One of the side effects of writing a book about science fiction film is that I have to revisit (and in some cases, visit for the first time) a lot of pre-Star Wars science fiction film, and I’ve discovered that by and large I have a prejudice against these flicks. The reason is simple: Pre-Star Wars science fiction film are cheesy more often than not. Until Lucas whacked that box office ball right out of the ballpark, science fiction films were basically marginal programmers; you might get a The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers here and there (and in 1968 you got the 1-2 punch of 2001 and Planet of the Apes), but by and large they were the “B”-movie on the double feature program, and for modern eyes, they’re difficult to watch.
Not that they’re not fun, in their way: I spent part of the weekend watching Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers, the DVD release of the 1936 serial, and I enjoyed it — and to my surprise so did Athena, who uttered the memorable quote: “I liked it so much, I didn’t mind it was in black in white.” But, man alive, is it bad: It’s like a community theater production, and it’s hard to tell what’s more wooden, star Buster Crabbe’s delivery or the rocketships themselves. It’s the sort of film where a civilization capable of moving a planet through space fights with swords, one character locks another in a spaceship by kicking away a step stool, and eternal alliances are created by this sort of dialog:
Professor Zarkov: Flash, this is Prince Barin! He hates Emperor Ming, too!
Flash: Well, that’s good enough for me!
And yet, this sort of unripened cheese is indisputably canonical on the science fiction genre, if for no other reason than a young George Lucas had the top of his little head absolutely unscrewed by the tripe, and the first chance he got, he used it as a foundation upon which to build Star Wars, from which the modern age of science fiction film sprang, for better or worse. It’s bad, but it’s important.
This isn’t to say the main run of SF films after Star Wars are necessarily any better than the ones before it: Alien Vs. Predator, say, makes no more sense than Flash Gordon does, and I know which of the two I’d want to watch again, and it ain’t AVP. The difference is that the genre is taken more seriously now by Hollywood, so when you do get crap in the genre, it is at least a highly polished pile of crap; you don’t see the seams as often as you do in science fiction films from the 30s through the 60s. But I believe the best of today’s science fiction is better than the best (or most significant) science fiction films prior to ’77.
Naturally, I try to correct for this prejudice of mine. Particularly on the technical level — practical and special effects — it’s ridiculous to hold films from the 30s or 50s to the standard since the 70s (it’s unfair to hold films from the 70s to standards of today, too, which is why Lucas eternally fiddles with his first Star Wars Trilogy). And to some extent, you have to handicap for writing and acting as well; not as much, and especially not so much with some of the high-end canonical films (some mentioned above), but on a general level, yes, the handicap kicks in.
But it’s also worth noting that science fiction is the only genre where you have to handicap. The best comedies of the 30s or 40s are as good as the best comedies today, or even better, depending on your tastes: I wouldn’t trade The Philadelphia Story for the entire Farrelly Brothers filmography. Dramas don’t suffer; film lovers can skip from On the Waterfront to The Godfather to American Beauty and not skip a beat. Gone With the Wind is still the gold standard for epic melodrama, with Titanic taking a distant silver; Wizard of Oz has only recently been supplanted by the Lord of the Rings series as the best fantasy, and it took Disney 50 years to equal its animation run of Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. And despite the (relatively) recent Oscar successes of Chicago and Unforgiven, the past owns the musical and the western.
Among all film genres, science fiction stands alone as the one whose present is incontestably better than its past, at least at its highest levels. It’s one of the things that makes writing a book about science fiction film interesting — and at the same time a very tricky prospect. I don’t want to undersell early science fiction films; doing that would be inaccurate and wrong. At the same time, however, I want to make sure that people understand that if there’s a golden age of science fiction film, it’s probably now. Take a good look — this is what a golden age of film looks like.