Silent Visions: Science Fiction Films in the Pre-Sound Era

Decades before the term ‘science fiction’ was popularized, ground-breaking filmmakers used increasingly sophisticated set-design and camera tricks to create voiceless visions of spaceships, futuristic weapons, alien beings, dinosaurs, robots and fabulous journeys to other worlds. Films we will examine include primitive, often comedic one-reelers from the early 1900s and epic adventures of the 1920s and 1930s. We’ll discuss these films in the context of their times and places as well as their position in the history of the art, especially regarding the development of special-effects, the cinematic magic that brings the unreal to a theatre near you.

A $50 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Schedule clarification: This is a four-week online course. It runs from Monday, October 11 to Friday, November 5. Each week, all week, you can study that week’s material, post and respond to discussion board topics, and engage in course activities. You will participate in Zoom Meetings sessions each Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

Learning objectives

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Give examples of the more common actors, directors and artists involved in producing the earliest science fiction films
  • Explain how early special effects were created and how this ability to ‘alter reality’ changed filmmaking
  • Discuss the themes and tropes common to early science fiction films and how these elements permeated genre films for the next hundred years
  • Explore how the technological, political, social and cultural upheavals in the first decades of the 20th century were reflected in these early fantasy films

Learning methods

Your online learning will include the following methods:

  • Reading academic and non-academic articles
  • Viewing movie shorts and clips
  • Participation in written discussions with other students
  • Participation in videoconference seminars

For Liberal Arts for 55+ Certificate students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: The early shorts: fanciful adventures and the beginning of special effects

Welcome to the world of magic sausage makers, playful X-rays, invisible men, fast-ageing babies and oversized bed bugs. These comedic shorts introduced tropes and techniques that became central to the genre, and a glimpse of future epics could be seen in Georges Méliès’ 18-minute extravaganza A Trip to the Moon (1902), considered by many to be the first true science fiction film.

Week 2: Britain and Europe: Dreams of war, dreams of peace

British filmmakers showed cars lapping Saturn’s rings, possible defenses against airship bombers of the future, emissaries from Mars, and a future world (1940!) in which pacifists struggle to avert global war. Meanwhile, in Denmark filmmakers found peace in an idyllic Martian civilization, in Italy giant robots battled and in France, Paris slept under the effects of a ‘Crazy Ray’.

Week 3: America: The dawn of the epic adventure movie

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), the first big budget, special-effects-driven epic, showcased state-of-the-art underwater cinematography. Other adaptations included Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World, the latter featuring dinosaurs brought to life by special effects master Willis O’Brien who, in 1933, would create one of the most famous beasts in film history.

Week 4: Germany and the Soviet Union: realism, dark visions and exporting revolution

German expressionist auteur Fritz Lang released Frau im Mond, the first ‘realistic’ treatment of space travel, and his dystopian classic Metropolis, while Henrik Galeen made several versions of Alraune, a dark, erotic fantasy.  In the USSR, the October Revolution arrived on the red planet in Aelita: Queen of Mars and ‘CCCP’ decorated the surface of the Moon in Cosmic Journey.

Books, materials and resources

You will access course resources using SFU’s online course management system, Canvas.

Technical requirements

This course is delivered using SFU's online learning system, Canvas. You can check if your browser is compatible with Canvas here.  

To get the most out of this online course, you should be comfortable doing the following:

  • Using everyday software such as browsers, email and social media
  • Navigating a website by clicking on links and finding pages in a menu
  • Downloading and opening PDF documents
  • Posting, replying and uploading images to a discussion board
  • Participating in videoconferencing sessions

You will be participating in videoconferencing using Zoom Meetings. For this, your computer needs to have a camera, microphone and speakers or headphones. Your computer software should be up to date with the latest available operating system and browser versions.

Accessing your course

  • A few days before the course starts, we will email you more information about the course and how you'll access it. You will also receive an email inviting you to access the Canvas learning platform (click on the link in the invitation to join the course). Once you’ve accessed Canvas, you can begin exploring the platform on your own. The full course will be accessible on its start date.
  • We’ll also host a virtual drop-in time on Zoom Meetings a few days before the course starts. This will give you a chance to check that you can access Zoom Meetings, and that your computer’s camera and microphone and speakers are working properly.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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