Classic 1940s Sci-Fi Movies
If you haven't seen any of the most iconic 1940s sci-fi films, you don’t know sci-fi.
When people think of sci-fi movies, they rarely think of the best 1940s sci-fi movies. They usually think of franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, the Stargate TV series, and the many original flicks on SyFy Channel. There’s a huge selection of science fiction movies to choose from and the genre has become mainstream thanks to shows like The Big Bang Theory. Sometimes, though, the most diehard sci-fi aficionados crave the classics from the silver screen era. These are some of the best 1940s sci-fi movies:
The Invisible Man Returns
More than one of the best 1940s sci-fi films was made by Universal. The studio had already made groundbreaking horror films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. The first Invisible Man film, based on H.G. Wells’ novel, was a major box office success in 1933. The Invisible Man Returnswas released early in 1940, with legendary horror actor Vincent Price delivering a commendable performance as the invisible hitman bent on revenge. Like many of Universal’s early horror movies, this silver screen sci-fi movie revolves around scientific and medical experiments going terribly wrong—a motif that 1950s B movies would thrive on.
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
Another one of the bet sci-fi movies of the 1940s, courtesy of Universal Pictures, is Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Not wanting to be boxed into a category for making horror movies, Universal adapted the famous sci-fi comic book hero and began making a Flash Gordon trilogy in 1936. Spring 1940’s Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is the last installment of the trilogy. In the tradition of many films in the era of the Great Depression, this film was actually a twelve part serial that aired weekly in theaters, along with short animated cartoons. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe features the ex-football star’s final battle against the intergalactic warlord Ming. The film was recut into two feature-length movie installments in the 1960s, and public broadcasting replayed the Flash Gordon trilogy in 1975. This helped reignite a buzz for sci-fi movies that fueled the demand for cutting edge upcoming films like Star Wars.
One of the best 1940s sci-fi movies comes from east of the Iron Curtain. The Czechoslovakian film Krakatitpremiered in 1948 and, despite the early Cold War politics, was released in the United States three years later. The movie can be quite confusing at times, since it’s about a scientist who’s losing his mind. Krakatit is revealed to be a special explosive the scientist continued, which has been used extensively for war.
Complete with a dystopian world, Krakatit comes with princesses, laboratories, ambassadors, and political intrigues left and right. Interestingly enough, it’s also based on a novel by the same man who invented the word ‘robot.’ One of the reasons why this film is noteworthy is its demonstration to the cutting edge sci-fi film genre that it’s possible to make a science fiction film that doesn’t involve giant monsters or crossing the bridge into horror/suspense. It’s also refreshing to see an artistic call for world peace in the age of the nuclear arms race.
One Million B.C.
One Million B.C. (not to be mistaken for the comedy flick with Jack Black) is technically a fantasy film, but it was so radically different from any other film that had been made, it deserves a mention. Besides, a movie about prehistoric cavemen released in an era when the majority of Americans believed the world is literally 6,000 years old, this movie is as sci-fi as it gets. It begins with a group of hikers finding a cave for shelter during a rainstorm. They find a series of prehistoric cave paintings and the anthropologist/narrator interprets them aloud. One Million B.C. shows cavemen fighting for alpha male rights, being chased by mammoths, fighting reptilian creatures and escaping volcano eruptions. Surprisingly enough, an entire stock footage library was made with the unused footage from this movie. The result was that scenes shot for One Million B.C. were later used in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, the 1948 Superman serial, Godzilla Raids Again, and Space Ship Sappy featuring the Three Stooges. This movie also set the standard for later innovations like the Godzilla and Jurassic Park franchises.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Few people would rightly imagine a science fiction movie taking place in the late 1800s, but this is the case with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), based on the short novel by the acclaimed Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame. However, science fiction has been defined as fictional narratives that depict how ordinary people might react to sudden changes in technology, or sudden paradigm shifts in a time of evolving technology. Keep in mind, when the tale was originally written, humans had barely figured out electricity and H.G. Wells hadn’t yet introduced the genocidal UFOs in The War of the Worlds. For the late 1800s, this story about a chemist accidentally creating an evil alter ego that murders people was as cutting edge as sci-fi would get. Veteran actor Spencer Tracy was a strong Harry Jekyll but the real jewel of the film is Ingrid Bergman, the lovely leading lady immortalized in Casablanca, which she would star in the following year.
The Invisible Woman
Following up on the success of The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns, Universal wasted no time in continuing the franchise and retaining the audience that was growing around the pool of sci-fi movies based on H.G. Wells’ work. This spinoff-sequel was released in late 1940, only a few months after the second installment which starred Vincent Price. Think of The Invisible Woman as the Rogue One of H.G. Wells movies. In this installment, the beautiful Virginia Bruce plays an attractive model with sinister plans who volunteers for a medical experiment. Whereas the last two films in the franchise bordered on horror and suspense, this one is more of a comedy thriller. Still, Virginia Bruce delivers a great performance and it’s a nice tease to see her push the limits of on-screen sexiness in the conservative pre-World War II age.
Shortly before the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and temporarily tanked the quality of Soviet cinema, the Russian-language film Mysterious Islanddebuted in Moscow in 1941. For a Stalinist-era film, the political elements of the film are pretty played down. With a narrative form and plot structure innovative for science fiction movies in the 1940s, this well-made film is another alternate reality time warp. In the American Civil War, several Union Army prisoners of war escape from Richmond by hijacking a hot air balloon. The balloon crash lands on a mysterious volcanic island somewhere in a setting resembling the South Pacific. One of them is an engineer who pioneers technology that helps the stranded men survive. They end up facing off against a band of pirates with advanced technology. There are no spoilers here, but there’s a huge reference to an H.G. Wells novel in the plot.
The whole ‘what if the Nazis won World War II’ genre is nothing new. One of the best sci-fi movies on the 1940s was Strange Holiday, which takes on exactly that scenario. Legendary actor Claude Rains plays an American fisherman who goes out on a work trip to get a good haul, and returns to the shore to discover he’s in an alternate reality where America is a fascist state. One interesting example of early product advertising in motion pictures is in the film’s funding, which was largely subsidized by General Motors. The film also features a number of sharp looking classic GM cars.
While it’s fair to admit that this is where the Invisible Man franchise starts to get absurd, it’s not fair to leave Invisible Agent off the list of the best 1940s sci-fi films. It’s actually a pretty good film and even IMDB with its stringent criteria gave the movie a 6.1 out of 10. The movie includes a great performance by Peter Lorre (the villain from The Maltese Falcon with dark circles under his huge creepy eyes). The best part of Invisible Agent, made in 1942, is its obvious wartime propaganda context. In the fourth installment of the Invisible Man franchise, the original Invisible Man’s grandson is an OSS agent using his grandfather’s chemical formula to infiltrate Nazi Germany. You can’t go wrong with that!
King of the Rocket Men
The 1949 Republic picture King of the Rocket Men joins the ranks of the best 1940s sci-fi movies. This is another 12-part serial film later recut into a single 65 minute feature (which was a travesty considering nearly two hours was lost). The premise involves an evil mastermind who plans on systematically assassinating key scientists across the world. Two of them go into hiding, and one designs a jetpack and suit which are used by the other to fight the mastermind’s evil forces. This flick involves all the old silver-screen sci-fi gold: jet packs, funky helmets, ray guns, and fight scenes across New York City. Best of all, this hero’s look inspired Disney’s underrated tribute film, The Rocketeer.
The best 1940s sci-fi movies aren’t only special because of their entertainment value. They also command the respect of sci-fi fans and serious moviegoers. These films set the standard for quality science fiction—a standard that would be built on and expanded by the next generation of sci-fi with classics like Star Trek (1966), Star Wars (1977), and Battlestar Galactica (1978). They preserve the historical progress of science and technology on Earth, while still pointing the frontiers of the future. It’s this simple: if you haven’t seen the best 1940s sci-fi films, you don’t know sci-fi.