History of Science Fiction Movies

This page looks at the vocabulary of Sci-Fi Movies through their history, people and styles. (Words in bold are listed in Wordchecker below.)

Movie poster for Forbidden PlanetIf you love watching movies about the future or movies set in outer space, you're a fan of science fiction or "sci-fi". In sci-fi movies we might see spectacular CGI scenes of battles in outer space, or we might see what living in a high-tech future world could be like. We might see people travelling in time, or androids that look like human beings, or huge starships that travel to distant galaxies. But sci-fi movies can do much more than show us amazing things like these. They can tell stories that make us think about the world as it is today, and think about the sort of world we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren in the future.

Picture: Movie poster for the classic 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet (Public Domain)

Many early sci-fi films like the silent classic Metropolis and 1936's Things To Come showed moviegoers amazing visions of the future. In the 40s and 50s many low-budget B-movies were made about scary aliens like The Thing from Another World and Invaders from Mars, but highly-rated sci-fi films were also made like Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still in which a friendly alien warns of the dangers of nuclear war.

The theme of aliens and extraterrestrials visiting Earth is also found in later sci-fi movies like 2002's Signs and Steven Spielberg's 2005 remake of the classic sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds. Spielberg also made Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in which a boy and a homesick extraterrestrial become good friends. The 1999 animated sci-fi film The Iron Giant is also about a friendship between a boy and an alien, but in this movie soldiers try to destroy the boy's alien friend. The Iron Giant is widely-regarded as one of the finest animated sci-fi movies ever made, especially for its powerful message about the terrible things that can happen when military power is used in the wrong way.

Many sci-fi movies of the 70s also contained important messages like this, but in the 70s they were mostly about environmental issues like pollution, global warming and overpopulation. They include 1972's Silent Running, 1976's Logan's Run and 1973's Soylent Green, a sci-fi murder mystery set in a dystopian future in which air pollution, high temperatures and water shortages have made farming almost impossible. Only a tiny elite of rich and privileged people can afford fresh food while everyone else has to eat "soylent", a processed substance made from secret and shocking ingredients. A more recent movie with an environmental theme is the CGI blockbuster Avatar in which a mining company from Earth destroys a distant planet's natural environment while killing peaceful indigenous aliens. Others include the Academy Award-winning animated movie WALL-E about a trash-collecting robot, and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer.

Snowpiercer is about a time in the future after the Earth has been turned into a frozen planet by a failed attempt to stop global warming. Other post-apocalyptic movies include the Mad Max series and 2009's The Road in which a father and son battle to survive in a dangerous and lawless post-apocalyptic world. Movies that are set during apocalyptic events include the 1983 drama Testament in which we follow a family caught in a nuclear attack and 2007's Sunshine in which we follow a mission sent into space to stop the sun from dying. Movies set just before a future apocalypse include the critically-acclaimed 2012 Japanese black comedy Fish Story in which the Earth is about to be destroyed by a comet, and Lars von Trier's art-house drama Melancholia in which the Earth is about to collide with another planet.

While most of these movies have messages about environmental themes, in other sci-fi movies we can find political and social themes. Many of these films have been dystopian dramas about the dangers of authoritarian government, corporate power, and social inequality. One of the first was 1966's Fahrenheit 451 in which an oppressive authoritarian government orders the burning of all books in case they contain views and knowledge that lead to a revolution. Another was George Lucas' 1971 film THX 1138 in which a totalitarian government controlled by a powerful corporate elite uses brutal android police, electronic surveillance and sedative drugs to control workers and increase corporate profits. In the classic dystopian drama 1984 a political elite controls the minds of an underclass of workers by forcing them to watch propaganda broadcasts and use a language of propaganda called "newspeak" in which words like "freedom" are banned and new words like "thought crime" are invented.

Examples of more recent dystopian dramas include V for Vendetta, Elysium and The Hunger Games, the first of a series of films set in a brutal totalitarian state in which teenagers from the underclass are forced to fight to the death on a reality TV show. As in many dystopian dramas, the Hunger Games series follows a group of heroic rebels who lead an uprising against an oppressive society.

Video: Trailer for the 2013 dystopian sci-fi thriller Elysium starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster

A closely-related sci-fi subgenre is cyberpunk. Cyberpunk films are also set in dystopian future worlds, but in these movies black comedy and an art-house style are often added to the mix. The film that set the pattern for cyberpunk was Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in which a clever but rebellious and violent young man undergoes an experimental treatment to control his violent thoughts. In the 1982 cyberpunk classic Blade Runner, genetically-engineered slaves escape and search for the people who made them, and in Robocop a cyborg policeman discovers the truth about the security company that built him and runs the police department he works for.

Not all high-tech sci-fi movies are set in dystopian futures, however. In Steven Spielberg's 1986 sci-fi blockbuster Jurassic Park dinosaurs from the distant past are recreated from their DNA, and in his 2001 movie AI Artificial Intelligence a high-tech company markets a new line of androids that look and act like children. In 2015's Ex Machina an AI company develops an advanced android that uses its high level of artificial intelligence to escape to freedom, while in the 1999 high-tech rom-com Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind customers pay to have unwanted memories erased from their minds by a brain-scanning machine.

Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can make us think about the nature of the mind and reality, and films like this are sometimes called mind-bending movies. Popular examples include The Matrix in which most of the characters are trapped inside an artificial or "virtual" reality, and the sci-fi espionage drama Inception in which a corporate spy enters the minds of other people to steal valuable information. But of all the mind-bending ideas that science fiction has explored, the most popular has been the idea of time travel.

One of the first movies to explore this idea was the classic 1960 film The Time Machine, and one of the most popular was the 1985 sci-fi comedy Back to the Future. But many of the most successful time travel movies have been in a series that began with The Terminator in 1984. The most highly-rated of the Terminator movies is Terminator 2: Judgment Day in which a powerful cyborg is sent from the future to kill a teenage boy before he grows up to become the leader of a future uprising.

Many sci-fi movies have also been made about space travel, and some of the most critically-acclaimed are Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Academy Award-winning film Gravity, and Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar about a group of manned spaceships sent to find other planets for humans to live on after they can no longer survive on Earth. But the most popular movies about space travel have been historical space epics, or "space operas", like the Star Trek series and the Star Wars movies.

Soon after making his dystopian 1971 sci-fi film THX 1138, George Lucas began planning a series of blockbuster space epics about a war between a group of planetary nations called the Rebel Alliance and its evil enemy the Galactic Empire. The first of many films in this series was 1977's Star Wars featuring the young rebel warrior Luke Skywalker and one of cinema's greatest villains, the Galactic Empire's Darth Vader. With its epic plot, spectacular action scenes, and its many and various characters, robots and alien creatures, the Star Wars series has helped to make science fiction one of modern cinema's most popular and successful genres.

Video: The asteroid field scene from one of science fictionโ€™s most popular movies, the 1980 sci-fi epic Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Recommended science fiction movies

  • Early classics: Metropolis (1927), Things to Come (1936), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956)
  • Alien Invasion: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1993), They Live (1988), War of the Worlds (2005), Arrival (2016)
  • Extraterrestrial: Alien (1979), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Iron Giant (1999), District 9 (2009), Sputnik (2020)
  • Environmental: Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), WALL-E (2008), Avatar (2009), Snowpiercer (2014)
  • Apocalyptic: Mad Max 2 (1981), Testament (1983), Sunshine (2007), The Road (2009), Melancholia (2011), Fish Story (2013)
  • Early Dystopian: The War Game (1966), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), THX 1138 (1971), Logan's Run (1976), 1984 (1984)
  • Later Dystopian: V for Vendetta (2006), Children of Men (2006), Elysium (2013), The Platform (2019)
  • Cyberpunk: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Blade Runner (1982), Robocop (1987), Dark City (1998), Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
  • High-tech: Jurassic Park (1986), Gattaca (1997), A.I. (2001), Her (2013), Ex Machina (2015), Possessor (2020)
  • Mind-bending: The Matrix (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Inception (2010), Tenet (2020)
  • Time Travel: The Terminator (1984), Back to the Future (1985), 12 Monkeys (1995), Looper (2012), Synchronic (2020)
  • Space Travel: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1976 & 2002), Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), Ad Astra (2019)
  • Space Epic: Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Trek (2009), War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dune (2021)

alien (noun): a creature from outer space - The aliens were scary, but they looked amazing.

android (noun): a robot that looks and acts like a person - I loved that scene when they fought with the androids.

animated (adjective): made with drawn images or CGI graphics - Our kids love animated movies like WALL-E and Inside Out.

apocalyptic (adjective): causing great destruction and death - They think the world will end with an apocalyptic catastrophe.

art-house (adjective): experimental and non-commercial - Linda likes art-house films, but Mike likes big-budget action movies.

artificial intelligence (also "AI") (noun): computer-based intelligence - They found the android's artificial intelligence circuits.

authoritarian (adjective): using force and strict rules to control people - Our new boss is one of those authoritarian types, I'm afraid.

B-movie (noun): a low-budget movie - Some of those B-movies from the 50s are great.

corporate (adjective ): relating to large companies - A corporate state uses the media to control the way we think.

cyberpunk (noun): a dystopian, high-tech sci-fi subgenre - My brother's writing a cyberpunk novel about computer games.

cyborg (noun): a creature that's part machine and part human - Robocop's a cyborg, isn't he?

dystopian (adjective): of an oppressive or dangerous future world - It's another one of those dystopian cyberpunk movies.

elite (noun): the people with the most power and money - If the elite doesn't stop being so greedy, there'll be trouble.

extraterrestrial (also "ET") (noun): an alien from another planet - She says extraterrestrials took her into their spaceship.

global warming (noun): temperature increases from burning fossil fuels - Global warming's causing catastrophic climate change.

high-tech (also "hi-tech") (adjective): having highly-advanced technology - We're using the latest high-tech security system.

mind-bending (adjective): having complex ideas about the mind and reality - Those mind-bending sci-fi stories can be hard to follow.

oppressive (adjective): using authoritarian power to limit freedom - Our country's becoming more and more oppressive.

outer space (noun): anywhere in the universe beyond Earth and its atmosphere - The monsters came from outer space.

post-apocalyptic (adjective): after a terrible event like a nuclear war or an asteroid strike - Max lived in a violent post-apocalyptic world.

propaganda (noun): false information meant to control public opinion - That's not news! It's just propaganda.

rebel (also "revolutionary") (noun): someone who opposes a government or fights for freedom - The rebels escaped to freedom at the end of the movie.

robot (noun): an intelligent machine that can move itself - The robots in the Star Wars movies are so cute.

science fiction (also "sci-fi") (noun): a genre with stories set in the future or in outer space - Have you seen any good sci-fi movies lately?

spaceship (also "spacecraft") (noun): a vehicle that can travel in outer space - After the spaceship's door opened, the aliens came out.

starship (noun): a very large spaceship, esp one that can travel to other galaxies - The starship in the new Star Trek movie is awesome!

surveillance (noun): the close watching of people's behaviour - They kept us under electronic surveillance day and night.

theme (noun): the main subject of a novel, movie, poem, etc - What do you think the theme of Blade Runner is?

time travel (noun): moving through time to the past or the future - Our physics teacher said time travel might be possible one day.

totalitarian (adjective): having total power and not allowing opposition - The Hunger Games is set in a repressive totalitarian society.

underclass (noun): a society's poorest and most oppressed people - Rebels from the underclass eventually defeated the greedy elite.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers.