aesthetics Entertainment Science Fiction

Sci-Fi Inspired By WW1: Future Best Shown Through The Past

As science fiction grew beyond comic book and serial adventures in the 40s and 50s, it took 2 basic directions.

-In one school we see pristine white interiors, skin tight jumpsuits, uptight space academy scholasticism, no need for money, and neutral female voices waiting to answer every query.


-In another school we see worlds that are gritty and lived in, with throwbacks to empire, swords, and knighthood.


Guess which school has had the more enduring grasp on the human imagination?
Guess which has better predicted the trajectory of human societies decades into the future?

As it turns out, the latter has aged much better across the decades and resonated with the sensibilities of new generations.  The squeaky clean sci fi of perfection in contrast seems a faded dream by comparison.  Ironically, it’s the disco age amorphous eggshell swivel chairs with ugly rust orange cushions that no longer look otherworldly to us, but like relics.


Unsurprisingly it’s the sci fi that borrowed from the past to describe the emotional feel of the future that has both outlasted and out-predicted the other.

The utopian school of sci fi thought we’d have pristine Moon and Mars colonies and solved the problem of poverty by now.
The dirty and gritty sci-fi successfully predicted the social upheaval and dark age we actually live in.

One vision saw humans progressing to be something “higher” and therefore different than they were before.
The other simply projected that no matter what technologies you make, people keep on being people with Empires, wars, and famines like there have been for the last thousands of years.

I will also explore a deeper reason why the gritty, humans-will-keep-being-humans sci-fi/space opera settings win.
They communicate the feel of the future viscerally by heavily borrowing from the past.
They take motifs from a time period where advances changed everyone’s lives forever to give us that feeling of a strange new reality.  Unsurprisingly, I notice WW1 is perhaps the dominant influence.  It was the period that more than any other severed all ties to the thousands of years that came before, that saw the destruction of all the world’s implacable empires in a few years, that saw the apocalyptic slaughter with inhuman new weapons plowing mechanically through countless thousands of lives.
There is also a lot of borrowing from WW2, Korean War, and Vietnam, but WW1 has the advantage of being just distant enough in the collective memory while retaining certain terrible visceral meanings in the collective subconscious.
Some of the most dissonant and disturbing images of WW1 are those of men on horseback or with machine guns wearing gas masks that render us unable to see their humanity underneath.

ww1 horse, cavalry, gas mask, lance

It perfectly shows us the modern world we take for granted was being born right then and there, a juxtaposition between the familiar and the foreign country of the past.

One of the Best Examples Is Star Wars:







Imperial walker vs. a WW1 tank




Imperial Snowtroopers vs. WW1 machine gunners

Also, with Star Wars, one of the reasons it resonates is its very retro sound design.  It sounds like a failing piston engine when the hyper drive doesn’t work(same sound for airplane engine running out of fuel in Temple of Doom).  A lot of the ships fly through space with a grindy noise, like they’ve got V8 engines or they knock about like they have old diesel engines, not hard to believe from the maker of American Graffiti.
The WW1 tanks that inspire the walkers even make an appearance in Last Crusade.  With lightsabers you can just hear that circuit click into place before the blade hisses out.  The high pitched metallic groans of the carbonite freezer sounds like some sort of real life hydraulic compressor or compactor.
One of the most memorable sounds for me has always been the sinister rushing/zooming/fan noise of the tie fighters.  In THX 1138, one of Lucas’ first films, the robot enforcers drove high tech motorcycles that sounded similar.  In the clean and pristine worlds of sci fi the sound design tends to be smooth and soothing or else made to sound strange and unfamiliar.  It’s the very familiarity of the visual and aural universe of star wars that gives us an immediate connection.
What caps it off of course is setting the mood from the beginning with the words “long ago.”  Lucas deliberately studied the structure of Western mythology and this background served him well.

Next I will talk about Dune 1983.  The film didn’t live up to its potential as a story but many of the design elements show they knew what they were trying for.  The monolithic design of the palaces echoed Ancient Mespotamia, Ancient Egypt, Byzantine/Ottoman architecture brilliantly conveying the feel of an interplanetary civilization that’s been stagnant for thousands of years.
The military uniforms, I will point out, were almost straight out of WW1.











House Atreides Officer vs. Imperial German Officer

We can also compare with some other officers and enlisted…



And while we’re on the subject of uniforms it’s impossible to pass up another Star Wars Example










Galactic Empire officers seem like they’re made from a variety of WW1 influences.

And after all these,  I hardly even need mention Starcraft or Warhammer 40k which for Terrans and Imperial Guard are basically WW2 in space.
Or for that matter, the Colonial Marines from Aliens who came straight out of Vietnam.  Yet James Cameron did do something unique with the design of the marines’ pulse rifles.  Some of the best weapon sound design ever, a gritty sound, almost like a growling motor filtered through some kind of sound distorter so it sounded electrical and futuristic at the same time.  It perfectly bridged the gap between old and new to create the atmosphere.  As if that weren’t good enough, they made the pulse rifles out of tommy guns so there was badass muzzle flare spraying everywhere as they sprayed down rooms with bullets.

I will close with one last example.









In Warhammer 40k, the Space Orks have an aircraft that’s pretty much a Korean war era MiG jet fighter with a machine gun turret taken from a ww2 bomber.  A completely impractical idea but somehow, it’s still cooler than handheld phasers resembling electric razors that can vaporize boulders in a few seconds.

See Also: Gustav Holst: Inventor of Modern Sci-Fi Music,Why Star Wars OT Appeals More To Men: Aesthetics

By Giovanni Dannato

In 1547 I was burnt at the stake in Rome for my pernicious pamphlet proclaiming that the heavens were not filled with a profusion of aether, but rather an extensive vacuum.
Now, the phlogiston that composed my being has re-manifested centuries in the future so that I may continue the task that was inconveniently disrupted so long ago.
Now, I live in Rome on the very street where I (and others) were publicly burnt. To this day, the street is known as what I would translate as 'Heretic's Way'. My charming residence is number 6 on this old road. Please, do come inside and pay me a visit; I should be delighted to spew out endless pedagoguery to one and all...

14 replies on “Sci-Fi Inspired By WW1: Future Best Shown Through The Past”

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (’27) envisioned a clean art deco future on the whole. The robot was also rather functional looking but there were a few odd details here and there, especially the mad scientist in his lab. Frankenstein would be the ultimate precursor, I guess, but form tended to follow function.

To my mind Aliens (’79) was the first un-utilitarian movie of the future. The entire film was set inside a large machine encrusted with debris and arcane details. These useless ornaments were embedded in small clautrophobic passages whose sole purpose was, apparently, to hide the monster. The crew weren’t stellar characters either. The men were outliers and sub types. They were slobs really. One turned out to be a robot. The female lead unfortuately foreshadowed a more unbelievable heroic type, the macho woman.

The original Mad Max came out in ’79 also. The bad guys were all gang bikers. Leather straps, ornate gnarly engines, outliers too but tough ones. The hero was more or less middle class and functional but drove a somewhat gnarly car. That said, the car served a purpose. I can’t remember all the details but surely there were crash scenes with a lot of twisted metal, like Richard Chamberlain sculptures.

Metropolis was only nice and clean on the surface. Just beneath the paradise enjoyed by the rulers were millions of workers forced to live by the rhythm of machines.

You’re thinking of Alien, the first one in the series directed by Ridley Scott, a huge classic in its own right. Aliens was the second movie directed by James Cameron(Titanic, Avatar, Terminator 1 and 2).
Alien was one of the first successful sci-fi films where the heroes are space truckers just trying to make a living. I guess Star Wars also came out around the same time. Late 70s seems to mark the point where the gritty school established itself in cinema.
Before that, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the one sci fi Hollywood film that had met with great success. And 2001 of course had a very spare utilitarian, inhuman aesthetic and a minimum of spoken lines.

Yeah, women heroes have been abused to death in the worst way. I still find Ripley(from Alien series) a likeable character because she still comes across as a female with nurturing impulses and isn’t depicted effortlessly beating up grown men or superhuman mutants. She mostly lets her superiors and trained soldiers do their thing and only gets involved herself when all else fails. She thinks quick on her feet to get out of bad situations but doesn’t do backflips while wearing form fitting outfits while duel wielding pistols with impossible accuracy. She’s assertive, but somehow doesn’t come across as abrasive or bitchy like most modern heroines.

Yes, Alien. You’re right about Ripley. She wasn’t totally unbelievable, at least in the first one. I think I saw Weaver in a later one where she’s inside a robot contraption trying to beat up another monster. It’s like making blacks techies or authority figures. Or blacks as historical white men who were leading men of their time. My mind automatically moves to disbelief because it knows somebody is trying to bullshit me. But, I could see that in a future world where reality is so bombarded with images and gestures from powerful people who can hurt you that one could believe almost anything.

That scene is from Aliens, the second one. I liked it just fine because she has to use a heavy duty vehicle to pose any threat to the monster and the plot justifies why she’d know how to use one (lost her space trucker license after the first movie, got a job using loaders). Nowadays you always have a scantily clad female hero able to take on monsters twice her size with her bare hands. Aliens final battle also worked for me thematically because it was a conflict between female characters, Ripley protecting a little girl she’s bonded to after losing her own daughter and the Queen Alien (a woman scorned) trying to avenge its lost brood.
The trouble with modern action chicks is there’s nothing female about their personality(to the extent they have one) or their character motivations.

My problem with the action women characters is that I’ve never seen a woman do anything remotely similar.

Fair enough. In most cases, I agree. Characters need to have believable behavior and motivations. To be fair, the life of a child, one the female identifies with as her child, while having no one else to live for(in stasis for decades), might be one of the few circumstances that could plausibly bring out that kind of behavior.

I saw a video on YouTube once of a black woman beating the daylights out of a black man at a gas station in the USA. After about a minute (which is a long time in a fight) all her clothes were ripped off. She did not look like Signourey Weaver. It was actually kind of comical.

When you talk about “…gritty, humans-will-keep-being-humans sci-fi/space opera settings…” there’s probably nothing better than William Gibsons first sci-fi novels. Major super high tech intertwined with street people living in cardboard boxes who hack corporate databases. Yes I know it’s not a movie and the movie made from the books was a total loser.The director and script writers never understood the books.

Not read Neuromancer or other books, but sounds like it was an inspiration for lots of other culture, games like Deus Ex. Read Snowcrash, similar school of literature I think, but other than some neat ideas not a good story.

Snowcrash is not even remotely in the same league as Gibsons work. If you like sci-fi you can’t miss Gibson. So as to understand my taste. I like Niven and Pournelle’s stuff a lot(really like the War World and There Will be War series, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, hard sci-fi.
Recommended Gibson:
Burning Chrome (short story collection)
Count Zero
Mona Lisa Overdrive
Virtual Light (1993)
Idoru (1996)
All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)
I don’t recommend his other stuff. The best is the sprawl and bridge series. Helps to read them in the order they’re listed but it’s not necessary.

In an absolutely extreme case of serendipity after reading your article I watched Jodorowskys Dune 2013 which I had been downloading before you posted this. Wow. It’s exactly what you’re talking about. This guy made this huge storyboard of a film with all the shots and Hollywood turned him down. Pink Floyd one of the music artist. Savidor Dali as the mad Emperor. He had Mike Jagger for the Harkonnen’s son. Orson Wells for the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The effects director was the eventual effects director of Alien. His sets design was also the same person that did alien. If you look at his story boards it’s obvious that Hollywood has been stealing every idea this guy had for the last 30 years. You really should watch this. If you don’t like sci-fi or history of how things unfold it would probably bore you but if you do it’s fascinating. Probably the best movie never made. I got it from I2PSnark from the I2P network which is a anonymous BitTorrent.

Haha Salvador Dali, would have brought intensity to the role for sure it would be worth watching just for that but not quite sure he was right for that role.
No Mick Jagger, but they did have Sting who gleefully chewed the scenery.
Orson Wells, I could see. Didn’t they consider him for Darth Vader’s voice? Based on Citizen Kane, I feel like he could have brought some more gravity to the role. Both Barons I’ve seen in film, though they did good work, seemed to convey the fat, flamboyant, capriciousness more than they did the threat and ruthless calculation of his presence.
As far as design from alien are you talking about the famous H.R. Geiger with his art that conveyed disturbing weirdness through sexual horror in alien forms?
Should not go without a mention of Brad Dourif as the mentat, Piter.

Moar Brad Dourif

Yes Geiger. Also Moebius who did a lot of stuff for “Heavy Metal” mag. These guys that Jodorowsky lined up were to top shelf. I wish he had made it. It might have sucked too but we’ll never know. The Dune made was not his. It sucked. David Lynch did it. In all fairness to Lynch Dune is such a huge multifaceted novel anyone making it would have a hard time.

I got Dune at some paperback trade store and read the whole damn thing in two days almost at one sitting. I immediately found the next two and read them through the same way. Tremendous stuff. Lead me to reading all of Frank Herbert. Herbert has a lot of interesting social ideas in his books.

It just occured to me that steam-punk is most likely the same as your Dune style. I trace it to Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, but Machine Age.

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