A technology that takes advantage of the optical phenomenon of the persistence of vision to produce an illusion of continuous movement from a rapidly progressive series of still images preserved as a reel of photographic negatives. The development of cinema was preceded by a series of precursors, including Etienne Gaspard Robert’s Fantasmagorie, magic lanterns, and zoetropes, all of which were echoed in literature, providing key metaphors to such works as Jean Lorrain’s ‘‘Lanterne Magique’’ (1891; trans. As ‘‘Magic Lantern’’). The frequent association of artificially reproduced moving images with apparitions is reflected in Thomas Amat’s decision to call his pioneering moving-picture projector a ‘‘Phantoscope’’. Complex movements unanalysable by the unaided eye were first ‘‘atomized’’ by a series of still photographs in the late 1870s, the first use of the method being to study the motion of a galloping horse. The technique—standardised by E. J. Marey as ‘‘chronophotography’’— was quickly adapted to study the aerodynamics of flight.
The advent of cinema in the 1890s was a highly significant advancement in recording technology, although it did not have as much impact in the scientific arena as the development of still photography, which had wrought a revolution in *astronomy. Early literary responses included Rudyard Kipling’s ‘‘Mrs. Bathurst’’ (1904), which credits the cinema with a kind of *hypnotic effect. Until the late 1920s, cinematography was limited in the accurate representation of mundane life by the lack of an integrated soundtrack, but its cultivation of illusion was greatly facilitated by the opportunity to contrive an apparently seamless transition between sequences filmed at different times using strategically modified sets. The most significant of the early filmmakers, George Me´lie`s—who had previously worked as a stage magician—made conspicuous use of all the tricks at his disposal in representing impossible events. In 1896, he produced a film (the English version was titled The Bewitched Inn) whose flying candlesticks and disappearing bed were recapitulated in the more substantial The Inn Where No Man Rests (1902). He made several fairy-tale adaptations, including the hand-coloured Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) and Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper (1912), four versions of Faust (1898–1904), and several films featuring such miracle-workers as the Devil and the enchanter Alcofrisbas (played by Me´lie`s himself). He also made dream fantasies, including The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), and early interplanetary fantasies, one of which—Journey to the Moon (1903)—was to provide one of the best-known movie sequences of the twentieth century. Many other pioneers followed Me´lie`s’ lead, though none as prolifically. Another frequently replicated image was produced by Thomas Edison’s cinematographer Edwin S. Porter in Fun in a Butcher Shop (1901), which depicts a fully automated production line turning dogs into sausages, in support of a popular urban legend; Porter subsequently soothed public indignation by making Dog Factory (1904), in which sausages are transmuted into live dogs by a similar automated process. When the scientific photographer F. Martin Duncan combined cinema technology with the microscope in the pioneering documentary The Unseen World (1902), it was immediately parodied by the burlesque The Unclean World, also known as The Suburban-Bunkum Microbe-Guyoscope. The use of cutting to make objects appear and disappear from scenes according to the director’s whim was the most obvious cinematic manifestation of impossibility, but almost every element of developing cinematographic technique was a similar violation of ordinary sensory expectation. Elmer Rice’s scathing satire on the fictional worlds within movie texts, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), treats cutting, zooming, and fading out as manifest absurdities, and violations of temporal sequence such as flashbacks as items of bizarrerie—but cinema audiences had already learned to ‘‘read’’ all those devices, and to see nothing strange about them at all, accepting them as mere conventions of representation. Such devices were hardly noticed in the latter part of the century. Cinematographers also gave regular employment to a whole range of ‘‘special effects’’ that were not so readily accommodated within common sense, especially tricks with *time—speeding it up, slowing it down, and throwing it into reverse—and exotic biological transformations, illustrated by a flood of hair-restoring movies, surgical fantasies, and Jekyll and Hyde adaptations. Whether or not it warranted the name ‘‘Purilia’’— which Rice derived from ‘‘puerile’’, not from ‘‘pure’’— the strange parallel world to which movies provided a window was soon established as a magical kingdom, irrespective of its explicit use of the supernatural, whose very essence was the casting of the kind of spell traditionally known as ‘‘glamour’’. It was the habitation of a new species of ‘‘stars’’ and ‘‘goddesses’’— the vastness of whose close-up-exaggerated personalities easily survived the demise of the dumb show by which they signified emotion in pre-talkie days. The archaically rigid censorship of which Rice complained generated a new visual language of implication and irony, whose key product—labelled by the sensational novelist-turned-screenwriter Elinor Glyn in 1927—was It, also known as ‘‘sex appeal’’.
Cinematography was by no means the first technology to facilitate ‘‘magic tricks’’ but none had ever been so intrinsically magical in the whole range of its manifestations. Although its enduring and overweening preference for *occult science and *pseudoscience over the authentic variety was partly a response to the attitudes of its mass audience, it was also intrinsic to the nature of the medium and the spectrum of opportunities offered thereby. The employment of cinema as a means of documentary reportage was always secondary to its role as a medium of entertainment, and the high cost of making films ensured that many documentary endeavours were guided by the entertainment agenda. The scientific applications of cinema technology were primarily concerned with the biological sciences, because the moving picture facilitated the depiction of active, living organisms. Cinematic adaptations of time-lapse photography became an important means of adapting slow processes like plant growth to sensory perception. The only significant overlap between this kind of endeavour and mainstream cinema was, however, the subgenre of ‘‘wildlife documentaries’’, which was long cursed by the embellishment of ludicrous anthropomorphising voice-overs.
The development of stop-motion animation greatly facilitated the cinematic depiction of imaginary creatures; it was rapidly used to dramatise dinosaurs and became the foundation of a whole genre of monster movies, epitomised by the Willis J. O’Brien–animated The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). Although monster movies and other emergent movie subgenres such as the mad scientist story and the superhero story drew on the vocabularies of science fiction and pseudoscience in the construction of narrative apologies, even sound- equipped cinema inevitably found authentic scientific explanations very difficult to accommodate, and a tradition was rapidly established whereby filmmakers adopted a frankly derisive attitude to the kind of fidelity idealised in the notion of hard science fiction; the natural tendency was to regard illusion as an end rather than a means.
For this reason, the history of ‘‘science fiction films’’ followed a very different course from the evolution of science fiction in text form, entirely governed by the evolution of new means of contrivance that facilitated the incorporation of science fiction imagery without the least trace of extrapolative seriousness. The procedural principle that produced so many biological monsters was extrapolated to technologies, most notably in accounts of destructive rays such as those featured in the serial ‘‘The Flaming Disk’’ (1920) and the Russian Luc Smerti (Death Ray) (1925). The development of superhuman characters— anticipated by Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse in Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) before the invasion of cinema by comic book superheroes such as Flash Gordon (1936) and such analogues thereof as Philip Wylie’s Superman-prototype The Gladiator (1939)—was also a natural extrapolation of cinematic trickery. Early attempts to adapt futuristic fiction for the screen were few in number. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) helped popularise the idea of the robot, although the supportive imagery it provided was essentially magical and provided a cardinal example of Isaac Asimov’s Frankenstein complex. Lang’s Die Frau im Mond (1929) attempted to advertise the imminence of the Space Age, but its representations dissolved into absurdity. Alexander Korda’s stilted version of H. G. Wells’ Things to Come (1936) was the only significant attempt to accommodate the themes of British scientific romance to the medium, the earlier The Island of Lost Souls (1932, based on The Island of Dr. Moreau) and The Invisible Man (1933) having reduced Wells’ stories to conventional thrillers, while a 1933 U.S. adaptation of S. Fowler Wright’s Deluge was primarily notable for its model-based representation of a tidal wave swamping New York.
The devastation of Europe by World War II allowed the American philosophy of movie production to become totally dominant in its wake; Western science fiction motifs were almost exclusively reserved thereafter to exotic crime thrillers, horror movies, and space operas modeled on comic strips. Ultra-cheap ‘‘shockers’’ designed to assist teenage seductions in drive-in movie theatres played a major role in reducing the scabrous public image of science fiction to abysmal levels. Attempts to break this mould— including Destination Moon (1950), Riders to the Stars (1954), and Forbidden Planet (1956)—were rare and only partly successful. By virtue of this pattern of development, scientific understanding remained offstage in the cinematic medium throughout the twentieth century. Although scientists were frequently featured as characters, and laboratories as settings, the standard role such characters played was that of instigator of catastrophe, whether by virtue of malice, madness, or foolishness; laboratories became, in consequence, quintessential sources of malignance and horror. James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) supplemented Lang’s Metropolis in securing the cinematic stereotypes of the scientist and his laboratory, echoed in Island of Lost Souls and The Invisible Man, and in other revisitations of silent classics such as Mad Love (1935) and The Invisible Ray (1936).
This stereotype was echoed in countless postwar images, including Forbidden Planet’s Dr. Morbeus, the horribly transmogrified protagonist of The Fly (1958), and Dr. Genessier in Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959; trans. as Eyes Without a Face). The amiably quirky variants of this image featured in such comedies as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) sustained the pattern rather than challenging it. The Einstein-clone scientist in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was displayed only to be contemptuously humbled, and there is also a conspicuous ineffectuality about heroic scientists, whose attempts to combat the tide of mutational and extraterrestrial disaster in such films as Them! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and The Monolith Monsters (1957) are mere holding actions.
The motive for these representations was purely melodramatic—filmmakers had no ideological interest in stigmatising science or demonising the public image of scientists and their workplaces—but the net result of their endeavours probably included a marked diminution in respect for and trust in the activities of scientists. Some scientists chose to construe these cinematic representations as jokes, whereas others preferred to fulminate against the rational implausibility of cinematic cliche´s, misconstruing their absurdity as the result of accidental error rather than as an inevitable result of the technology’s hospitality to illusions of impossibility.
Such sophistication as cinematic science fiction underwent in the 1960s was partly due to the injection of satirical black comedy, as in Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968), and partly to an element of nostalgia, as in First Men in the Moon (1964) and Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967), but it was primarily a matter of the occasional use of special effects in a more stylistically polished fashion. Such films as Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Barbarella (1966), and Fantastic Voyage (1966) had little to recommend them apart from their glossy effects, but Stanley Kubrick took the trend to a spectacular extreme in 2001—A Space Odyssey (1968), whose Arthur Clarke–inspired space technology was slotted into a plot whose main lever was a mad computer and whose climax was a psychedelic trip into deliberate obscurantism. Kubrick’s 2001 prepared the way economically for the visual spectaculars that would dominate science fiction cinema in the last decades of the twentieth century.
The narrative tradition in which the majority of these lavishly funded films would take their place was firmly established. The computer-assisted special effects that became commonplace when they were spectacularly advertised by George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) were immediately applied to the production of many other comic-strip space operas; monster movies such as Alien (1979), the 1982 version of The Thing, The Terminator (1984), and Independence Day (1996); and superhero stories such as Superman—The Movie (1978), the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, and Robocop (1987). Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and ET—The Extraterrestrial (1982) took their inspiration from contemporary myths, not from scientific speculation, while the time-travel fantasies that followed in the wake of Back to the Future (1985) played gleefully with loops and paradoxes. Because serious science fiction texts are so difficult to film, very few have ever been successfully adapted, and the rare partial successes—including Ralph Nelson’s adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ ‘‘Flowers for Algernon’’ as Charly (1968) and Jack Gold’s 1974 film of Algis Budrys’ Who—were all at the soft end of the spectrum. The most commercially successful adaptation of a science fiction text, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), was a drastically simplified version, and the subsequent Dick adaptations that followed in its wake were shoehorned into well-established cinematic formulas. The aspect of Dick’s worldview that appealed most to filmmakers was its questioning of the stability of the experienced world, which chimed with the medium’s ability to construct powerful illusions—a fusion illustrated by such metaphysical fantasies as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982) and taken to it furthest extreme in The Matrix (1999) and its sequels. The movie eventually based on Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (2004)—earlier, more faithful treatments having been aborted— deliberately inverted the book’s explicit purpose, making it a cardinal example of the paranoid technophobia that Asimov had attempted to oppose. Science-fictional extrapolations of cinema technology, in the days before the advent of the idea of *virtual reality, began by extrapolating the development of talkies to accommodate the other senses, especially in the development of ‘‘feelies’’, as anticipated in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and John D. MacDonald’s ‘‘Spectator Sport’’ (1950), and 3-D movies, as anticipated in George O. Smith’s ‘‘Problem in Solid’’ (1947). As science fiction writers realised what Hollywood was doing to popular perceptions of science fiction, their extrapolations
veered into the realm of satirical black comedy. The future of Hollywood is treated scathingly in such works as Henry Kuttner’s ‘‘The Ego Machine’’ (1952), Bruce Elliott’s ‘‘The Battle of the S….s’’ (1952), and Robert Bloch’s Sneak Preview (1959; exp. book, 1971), although grudging acceptance of the inevitable introduced a greater subtlety and grudging affection into such continuations of the tradition as Michael Bishop’s ‘‘Storming the Bijou, Mon Amour’’ (1979), Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), Connie Willis’ Remake (1995), and Bruce McAllister’s ‘‘Hero, the Movie: What’s Left When You’ve Already Saved the World’’ (2005). The relentless advance of special effects gave rise to the suggestion that filmmakers would soon be able to dispense with cameras altogether and work entirely with digitally synthesised imagery, thus transforming the medium into something else entirely. An intermediate phase in this development is described in Grey Rollins’ ‘‘The Ghost in the Machine’’ (1993), but few contemporary writers of futuristic fiction in text form see any point in dwelling elaborately on a matter of inevitable extinction, over which few of them would shed a tear if it happened tomorrow.