinematic science fiction genre wrestle for independence—making its stifled attempt to be its own industry, free from intellectual dependency on the literary world.

From this time came properly-innovative worlds of “Westworld” (1973) and “Star Wars” (1977), early examples of the world-building that would come with modern science fiction. Only three years after the space opera’s release, the genre would experience an identity crisis with a two-decade lapse into cyberpunk/futurist action, marked by gritty, aggressively futuristic themes. Among these films are “Tron” (1982), “The Terminator” (1984), “RoboCop” (1987) and the Jean-Claude Van Damme classics “Cyborg” (1989), “Universal Soldier” (1992) and “Timecop” (1994). These became the precursors for what would be widely regarded as the ultimate cyberpunk-dystopian action flick.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, an unassuming dystopian action film and its sequels would emerge as cult classics, spawning a worldwide following dedicated to its dystopian universe: “The Matrix” (1999), followed by “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” in 2003. This film marked a grand and irreversible change in the legacy of science fiction, not only inventing the modern concept of the superintelligence in popular science but also triggering what some call the “superhero renaissance” through its main protagonist, Neo.

The 1980s’ Terminator, JCVD and Neo were examples of character-centered films, with the science being used mostly to stuff a story full of lore to develop a world for the character—only in later years would the focus be on the world itself. “The Terminator” wasn’t meant for a billion-dollar franchise with a heavily-retconned universe; it was a B-level action flick with a brainless fight scene-to-fight scene premise. Likewise, JCVD’s films were all really centered around his physique, martial arts prowess and extreme masculinity, much less so his ability to properly act within the confines of a structured universe. And “The Matrix” was never supposed to be about its dystopian world; it was about the place of the messiah-like Neo in that world—or at least, his lack of a place in it.

And then the century passed, and the 2000s happened. “Transformers” (2007), more “Star Wars” films (2002, 2005) and the aforementioned “Matrix” sequels (2003) would release. “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) would hit theaters, spawning a new generation of climate-centered science fiction—affectionately-coined “cli-fi”—films. “Iron Man” (2008) would, against all odds, exist, jumpstarting the superhero craze and initiating the impossibly gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe. And James Cameron’s science fiction epic “Avatar” (2009) would make its mark, a technological and creative masterpiece that broke every theatrical record imaginable.

It is from this context that the modern science fiction genre takes shape. Despite a rocky century-long journey from being an underground hub for motion picture experimentation and cash-grab center for reprocessed stories from other media, it has since become the cinematic powerhouse that dominates the theatrical world.