Rogue One has hit theaters and fans have finally seen this year's addition to the long-lived franchise. It is just one of the many sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters to be released this year, but did you know that pre-Star Wars, sci-fi blockbusters of this scale were a rare thing? Before 1977, well-made genre films were great treasures to fans, as they didn’t know when the next one would make it to the theaters.
Of course, there were #scifi and fantasy movies, but they were often either made primarily for kids, or they were B-movies without the scale we're now accustomed to. There were some films that managed to expand the sci-fi genre in the '50s and '60s, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine, Fantastic Voyage and others, but more often than not, the genre was relegated to films like I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Fire Maidens from Outer Space, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Atom Age Vampire and similar titles.
The genre definitely started growing up and expanding its audience from the late '60s and into the '70s. Special effects technology had improved to the point that the ambitions of sci-fi and fantasy films could be realized on the big screen. By the time Star Wars became an international phenomenon in 1977, the box office had reached a major turning point: The blockbuster era had officially been ushered in. Here’s a look at that film and several other proto-blockbusters from before and shortly after this time, all of which helped change the course of cinematic history.
13. The James Bond Films Of The '60s And Early '70s
While ostensibly spy movies, these had plenty of sci-fi elements that became increasingly prominent as the budgets of the films were increased. The James Bond movies also helped establish the feature film franchise, and they remain popular even today.
12. '2001: A Space Odyssey' (April 2, 1968)
This film was not a hit when it was first released, but it is important for its ambitious scope and for the serious treatment it gives to its science fiction themes. Plus, it was a special effects triumph with visuals that still hold up today. With its multiple releases over the years following its debut, it would ultimately become a profitable venture and an important step forward in the maturation of the genre.
11. The 'Planet Of The Apes' Films (1968–1973)
The first film in this series is still considered a science fiction classic and its makeup effects were first-rate for its time (and even today). It also established an early template for the sci-fi blockbuster franchise, as it would spawn multiple sequels as well as two TV series, books, comics and more into the 1970s and beyond.
Despite Star Wars playing a huge part in the popularity of the blockbuster era, it actually began two years before its release. June 1975 is considered the start of the modern blockbuster era, as one particular giant fish infamously bared his teeth to movie audiences.
10. 'Jaws' (June 20, 1975)
This movie laid the groundwork for the blockbusters that would follow, not just because it was a box office success, but because of the way it was released to theaters. Typically, a movie would start with a release in a few theaters, which would slowly increase throughout the nation to build up momentum through word-of-mouth promotion. However, #Jaws was given wide release (a whopping 464 screens vs. the 3,000–4,000 that are more typical today) and it also had a major national marketing push. That has become the standard today, but Jaws helped establish it as the way to launch a blockbuster film.
9. 'Logan’s Run' (June 23, 1976)
Often overlooked today as a somewhat dated curio from the '70s, this film was a big-dollar entry for its time and was targeted at more than just the kids-only crowd. It turned a decent profit in its theatrical run and spawned the mini-phenomena of Logan-mania among sci-fi fans that led to two sequels to the original novel, a television series, and a comic book series. This film was a big deal among the genre crowd, until one particular movie unseated its reign over sci-fi fandom a year later.
8. 'Star Wars' (May 25, 1977)
20th Century Fox actually did not have high hopes for this film and originally gave it only a limited release. However, when lines began to form around the block with people waiting to get in and see the film, it was quickly pushed out to many more theaters. It surpassed Jaws as the highest-grossing film of all time within six months of its release and a stunned Hollywood realized that there was big money to be made from sci-fi blockbusters.
7. 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind' (November 16, 1977)
This film was already in the works when Star Wars hit the theaters, so it managed to capitalize on the wave of popularity from that movie, but it also established itself in its own right and gave us the first holiday season sci-fi entry of the early blockbuster era.
Following 1977, the blockbuster era had a "second wave." Star Wars took the entertainment industry by surprise and CE3K reinforced that big-budget sci-fi could be a boom at the box office. Hollywood scrambled to get more genre-oriented blockbusters in the theaters and these are the ones the led that early charge.
6. 'Superman' (December 10, 1978)
This movie was important because it took both sci-fi and comics (both typically looked at as for kids only) and meshed them into a movie loved by the masses. It would take much longer before superheroes became the staple they are today at the box office, but this is the film that helped reverse the camp perception of comic book characters previously established by the Batman TV series and bring them into the mainstream.
5. 'Alien' (May 25, 1979)
This was the first sci-fi blockbuster to follow in the footsteps of Star Wars with a summer release, and not only did it prove that big-dollar sci-fi films were more than just a passing thing at the box office, it showed that they could succeed even with an R rating. Sadly, many that would follow this would target the PG or soon-to-come PG-13 designation, but #Alien helped the genre grow up into adult fare and proved a huge box office success.
4. 'Moonraker' (June 26, 1979)
As mentioned above, James Bond franchise had already introduced plenty of sci-fi into its films, but this essentially delivered Bond meets Star Wars with its own stand-in for the Death Star and a battle in space to boot. It can also be considered the beginning of the big, dumb blockbusters, with its penchant for one-liners over good dialogue and its preference for humor over solid storytelling. Moonraker definitely proved popular with audiences in Summer of '79 (as this type of film would for years to come).
3. 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' (December 7, 1979)
While not considered one of the stronger entries in the Trek movie franchise (I would say it deserves a recount), this film was a big deal when it debuted because it revived the much-beloved TV series (then considered more of a cult show of the reviled geek crowd) and performed quite well at the box office. It counts as the second holiday success of the early blockbuster era and helped establish yet another sci-fi franchise for the big screen.
2. 'The Empire Strikes Back' (May 21, 1980)
Alien and Star Trek had proved that sci-fi could thrive at the box office beyond Star Wars, and this proved that George Lucas’s first space opera film was not just a fluke. In fact, many consider this the superior of the two, and it helped solidify that this franchise as well as other sci-fi blockbusters were here to stay.
1. 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' (June 12, 1981)
When word broke that the gods of the early blockbuster era George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would team up (and bring along the world's favorite Star Wars actor), a collective geekgasm resonated throughout the sci-fi community. Against all odds, this movie turned out to not just be good, but one of the all-time classics of the genre. Consider it a last burst of genuine creativity from two men who had helped change the face of the box office and who'd brought fantastic tales to the big screen like few others had accomplished up to that time. The more cynical side of the blockbuster era would start to set in not long thereafter (epitomized by marketing friendly Return of the Jedi and amped-up sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but the magic of this exciting point in Hollywood history was still evident in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Which sci-fi/fantasy movies do you believe had a big impact on the genre's future? Let me know in the comments below.