“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.”
Welcome to the Twilight Zone: Science-fiction.
A personal favorite genre, science-fiction acted as an entry point into cinema for me. I was astounded that these questions could be asked. That these stories could be told. Mysteries of man and the universe that I had barely contemplated began to take up a substantial amount of space in my mind.
Great science-fiction holds up a mirror to the contemporary world through wondrous stories, be it of a potential future or an alternate present. We emerge from these films through the looking glass, unable to approach our waking life in the same manner as we did before. Because this kind of cinema forces us to contemplate and question how we act, how we treat one another, and what kind of society we deem acceptable to be living in.
It’s frustrating to me when people toss the genre aside as some kind of fluff. Science-fiction can be as resonant, poignant, and meaningful as the greatest straight drama and its stories can be eerily prescient.
Ray Bradbury once shared about science-fiction literature, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself.”
At its best, it stimulates our curiosity like few genres can.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) dir. Robert Wise
“Klaatu barada nikto.” The 1950’s are considered a golden age of science-fiction cinema. This certainly makes historical sense. Cinema is often a reflection of the time; a kind of account. “This was the world,” so to speak. We were living in a post-war age where the threat of nuclear annihilation was a sad and terrifying reality (it’s no coincidence that all three films featured in this entry deal with the fears of the nuclear age). When Klaatu and his robot Gort first land their flying saucer in Washington, D.C. the government does not know how to respond. Do they come in peace or do they mean us harm? The answer is complicated. There’s no battle in the film. No war. Only a warning: Get your act together, planet Earth. You are standing on the precipice of space travel, yet you threaten extinction in waging nuclear war amongst one another. There may be room for such foolishness on Earth, but for some alien species, much wiser and older, there is no place for it in the greater universe…. We’ve been warned.
Godzilla (1954) dir. Ishirô Honda
Two of the most important Japanese films ever made came out within six months of one another. At the end of April 1954, Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” premiered, an honorable portrayal of Japan’s past. That November, a terrifying and somber reflection of the present was released. And it was a force of nature. Godzilla. Often imitated, but never duplicated. He is the king of monsters, and the film is the greatest monster movie of all time. One must remember that Japan was barley a decade removed from the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Nobody could fully comprehend the aftermath of the bombs.. what the true fallout was and what the longterm effects of nuclear radiation were. In many ways, Godzilla is an expression of anger. He is awoken and forged by nuclear testing. He emits nuclear fire from his mouth. He only grows stronger in the presence of nuclear radiation. In the end, like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the next film in this entry, “Godzilla” is a warning more than anything else. Splitting the atom is the closest man has come to playing God. And perhaps there are consequences to playing God. For the Japanese people, Godzilla became an immediate symbol of the time and his everlasting stature as a science-fiction icon around the world is still felt today. A new vision of Godzilla will be released in theaters in two weeks. One can only hope that the filmmakers approached the subject matter with the same respect and solemnity as Honda and his crew did back in 1954.
Planet of the Apes (1968) dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
I think this is the film that inspired me to become a filmmaker. Well, it may have actually been a combination of a few, but “Planet of the Apes,” the original, the classic, was in the mix. God, do I love this movie. I love the way Charlton Heston spits his lines through gritted teeth. I love the apes makeup and the ape performances. Roddy McDowell’s mannerisms as Cornelius are so wonderful. That pulsating score. And, of course, the writing. Rod Serling (patron saint of science-fiction through his work on “The Twilight Zone”) co-wrote the script. And it’s a marvel. The themes of intolerance may be a little to on the nose for some (especially decades removed from the film’s release), but they still carry deep meaning. There may be no more powerful image in the film (and yes, I’m including the iconic Statue of Liberty shot above) than when three orangutans, protectors of law and faith (yes, those two are intertwined in this world), cover their eyes, ears, and mouth, respectfully, when Taylor speaks of the world he comes from– a world where man evolved from a relative of the ape to become the dominant species on the planet and not the other way around. Eyes. Ears. Mouths. All covered. See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? And maybe that’s why the ending snuck up on audiences the way it did back in 1968. The ape world was foreign, but there’s still something oddly familiar about it, if only in the way they treat one another and how some individuals are petrified of the truth. When Taylor finds the Statue of Liberty in The Forbidden Zone and cries, “We finally really did it,” it becomes all to clear. We’re not watching a movie about some far and distant planet, we’re watching a movie about us and our world. And if we continue down this path of intolerance and hatred, we’ll blow it all up. The apes sacred scrolls read, “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours.” Another science-fiction film of the nuclear age. Another warning. Damn us all to hell, indeed.