In the year 1950 George Pal’s ambitious Technicolor classic Destination Moon launched what would become known as the Golden Age of science fiction on the big screen. Many of the milestones of the genre premiered in the 50s, but they all stood on the shoulders of giants. Science fiction cinema is as old as the cinematic medium itself, as the pioneers of the trade quickly realised moving pictures’ potential to make the impossible possible. Here we have gathered the 25 greatest SF movies made during the first 50 years of cinema. On the list you will find timeless classics known to all movie fans, but also a surprising number of films that have been all but forgotten through the passage of time, and which deserve far wider recognition. Which one is your favourite?
25. A Trip to Jupiter (1907)
Catalan filmmaker Segundo de Chomon was one of the greatest and most imaginative artists in film during the first decade of the 20th century. His pièce de resistance may well be the 1907 short film A Trip to Jupiter or Le voyage sur Jupiter, a wonderfully playful, imaginative and pioneering piece of avantgarde comedy, beautifully hand-coloured by Pathé’s small army of female film painters. The movie chronicles a scientists trip to Jupiter, where he gets into a fight with the god of lightning, and tumbles down through space into his own bed, where he awakes from the dream.
The building blocks of the story were cliché at the time, and the film could easily be derided as yet another Georges Méliès imitation. But rather than copy, Chomon almost spoofs Méliès, and instead of using Méliès’ tricks, he creates his very own. The film contains perhaps the most ambitious camera moves made up to that point, as the camera is dragged along the ceiling of the studio, filming the floor, masked as the night sky, with the protagonist “climbing” a seemingly endless ladder to the planet of war. The sequence where he plummets back to Earth is downright psychedelic, again incorporating a technique that had not been seen on film at that time. This is one of only two short films on our list, and very much worth to check out. Segundo de Chomon was one of the great stars of the French film industry between 1905 and 1912, but along with so many of early cinema’s pioneers, was forgotten with the coming of the feature film. While Méliès was rediscovered in the thirties and again in the early 21st century, Chomon has remained in obscurity, and is only now again slowly being discovered by a new generation of movie buff, largely thanks to the magic of the internet. Full review
The film is in the public domain available for free on Youtube.
24. The Devil Commands (1941)
In the late 30s and early 40s horror icon Boris Karloff made five films with Columbia, of which the fourth, The Devil Commands (1941), is without doubt the best — even if they are all better than the average low-budget horror programmer churned out at the time. Karloff does one of his most sympathetic mad scientists in this atmospheric chiller based on William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water, published in 1939. Taking its cues from the rapid developments with EEG, the film follows Karloff becoming obsessed with reaching beyond the veil, after he believes he has been able to contact his dead wife with an EEG machine. We accompany him down the rabbit hole as his fixation deepens, spurred on by Anne Revere’s wonderfully dark occult medium — she almost outshines Karloff in the movie. In the film’s final moments, Revere finds herself hooked up with a group of corpses into an evil-looking soul/brain machine trying to reach into the great void beyond.
The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who would rise to A status with films like Crossfire (1947) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). In 1943 ha also directed the surprisingly good cut-paste movie Captive Wild Woman with the mysterious Acquanetta and John Carradine, which spawned two much inferior sequels. The film narrowly missed out on this list. The Devil Commands is a rare example of a Golden Age mad scientist movie that approaches Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Full review
The film is available on Vudu and Youtube.
23. The Inhuman Woman (1924)
One of the weirdest SF movies ever made, Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 L’Inhumaine was something of an Antichrist of its time: you either loved or hated it. Not that it was nearly as gruesome as Lars von Trier’s 2009 dark torture porn film, but in that it showcased a lauded auteur suddenly giving sophisticated movie audiences something they had never quite confronted before, and many were shocked. In the case of The Inhuman Woman, it was the structure of the film itself that befuddled critics and audiences alike. The movie took a stab at horror, SF and detective serials, twisting them all into a convoluted plot. The film follows the fate of opera star and ice queen Georgette Leblanc (a real-life opera star and the financer of the movie) who toy with her suitors and throw them out in the cold. Around half of the film takes place at one of her extravagant avantgarde soirées, where she meets and spurns the sensitive Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain). But Norsen decides to teach her a lesson, faking his own death in a sports car suicide, and then convinces her he is “ressurected” in a Frankensteinean sequence. The SF really comes along in the film’s last third, in which inventor Norsen shows his new beloved his new video broadcasting system and surveillance technology, and tries to evade the murder plot by a rivalling suitor.
But it’s not the plot which makes the film stand out, but rather its symbolist art deco sets and impressionist direction. The direction alters between long takes where little happens, and furiously fast-paced editing with cross-fades, double exposures and overlays, in the style of Soviet montage. Today, the sensitive and mysterious Norsen decked out in skin-tight leather racing gear would certainly have become a gay icon. The film premiered to an audience of invited luminaries like Picasso, Erik Satie, Man Ray and James Joyce, and L’Herbier’s idea was to showcase film as the combination of all arts. He hired celebrities to sit in the audience and heckle the opera singer, and the movie was accompanied by a full orchestra playing modernist avantgarde music. The film bombed and more or less ended the short impressionist era of French cinema. The film’s visual style did, however, influence films like Metropolis, Frankenstein and other science fiction classics, and while it is not exactly fit as leisurely entertainment, it is still a highly fascinating movie, if you give in to the madness. Full review
The film is available at least on Kanopy and Mubi.
22. The End of the World (1916)
Few now remember it, but there was a time when Denmark was the world’s leading movie producer, flooding the US with foreign imports together with France and Italy. At the time, Hollywood was just getting started. Verdens Undergang (1916) or The End of the World came right on the heels of Denmark’s Golden Age, and was directed by the country’s perhaps most important film pioneer, August Blom, whom one might call the father of the disaster movie. He is best known for his 1913 blockbuster Atlantis, depicting the sinking of an ocean liner. Atlantis was almost two hours in length and is counted among the very first feature films.
The End of the World is almost as iconic a film, depicting the apocalypse as caused by a comet approaching Earth. Loosely based on Camille Flammarion’s famous novel La Fin du Monde (released in English as Omega), it is partly a pacifist plea for moderation between capitalists and communists, partly a pacifist plea in the middle of WWI and partly a moral tale in which the meek inherit the world. While the moral tale at the heart of the film may seem a tad stale to modern viewers, it is compensated by the starkly beautiful cinematography and the special effects of the cataclysm are astounding for the period. Full review
The film is in the public domain and available for free on Youtube.
21. Cosmic Voyage (1936)
Soviet realism was turning away from SF in the thirties, but there was time for one last huzzah: Космический рейс or Kosmichesky Reys, or Cosmic Voyage, more “inspired by” than “based on” the writings by the grandfather of space flight, engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Set in the near future, the film takes place at a fictional space center, where Sergei Komarov’s veteran engineer fights for the chance to make the first moon landing. Thwarted by a pettifogging bureaucrat, he decides to take off for the moon in secret, and is accompanied in the rocket “Joseph Stalin” by the beautiful young Professor Ksenya Moskalenko and a stowaway kid. On the moon, the three have exciting adventures of the strictly scientific kind (no moon maidens here), but as is customary for these films, they rupture their fuel tank and land in the wrong place, namely in radio shadow. How now will they get back?
Aimed at a juvenile audience, this is a fun and light-hearted affair, with some great special effects, especially a cool weightlessness scene and a good-looking rocket. Low-gravity play on the moon is depicted with the help of stop-motion animation. And for a Soviet SF movie, there is surprisingly little stodgy propaganda. Full review
The film is in the public domain and available for free on Youtube.
20. Doctor X (1932)
In the early 30s Warner made a string of horror pictures, of which the best known is probably Mystery of the Was Museum (1933), starring Lionel Atwell and King Kong legend Fay Wray. But the studio made another film the year before with the same stars, which has been somewhat unjustly neglected: Doctor X (1932). Like Mystery of the Wax Museum, it was wholly studio-bound and shot with the novel two-strip Technicolor process. Directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, Doctor X is a showcase in proto-noir lighting, atmosphere and slow-building tension. Tension that is unfortunately broken in regular intervals by protagonist Lee Tracy’s attempts at comedic relief.
Set in a creaky, dark mansion filled with even darker and creakier scientists, the film concerns the hunt for a mysterious killer, suspected to be one of the resident eggheads. The murky green-brown tint of the two-strip process adds a pulpy sensation to the picture, and being a pre-Code film, it gets away with a surprisingly high ick factor in the twist finale. Without giving too much away, let’s just mention that it involves s-s-synthetic f-f-fleshhhh …
Speaking of Casablanca, the Doctor X got a pseudo-sequel in 1939, called The Return of Doctor X, starring none other than Humphrey Bogart as a ghoul. Full review
The film is in the public domain available for free at the Internet Archive, and can be streamed on, for example, Google Play and Vudu.
19. A Trip to Mars (1918)
Denmark’s second entry on this list came two years after The End of the World, at the final stages of WWI. Himmelskibet (“Heaven Ship”) or A Trip to Mars (1918) was commissioned by the head of Nordisk Film himself, as a pacifist pamphlet. In the process, Nordisk just happened to make the first ever feature film about space exploration. Avanti Planetarios (international star Gunnar Tolnæs) leads a group of explorers in a space dirigible to Mars, where they meet a race of pacifist, vegetarian Martians in togas. When scolded for their barbarian ways ways, the humans do what they do best: get inflamed and throw hand grenades, almost killing poor Nils Asther before his career as a Hollywood heart-throb had even begun. After passing through the House of Judgement, the humans are absolved, and Tolnæs is stricken with he Martian Maiden Lilly Jacobsson during her Dance of Chastity, and in a beautifully psychedelic scene, he proposes to her under the Tree of Longing.
While the story may seem naive today, it is still beautifully filmed. Many of the Martian sequences have an otherworldly, fairy-tale-like feel, and the leather space suits are some of the coolest ever put to film. Leaning heavily on utopian writings from the 19th century, such as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, the film looked to a future with a bettered humanity, one in which she was in peace with herself and in harmony with nature, which makes it ring out as a childlike plea from a century past. In movie history it goes down as the film that first tried to depict space travel in a moderately realistic way — it’s one of the few early SF movies to address the claustrophobia and boredom of long space journeys, and probably the first to feature such things as space suits and cockpits. One can forgive the fact that the ship is propeller-driven. A quaint but fascinating film, and a forgotten SF pioneer. Full review.
The film is in the public domain available for free on stumfilm.dk and Youtube.
18. Dr. Cyclops (1940)
The 40s were not a good time for SF movies. The best entry of the decade came in the first year of the decade, and still clung to some of that 30s horror movie magic. Made by the producer/directors of King Kong, this film offers not giant apes, but tiny humans. A group of scientists are shrunk to the size of mice by a mad doctor in the Peruvian jungle, and between alligators, spiders and the experiments of the titular doc, it is a race to stay alive.
Dr. Cyclops was the first SF movie to be filmed in 3-strip Technicolor, and it is remembered primarily for its superb special effects, done by many of the same people who worked on King Kong (sans Willis O’Brien). Some of the scenes would be almost shot-for-shot reproduced in Jack Arnold’s masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man. Albert Dekker is delicious as the titular villain, and the film moves at an entertaining and brisk pace. The central premise aside, the script is rather pedestrian and few of the performances stand out. But it is nonetheless an extremely well-crafted and fun “shrinking man” adventure that turned a lot of heads when it was released. Full review
At the moment, the film seems to be available for (legal) streaming only on Flixfling.
17. Flash Gordon (1936)
One of the few film serials on our list, Flash Gordon (1936) was a watershed moment for SF on film. Based on Alex Raymond’s hugely popular comic strip, it was the first American space opera brought to the screen. Swimming champion Buster Crabbe is a believable and lovable hero, playing Gordon as a slightly slow character prone to resolving all conflicts with his fists, leaving his companions Dale Arden and Hans Zarkov to sort out whatever pinch he has put himself into again, using guile and diplomacy.
For a film serial, Universal gave Flash Gordon a reasonably high budget, but still the spaceships are held by visible strings and the dragons look like men in cardboard suits. That just adds to the fun. The serial is also heightened by the brilliant supporting characters, especially Charles Middleton as Emperor Ming, Tiny Lipson as Prince Vultan and Priscilla Lawson as Princess Aura. In the cast is also actor/stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who a year later got the chance to star in his own Flash Gordon imitation serial, Underwater Empire. Flash Gordon has been called the most important SF series in history, and its influence on filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg has changed the face of cinema. And regardless of its historical significance, it is still a wonderfully imaginative and fun serial, ripped straight from the comic book pages. Full review
The serial is in the public domain and available on Plex and Youtube.
16. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s fin-de-siècle novella is the most frequently adapted literary work. Entering the 20s audiences had already seen at least 20 adaptations. But Lasky-Famous Player’s 1920 version was the first feature length adaptations, and to many its star John Barrymore gave the ultimate portrayal of the dual role. Barrymore’s first transformation is uncanny, mainly because it is done in one take, without any makeup or special effects, and relies simply on the famous thespian’s ability to completely transform his face — his devious, horse-faced Hyde with nervous, bulging eyes is simply unrecognisable as played by the same actor as the handsome, chiseled Jekyll.
Like all pre-1950 film versions, the 1920 adaptation strays rather far from the original book, which is nigh unfilmable, and becomes and amalgamation of three different stage versions which were all written in the immediate years after the novella was published. The film also draws heavily on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, with Hyde getting uglier for each act of debauchery and evil, while no mark of his ways are visible on Dr. Jekyll. The film is impeccably lit in expressionist fashion and foreshadows Universal’s classic horror films. As a literary adaptation the movie isn’t particularly spectacular, but Barrymore’s performance carries it onto our list. Full review.
The film is in the public domain and available at the Internet Archive, Youtube, Amazon Prime and other services.
15. 5. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Entering the Top 15, we give you a timeless classic, and one of the most important films in the history of cinema. This 12-minute romp with influences from Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon might not look like much to a modern viewer, but in 1902 French illusionist and film pioneer Georges Méliès took the world by storm. Working in what was then probably the world’s largest film studio, Méliès’ extravagant, stage-inspired decor, mechanical special effects and wondrous visual effects was like nothing the world had ever seen, all strung together by a fantastical story about the first visit to the moon, a battle with insectoid selenites and a return trip home.
A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) became an international sensation. This was a time when French films were already dominating both the European and American market, and so many pirated copies of the film started circulating in the US that Méliès had to send his brother to New Jersey where he opened up an office for their film company, from which he tried to keep the illegal copies off the market. In 1902 A Trip to the Moon was the most expensive film ever made, and one of the longest — this was a time when films were still around 3 minutes in length, mostly gag reels played for fun. A Trip to the Moon had a coherent story and multiple sets, dozens upon dozens of extras, acrobats acting as stuntmen, and a clear narrative. While it wasn’t Méliès’ first long narrative film, it was by far his most successful, and almost single-handedly helped cinema become a narrative medium rather than remaining a sideshow amusement. Full review.
The film is in the public domain and available on Youtube.
14. Our Heavenly Bodies (1925)
If you have not heard of this one, don’t worry, most people haven’t. However, you can see its clear influences on later films like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others. Wunder der Schöpfung (1925), or Our Heavenly Bodies (literally: “Wonders of Creation”) is a massively ambitious German educational movie that teaches the viewer the basics of astronomy (as it was then understrood), evolution and the birth and ultimate destruction of the Earth. It is framed by a fictional space journey, in which the audience is taken by space ship to our nearest planets and all the way to the limits of the universe. On our nearest planets, we meet hypothetical inhabitants and interact with them.
Made by a film crew that had previously made an enormously popular educational film about Einstein’s theory of relativity, the movie boasted nine animators and six cinematographers to create, for example, a moving model of the solar system, futuristic cityscapes, giants on Jupiter and weightlessness scenes upon the space ship. Pretty much every trick available at the time was used at one point or the other, such as claymation, black screen replacement shots, double exposure shots, rod puppets, stop-trick photography, traditional animation and forced perspective photography. There’s also a number of impressive miniature shot and live-action special effects. The last segment of the movie rivals any disaster film from the era and the sets could be taken from costly historical dramas or sci-fi epics. Full review
While in the public domain, the film is fiendishly difficult to find online, but you can watch a version without English subtitles on Youtube.
13. Homunculus (1916)
Yet another German film on this list — and not the last! This is another forgotten gem from the silent era. Explosively successful upon its release in 1916, Homunculus was an epic 6-part films serial totalling 6 hours in length, the picture follows the exploits of the soulless supervillain Homunculus, a creature created by science, as he wows to find love or destroy humanity. Robert Reinert’s multi-layered script draws on Frankenstein and Faust, as well as Freud, Nietzsche and Marx to create both a treatise on the human condition as well as a comment on WWI. While scarcely shown outside Germany before 1920, it turned Danish lead actor Olaf Fønss into a matinée idol and even influenced fashion. Homunculus uses his origin as an artificial creation, in essence a perceived paternal betrayal, as an excuse for his own evilness. He reasons that because he cannot feel love, he must be evil, and as he is evil, he is not morally responsible for the evil that he does. Fønss is magnetic in his portrayal of Homunculus, pulling out all the stops for a wonderfully charismatic and over-the-top performance. Homunculus is larger than life.
For decades only pieces of the film were available, until the 1920 version of the serial was re-edited and restored from various prints by film historian Stefan Drössler in 2014. Unfortunately this restoration isn’t available on internet in all its 196-minute glory. The film floating around on Youtube is an 80-minute condensation of the film with Italian intertitles. Actually, I’m not sure that 120 minutes are really missing, as the story is basically all there, with a few minor omissions. My guess is that the Italian print has been digitised at the wrong frame rate, cutting over one third of the running time. Full review
The film is partially available on Youtube.
12. Miss Mend (1926)
At spot number 12 it’s yet another film serial! Today it is what we would call a mini-series, consisting of three one-hour episodes. And once again, it is one that you might be forgiven for having never heard of. Perhaps the best of all American-styled action serials of the silent era, this international spy-fi yarn is a breezy, action-packed, impeccably filmed and fun tour-de-force. And if you figure Miss Mend (1926) is a bit of an odd title for a US film serial, then you are quite right: it was made in the Soviet Union and is actually spelled Мисс Менд. The film follows the plucky American clerk Miss Mend (a superb Natalya Glan) and her two reporter friends as they travel from the US to the USSR in order to uncover a diabolical terrorist plan involving the release of nerve gas on the entire US population — and blaming the communists for it.
Miss Mend was part of a push during the relatively liberal NEP era during the 20s in the USSR, when part of the communist intelligentsia worried about the lack of exciting escapist literature for Russian children and youths, making many turn to Western, often anti-communist, adventure and detective novels and comics. This gave birth to the so-called “Red Pinkterton”: Western-style detective and action novels with socialist underpinnings. Author Marietta Shaginyan was one of the most prolific writers of Red Pinkertons, including the 1924 story Mess-Mend: Yankees in Petrograd, on which the film is based. Co-directed by two of the Soviet Union’s most interesting director, Fyodor Otsep and Boris Barnet, Miss Mend is a fast-paced, spunky, fun and well-acted spy-fi serial. Full review
The film is available on Youtube and Mubi.
11. The Lost World (1925)
Just edged out from the Top 10, we find, for a change, a timeless classic known to all SF fans as the father of the dinosaur movie: The Lost World from 1925. Based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, the story has been repeated, imitated, copied and adapted so many time’s it’s become cliché. But in 1925, nothing like it existed. Professor Challenger (star actor Wallace Beery) agrees to help a young woman arrange a rescue mission to a Venezuelan plateau, where her father is feared to have lost his way — or worse — in an attempt to prove the existence of living breathing dinosaurs. Along tags an elderly big game hunter, hunting as much for giant lizards as for the young woman’s heart, and our romantic hero. Entering the treacherous plateau, they find more than they bargained for, as it seems the monsters of old are come to life in vivid stop-motion animation. And of course, it isn’t enough to photograph them, prof. Challenger insists the party brings one back alive to London.
If there’s one thing that keeps this film out of the Top 10, then it is the sub-par script, or perhaps the fact that director Harry O’Hoyt decided to dispense with the script in favour of more dino action. But that dino action is worth every penny. The producers took a tremendous risk with this picture: Marcel Delgado’s puppets and Willis O’Brien’s animation had to be good enough to carry the entire 106-minute movie, and this was uncharted ground. But critics and audiences alike were blown away by the giant monsters come to life on screen. Delgado’s and O’Brien’s crowning achievement came eight years later with another film on this list, but The Lost World spawned an entire genre, and inspired everything from Godzilla to Jurassic Park. Full review
The film is in the public domain and available on multiple video platforms.
10. The Invisible Man (1933)
So we come to our ten best SF movies prior to 1950. And it is fitting we should open with a Universal horror film. The Invisible Man (1933) was British director James Whale’s third horror movie for the studio, after the successes with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. Taking on H.G. Wells’ classic novel with him was a writing team including long-time collaborator R.C. Sheriff and SF author Philip Wylie. Swathed in bandages, donning the now iconic fedora and sun glasses, British thespian Claude Rains stunned audiences in his film debut. And of course, the film would have fallen apart without John P. Fulton’s amazing special effects, which hold up to this very day.
People often forget that Wells’ SF books were primarily satires, and likewise just how funny the author could be when he wanted to. Whale tones down Wells’ critique of capitalism, but adds his own trademark black, morbid humour. Of all the Universal horror movies, The Invisible Man is also the darkest. It portrays the invisible man as a sadistic egomaniac who cares little of the result of his elaborate pranks are a broken jug or murder. Yet, as with all good movie villains, we manage to feel for him, even root for him. Much of the thanks for this should go to Claude Rains, who dominates the screen, even when he is nowhere to be seen, with his powerful, raspy voice and charismatic, nuanced delivery. It’s not a perfect movie — the script could have used some fine-tuning, the characters outside of the titular anti-hero are cardboard cutouts and holes in logic abound. But it is a damn good film, and one that is remembered far too seldom today in discussions of Universal’s classic oeuvre. Full review
The film is available on Vudu, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Youtube and more.
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Yes, it’s a second entry for Stevenson’s classic novella. When choosing the best adaptation, it is usually a toss-up between the silent 1920 version starring a phenomenal John Barrymore and the blockbuster 1931 version featuring Fredric March in an Oscar-winning performance. Personally, I am partial to Barrymore’s suave and enigmatic Mr. Hyde, but on the whole, Paramount’s 1931 version is the better film.
When we think about 30s horror movies, our minds naturally go to the Universal classics, but while Paramount’s output in the genre was significantly smaller, when they did stray into horror, they did so with the style and class of one of the major studios. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is one of their best. Fredric March’s simian portrayal of Mr. Hyde is a masterclass in acting, putting a face on the Id. The script is daringly frank in a way that would never have been possible when the Hays code was enforced a few years later. It makes it perfectly clear that Dr. Jekyll’s motives for turning into Hyde is the fact that he isn’t “getting any”, as his fiancée’s father keeps postponing their wedding — and of course sex before matrimony is out of the question in Victorian England. And in a creepily chilling scene Mr. Hyde openly describing how he is going to rape a barmaid he keeps locked up in an apartment. Of course, the film is best remembered for the famous single-shot transformation scene of March — an old black-and-white-film trick of the trade using different-coloured makeup and camera filters, it was well-known to industry technicians, but to the audience, it must have seemed like magic. Full review
The film is available on Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.
8. Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)
Often denounced as an example of clunky Soviet propaganda, this 1924 classic’s subtle critique of bolshevism is perhaps too clever for its own good. It sends three hapless characters on a “glorious” mission to incite a worker’s revolt on the autocratic planet of Mars, all of them escaping into the revolutionary adventure instead of dealing with the slow, tedious rebuilding of Soviet society back home (which we see their wives taking care of). Both director Yakov Protazanov and author Alexei Tolstoy were wary of bolshevism — at best — and had both fled Russia after the revolution, only to be carefully coaxed back. It’s a film that’s supposed to look like propaganda, and so it does to a casual viewer. But the Soviet censors caught on after a while, and quickly banned Aelita.
What it’s remembered for though, are its beautiful, modernist, constructivist designs by Viktor Simov, Isak Rabinovich and Alexandra Exter. The visuals of Aelita had a huge impact on the look of Metropolis and helped define what an alien society would look like — an influence still visible today. But it’s also a damn good social satire, if you look past the socialist grandstanding and flag-waving on the surface. One could argue that it has one too many layers and domestic subplots — and that it could have been trimmed down to a more manageable length. But on the other hand it’s a film that keeps on giving and doesn’t provide bite-size, readymade answers. It should be pointed out that the film has only the slightest resemblance to Tolstoy’s novel, which is more of a pulpy space adventure in the vein of Garrett P. Serviss. Full review
The film is in the public domain and available with English subtitles at sovietmoviesonline.com, Youtube and many other services.
7. King Kong (1933)
Larger than life in every respect, the original King Kong was a juggernaut, as loud, daring and unstoppable as its titular monster, it crashed into cinemas in 1933 and has refused to leave ever since. Having had a dry run of sorts with The Lost World, puppet maker Marcel Delgado and stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien created perhaps the world’s most recognisable movie monster in the gigantic ape whose name has since become noun in its own right. O’Brien was careful not to make Kong just another monster, but a creature with a personality, and the greatest trick the film pulls off is that we feel sympathy for him, making his famous demise at the end of the movie one of the most heartbreaking in cinema history — and imitated ad nauseam.
Producers and directors Ernest Schoedsack and Merian Cooper build an exciting, terrifying and action-packed adventure out of a bare-bones script. The reason this film isn’t in the Top 5 is the fact that the script and the acting aren’t quite on par with the sublime design, special effects and action scenes. A romantic drama of the most imbecile sort is jammed into the movie, and the characters are cardboard cutouts. At 100 minutes, the film is slightly too long for its own good. Nevertheless, Fay Wray, immortalised in her white satin dress, holds her own against the real star of the movie, and screams herself into movie history. King Kong is one of the most influential movies of all time, largely thanks to the amazing work done by Delgado and O’Brien. Full review
The film is available on a number of platforms, including Youtube, HBO Max, Apple TV, Vudu and Amazon Prime.
6. The Hands of Orlac (1924)
Based on a by book by the most influential SF author you have never heard of, Maurice Renard, Orlacs Hände or The Hands of Orlac (1924) is one of the finest examples of German Expressionism (although the film was actually produced in Austria). This silent movie was directed by none other than Robert Wiene, who in 1920 took the world by storm with his genre-defining The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The central character, pianist Orlac, is played by Conrad Veidt, perhaps the greatest artist of German-speaking silent cinema. The grandfather of what we would today call “body horror”, this 90-minute silent film follows the tragedy of Orlac, who loses his hands in a train crash, and through revolutionary surgery, receives hand transplants from a recently executed murderer. Revolted by his new extremities, Orlac is unable to play and is unable to support himself or his wife. When new murders occur that bear the hallmarks of the already executed murderer, Orlac becomes convinced that in his hands the soul of the murderer has survived, and is now in the process of taking over Orlac’s body. Not only can he no longer play, he can no longer touch his wife without feeling she is being defiled by another man. At night, he starts wandering around his house in a trance-like state, stabbing the air with a knife. Spiralling down into insanity, he finally marches down to the police station to confess to the new murders, even if he has no memory of committing them.
This is not a film that is loved by everyone — some think it is too long with too little happening. But what’s perhaps missing in plot development is happening inside the head of the protagonist, and Conrad Veidt’s is one of the most riveting performances in movie history, as the viewer gets to follow his feverish descent into madness. And while the script could be tighter, Wiene’s magnificently atmospheric direction and lighting overcome the weaknesses of Louis Nerz’s writing. And while Veidt is immortalised for his work in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and as the Joker prototype in The Man Who Laughs, his portrayal in The Hands of Orlac is the finest moment in a remarkable career. A superb film in its own right, it is Veidt who elevates it to a true masterpiece. Full review
The film is in the public domain and available at least on Youtube, Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
5. Woman in the Moon (1929)
From an Austrian film at N:o 6, our Top 5 starts off with a German film made by an Austrian director. Like the former, it is a silent movie, Frau im Mond (1929), or Woman in the Moon. Directed by legendary demon director Fritz Lang, Woman in the Moon was originally planned as an addendum to Metropolis. However, it instead became an epic two-and-a-half hour film in its own right, about the first trip to the moon. Woman in the Moon is the prototype for all moon landing films to come, and based as it is on the theories of the world’s foremost rocket and space engineers at the time, it remarkably prophetic. From the multiple-stage liquid fuel rocket to the depiction of weightlessness in space, the film ticks all the boxes. The structure of the film influenced countless movies to come: the belittled scientists who are told they’re nutty when the propose a trip to the moon, the driven businessman/government official who helps make it happen and the “enemies” trying to sabotage the mission. After a remarkably long time spent dealing with the preparations and the politics of the first lunar mission, the film changes tone somewhat when entering space: Now we find the nutty professor hunting for gold on the moon — and discovering breathable air. And as in so many later movies, the astronauts run into a problem with fuel/air supply, forcing them to consider leaving one of the party behind. Hence the name of the picture…
Sometimes considered one of Fritz Lang’s lesser movies, Frau im Mond is nothing of the sort. Having completed his socially and politically supercharged magnus opus Metropolis two years earlier, through trials and tribulations, Woman in the Moon sees a much lighter, more playful and whimsical Lang. But that doesn’t mean the film is any less meticulously planned, designed, blocked or shot. There is not a single piece of prop, sliver of paper, potted plant or package of sandwiches that is not in the picture for a reason. Every shot tells us at least five different things. Lang was perhaps the greatest of all silent movie directors, and in Woman in the Moon he had perfected his craft to its peak — making it all seem perfectly effortless, which is probably why this movie is often overlooked. It was his last film before making his sound debut with the chilling psychological thriller M — in which he used sound very much in the same way he used images — never is window dressing or filling, but as a means to tell a story. For someone not used to watching a lot of silent movies, sitting through the 155 minutes — much of what consists of a spy story framing the moon mission — can be daunting. But if you give in to it, you will find a masterful piece of cinema, sprinkled with some of the understated, wry humour that Lang revelled in at his most playful. Plus, this is a film which has a gigantic place in history, not only SF movie history, but in the history of space exploration. It is often remembered that this was probably the first instance in rocketry (real or fictional) when a countdown was used, rather than a count-up. But more importantly, several pioneers of international space efforts have cited Frau im Mond as a central inspiration. Full review
The film is in the public domain and available at least on Youtube, Kanopy, BFI Player and Amazon Prime.
4. Frankenstein (1931)
In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called ironic rebound, famously explained by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: when trying not to think of polar bears, you suddenly find yourself thinking of little but polar bears. In the history of horror fiction, Universal’s timeless 1931 classic Frankenstein is one of the great polar bears. Ever since the film was made, authors, playwrights, filmmakers and artists have been doing their best to get away from Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. But no matter what they do, they all end up evoking the image of a growling Karloff with a flat head and bolts sticking out of his neck, even though most of us are perfectly aware of the fact that the image is nothing like what Mary Shelley wrote in her 1818 novel. Such is the lasting legacy of the film.
If 1931’s Dracula was the film that started Universal’s classic horror franchise, Frankenstein was the film that defined it — tonally, visually and intellectually. As cobbled together as its titular monster, the narrative of the film is the final product of over a century of stage adaptations and film history. The movie was already mapped out and designed when British newcomer James Whale took over directorial duties from Robert Florey and cast the unknown Boris Karloff as the titular menace and longtime collaborator Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein. The tag team of Clive-Karloff became one of the most iconic duos of movie history. Whale and Karloff reworked the script, changing the creature from the soulless killing machine of Peggy Webling’s play closer to Shelley’s book — making it the misunderstood and tortured victim of the tale. And this is the key to the film’s longevity. The most memorable scene is not the one in which Henry Frankenstein, amidst thunder, lightning and buzzing machines cries “IT’S ALIVE!”, but one of the quiet ones. The creature, hunted, finds a small girl throwing flower “boats” onto a lake. The girl, innocent, is not frightened by his ghastly exterior, but is happy to have a new friend to play with. She invites the creature to throw flowers onto the lake as well. The creature, delighted, uses up his flowers, and seeing the girl as a beautiful flower herself, he picks her up and throws her in, causing her to drown. Realising his terrible mistake, the creature flees in anguish. It’s a gut-wrenching scene. After having been tortured, cast out and hunted, it begins with letting us see a brief moment of happiness for the creature — at the same time making us realise that it is essentially a child in a monstrous body. Then it brutally snatches the moment away.
Director James Whale’s homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, and many have read emancipatory themes into the movie. It is an interpretation as good as any, and what is at least certain is that Frankenstein was the film that cemented the movie monster as the ultimate misunderstood victim — a theme carried on on films like King Kong, The Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon and countless others. Frankenstein was also significant for being the film that first brought together what would become the backbone of Universal’s horror franchise, including legendary makeup master Jack Pierce, designer Charles Hall, visual effects pioneer John Fulton and editor Maurice Pivar. And of course, Boris Karloff. If one wants to fault Frankenstein for anything, then maybe it is that it still retains some of the B-movie clunkiness inherit from a time when Universal’s horror franchise had not yet gone massive. But on the other hand, it was on Frankenstein’s merits that it did. Full review
The film is available on Youtube, Microsoft, Vudu and Amazon Prime.
3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
After the success with Frankenstein, Universal immediately started working on a sequel, but scripting problems occurred, and the film wasn’t released until 1935 — to public and critical acclaim. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was hailed as even better than the original, and today it’s generally considered one of the best sequels ever made, and one of the great American classics. If the film has flaws, they are minor. But one can perhaps discern some of the scripting problems in a somewhat meandering and repetitive narrative — and it’s a pity the Hays code forced director James Whale and the writers to file down some of the film’s more radical ideas — of course, Whale being Whale, he put them in hints and subtexts instead. With Whale back at the steering wheel from the first film, so were most of the principal cast, including stars Boris Karloff and Colin Clive. They were joined by two of Universal’s most memorable characters, Ernest Thesiger as the Mephistophelean Dr. Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester as the titular Bride.
Like the plays that preceded it, Frankenstein left out a good portion of the novel, in particular concerning the dark third part, which includes the creature demanding Dr. Frankenstein create for him a female companion. For the sequel, Whale chose this as the focal point of the narrative. The film also includes a moving sequence from the book, in which the creature is welcomed by a blind man, the only one who ever shows him compassion. In Whale’s movie, the sequence is sandwiched in between two different scenes of Karloff being hunted by mobs through the forest. The scene, wonderfully spoofed in Young Frankenstein, is a legend in its own right, and an incredibly moving one, in its somewhat naive simplicity. The genius of James Whale was his ability to combine his dark, morbid satire with genuinely moving drama — just up to the point where it becomes too sappy and sugary — and then, like a sledgehammer coming down, he crushes all that is sweet and innocent. In Frankenstein, it’s the flower girl scene. Here, it is the blind hermit. If gay themes were implicit in Frankenstein, they are explicit, at least to a modern viewer, in Bride of Frankenstein, with Ernest Thesiger playing Pretorius like a glorious, manipulating queen. Pretorius frames himself as the outcast, the misunderstood, one who will take revenge on a small-minded and petty world. Frankenstein and Pretorious become two men, who, through their forbidden love find a way to create a daughter through artificial means. And what a daughter she is, the magnificent Elsa Lanchester in Jack Pierce’s makeup and Irma Kusely’s iconic, electric hairdo. She’s only on screen for ten minutes of the film, but those ten minutes etched her into movie history.
As friends of Mary Shelley will know, Dr. Pretorius is not in the book, and neither, really, is the bride of Frankenstein. In the book, Frankenstein destroys his creation even before he brings her to life. While taking its cues from the novel, Bride of Frankenstein is James Whale’s creation, and his most glorious at that. It’s a film that takes on questions of life and death, of creation and destruction, it champions the outcast, the freak, those who “belong dead” in the eyes of society. The characters are larger than life, the dialogue zesty, full of double entendres, hints and metaphors that, spoken directly, would have had the film company sued for blasphemy, lewdness and worse. That these made it past the censors at the time is staggering. Not everything did. A scene in which the creature encounters s crucifix statue and tries to save Jesus from the cross, had to be cut from the script. Also, in some countries, scenes were cut that censors thought implied necrophilia. Japan had no problem with these, but a scene in which Pretorious chases a miniature king he has created with tweezers had to go — you don’t make a fool out of a king in Japan. The film was banned in a number of countries, including Sweden and Hungary. Of all the Universal monster movies, Bride of Frankenstein is the one that has aged the best, because it is a film about ideas, rather than about monsters. And visually it is gorgeous. All of this places Bride of Frankenstein in the Top 3 on our list. Full review
The film is available on Youtube, Microsoft, Vudu, Fandango and Amazon Prime.
2. Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Criminally underrated, Island of Lost Souls (1932) is the second best science fiction film released prior to 1950. Not all will agree with this pick, but Island of Lost Souls, like Bride of Frankenstein, stands head and shoulders above the monster movies and mad scientist films from the first half of the 20th century because of its script and its audacity to take head on ideas that are taboo even today. And how it does it! Released in 1932, this is pre-Code at its best. After the Hays code was enforced two years later, it would have been impossible to make this picture. Be it villainous Dr. Moreau, deliciously played by British thespian Charles Laughton, declaring his equality with God, or the hints at sexual relations between humans and animals — between protagonist Richard Arlen and the Panther Woman Kathleen Burke — or explicit descriptions of torture, as Laughton dominates the Panther Woman, vowing to “burn away all of the animal in her”. Or the haunting images of the manimals — things — half man, half beast, led by an unrecognisable Bela Lugosi in one of his very finest moments.
Island of Lost Souls was based, rather faithfully, on H.G. Wells’ disturbing novella The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), which was partly written as a pamphlet against animal vivisection. In both the film and the book, the protagonist survives a shipwreck and is picked up by a boat that takes him to a remote island, where the mysterious Dr. Moreau has built himself his own little kingdom, setting himself up as God over his creations — animals that he has operated on in order to “speed up evolution” and turn them into humans. These creations of his — neither men nor beasts, but something in between are not only operated on without anesthesia at “the House of Pain”, but kept as slaves in inhuman conditions. The film adds, in a bold move, the character of the Panther Woman, with whom the picture at least suggests the possibility of a romantic or even sexual relationship (her near absence of garments does its part to enforce the idea).
Major studio Paramount didn’t often stray into the horror genre of the thirties, dominated as it was by Universal, with Warner trailing behind. But when it did, it produced some of the greatest horror movies in history, upstaging Universal in every department. In 1931, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was second only to the original Frankenstein, and in 1932, Universal’s mid-budget horror pics could not compete with the money and style of Paramount. Director Erle Kenton was a competent journeyman, but this film doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to a crack team of writers, including SF nobility Philip Wylie, and a superb cast headed by the charismatic Charles Laughton. But most of all, it belongs to the magnificent lighting and camera work of Karl Struss, who one suspects did much of the actual directing. Struss was a favourite of F.W. Murnau and Charles Chaplin, and worked, among other things, on the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Watching Island of Lost Souls is a physical experience: humid, feverish, uncomfortable, it’s a cinematic manifestation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is genuinely disturbing and has lost none of its potency — and brings up questions that have lost none of their validity in 90 years. Full review.
Unfortunately, the film is difficult to find on a streaming platform, but is available on TCM in the US and BFI in the UK.
1. Metropolis (1927)
And here we are! We have referenced it almost a dozen times on this list, and now we get to the picture itself. The best SF movie released before 1950 is Fritz Lang’s magnum opus Metropolis from 1927. Hardly a controversial choice, but a masterpiece is a masterpiece any which way you look at it. Five years in the making, it shaped science fiction as we know it, still casting its formidable shadow on films and series made this very day. Written by Lang and his wife and long-time collaborator Thea von Harbou, the film is epic on every level, and incorporated every trick of the trade known to silent film at the time. It was by far the most expensive movie ever made, and Lang took no shortcuts in getting it absolutely right, even if it meant torturing his actors and extras to the point of exhaustion and injury. While there is little to admire in Lang’s blatant disregard of the health and safety of his cast and crew, one cannot but admire the end result.
Depicting a future city where workers live underground and toil at the machinery in slave-like conditions, and the children of the elite amuse themselves in wall-enclosed, lush gardens, unaware of the conditions below, Metropolis put its finger on the hot topic of the time, as communism and fascism were both on the rise in Europe. But instead of giving us a working-class hero, Harbou makes the hero of the piece the son of the city’s ruthless ruler, who takes a hard tumble down the rabbit hole, guided by the angelic Maria, a spiritual leader of the working class. Her name is hardly the only Christian reference in the film. Extra drama is added by the embittered mad scientist Rotwang, who kidnaps Maria in order to give her life force and likeness to his robot, Maschinenmensch. In his anger against the city’s ruler, who has “stolen” his wife away from hin in the past, Rotwang decides to plummet the city into chaos. He sends fake Maria to the underworld, preaching revolution and and revenge, while at the same time distracting the men of the elite with a sexy dance at a night club. Meanwhile, our hero has secretly switched place with one of the workers, aiming to find out the truth about his father’s city — and he has also fallen in love with Maria. When all hell breaks loose, he must find a rescue the real Maria, rescue the children of the underworld from drowning in a flood and help put an end to the fighting between workers and the elite.
Despite the many twists and turns, the story is a simple one, drawing on many a myth and archetype — familiar ground for Lang, who had just finished two epic films based on the German heroic legend the Nibelungenlied. But the film updates it to modern times — or the future — with references to H.G. Wells, Aelita, Frankenstein and R.U.R. And while the story is a great one, it’s the visuals that makes Metropolis such a fantastic movie. As mentioned above, Lang was perhaps the greatest visual storyteller in history. And here he pulls out all stops, and so did state-owned studio UFA, using their new top-of-the-line facilities in Babelsberg. In a heartbeat, Metropolis changed the look of the future from the spiky brutalism of Aelita to the graceful, stately, flowing lines of art deco. Not only did he cram Babelsberg full of massive sets, he also relied on miniatures, mattes and other tricks to make the city seem like it was swallowing up the tine characters on screen — most effectively perhaps with his clever use of the so-called Schüfftan process, in which live actors were dropped into huge miniature sets with the help of mirrors. Like all great filmmakers, Lang knew his movie history, borrowing heavily from hundreds of works, in the process creating a slew of benchmarks for SF to come. Rotwang, intensely played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, became the archetype for the mad scientist and his lab the standard for all Frankensteinean films to come. The visual effects involved in the “creation” scene still baffle movie buffs today. The robot itself became the prototype for the movie android, and famously inspired Star Wars’ C-3PO. The star of the film was 19-year-old Brigitte Helm, doing a phenomenal portrayal of the double role as saint and devil, of virgin and harlot. The power of the movie was enhanced by an orchestral score written to match the final three-and-a-half-hour length, which was to be played live at screenings. This was one of the first instances of a film score that would not only set the mood, but organically interact with the visual beats of the movie.
Despite its now untouchable status, Metropolis was not the megahit that UFA and Lang had hoped. It fared OK in Germany, but many critics and audience members at the premiere found it too long and too confusing, and it was cut down to two and a half hours for general release. In the US, Paramount also cut it down to about the same length, but completely re-edited it and rewrote the inter-title cards, giving characters new motivations, sometimes at odds with themselves, further confusing American viewers. American critics panned it as a “technological marvel with feet of clay”. And due to the contract UFA made with Paramount, it was the Paramount version that was used for export in English-speaking countries and South America. Most original prints and copies were destroyed during WWII, and during the years a number of restorations have popped up. For a while, the version most people were familiar with was a colourised 87-minute cut made by musician Giorgio Moroder. With its contemporary rock score and eighties colour schemes, it is a child of its time, but playing on channels like MTV, it re-introduced the audience to the movie, and spurred archivists and film historians to scour the Earth for the missing pieces of the movie. In 2008 a rather badly degraded but complete 16 mm print of the 2,5-hour film released to general audiences in Germany was found in an archive in Argentina, and in 2010 the FW Murnau foundation released a “complete” version of the movie, with the Argentinian found footage edited into a version with better quality. This version also featured all the original title cards — and the original score. Full review
The complete version if the film is available on a number of platforms, including Youtube, Mubi, Kanopy and Amazon Prime.