Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Earliest Science Fiction Films (1895-1909)

Science fiction films have been around almost as long as the medium itself.

The earliest film that could really be considered sci-fi in any way (to the best of my knowledge) is a 50 second short from 1895. It's called the Mechanical Butcher, with the original French title being La Charcuterie mécanique.

The simple premise is that a butcher has a fantastical machine that can convert a pig into sausages. However, upon viewing the film, it seems the butcher is simply a charlatan. So this film's status as science fiction is dubious. According to Wikipedia, it has been cited as the first sci-fi film at least once, by Phil Hardy in The Overlook Film Encyclopedia.

It was made by the highly influential French directors, the Lumière Brothers.

The next contender for the title of first SF film is Gugusse and the Automaton, from 1897. Like the previous short, it was a French work made by a famous director. This time it was Georges Méliès, who was a cinematic pioneer in many ways, including his groundbreaking work with special effects.

 Gugusse is about a robot, and is supposedly the first film to feature one. A book titled  Things to Come: An Illustrated History of the Science Fiction Film said that this "may be the first true SF film."

Sadly, the film is assumed to be lost as of now, as is the case many of that era.

Méliès also directed the next film I'll discuss, which is undoubtedly science fiction and is the one most often described as the first SF movie. I'm talking of course about A Trip to the Moon, or La Voyage dans la Lune in the original French.

As you may imagine it's about astronauts taking a trip to the earth's moon. They encounter fantastical aliens there, and the film is the source of the famous image of the moon with a face getting hit by a spaceship. The plot has been cited as being influenced by the work of Jules Verne.

This is definitely the most well-known film from Méliès (who also starred in the film), as well as one of the most famous silent films in general. At 13 minutes, it was his longest film yet, and probably his most complex, taking three months to film.

A Trip to the Moon is over the top, but intentionally so, and this is a big part of what makes it so entertaining. Everything is very stylized and theatrical (Méliès began his career in the theater). Fitting the theatrical style, each scene is played out in a wide shot with a stationary camera. There are no close ups and no continuity editing.

Méliès wanted to release the film in America, but Thomas Edison's company secretly made pirated copies of it. When it was shown in the United States, all the money went to Edison instead of Méliès. It was a huge hit so it would have probably helped Méliès stave off his eventual bankruptcy.

Despite its popularity, A Trip to the Moon was actually considered lost for awhile. Méliès was somewhat forgotten until a resurgence of interest in his work in the late 1920s. By 1930, there were two extant copies of the film, but they were both incomplete. It was actually not until 1997 that it was completely reconstructed. There was even a hand-colored print found in 2002.

As a film about space travel, it is the first film featuring classic science fiction themes. I would consider it to be the first true sci-fi movie.

Next to discuss is another Méliès film, The Impossible Voyage from 1904 (original French title: Voyage à travers l'impossible). It is similar to A Trip to the Moon in many ways, and can be seen as a spiritual successor. However, it was much more ambitious. It was almost twice as long at 20 minutes and cost 37,500 francs, the equivalent of $7,500 to make.

Like A Trip to the Moon, it was inspired by Jules Verne. It was based on a play of his called Journey Through the Impossible. Another similarity is that both films lacked intertitles.

The plot involves a tour around the world, but they end up even going into space and to the sun. Like in A Trip to the Moon, everyone is able to walk around on the surface of the sun unharmed. The various modes of travel include auto, train, and even dirigible.

The final Méliès film I will mention in this essay is Under the Seas, an 18-minute long movie from 1907. Once again, he took inspiration from Jules Verne, parodying the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The film is set up as a dream of a fisherman named Yves and features various fantastical sea creatures, including nymphs, mermaids, and giant seahorses. It doesn't actually seem to take any plot elements from the book.

Yves travels by submarine and views an underwater ballet. Then he crashes, stranding himself underwater and it attacked by the sea creatures. It ends with Yves waking up from his dream and he turns out to be simply caught in some nets.

Finally, we have The Airship Destroyer, a British film from 1909. It was twenty minutes in length and directed by Walter R. Booth. Booth had also made the first British animated film in 1906, The Hand of the Artist.

The movie centers on a fictional attack on Britain by a fantastical (at the time) fleet of airships. This makes it the first aerial warfare themed film.

Airships attack an armored car and airplane, destroying both. In a prophetic touch, the airships even drop bombs on the city.

The status of The Airship Destroyer as science fiction is debatable, given that nothing in the film was too far away from what was possible at the time. It's not that far from what ended up happening less than a decade later in World War I. However, given the relative lack of sci fi in this era, it's definitely worth mentioning.

It has also been known as The Battle in the Clouds, and that is what it's listed as on IMDB.

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A video version of this essay can be found here.


  1. I love science fiction, and it's great to see where it all started.

    A wonderful list, thank you so much. Bookmarked and shared.

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

    2. Also, if you are interested I just made a "sequel" that covers the sci fi films of the 1910s at