Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: What’s your favorite pre-‘Star Wars’ science fiction movie?

As we all know, the original Star Wars from 1977 signaled a significant paradigm shift in science fiction movies, in that the effects were far better than most sci-fi movies, the aesthetic was “grungy Western” rather than “sleek future,” and, perhaps less considered, it had nothing to do with Earth. It was also a huge hit, naturally, so its influence was far greater than other movies from which it took elements. For many nerds, Star Wars was a watershed movie, and I imagine many people who like science fiction movies would say their favorite one is either Star Wars or a movie that came out after Star Wars, which means it’s living in the shadow cast by Lucas’s monster. I could be wrong, I know, but that’s my suspicion.

Lucas didn’t invent science fiction, however, and people were making science fiction movies long before Star Wars. The tradition of science fiction movies goes back at least to 1902, when Georges Méliès stuck a rocket into the moon’s eye. With that in mind, what’s your favorite science fiction movie from the long decades before Star Wars came on the scene? There might not be as many contenders as there are from the past 45 years, simply because the genre became more popular after Star Wars and the technical aspects became easier, but there are still plenty to choose from! Is it Michael York running from his future? Is it Chuck Heston appreciating Lady Liberty a bit more? Is it Chuck Heston digging some new cuisine? Is it Leslie Nielsen fighting an invisible monster in the desert? Is it Jane Fonda deciding her clothes are too damned restrictive? Is it watching Klaatu fail in his mission because humans are stupid? What is it, good people?!?!?!?

For me, my favorite pre-1977 science fiction movie is a boring choice, I imagine, as it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, I know it’s a classic, and I know it’s also not a lot of people’s favorite because it’s a bit boring, but I still love it. I love the special effects, of course, but I also love the pace, because things take time in space, damn it! I think the ending sequence is terrific, too, despite its ambiguity and downright weirdness. Years of study and the accretion of layers of explanation and criticism, not to mention the sequel, has made Dave Bowman’s journey a bit less mysterious, but I remember watching the movie when I was younger and not understanding much of it (despite having read the book beforehand), but still loving it. It’s still one of my favorite science fiction movies, despite the many, many others to choose from in a post-Lucas world.

Anyway, let me know yours in the comments. I know there are plenty I don’t know, so maybe I’ll learn about some new things to watch!


  1. fit2print

    Fail Safe. It may be considered more thriller than SF but it’s about a US-Russia nuclear war that never actually happened (current events notwithstanding… I hope) so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it fits the category. It’s one of those movies that I can’t not watch to the end if it happens to turn up on TV. Just a powerful, affecting film that manages to be both globe-spanning, white-knuckle suspenseful and rich in… I guess, “character moments”.

    Tough call though. Dr Strangelove (also only arguably SF, to some) is another favorite, I could listen to Douglas Rain as HAL in Kubrick’s 2001 on a loop for hours and be perfectly content, and I debated seconding buttler’s choice of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    In keeping with the cliche, if I were asked the same question tomorrow, I’d probably end up giving a different response… one that might even involve Chuck “The Omega Man” Heston — the king of pre-Star Wars 70s SF — but for now I’ll stick with Fail Safe.

  2. Eric van Schaik

    I found the ending of A Space Odyssey pretty weird. I liked Planet of the Apes although the doll saying mama at the end of the movie made me laugh.
    My choice is Fantastic Voyage. It’s still a great movie IMO.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Planet of the Apes, though Logan’s Run is a close second. POTA is just an incredible trip to an alternate world that isn’t and alternate and it just sets your mind to contemplating everything about, both the allegories and the literal events that set up this world.

    Logan’s Run is close, in that it is an imaginative setting, a chilling idea, and a movie that rumbles along. It has a few wonky sequences which put it behind the Apes franchise.

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Since we’re looking at movies exclusively, which rules out any Star Trek, I’m not going to be very original here and also go with 2001. Yes, it’s slow at places, but it’s visually rich and deeply thought-provoking high-concept SF.
    My close second choice has also already been mentioned: Logan’s Run – also high-concept, dystopian SF, albeit dressed in a bit of oh-so-’70s camp.

  5. John King

    I have to pick Forbidden Planet – the robot, the invisible monster, the idea at the heart of the story (what if technology could grant any wish…)
    The BBC have played that a number of times through the years so I’ve seen it more than once and have not grown tired of it.
    It made Robby the Robot a star and probably influenced Star Trek and Lost in Space.
    In the UK we have 2 chains of shops selling Science fiction, comics, etc named after the film (it was originally 1 chain but there was a split)

    (I admit I have not seen the musical based on it)

  6. Planet of the Apes blew my 9-1/2-year-old mind, so it’s got a special spot in nostalgia. But I think I have to go with a split vote for George Pal classics, specifically THE TIME MACHINE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. One of these days, I’ll get around to seeing ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT.

  7. Peter

    2001 is my favorite as well (it might be my favorite movie ever). The special effects are obviously incredible even to this day, and even for non-effects shots, the design of the film is just impeccable. I can see why some would say the pacing is slow – but I think it’s actually just about perfect, because I am always glued to the screen when watching the film and I always leave wanting more. The themes are not that complicated, but they’re presented in such an interesting and tension-filled way that they feel profound.

    The Day The Earth Stood Still is also really, really good. The effects and costumes DO NOT hold up very well at all, but the story is excellent and the direction and cinematography are great.

    1. But the ’08 remake was a travesty despite much superior F/X. Gort is vastly more imposing in the original as he’s a physical presence, not a CGI thing.
      Part of what I like about the film is that they really work to show the whole world is involved in this, listening on radios or experiencing the power shut down. It’s a small detail, but it’s effective

  8. Peter

    Ooh, another very good sci-fi film predating 2001 is “Seconds,” with Rock Hudson. It seems like most of the good sci-fi stories on screen in the 50s and 60s were on TV (The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Outer Limits) rather than the big screen, and this one is basically like a long episode of The Twilight Zone (with some more directorial flair and the occasional bit of nudity).

  9. Lee

    2001: A Space Odyssey is a great movie, but just to mention other films, I’ll pick Solaris. Not the 2002 George Clooney movie, which would obviously be ineligible, but the 1972 Russian adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel.

    Like 2001 (they get compared a lot, although they’re really quite different in many ways) it is a movie that takes its time to build to a pay off. For example, there’s a scene early in the film where the main character is driving from his home to the launchpad, and it is seemingly shown in real time, as he just drives along.

  10. DarkKnight

    Like everyone else I have to go with 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of my all time favorite movies and Kubrick is a top three director for me.

    Runner up for me would be 1956 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The sense of dread and paranoia that runs through the film is fantastic. I also love the 1978 remake but that doesn’t qualify for obvious reasons.

  11. Corto

    Hi! Greetings to everybody from Germany.
    Sure, you can’t go wrong witt the Classics: 2001, Solaris, Barbarella, Metropolis…
    But i must say i habe a soft spot in my (cinematic) heart fpr Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull. The very first Eco-Science Fiction Movie i encountered as a young Teenager.
    Apropos Encounter – did Close Encounters of the third Kind get released before or after Star Wars?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Close Encounters was released about six months AFTER Star Wars, so technically, it doesn’t count!

      I’ve never seen Silent Running. I’ve heard it’s quite good, though.

  12. John King

    I mentioned this topic at my science-fiction club meeting yesterday

    answers focussed on 2001, Silent Running and Dark Star

    before going down an odd tangent (unrelated to favourite movies) about Sean Connery in a nappy (diapers to you Americans)
    or what if Dr Strangelove and Fail Safe were edited together into a single movie

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.