Much of the heritage in SF movies comes from non-English language films from the first half of the 20th century, many of which are largely unknown to an English-speaking audience today. Here we list the 25 greatest non-English language science fiction movies made prior to 1950. How many have you seen?
The first US time machine film from 1956 is a fun but clunky Technicolor adventure. Astronauts accidentally travel 500 years into the future, where the meek, pacifist human survivors hide from barbaric mutants in an underground civilisation. 5/10
A treat for so-bad-they’re-good movie fans, this 1955 clunker from ARC/AIP takes place almost exclusively on a California beach where FBI agents hunt movie history’s most incompetent spy and a radioactive sea monster. 1/10
The first Superman feature film debuted in 1951 with legendary George Reeves in shoulder pads and a winning grin. Despite a decent budget, it’s shoddy and thinly scripted, although its sincere call for solidarity and inclusiveness carries on the original vision of the comic, and might just win you over. 4/10.
Preparing for a potential nuclear winter, a team of scientists test the theory that the Earth is hollow, in this 1951 cheapo from visual effects wizards Jack Rabin and Irving Block. Loosely based on Verne and Burroughs, Unknown World has the makings of a good film, but stumbles in all departments. 4/10.
The first sound adaptation of H. Rider Haggards lost world novel benefits from location shooting in Africa, a faithful script and good acting. Paul Robeson shines, even though his out-of-place song numbers strain the picture’s credibility. Despite a somewhat rushed plot and thin characters, this is a fun Sunday afternoon adventure yarn. 6/10
H.G. Wells and William Cameron Menzies take us on an epic journey through the future in this pompous 1936 social prophesy, the last big SF film before the 1950s. The most expensive film made in Britain at the time, Things to Come boasts incredible sets and effects, but the script is stiff, the acting wooden and the viewer bludgeoned to boredom with the message. 6/10
Based on H. Rider Haggard’s novel, this 1935 production from the creators of King Kong is as old-fashioned an adventure story as they come, as our intrepid heroes seek the secret to immortal life in a lost city ruled by an evil queen. It’s a creaky bag of hokum, but childishly entertaining, and the massive Art Deco sets are deliriously wonderful. 5/10
Not even the worst serial acting in the history of bad serial acting is able to completely sink this brilliantly delirious sci-fi western musical comedy starring western and country legend Gene Autry. The film combines wild west adventure, lost Atlantis-type fantasy, Flash Gordon tropes and country singing in one of he most bizarre train wrecks of film history. 4/10
This smart, well filmed and very successful 1934 film marked the beginning of the end for German science fiction before the Nazis banned the genre. Best remembered for its impressive futuristic sets and superb effects, this film is on the talkier side. It’s secret weapons are German superstars Hans Albers and Brigitte Helm. 7/10.
An American engineer masterminds a Transatlantic tunnel in this German 1933 production, based on Bernhard Kellermann’s 1913 novel. Made in the spirit of international unity, it is today often seen through the lens of the Nazi rise to power. While well acted and sporting impressive set design, the film’s pacing is off and the first half is bogged down by sluggish melodrama. 5/10.
This 1929 film was Britain’s attempt to create its own Metropolis. The stunning art deco visuals are counteracted by a clumsy and overtly naive script. Maurice Elvey’s direction is fluid and competent, but the actors are stuck with paper-thin characters who lack motivation. Modern viewers of this pacifist yarn set in 1940 will marvel at the accurate predictions of things like TV and Skype. (5/10)
The plot may be meandering and the political message naive, but the thematic and visual influence of Austrian director Fritz Lang’s exciting 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is rivalled by few in science fiction and in film in general. A great, entertaining, sprawling epic in a future tower of Babylon. (10/10)