science fiction movies are often set in the future, either many years or just a very short period of time. It’s also quite common to see sci-fi set in some sort of alternate present that mirrors the world at the time the film was made, to better comment on topical themes or issues. For these “current” sci-fi movies, there might just be a few little sci-fi related concepts that differentiate the film world from ours.
The less common approach, therefore, when it comes to setting science fiction in a certain period of time is to look to the past. However, as the following 11 films demonstrate – particularly the recent entry into the Predatorseries, Prey – Staging sci-fi stories from a bygone era can still work very well and create an interesting contrast. To keep things more interesting, each movie should be pushed back several decades from the year it was released (not just a few years). Additionally, there will only be one referenced time travel series; relying too much on time travel movies while discussing “period sci-fi” would probably be cheating (and boring).
‘Prey’ (2022) – set in 1719
Prey feels remarkably fresh in its approach to Predator franchise. Before The prey release, the series was a beloved but somewhat stereotypical collection of sci-fi/action movies that always featured a group of people going up against a singular alien lifeform with superior technology, which would hunt the hapless group for the sport. In all the movies, trickery and a focus on the brain rather than the muscles tend to be necessary, if humans are to make it to the end alive.
Prey still largely sticks to that well-worn premise, but setting 300 years ago and focusing on a young Comanche woman’s encounter with the titular enemy (there are also French fur traders who ultimately turn out to be cannon fodder for the Predator), it brings the series to life. With the human characters having even less technology to rely on to fight the Predator than characters from other films, the stakes are raised and the action scenes suddenly feel very different…and even more intense.
‘The Iron Giant’ (1999) – filmed in 1957
Setting itself just over 40 years before its release, The Iron Giant deftly evokes 1950s imagery and nostalgia. However, it is best remembered for being a surprisingly moving and very well done film about a young boy befriending a giant metal robot, and being the one of those family films that can be enjoyed by adults and children in equal measure.
The story itself feels quite timeless, and almost as if it could take place at almost any point in recent history. But beyond the simple and charming plot, the film’s retro look and ’50s setting help set it apart visually from other animated films of its era. This is particularly remarkable when you consider how Pixar was beginning its rise to fame in the latter half of the 1990s, simultaneously increasing the popularity of more modern CGI animation.
‘Frankenstein’ (1931) & ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) – set in the 1800s (probably)
It is difficult to determine exactly when Frankenstein the films are fixed, of course. The first film is based on the original novel, which is said to be set in the 1700s, but then Bride of Frankenstein arrives and implies that the film is set in 1899. Naturally, there are mixed messages here.
It doesn’t matter, though, because in the end there’s a period setting, and even though both films are set in 1899, it still counts as the 1800s. And while other famous universal monster series like The Mummy and Draculacontain fantastic or supernatural elements, the Frankenstein combines horror with sci-fi, given that the monster is created by science (and an iconic mad scientist).
‘The Rocketeer’ (1991) – set in 1938
Given that it’s set just over 50 years before its release, The Rocket is far from the most dramatic example of a sci-fi movie set in the past. However, the pre-WWII story and aesthetic are key to the film, and the fact that it involves a proto-superhero using technology to fight the Nazis is what makes it so memorable.
It also reflects the kind of campy, endearing entertainment that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s, especially when it came to action-packed adventure serials. Interestingly, the director Joe Johnson then led the first Captain America film in the mcu in 2011, which had a similar setting and somewhat similar sci-fi elements (plus Nazis as villains again).
‘Wild Wild West’ (1999) – set in 1869
wild west wild may not be a particularly good movie, but it’s one of the clearest examples of sci-fi transported to the distant past. That’s because it’s a somewhat ungodly mix of the western genre and sci-fi (with some action and not-particularly-funny comedy thrown in for “good” measure).
There’s not much that works, and despite a huge budget and an admittedly unique mix of genres and ideas – plus an impressive cast led by Will Smith and Kevin Kline – it is unfortunately a failure. But usually western/sci-fi hybrids are science fiction first, with elements of westerns thrown in for good measure (think FireflyWhere cowboy bebop). It is at least interesting that wild west wild tackles the opposite: being a western first and foremost, with added sci-fi elements.
The “Back to the Future” Trilogy (1985-1990) – partially set in 1955 and 1885
Sure, be all about time travelthe Back to the future The series unsurprisingly visits the past several times. Much of the first film takes place in 1955, with protagonist Marty McFly getting to know his parents’ generation while trying to get back to, well, the future. Part II also features scenes set in 1955, as well as in the future, up to 2015.
But it’s Back to the future part III it really takes things to another level, when it comes to science fiction in the past. It goes back an entire century, to 1885, and spends almost the entire film there. It ends up sounding more western than sci-fi, but it’s a sci-fi contraption that gets Marty and Doc Brown stuck in the old west, and technology is the only thing that can get them out…
‘Star Wars’ (1977) – “long ago” set
The star wars The series is unclear when it takes place, given that the films open with the famous text: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But one thing is certain, however vague it may be: by “a long time ago”, star wars is undoubtedly set in the past, making it perhaps the most famous science fiction series explicitly set in years past.
Although of course, star wars qualifies as a fantasy series, in many ways, which gives more meaning to the “old” or “long ago” period. Additionally, while the series focuses on distant planets and lifeforms, they draw on our own historyfurther blending the past with otherwise futuristic ideas, concepts and visuals.
‘Life of Brian’ (1979) – set in 33 CE
OK, Brian’s life is not a science fiction film. It’s a bit sly to say it. The classic Monty Python film is a comedy with a historical setting, set during the life of Jesus, and focusing on a man named Brian, whose own life takes a turn for the unfortunate when he is mistaken for the Messiah (in reality, he is not is actually just a very bad boy.)
But: there’s a scene where Brian falls into an alien spacecraft, and for a few short, incredibly surreal minutes, he wanders through space before being ejected from the craft, only to find himself back where he’s been “removed”. He doesn’t think about it much and doesn’t tell anyone. This is not addressed later in the film. But during this brief and unusual scene, this film – which is set around 2000 years ago – turns into a science fiction film. For the sheer audacity of this scene alone, it deserves a mention.
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