At the dawn of the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a deathly battle for dominance through atomic and nuclear superiority. This battle would come to a head in 1962, over a tense and frightening thirteen days in October when both countries came to an impasse after the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union was building a missile base in Cuba. Cuba’s close proximity to the United States meant that both Cuba and the Soviet Union could have the capability to fire nuclear weapons into the U.S. President John F. Kennedy was able to thwart the Soviet’s intentions in an anxiety-ridden confrontation when the U.S. blockaded Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba. In the end, the Soviets agreed to suspend their efforts to build a missile base in Cuba in return for the U.S. to finally remove missiles from nearby Turkey, a previous agreement made during the Eisenhower administration that was never implemented.
Though Hollywood continued to dramatize these Cold War tensions in films such as the Nevil Chute-based novel On the Beach (1959), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Failsafe (1964), few of them were sci-fi related. In fact, there was a steep decline in sci-fi pictures released by Hollywood during the 1960s, a strange development considering that the 1950s was considered the height of sci-fi releases. Many sci-fi films of the 1950s were campy, B-movie teen fare, so this might have brought down the reputation of the genre for mainstream Hollywood production studios. Nevertheless, there were a few sci-fi films released during this decade, some of which became classic films in their own right.
During the early sixties, Hollywood released literary-inspired screen adaptations of the works of H.G. Wells and, surprisingly, Daniel Defoe. The Time Machine (1960), based on Wells’ classic novel, saw a big screen production starring Rod Taylor, who would later star in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller The Birds (1963). The story followed Wells’ work rather faithfully about a man who builds a time machine and travels to the past and the future. First Men In the Moon (1964), another film treatment of Wells’ work, was about a group of astronauts who think they are the first to land on the moon, only to discover that the British got there first during the Victorian era. In the same year, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was reworked with a sci-fi theme. Robison Crusoe on Mars (1964) is a fairly forgotten 1960s sci-fi film which takes Defoe’s story of a man who is shipwrecked on an island, but changes the setting to Mars. Starring Paul Mantee, Robinson Crusoe on Mars follows Defoe’s themes, including a Martian Friday as Crusoe’s nonspeaking companion on the lonely and strange planet. Billed as a “science-fact story,” the movie was wholly improbable, but did feature space exploration with some scientific fact.
Fantastic Voyage (1966), starring a young Raquel Welch, took another route in sci-fi adventure. When a scientist who has created a mechanize to shrink humans develops a blood clot, fellow scientists are shrunken, then injected into his blood stream to save his life. Similar to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage featured the obstacles and adventures the scientists encounter in their quest against time.
Many of these early 1960s sci-fi movies did have much more in common with their big-screen 1950s counterparts. But a new film movement in Europe would soon influence sci-fi films of the 1960s. The French New Wave, which included such directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, was based around the auteur theory, which held that film at its truest was the director’s artistic vision. Based mainly out of France, the movement, which began with film lovers and critics who wrote for the French publication Cahiers du Cinema, inspired American filmmakers, many of whom were the first generation of film school graduates (Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, among others). Their influential films (Truffaut’s The 400 Blows; Godard’s Breathless) would also get the attention of Hollywood. Some of these directors would go on to direct American and/or British releases, such as Truffaut’s screen version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Starring German actor Oskar Werner and British actress Julie Christie (who has two starring roles), Fahrenheit 452 is a straight-forward telling of the Bradbury classic, but does feature some interesting choices by Truffaut, including in the casting and the film’s credits, which dispenses with a traditional credit role, but announces cast and crew credits through a voice over, an astute choice considering the film is about a society that burns books.
Other European directors also influenced the look and substance of sci-fi films. French director, Roger Vadim, whose early film And God Created Woman helped launch the career of Brigitte Bardot, contributed to the sci-fi, comic book category when his film Barbarella (1968), based on the comic strip character, hit the big screen. Starring Jane Fonda, who, like Bardot, would go on to become Vadim’s wife, Barbarella is a camp classic, with plenty of sex thrown in for good measure. The movie reflected the changing mores of the late 1960s America as the sexual revolution spread throughout the country. Along with these changing mores was the loosening of the screen code, which governed much of the post-1933 films, allowing filmmakers greater freedom to explore taboo subjects, such as sex and gratuitous violence, on the silver screen. Barbarella was one of the first sci-fi films to kick that door of screen permissiveness wide open.
But the sci-fi film that would go on to represent the Age of Aquarius, with its emphasis on spiritual awakening (usually through the help of psychedelic drugs) was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 took space exploration into an entirely different direction. Though the story is mainly about a space crew which is knocked off one by one by a rebellious computer called HAL 2000, its main appeal, particularly with baby boomers of the period, was its exploration into spirituality and the meaning of life. The film begins with our early ancestors, after discovering the will of aggression, puzzling over a large, black monolith that appears suddenly on the landscape. The film then jumps to outer space as man has evolved into beings who have conquered the farthest reaches of the universe. Technology is a large part of that evolutionary development, but, as HAL 2000 proves, even technology is subject to human flaws—in this case jealousy and envy. The film ends with a strange exploration of another sort as lead character Dave travels through his own subconsciousness. The sequence is daring and groundbreaking in its use of special effects. Dave ages to an old man. Alone in an eerie house with the black monolith watching over him, he dies, then is reborn as a space baby. A strange ending, but so representative of the issues and questions Americans were asking of themselves at the end of the 1960s.
A year later, Americans would vicariously experience a real-life space exploration when Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 16, 1969. No longer was space exploration simply a fantasy cooked up in Hollywood’s dream factory, but a fact of life, and one that Americans would take for granted as the years went on. Science fiction has now become science-fact.