Dawn of films: The Silent Era

Science Fiction is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” We all know Science Fiction, right? Spaceships, robots, and time travel. But the truth is, it’s more complicated than that. Some Science Fiction is a series look at what the future might look like in hundred years or even the next five years. Or it might the tell a tale where science is nothing more to have the story take place in a fantastical world with strange creatures. While none is better than the other, films tend to favor the latter.

Science Fiction has grown from a niche genre to a main stay of pop culture. One of the biggest factors for this has been feature films. Even before sound, filmmakers have been of been bringing sci-fi to the silver screen. But unlike books or comics which where only limited by the writers and artists’ skill and imagination, science fiction films have only been limited by what they could make with their own hands. This made the filmmakers think of clever ways around their limitations. Pushing not only their skills to new levels, but the entire medium of films. This is a history of science fiction in movies.

Silent films

The very first science fiction film is La Charcuterie Mécanique, translated to The Mechanical Butcher, directed by the Lumiere Brothers, who were pioneers in filmmaking. Born in France they were famous for inventing the cinematograph, which was both a camera and film projector. La Charcuterie Mécanique is a 50 second film that shows a street butcher using a “mechanical box” to turn a live pig into perfectly cut meat. Basically, a man puts a pig in a box and takes out pork chops and sausages.It was made in 1895, people where still amazed at moving pictures.

The second science fiction film was directed by George Méliès, a French illusionist. Méliès is best known for his fantasy works. Gugusse and the Automaton is about a clown who is amazed at a moving mechanical man. Unfortunately, the film has been lost.

What hasn’t been lost to time is Méliès most famous science fiction film, the 1905 A Trip to the Moon. The film follows several scientists as they blast off to the moon and encounter moon men. It was one of Méliès longest film, at 13 minutes. To film the movie, he built a greenhouse studio to let in as much light as possible. The filmed used painted backgrounds combined with substitution splice technique to create its fantastical world. Méliès also went all out for the costumes. He personal sculpted models for the costumes and made plaster molds of them. A specialist than made cardboards version for the actors to wear.

A Trip to the Moon lands firmly in soft science fiction, without attempting to pass of anything of possible. It was more of a parody of 19th century science. The film was widely popular especially in the United States. Unfortunately, Méliès say very little profit overseas as the film as pirated by Thomas Edison. Yes, that Thomas Edison.

Most films of this era were very simply adaptions of novels. In 1910 a fifteen minute film of Frankenstein was made.

The nickelodeon gave way to feature length films. In 1916 saw Universal release a 105 minute 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This was also the first film to be shot under water, using a system of watertight tubes and mirrors allowed the camera to shoot reflected images of underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters. This combined large sets and special effects was a risk for the than new studio.

But the biggest film of the silent era has to be Metropolis. Released in 1927 directed by Fritz Lang. The film is famous for its scope and size. The film follows a futuristic city in the year 2026. The son of the city master fails for a woman who fights for the workers right. Meanwhile, mad scientist replaces the woman with a robot. Considered today to be one of the greatest films ever made, making several greatest movies lists. The effects were groundbreaking. Lang used miniatures of the city and the Schufftan process, were the use mirrors to make the illusion of actors occupying the miniatures.



Despite its reputation as one of the greatest films ever made, it was not all that well received when released back in 1927. H. G. Wells, yes that H. G. Wells, blasted it in The New York Times. Wells thought it was derivative of Frankenstein and his own work, particularly The Sleeper Awakens. “Originality there is none. Independent thought, none… I do not think there is a single new idea, a single instance of artistic creation or even intelligent anticipation, from first to last in the whole pretentious stew.” Read the whole thing. It’s actually quite interesting.




In the US, the film was under fire for socialist themes. The three-hour running time was cut to 90 minutes by Us distributors. The film was highly praised by the Nazi party, with Nazi head of propaganda Joseph Goebbles particularly loved it. It didn’t help that the writer and Lang’s than wife, Thea von Harbou, would join the Nazi party in 1933. Lang than divorced her and fled the country. Lang spent the rest of his life distancing himself away from Metropolis.

But while Metropolis was the height of what science fiction films could be, films themselves would be forever changed. It was time for talking.  

Solomon, Matthew Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon, Albary: state university of New York Press

Johnson, Keith M. (2011), Science Fiction Film: A critical Inroduction, Oxford:Berg Publishers

Tavis, Brain A Pioneer under the sea loc.gov/loc/lcib/9615/sea.html

McGilligan, Patrick (1997). Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. New York: St Martin’s  Press



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