1895 is generally considered the the starting point for the movies as a mass medium, and sci-fi films were part of the staple diet from the very beginning. Here’s a list of the ten best science fiction (or proto-sci-fi) movies made between 1895 and 1909. Do you agree or disagree? What film did we miss? Please leave a comment below the article or on our Facebook page.
10. The Airship Destroyer
An action-packed British short from 1909 depicting future warfare with missiles and airships. Walter Booth directs with typical energy and audacity and some of the physical effects are very impressive for their time. Booth was one of the early pioneers of British cinema, pushing the envelope on a paper-thin budget. The story depicts an aerial invasion of Britain, and a lone inventor developing a propellered missile with which to strike. Despite the short running time, there’s also room enough for a love story. The models look laughably flimsy by modern standards, and the lack of a proper budget is obvious. But Booth’s amateurish enthusiasm easily wins the viewer over. This was the first film in Booth’s aerial trilogy, and was loosely based on H.G. Wells’ novel The War in the Air. Read the full review here.
9. An Excursion to the Moon
In 1908 French studio Pathé commissioned Spanish (Catalan) director Segundo de Chomon to create a carbon-copy of rivalling Star Films’ director Georges Méliès’ 1902 smash hit short A Trip to the Moon. The result was Excursion dans la lune, a condensed, and in some ways improved, version of the original masterpiece. Segundo de Chomon was one of the most original and artistically accomplished directors of the early days of cinema, and he must have loathed the idea of creating a facsimile film of his hero Méliès, but he was on contract, and hey, a man’s gotta eat. The movie depicts a party of explorers going to the moon in a projectile fired from a cannon, being greeted by the king of the moon and his dancing girls, and one of them receiving the princess’ hand in marriage. The film’s naturally shot in the same theatrical fairy-tale style as was Méliès’ original. The end result is beautiful, especially as it is exquisitely hand-colourised at Pathé’s massive colourisation factory employing over a hundred women painting each copy of the film on a conveyor belt principle. It would be higher on this list, was it not a complete rip-off. Read the full review here.
8. The ‘?’ Motorist
This 1906 3-minute short was one of Britain’s very first sci-fi films, and a prime example of why the above mentioned Walter R. Booth was such an exciting filmmaker. It’s a subversive and funny trick film about a couple of mad motorists speeding through the British streets, toppling police officers, riding up store fronts and finally circling the rings of Saturn. The movie combines live-action footage with animation, stop-trick photography, black-screen photography, miniature shots and double exposures. Booth revels in the anarchy of the speed-freaks and there’s a sheer joy of discovering just what the new medium of film can do. Again, Booth is hampered by the underdeveloped British film industry and creates the film on a practically none-existing budget. The visual effects, especially the double exposures, are crude and amateurish compared to what Méliès and de Chomon were doing at the time, but one gladly forgives these shortcomings in all the excitement. Read the full review here.
7. The Astronomer’s Dream
Made as very early as 1898, French film pioneer Georges Méliès’ short film was an important step in the development of the science fiction movie, even if it should probably be categorised as a fairy-tale. The film, depicting an astronomer dreaming of a crazy moon entering his room and eating him, was a leap forward for special effects and cinematic storytelling. It stars the world’s first movie stars, Méliès and his muse and future wife, actress Jehanne d’Alcy. La lune a un metre showcases Méliés’ wacky, morbid comedy sensibilities and establishes many of the tropes that would become staples in the early sci-fi films, such as the robed astronomer, the anthropomorphic moon and the scantily clad space ladies. Still honing his sensibilities, Méliès’ hasn’t yet perfected his black-screen photography and mainly relies on practical effects and stop-trick photography, which still isn’t as smooth as it would later become. But the film was hugely influential, and spawned dozens upon dozens of imitations. And it is one of Méliès’ funniest movies. Read the full review here.
6. The Moon Lover
Known as Réve à la lune in French, this warmly whimsical short film about a drunken romantic reaching for the moon is more inspired by Lucian’s fantastical adventures than by Jules Verne’s moon landing. Made in 1905, it was one of the first films with which film company Pathé tried to cash in on the moon madness that had been created by Georges Méliès in 1902. While inspired by Méliès, directors Ferdinand Zecca and Gaston Velle had their own unique ideas and style. A drunk man returns home after a night of drinking. After dancing in his room with hallucinatory wine bottles, he falls asleep on his couch, and “wakes up” on a park bench, where he falls madly in love with the moon, and starts climbing ever higher on lamp posts and roofs to reach the object of his amour, until finally climbing a chimney, when a storm suddenly blows both him and the stove-pipe away to the moon. The double exposure shots are really bad, and technically the film isn’t very impressive. However, the practical effects and the sets are all very good, and the warm, fuzzy feeling it gives you overcomes its lack of scope. Read the full review here.
5. The Impossible Voyage
Pioneering film maker Georges Méliès’ 1904 follow-up to the groundbreaking A Trip to the Moon is perhaps his most beautiful film. This was Méliès in his absolute prime, having honed his craft on big spectacle movies for five years, since his first, Cinderella, in 1899. Loosely based on the stage play Journey Through the Impossible by Jules Verne (who else) and Victor de Cottens, it describes a party of travellers hiking through the mountains in trains, planes and automobiles, before shooting through space in a flying train all the way to the sun, where they have mishaps with a giant ice box before returning o Earth. Much larger in scope than any of Méliès’ previous films, The Impossible Voyage (Le voyage à traverse l’impossible) nevertheless still relies on his unique fairy-tale visual style, with flat painted, often mechanical and functional, backdrops, creating an alternate reality sprung from the pages of story-books. At 24 minutes, it was the longest of Méliès’ films up to that point, and with a budget of 37 000 francs the most expensive film ever made. This was probably the pinnacle of Méliès’ career, and you can already see that he is starting to repeat himself, which would later on contribute to his downfall as a movie maker. Read the full review here.
4. The Electric Hotel
Stop-motion animation with live actors (or “pixilation” as it is called by those in the know) has probably never been done as well as in Segundo de Chomon’s 1908 film The Electric Hotel (El hotel eléctrico/Hôtel électrique). A couple arrive at a futuristic hotel where everything is automated, and electric currents operated from the basement move objects around in thin air, help the couple dress and undress, shine their shoes, shave and braid their hair. Their bags are automatically unpacked and their belongings seem to arrange themselves in the drawers. All this is quite marvellous, until the poor sod in charge of the machine gets drunk and starts pulling levers at random …
If Georges Méliés was the foremost director in the world between 1897 and 1906, then between 1907 and 1911 that honour goes to Spanish-born Pathé employee Segundo de Chomon. While the Frenchman may have been first, he was limited in his range, whereas Chomon was a much more versatile director who did everything from dada clay animation to realistic historical dramas to Méliès-like fairy-tale films. Much of his best work is what we would call art film today. While The Electric Hotel never transcends the novelty of its trick film, the skill and amount of work in display in this little film is enough to make it – easily – one of the best silent short films ever made. Read the full review here.
3. The Invisible Thief
The first film based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man is a 5 minute short from 1909 with stunning special effects and superb acting, directed by Segundo de Chomon and Ferdinand Zecca. Or, more precisely, it’s an homage to the novel. A man finds “G.H. Wells'” novel Le Voleur Invisble in a book store, and in it finds the recipe for an invisibility potion, which he used to rob the hotel he is staying in, as well as a wealthy couple of the streets of Paris, and in an exciting last scene escapes the police. Segundo de Chomon was one of the pioneers of stop-motion animation, and here uses it to marvellous effect, making silverware and documents seemingly pack themselves into the invisible thief’s bag. The real draw of the film, however, is the scene where the thief removes his clothes in a single take, revealing his invisibility. Director James Whale and special effects legend John P. Fulton used the same technique to shocking effect in the 1933 movie The Invisible Man, but here is Chomon doing the exact same thing 24 years earlier. It’s not as seamless as Fulton’s effect, and Whale used a lot more elaborate camera angles, close-ups and mirror shots, bit for 1909 it is above and beyond anything that had been done before – and indeed anything that would be done up until the 1933 film. The plot is illogical (the thief undresses to steal stuff in the empty hotel, but puts on his clothes top pick-pocket people on the street) and the whole thing is more of a cavalcade of tricks than an actual story, but nonetheless a remarkable movie. Ferdinand Zecca was an often unsung hero of early cinema, as the head of production at the world’s foremost movie company Pathé for nigh 20 years, and a very accomplished director. Read the full review here.
2. A Trip to Jupiter
While derivative of Georges Méliès’ space voyages, Segundo de Chomon’s silent short from 1909 is a tour de force of innovative camera use, seamless special effects and stunning artwork. A king dreams of a ladder reaching up to the heavens, which he climbs, passing the planets, until he makes a leap and falls flailing through space. He lands on Jupiter, where he encounters the royal guard, and fights off a few of them with his sword (they disappear in puffs of flame), but is eventually overpowered. He is then taken to the king of Jupiter, with which he fights a fierce duel and loses, gets thrown off the planet and through space, and tumbles back into his bed.
Chomòn uses more traditional sets than the two-dimensional façades and matte paintings that Méliès preferred, and they are all extremely beautifully designed, as are all the props and costumes. The movie is partly filmed on location at an old castle, which gives it a gritty and majestic feel. The hand colouring of the prints in this film is exquisitely done by Pathé. There is a bit of camera genius when Chomón describes the ladder to Jupiter. The climb is done in a classic trick shot where the king and the other actors are actually crawling on the floor, with the camera suspended from the ceiling, filming straight down. The effect is completely obvious, but clever nonetheless, and one of the very earliest tracking shots, showcasing Chomon’s cinematic inventiveness. The king’s fall through space is superbly done in a hallucinatory sequence reminiscent of the psychedelic colour displays in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
You will notice that this is the fourth Chomon film on the list. This is partly a testament to the fact that the world of cinema was still quite small in the 1900s, but it’s also a testament to the genius of the often neglected Chomon. Read the full review here.
1 A Trip to the Moon
No surprise over what film takes the top spot on this list, I suppose. Georges Méliès’ 1902 film may be not be as artistically accomplished as Segundo de Chomon’s later movies, but without A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) Chomon would never have made his films in the first place. The movie was more than just a movie, it was an international event, an explosion that sent out shockwaves in the world of cinema for years to come. It set the template for how films were made during the first years of the 20th century. Nothing like it had ever been made before. Bolstered by his international successes with films like Cinderella (1989), Joan of Arc (1900) and Bluebeard (1901), Méliès made what was the most expensive movie of its time, and at 13 minutes one of the longest as well. The film had dozens upon dozens of extras, wonderful hand-painted sets, magical visual and special effects, elaborate make-up, stop-motion animation, weird aliens, beautiful space ladies and wondrous lunar landscapes. The movie is inspired by both H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but like most of Méliès’ long fantasy/sci-fi films, it was based (uncredited) on a féerie stage show by Theatre du Chatelet.
Even if Méliès’ tableux-styled filming and editing quickly grew anachronistic, he was still on the cutting edge in 1902, employing one of the first known examples of continuity editing, as he films the rocket’s crash landing on the moon twice, from different angles, a shot that inspired American director Edwin S. Porter to make his famed The Great Train Robbery in 1903.
Méliés basically laid down a blueprint for space travel films that would hold true for decades, starting with a meeting among scientists, where the idea and theory of moon flight is laid out. This is then followed by the actual building of the rocket, and then a great send-off with press, parades and spectators. Look at any space race film from the 1950s, and you’ll find the exact same set-up.
The film was a culmination of all that Méliès had experimented with for six years, both technically and artistically. It is still a riveting picture that transports the viewer to a magical land of fairy-tale and adventure. It is a bit clumsy and rough around the edges, and seems rather small-scale compared to much that Méliès did later. But in terms of innovation, impact and influence A Trip to the Moon up there with Metropolis, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction. Even if you’ve never seen the film or heard of Georges Méliès, you know it by heart, because it’s in our collective cultural backbone. And I know you’ve seen that image that has for over a century symbolised science fiction. Read the full review here.
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