Sci-fi is one of the most popular genres in today’s cinema and continues to thrill, amaze and stimulate audiences around the world, dispensing fear and wonder in its mind-bending wake.
But it has a long cinematic heritage, as shown by the dozens of films available to watch now on BFI Player, providing an opportunity to explore the rich history of the genre.
So strap on your jet pack and prepare for lift off with this 10-film sample of the bizarre and the curious from over a 70-year span of British cinema.
10 to try
The Airship Destroyer (1909)
Possibly inspired by the publication the previous year of the H.G. Wells novel The War in the Air, this is one of a number of near-future invasion films that appeared in the years leading up to the First World War, with a courageous inventor saving the day by using his aerial torpedo device to repel an invasion fleet of airships.
The Automatic Motorist (1911)
Robots and space travel take pride of place in a wonderful short film from Britain’s answer to Georges Méliès, Walter Booth. A robot chauffeur takes his car full of passengers on a journey to remember, driving up the sides of buildings, visiting the moon and Saturn (where they meet the spear-wielding inhabitants), before finally dropping back to Earth and into a volcano.
The Man without Desire (1923)
Before Buck Rogers and Adam Adamant there was Count Vittorio Dandolo, as played by matinee idol Ivor Novello, an 18-century Venetian nobleman who falls into a state of suspended animation following the death of his lover and does not awake for 200 years. While the new, modern world may throw enough challenges in our hero’s way, he then also discovers that he can no longer experience desire.
Plenty of Time for Play (1935)
A look at life in the future (London in 1955 to be precise) in this short promotional film made for the Electrical Development Association, which offers up videophones, large screen television sets (they’ll never catch on), autogyros to replace cars and technological marvels for your kitchen to make cooking easier. And there is even time for a song. But things are not as they appear.
The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936)
Mad scientists are staple figures in sci-fi films, and they don’t come any better or more deranged than Boris Karloff in this superb British answer to the Universal cycle of sci-fi/horror films of the 1930s, with the master of the macabre perfecting his diabolical invention for transferring minds between bodies (hence the punning title) – which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Time Flies (1944)
Sci-fi in a lighter vein, with popular comedian Tommy Handley and party being unwittingly transported back in time (using what is possibly cinema’s very first time machine) to live a life of fun and adventure in the 16th century, while brushing shoulders with the likes of Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh and even Queen Elizabeth herself. And as a bonus we also have Stéphane Grappelli with his violin.
A Short Vision (1956)
A stunning short animation film funded by the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund that reflects contemporary concerns over the escalating nuclear arms race with its horrifying depiction of atomic warfare and the death of all life on the planet. We are clearly not in Disney territory here, despite all the fluffy forest animals. Unfortunately this appears to have been the last film that Peter and Joan Foldes made together.
Unearthly Stranger (1963)
The aliens are already among us, as a scientist working on a space exploration programme soon finds out. Dr Davidson (John Neville) takes over the work of a recently deceased colleague on a space research project, but finds that his own life may be in danger from aliens who want man to remain firmly Earth-bound. Could his wife also be one of them? Acid for tears is a bit of a give away.
The Children’s Film Foundation made inroads into sci-fi cinema from the mid-1950s onwards, and here they served up a friendly telepathic alien from the planet Stoikal, who arrives on Earth to use his otherworldly powers to help a group of children prevent a motorway from bulldozing its way through their sleepy country village.
Memoirs of a Survivor (1981)
In a dystopian future where society has broken down and gangs of feral youths roam London’s streets, ‘D’ (Julie Christie) manages to find an escape route by traversing space and time and travelling through the walls of her dingy council flat into the alternative world of a Victorian family. An intriguing and thought-provoking adaptation of the Doris Lessing novel.