This month, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” turns 35 years old (released on November 16, 1977). That’s pretty incredible for a film that could almost pass as new if released today. Its freshness after all these decades is a testament to its stunning cinematography and groundbreaking effects. Also pioneering at the time was the idea of having such a peaceful alien “invasion,” particularly in a decade fraught with paranoia, giving way to many E.T.s and other friendly visitors throughout the 1980s and beyond.
In honor of the film’s birthday, we’ve selected ten more revolutionary science fiction films below that were innovative in both spectacle and theme.
‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902)
Accepted as the very first sci-fi film, Georges Melies got things going early with inspiration from authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, using inventive ways of creating visual effects that didn’t really change much until computers came into play. Storywise, the silent classic gave birth to the subgenre of explorational space adventures that we still see with blockbusters like ‘Prometheus.’
Fritz Lang’s artistic sci-fi masterpiece is the original dystopian urban thriller. The miniature-based sets and flying cars remain an inspiration for all futurist film design, and its optical effects still look impressive after 85 years. While its plot elements owe to some prior literature, including “Frankenstein” and dark speculative political science fiction, we can still look to this movie as a precursor to countless titles all the way up to one of the stories in “Cloud Atlas.”
‘War of the Worlds’ (1953)
For “Close Encounters” to be so remarkable in its peacefulness, there had to be a trailblazer for the preceding era of evil visitors. Though not exactly the first alien invasion movie, this is undoubtedly the principal authority on them, in part because of its basis in the influential H.G. Wells novel and in part because of the original and advanced efforts in the spaceship design and construction. The focus on explosive spectacle over idea-based sci-fi was also quite prescient.
‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)
Often overlooked in histories of groundbreaking visual effects, this franchise starter features makeup work that is as significant as any sort of optical or model or computer technique used in science-fiction cinema. The movie is also noteworthy for dealing with concepts of time travel and parallel worlds, as revealed in its twist ending.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s astounding and confounding epic features space travel effects that are so close to what we would eventually see as reality with the moon landing a year later that it’s led to conspiracy theories claiming the latter was faked by the filmmaker himself. Arthur C. Clarke’s story also set the way for how numerous sci-fi films have looked at technology and artificial intelligence, positively and negatively.
‘Star Wars’ (1977)
Out the same year as “Close Encounters,” George Lucas’s space opera is influential like nothing we’ve ever seen before or since. The combination of visual effects, including costuming and makeup as well as model and matte work, created a whole other universe that has fueled millions of imaginations and is now set to expand with new sequels.
It may seem a bit hokey today, but this visionary film was vital to the progression of computer-generated special effects. It’s also significant for being an early mainstream gateway to such now-familiar ideas as virtual reality, cyberspace and the philosophical themes that come with the concept of living within a machine, or the matrix.
‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
The movie, like its plot, involved the creation of dinosaurs, and even if the science of literally bringing the ancient beasts to life isn’t doable the science of virtually doing so became a reality that impacted cinema forever. What we saw on the screen was almost as Frankensteinian as what occurred in the story, since the practice of computer-generating creatures became a bit untamable for a while.
James Cameron spent so long developing the technology for this movie, it simply had to be cutting edge. Three years after its release, this marvel of imagination and spectacle hasn’t been met with anything close to an equal, let alone rival. Thematically it wasn’t very groundbreaking, but the creativity that went into showing us a world we’d never seen before is staggering, and it has hopefully triggered a future of more grandiose sci-fi blockbusters.
If “Close Encounters” was partly groundbreaking for the cost that went into its effects, this film is groundbreaking for the opposite reason. The effects were done very cheaply using a single laptop and still looked better than a lot of Hollywood computer-generated visuals. Concentrated on a romantic road movie plotline, the film is also exemplary of a move toward simpler indie science fiction where the story comes first and spectacle is peripherally in the background. Basically the opposite direction of the influence of “Avatar.”