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TCM Spotlight: Out of this World
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Out of this World - Tuesdays in July


Science fiction has been a staple of the movies since the earliest days of cinema and has continued to be a major attraction and box office success with such franchises as the Star Wars, Star Trek and Planet of the Apes films. From the 1930s to the '50s, sci-fi movies were mostly low-budget affairs that were often entertaining but not always taken seriously.

One of the foremost respected science fiction films is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, featured stunning effects and lofty ideas that took science fiction in a new direction. Subsequent films have stretched the boundaries of technology while exploring themes related to social, political and philosophical issues - and even the human condition itself. Others, of course, rely strictly on entertainment value.

This month, TCM celebrates the fantastic world of science fiction by revisiting classics from the genre through Out of This World, a month-long programming event that traces the history of the genre. This Spotlight is divided into categories as shown below.

Early Sci-Fi begins with the hugely influential A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902), a French adventure film directed by Georges Méliès, whose inspirations included the Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon. Méliès himself heads the cast as a professor who is part of a group of astronomers who travel to the Moon and return to Earth with a captive lunar inhabitant. Known for its revolutionary, in-camera special effects and fantastical story, it became a highly popular and successful film that remains a staple in the conversation on film history.

Another pioneering silent classic, the German-made Metropolis (1927), was directed by Fritz Lang and is set in a city of the future, where the son of the city's powerful mastermind falls in love with a prophet of the working class. In Film Quarterly, critic Lane Roth described the film as "seminal" because of its reflections of the "profound impact technological progress has on man's social and spiritual progress."

Another silent directed by Lang, Woman in the Moon (1929), is shown in its TCM premiere. This one, based on a novel by Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, presented the basics of rocket travel to movie audiences for the first time. Also screening are Things to Come (1936), a British film that projects the ideas of a second World War and space travel; and the more lightweight Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), an American film starring Buster Crabbe and based on the popular comic strips of 1930s.

The 1950s were a fertile time for science-fiction movies, and we have selected some of the more imposing productions of a decade that saw its share of inexpensive entertainments. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise in documentary-like fashion, tells of a humanoid alien who visits Earth to deliver a solemn warning. Noted science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke rated this one No. 7 among the best sci-fi films of all time.

Other outstanding fantasy adventures of the 1950s include the George Pal production The War of the Worlds (1953), based on H.G. Wells novel of the same name that inspired the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast; and Forbidden Planet (1956), an imaginative retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest set in outer space and directed by Fred M. Wilcox. The Howard Hawks production The Thing from Another World (1951) tells of a frozen alien who comes to terrifying life at an arctic outpost, while Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) concerns an extraterrestrial invasion that turns innocent humans into "pod people."

It Came from Outer Space (1953), originally released in 3D, is about an alien invasion that some saw as a metaphor for the Soviet threat at the time. Another tale of invading alien spaceships, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), features impressive stop-motion animation effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The category Moon Movies is inspired by the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on Saturday, July 20. Films range from a rerun of A Trip to the Moon to For All Mankind (1989), a documentary using original footage of NASA's successful landing of humans on the moon from 1969 to 1972.

Destination Moon (1950), a George Pal production made when a landing on the moon was still science fiction, considers the dangers of space travel and possible difficulties in making such a landing and returning safely to Earth. Three other films that imagine moon travel are based on somewhat prophetic novels: From the Earth to the Moon (1958), from a Jules Verne story; First Men on the Moon (1964), adapted from the book by H.G. Wells; and Countdown (1967), directed by Robert Altman and based on 1964's The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls.

The 1960s, in addition to the masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, delivered such imaginative productions as George Pal's The Time Machine (1960), another adaptation of an H.G. Wells story - this one about an inventor in Victorian England who creates a machine that allows travel into the future. Five Million Years to Earth (1967) is a tale of horror from England's Hammer Films that concerns the discovery of an ancient alien spacecraft, indicating that Martians played a role in the evolution of humankind. Marooned (1969) stars Gregory Peck as a NASA Administrator trying to save astronauts who are stranded in space; the film won an Oscar for its special effects.

Also screening are Village of the Damned (1960), an unnerving British horror film focusing on an English village whose women mysteriously give birth to a brood of very creepy children; and 12 to the Moon (1960), a modestly budgeted independent production in which an international crew travel to the moon, only to find an alien presence that wants to destroy the human race.

Films from The 1970s and '80s include the TCM premiere of George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), the first of the Star Wars films despite its full title. This installment focuses on the attempt by the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Death Star, the Galactic Empire's space station. For some five years it held the title of highest-grossing film of all time.

Other classics from these decades include Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Steven Spielberg's awe-inspiring account of an Indiana man (Richard Dreyfuss) who encounters a UFO; and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the second feature in the Star Trek movie franchise inspired by the TV series, with Ricardo Montalban as Khan, the superhuman who clashes with Captain Kirk (William Shatner).

Solaris (1972) is a Soviet film adapted from the Stanislaw Lem novel about three scientists who develop emotional problems as they travel toward the mysterious (fictional) planet of the title. The novel was also the basis for a Soviet TV series in 1968 and an American movie starring George Clooney in 2002.

Logan's Run (1976), also based on a novel, concerns a supposedly utopian society of the 23rd century which exterminates everyone who reaches the age of 30. Michael York and Farrah Fawcett are in the cast. Westworld (1973), which inspired the 1976 sequel Futureworld and the ongoing HBO series Westworld, is set in a futuristic Western-themed amusement park "hosted" by androids.

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), Peter Hyams' sequel to Kubrick's 2001, is also based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and concerns an American-Soviet expedition to Jupiter to find out what went amiss with the original spaceship.

by Roger Fristoe
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