In this age modern computer graphics and giant action films, why would a science fiction fan really develop a love and appreciation of really old scifi? I’m not just talking 80s movies like the Star Trek, Terminator, and Alien movies, but old rocketship movies from the 1950s and 1960s.
First of all, I’m a big fan of film in general. I love films from just about every genre and age of filmmaking. From Kubrick to Hitchcock, from Metropolis to the Matrix, from Orson Welles to Johnny Depp, my tastes vary widely. I’m more concerned about the quality of a film than with its genre or time period. I’d much rather watch a beautiful incomprehensible film from David Lynch, than watch yet another mindless action movie from Michael Bay. With this great love of great films, how in the world did I develop an affinity for old scifi? I’m guessing that it probably started with me watching episodes of the original Star Trek tv show with my dad when I was a kid. We loved watching that show (and still do). Even now we love watching the old classics like Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, The Thing From Another World, and more. What is it that attracts us to these films?
Other than the more primitive special effects, how do these films differ from the scifi fare that we have today?
I think one answer to that question lies in the special effects themselves. In the 1950s and 1960s special effects were incredibly difficult to do. Making them look realistic was very expensive and you just couldn’t afford to do a lot of them. As a result, the only special effects that a film had were ones that specifically served the story. They couldn’t afford to fill up a movie with tons of special effect sequences just to wow your audience, so they had to be choosy in how they used them. In contrast, we now have whole movies that are almost nothing but vehicles for special effects sequences. The Matrix Reloaded by the Wachowski Brothers, and the Michael Bay Transformers movies are just a couple good examples. They have very little in the way of story, relying instead on giant special effects sequences to provide the entertainment. For the first Matrix movie, the Wachowskis had to be choosy, because this was their one big chance to make a hit, and the film ended up very good, but with the second, they already had a hit, and so could afford to fill up a movie with mindless special effects that served themselves instead of the story, and as a result the film suffered. With the Transformers movies, Michael Bay has always relied more on special effects than anything else. For the first Transformers movie that worked at least mildly well, but the second should have gone on and taken a deeper look at things, and instead was a much more mindless special effects ride than the first. You still do find movies today that use special effects to further the story (such as many Spielberg films), but, because it is so relatively easy to do big special effects now, it seems that it is so much easier to let them take the precedence over story and characters. That isn’t to say that all stories were great in 1950s and 1960s scifi, but I think they had to work a little harder to make sure the story was at least entertaining and engaging since they couldn’t solely rely on special effects the way they can today. The Day The Earth Stood Still by Robert Wise is a good example of this. This was a big budget scifi movie that used special effects sparingly to tell an incredibly compelling story. Everything was there to serve the story. The recent remake, on the other hand, subjugated the story to lavish special effects, and was a vastly poorer film as a result. Forbidden Planet is a good example of a 1950s film with a huge amount of special effects, but even then, they all work to serve the story. The story is finely crafted, the characters are compelling, and even the largest special effects sequences don’t seem superfluous.
I think the second, and probably the more important, difference between modern scifi films and classic ones is the sense of exploration and adventure that those older ones had, What do I mean by that? Well, a trip to the moon, for example, was a genuinely exciting prospect, and they treated it as such. A trip to Mars, a trip to a new an unexplored planet; these were all incredibly exciting concepts to them, an as a result it greatly influenced how they handled the film. Destination Moon is about the first manned attempt to reach the Moon, and it was treated as if this were a huge event, and very exciting. Rocketship X-M is also about a planned first moon landing, but instead ends up going to Mars, and that is even more exciting. There are plenty of examples of 1950s and 1960s films where they go to a new place for the first time. Now we are so used to everyone trying to “completely construct” a whole “universe” for the film to exist in, to the point where you almost can’t have new and exciting exploration because we already know where and what everything is. Fleshing out the world that the story takes place in is all very well, but I think that it can also detract from the excitement somewhat. As an example, look at the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. I am a fan of both of them, but they are both so well known that you almost can’t have genuine exciting exploration in them anymore, and they rarely try. Things are so well-developed that there is too little room for the “unknown”. The original Star Trek series didn’t suffer from this because in that series everything was still new and exciting. Star Trek Enterprise tried to bring back that sense of excitement and exploration a bit and I think they succeeded quite well. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when a rocket took off for Venus or Mars or some other star, you never knew what they were going to find. The sense of exploring the unknown was palpable, similar to the classic myths and adventure legends; anything was possible.
In my opinion these two things are two of the biggest reasons why classic scifi is still so much fun to watch. Yes, it looks dated by today’s standards, but it still has a sense of exploration and a dedication to story that is somewhat lacking in the vast majority of science fiction films today. The dedication to story, instead of reliance on special effects, isn’t something that doesn’t happen today, by any means. It is just much easier for the story to take a backseat in a world where special effects are so much easier to create. I think the much more important factor is the sense of exploration and adventure. The universe was still a new and exciting place back then, and it definitely showed in the way that they portrayed it.