Hi all! By request, here’s a repost of the classic science fiction poster countdown with all 50 posters in a single edition.
I chose sci-fi instead of horror because of the genre’s prominence during the mid-century period. With that in mind, I confined my selections to films released from 1940 to 1960, which roughly parallels the period of classic film noir and is in keeping with WDL’s usual timeframe. While it’s easy enough to begin at 1940, some readers will undoubtedly point out that there were many brilliant, or at least notable, science fiction films made during the sixties, such as 2001, Fantastic Voyage, Barbarella, and many others. I chose to cut off at 1960 for a few reasons, the first being that I wanted to make an “apples to apples” comparison of posters: as much as it pained me to exclude at least one favorite (1961’s Mysterious Island), as visual style evolved so rapidly in the sixties that by the time the iconic poster for Fantastic Voyage was created in ‘66, designers were making posters that had a markedly changed look and feel from those of the fifties — such comparing and ranking was a can of works I was unwilling to open. Between you and me, Fantastic Voyage would have been the only other film poster with any real chance at cracking the top fifty:
These images are all fairly hi-res, so feel free to download as many as you like — they make a marvelous fodder for screen-savers. I have much larger print quality files than those posted here.
As with the noir countdown, I gave myself a set of parameters from which to make selections. I’ll repeat them here, and briefly with every post. I learned the hard way that some of the readers of the noir countdown didn’t understand that it was a ranking of poster designs instead of the representative films, and were stymied when they couldn’t find the bright pink poster for Double Indemnity anywhere. With that in mind, I’ll leave a reminder with each of the five posts. Here though, just this once, is a fair amount of text about who I am and how I go about this:
This is not a ranking of science fiction movies themselves, but the posters that marketed them. In the real world I’m a university graphic design professor (as well as chair of the department of art and art history here at my school) and longtime professional designer. My designs have appeared in what designers refer to as “the annuals,” (like Print, How, and Graphis) more than 300 times. So while all of the choices shown here are subjective, there’s some small measure of heft behind my opinion.
1. Only films from 1940 –1960.
2. Only American issue posters of American films — no European versions: apples to apples, not apples to oranges.
3. Only standard one-sheets. (No half-sheets, 3 or 4 sheets, lobby cards, inserts, day bills, etc.)
4. No re-release, reprints, or retrospective posters allowed. Only original, first-run, theatrical release posters.
Judging criteria (In order of prominence):
1. Design / Artistic merit. Composition, color, balance, typography, use of illustration / photography, graphic power, etc.
2. Execution of Imagery. A new parameter for the Sci-Fi countdown because so many of the posters are illustrated. The trick is how well?
3. Concept. How well does the poster communicate the film’s message? Is the poster authentic? Is it misleading? Does it reach the intended audience?
4. Originality / Novelty. I reward artistic risk-takers!
5. The Blank Slate rule. All films are equal, from prestige production to Poverty Row. In all likelihood, many readers will not have heard of all films on the list, and many will be seeing the posters for the first time. That should be half the fun.
6. My personal taste … is the least significant of the criteria. My choices are guided primarily by the above, but it would absurd to imagine my personal likes and dislikes didn’t play some part in my choices. However I’m not hiding behind opinion: this is not a list of my favorites. This is an empirical ranking of what I consider to be the best, with my likes and dislikes shoved as far to the side as possible. And while any such list is, of course, purely opinion, not all opinions carry equal weight: this one is highly educated, professionally seasoned, and exercised daily! Oh, and I’m a pragmatist to boot!
50. Battle in Outer Space.
A great film to start with: get a load of everything happening here! We’ve got fighter jets squaring off against spacecraft in a scene reminiscent of Independence Day, a 2001-style space station, a well-rendered moonscape, and a pair of astronauts. The figures in the immediate foreground are striking, and anyone who was with me through the previous countdown knows this poster has two things I like: well-organized typography and well thought out fore-, middle-, and background. The sense of depth coupled with competent rendering makes this all work. Sure, it’s a little busy, but without a movie star or a rampaging beast, spaceman, or robot to showcase, or even a scantily clad girl, the artist did well with what the film provided.
49. Gamma People.
It didn’t take long for me to invoke a favored word, one I’ll use from time to time when discussing the posters: designerly. It usually means the image in question has idiosyncrasies that graphic designers in particular will be drawn to. Gamma People is such a poster, here’s why: The color scheme is unusual for a film poster, eschewing bright reds and yellows for turquoise and black — a color scheme oft-employed by contemporary designers. The use of a reversed, or photographic negative image is especially impressive as well, as is the substantial sense of pictorial depth the designer has created, solely through the scale of the marching “gamma people.” The waves emanating from the transmitter in the upper left corner are also an asset — we’ll see such waves again and again. They look good (they pop!), and also successfully tie together the disparate compositional elements in the design, as well as reinforcing the sense of depth by going “behind” the marching characters and pushing them forward. The typography here is nothing special, and I’m a little disappointed to see the film’s stars at the bottom. Nether Douglas or Bartok was ever such a star that I would acquiesce to their getting in the way of such a great design. This could have gone higher, but I’m comfortable with it here.
48. It Conquered the World.
See what I was saying about those waves? Here they are again. Roger Corman gives us a frightening creature here, the first of many on the way in the next few weeks. The same is true of the horrified woman in the foreground — we will see her time and again in the countdown, in many different guises and states of wakefulness. Fantastic creatures and damsels in distress are a few of the most popular poster tropes in classic science fiction. There are many others, and we’ll see them all in abundance before we reach #1: tanks and soldiers, people fleeing catastrophe, SEE! boxes, dinosaurs, buildings tumblings, and so forth. While one could argue that this genre in particular is populated with somewhat derivative posters, I’d argue that while we’ll see a few robots holding passed-out young women, the posters are all done with such expert skill and passion that they never feel like knock-offs of one another. Instead, vintage science fiction posters often capture extraordinary prices at auction, just as the films they represent have captured audiences for decades.
Not much to note here beyond agreement with Pentagram partner Paula Scher: “Make it bigger.” This is a poster, just like the film, that benefits from making it bigger. Super-gigantic typography married to an equally huge image. The babes in the foreground and the jets in the background really give a powerful sense of scale to the type and image, while the stylish black tagline and the vibrant red background give this plenty of punch. The flames at the bottom of the title typography are a nice detail, as is the beautifully elegant rendering of Mothra’s antennae!
46. The Land Unknown
There were many dinosaur films produced in the fifties, yet most of the posters don’t cut the mustard. This is one of the better ones, wholly on the strength of Ken Sawyer’s excellent painting. I’m not buying the relationship of the T-Rex to the group of people standing at its feet, but there’s so much detail otherwise, especially in the “unimportant” areas of the composition, to make this poster a success. The couple in the foreground can take a flying leap as far as I’m concerned (you gotta let ‘em know there’s romance) — but the sea monster and the mountains in the background are positively Tolkien-esque. And how about that whirlybird?
45. Tobor the Great
Hopefully I won’t be giving too much away if I acknowledge that the poster for Forbidden Planet is still a few weeks away? At that time I’ll offer a more complete comparison of that poster to this one, but for now I think it’s important to point out that Tobor the Great is the earlier film by two years, and consequently can make a claim to having the original image. Yet it falls much further back in the countdown because, in spite of what’s become an iconic image in the annals of science fiction, the poster here just isn’t as well designed. The typography is carelessly arranged — shoved and crowded into the corners of the poster, with the title type covering up important parts of the central image. Audiences wanted to see the robot, not the type! Let’s design a poster that can gracefully show both. Two more quick notes: what is that diagonal slash that divides the poster in two? Surely it doesn’t need to be there. And finally, take a close look at the body angles of the robot and the girl: Tobor is seen in a three-quarters view, while the girl appears in profile. For this to hold water, she would have to be a cardboard cutout. An iconic poster, but crudely rendered.
44. Invaders from Mars
Here’s another poster with a creature holding an unconscious girl — I told you there would be plenty of them, just wait! Yet in this poster the relationship of the two figures is much more believable. We also have tanks and army men with guns trained on the invaders, as well as a terrified group of people running away from certain destruction. While this is a well-composed and skillfully rendered poster, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that the titular invaders are nothing more than actors in tossed-together get ups — and it hurts the overall impact of the poster. This is particularly surprising considering the film was directed by famed production designer William Cameron Menzies. The overall feel of the film is surreal and beautiful, but the 'martians' themselves leave a lot to be desired. In this instance I would have encouraged the artist to be a little more creative in trying to hide the cheapness of the film’s costume design — even if some measure of artistic license could have been taken. I’d also seek some improvement in the title typography, which is stacked and difficult to read; it even gets lost amidst the colorful artwork around it. To its credit, and as opposed to the Tobor poster, the text typography, or “fine print,” is deftly handled. Nonetheless, I’d happily hang this one on my wall.
43. Not of This Earth
This is the first poster I struggled to place, another gem from Roger Corman. I’m not very happy with the color scheme or the overall graphic impact of the design, but I appreciate the simple image-type-image horizontal arrangement and the clever way the tagline is stacked into the composition. However my primary reason for including the poster in the countdown is the use of the extreme close-up of the female character’s face — which more than almost any other poster in the countdown, anticipates the design tropes of later decades — though if for better or worse I’m not certain. This poster could have been improved by eliminating the gray text box at the bottom and extending the artwork through the entire image area. There would have been plenty of room at the lower right to easily include such a small amount of text type.
42. The Lost Missile
Hooray for SEE! boxes. This odd poster is the first to have them, and while they aren’t very well organized in this example (they come at the expense of title typography that is too small to be so busy), such boxes are one of the campiest and best-known aspects of science fiction posters. This is such an offbeat poster though — more suggestive of Luis Buñuel than Lester Berke, with its surreal disembodied eye and colossal hand. All of the elements in the composition seem cobbled together in a way that brings to mind the use of clip-art — get a load of those buildings in the background — but the overall effect is unsettling, and ultimately pleasing. This might improve if the SEE! boxes could be nixed and title was scaled to encompass the entire bottom of the poster. However upon reading the content of the boxes it becomes clear how necessary the producers felt they were to properly sell the picture.
41. I Married a Monster from Outer Space
If you haven’t seen this, I suggest you do so — in spite of a title that drips camp, the movie itself is surprising and universally exceeds viewer expectations. The poster hits a home run for simplicity. Red, yellow, and black are oft-utilized colors in poster design from this or any genre, and this is a good example of why such colors work: when juxtaposed correctly they create a lot of graphic zing— making a poster stand out on a crowded wall. Don’t forget the value of a poster that tells a story, giving viewers enticing hints about the narrative Even though this design uses just a few simple images and, for once, no tagline, it provides plenty of information about what we can expect if we buy a ticket. I also appreciate that the aliens are merely suggested, leaving something to the imagination and making them all the more frightening because of it. The designer of the poster for Invaders from Mars would benefit from viewing this one.
40. This Island EarthAnother problematic design, great artwork marred by a busy composition and workmanlike typography. Yet the illustration is worth the ranking here: the facial expressions, the explosions, the spaceships, and especially the creatures are all fantastic and gorgeous. Here’s a poster where I wish the artwork area was scaled down so that all of the text could be placed above and below, leaving the artwork to stand on its own. We don’t even require the tagline, “The supreme excitement of our time!” The artwork says it all for us. Love the “2 ½ years in the making” under the title (designers call such things ‘violators’) — the “atomic flower” is really cool!
39. Twelve to the Moon
Admittedly, the poster design for Twelve to the Moon is quite similar that of Battle in Outer Space, which came in at #50. And while I appreciate aspects of each poster (especially the action going on in the poster for Battle), from the design perspective the upgrade in quality here is straightforward: the imagery is more highly resolved — especially considering the treatment of the two figures in the foreground; the overall composition is less busy, with fewer elements clashing with each other in such a tight space; and most importantly, the typography in this example is a much more sophisticated than in the poster for Battle. The strength of which lies in the vertiginous alignment of the tag, leading the viewer’s eye directly to the title, as well as the cropping of the box behind the two figures, creating another layer of pictorial space. And while it strikes me as a little careless how the placement of one of the stars in the artwork makes the word “THE” difficult to read, the gestalt of the composition makes the designer in me rate this one a little bit higher.
38. Devil Girl from Mars
Hooray for cheesecake, even if it is Martian. Artistically this isn’t one of the stronger entries in the countdown, but it scores big points for content. There are only few examples in fifties sci-fi poster design that have a strong female character out front, and this is one of them. We’ll see one or two others in the coming weeks. While the typography here is not particularly inventive, the artwork is: these are some of the more original spacecraft of the period, and take special notice of how the robot depicted on the right has an almost … feminine quality. If the Devil Girl herself didn’t appear to be floating, if one of the taglines at the top could have been removed, and if the title could have been lettered with a little more panache — and maybe a bit bigger, this would have rated higher — maybe even as high as The Queen of Outer Space, which we’ll be seeing soon.
37. When Worlds Collide
One of the better films of the cycle, this was an Oscar winner in the effects category and a nominee for its vivid color cinematography. Hooray for good type! When Worlds Collide gets one of the strongest type-treatments in the entire countdown. For once we have a poster that does a good job of addressing the actual content of the film — showing a streaking rocket exiting the planet as the “worlds collide” destroying all those left behind. Simple, narrative, striking, and with realistic expressions of terror on the faces of those caught in the tumult. I beg the pardon of anyone bothered or offended by the inclusion of a poster that depicts a NYC skyscraper toppling over, no offense was intended.
36. Attack of the Crab Monsters
Another Roger Corman no-budget gem. Classic artwork with a cute blonde menaced by a terrifying otherworldly creature. There’s something strangely unsettling and … human … about the crab monster’s face. What this lacks in dynamic composition and jazzy type it makes up for with iconic imagery.
35. Satan’s Satellites
I might be cheating by including this, as Satan’s Satellites is nothing more than a slapdash feature cobbled together at Republic Pictures from their Zombies of the Stratosphere serials, but I think the poster for Satellites is stronger than that of Zombies, and rates a spot in the countdown. Satan doesn’t actually make an appearance in the film, so the title itself is a little confusing, but the poster isn’t: fairly well executed photographic image of a Martian clutching at yet another passed-out young woman, with spaceships above, a campy robot below, a crumbling city in the background, and a eyebrow-raising watercolor wash (rare for film posters) holding it all together. The title typography is a good custom-job, and the tag line is handled even better — “cosmic thrills” is in a wonderful script; I wish I could do that! At first I wished the title was a little larger, then I realized how it is employed to cover up the inadequacies in the photograph: Our damsel-in-distress oddly has no fingers or toes, and for some inexplicable reason the Martian himself has no right hand! Where is it? He must be using some sort of extraterrestrial power to hold her up with the power of just one arm!
34. The Wasp Woman
One of the campiest entries in the countdown (another from Corman) boasts a surprisingly elegant and pretty poster. Most people tend to get hung up on the admittedly awkward way in which the female face has been applied to the wasp figure, but if you are able to get around this what remains is a stunning poster: vivid colors, a simple composition, appropriate title typography, a well-organized tagline, and fine artwork. The way in which the wasp woman is grabbing at the male figure — and the resulting expression and body language is superb. Notice also the quality of the fleeing figures, the loosely rendered urban landscape, and most of all: the skulls. If you happen to download this one be sure to zoom in on the skull area — the rendering is very impressive. Bad movie, great poster.
33. Beginning of the End
OK, so this one is over the top — it’s so busy one almost doesn’t know where to look first. There is so much wrong happening here that I’m amazed this poster somehow manages to be a winner. First, allow me to applaud the artist for taking a film where the radioactively enhanced creatures are … grasshoppers … and turning them into some of the coolest looking sci-fi creatures in the history of the genre! Rest assured folks, if you get to see this film you won’t find these critters anywhere inside — and while that’s definitely a let-down of sorts, it really makes for a great poster.
All of the typography struggles to be seen: yellow tags against yellow buildings at the top, and a red title against a red-ish background in the middle. Why not swap red and yellow and make both pieces of type a bit easier to read? It’s also a little unfortunate how the title typography covers up so many of the soldiers firing on the creatures, and even worse how the creatures themselves are so strangely out of proportion: the ones in the background are as large as buildings, yet the one in the center of the design is small enough to have a woman in its maw — who knows, maybe she’s the 50 ft Woman.
Yet in spite of all of these flaws, this is an amazing poster: get a load of the cubism-inspired buildings in the rear, and the creatures themselves! Fascinating juxtaposition of illustration and photography, all within a design that hides a million secrets — I find something new every time I look at this.
32. Killer Shrews
Great stuff, especially from the design point of view. Part of the allure of science fiction / creature films is that moment at the end of the show when the monster is finally revealed. Here’s one of the only posters in the countdown that actually titillates the viewer, just begging them to step up to the box office and buy a ticket — after looking at this poster who doesn’t want to see the rest of the killer shrews? The inclusion of a blood spatter and a high heel push this dangerously close to horror, but considering the nature of the beast, this film is right at home in science fiction. Instead of the previous poster, which looks cool but ultimately disappoints ticket buyers, this does just the opposite: it teases and delivers.
31. Destination Moon
A simply beautiful poster for the quintessential film that set off the sci-fi boom in Hollywood. Required viewing, enough said!
30. Red Planet Mars
It isn’t all that unusual to find mid-century film posters with a newspaper theme — it was certainly en vogue at the time for Hollywood studios to produce films with storylines that had been “ripped from the headlines.” However the poster for Red Planet Mars is probably the best of the bunch, primarily because it carries the look and feel of a newspaper design to an impressive extreme, not merely utilizing the tropes of the typical front page, but even creating a masthead and broadsheet with columns as well. I wish there were more sense to the black shape that contains the title type, or possibly that the title type could have become the actual newspaper headline, but this poster is good enough to resist quibbling over the details.
29. The Crawling Eye
My grandmother used to terrify us with stories of The Crawling Eye when we visited her house as children: “It came from behind the TV!” she’d say to my sisters and me in those dark moments before we went off to bed. We repeated the stories for years and years. Nostalgia aside, this poster is here because it presents one of the more original visions (ha!) of the most popular of science fiction poster tropes: the woman in the “arms” of the fantastic creature. I’m especially impressed with how easily my eye accepts the blending of photography and illustration here, and the designerly fashion in which the tentacles themselves change as they leave the black box that frames the titular creature. The woman looks truly afraid, and the title typography has been contrived to successfully integrate with the other elements in the poster — nice lettering as well.
28. Earth vs. The Flying Saucers
There’s nothing about the way the spaceships and robots themselves are rendered that makes the poster for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers any better than many of the other posters in the countdown, but the illustration does create a sense of awe and wonder that is conspicuously absent from other designs. This just feels big, quite literally earth shattering. It appears that the invaders seem in endless supply, receding into space forever and ever, against a wasteland of shattered town and buildings. Given the global nature inherent in science fiction, one would imagine more posters would attempt to create such monumental vistas in their posters, yet few do, typically focusing on a single creature or incident. From the designers’ point of view, the application of the title in one of the saucer shapes is inventive and successful, but not very well balanced with the box containing the tagline above. I’d have shifted the tag to the other side of the poster to create a little more balance — even though it would have meant reconfiguring parts of the illustration as well.
There’s so much to love here, I wish I could have placed this higher. Alas though, if we believe the tagline and this spider is actually 100 feet high, then our ubiquitous captive female is at least 50 feet tall herself! I also wasn’t aware that giant arachnids could also fly — that spider’s feet are nowhere near the ground! My only other gripe about this truly wonderful poster is that the man and woman in front look less like people running away than they do relatives at a family picnic who have just been goaded into doing an impromptu tap dance. She practically has jazz hands. In all seriousness though — is there a better instance anywhere out there of title type that really exemplifies fifties sci-fi poster design?
26. Missile Monsters
Like Satan’s Satellites, Missile Monsters is another feature film cobbled together from a previously released serial. In this case, Republic Pictures Flying Disc Man from Mars. Beyond the absurdity of the idea of the poster’s central image: Martians attacking the earth concealed in gigantic missiles, the design here is quite good, even if traditional: A graphicly bold color palette, strong central image, and solid custom lettering — all arranged nicely. None of the elements seem intrusive or out of place, and the combination of drawn and photographed elements barely registers. That bright red sure pops!
25. Queen of Outer Space
One of the campiest movies in the countdown sure has a sexy poster. It’s all about Zsa Zsa in Queen of Outer Space, famously based on a made-up-on-the-spot story be Ben Hecht, one of Tinsel Town’s premiere screenwriters. We have to award points when a poster gives a great inclination of what we’ll see if we plunk down money for a ticket, and this one does it as well as any other — even if the promised scenery is merely a cheesecake show. Nonetheless, dig that fantastic background illustration of Venus, and the iconic late-fifties type design. The guys over at House Industries got rich turning the typestyles from posters such as this (and many of the others in this countdown) into commercial typeface designs. Who can blame them, the type (and the girls) are all beautiful!
24. The Man from Planet X
The problem with Ulmer’s titular extra-terrestrial (one of the movies’ first), is that viewers could never get a sense of what he was actually looking at, and the big-headed, unreal sensation carries through to the poster. Yet it is refreshing to see a meeting between a visitor from space and beautiful girl that, for once, does not involve the girl passing out and being carried off in the visitor’s arms. The design here is very simple, and while I wish the title didn’t hide so much of the two figures, I’m happy to be able to see so much of the spooky, deserted moor in the background behind them. It’s vividly rendered in a wonderfully cool color palette, lending an air of mystery to Ulmer’s signature low-budget strangeness.
23. The Day the Earth Stood Still
I struggled to come to grips with this poster possibly more than any other in this genre. The “sum” of the design somehow manages to succeed — and succeed quite well, but when each of the individual parts are considered they come up rather short. Possibly it’s the detail in the illustration, or merely the inventiveness of the content, or maybe even the earthy (!) color scheme that makes this work, but I’m drawn to this poster like few others, in spite of its many faults. Here’s the laundry list of what bothers me: 1) The image of Gort firing a beam and clutching at the is quite well-rendered — why cut it off? It’s an awkward crop and it’s hard not to believe the poster would improve if the robot and his captive were moved to the center of the composition. 2) The hand reaching to encompass the planet is absolutely one of the most striking images on any of the posters in the countdown (partly accounting for the high ranking of this design), so why not move it up where we can really see and enjoy it? Notice the large horizontal band of unused and ineffective space above the hand and to the left of Gort’s head? Move the hand / globe element up into that space, which would make it more prominent and allow for better integration of the title typography, which … 3) is haphazardly handled and crammed into the design. All of the text feels very mechanical and dry, but given the unusual composition of this poster (especially that awkward negative space mentioned earlier) the title could certainly be better positioned, and would have been more provocative with a more organic, tense, or hand-drawn look rather than cold typography where all the letterforms in the title are given the same size and weight. This is the sort of title, using the word “THE” twice, that would give most designers fits — there’s no reason why that word should be as large as the title’s action words in either instance of its appearance. Nevertheless …
22. The Atomic Man
One of the most designerly posters in the countdown is also the one most rooted in modernism. It would be easy to believe the fractured visuals and collage-style arrangement of the poster of The Atomic Man came from the drafting table of Paul rand or even a youthful Saul Bass. The title typography in this example is somewhat ill-fitting in both style and placement, and gets lost against the more vivid visuals of the poster, but not enough to detract from what is one of the more original designs (and color schemes) in the countdown.
21. Target Earth
Betcha didn’t notice this: take a gander at the man and woman in the lower right corner. Compare the line of his body to the imaginary compositional line created by the tagline and the title typography, then compare the line of the female figure to the diagonal created by the robot’s raw and crab-like arms. See how the couple’s bodies reinforce the overall composition of the poster? Folks, that’s why composition and critical thinking are of a great deal more importance to designers than the ability to “draw,” and what makes this such a darn good poster. There’s even more to appreciate here: the rather soft style of the illustration, an overall clean and simple composition with strong diagonals, a vivid color scheme, and a great piece of custom lettering. A fantastic poster.
20. The Incredible Shrinking Man
In a world of posters with fantastic beasts, aliens, and objects only limited by the imagination of their creators, it is refreshing to see a poster that turns such everyday objects into catalysts for tension. Rarely has a housecat or a scissors been so frightening. At first glance the male figure should be centered, but by placing him to the side the designer has allows us to see at least some of his face, and the scissors fill the empty space quite nicely. Excellent type treatment backs up the concept of the film, and the competing diagonals heighten the sense of drama and instability. I’d be curious to see how this poster would look with a full-field image, but the mesh that holds back the cat would make the type design problematic.
Fascinating title with a poster to match. This deserves its ranking simply because the designer exploited the originality of the title by making it a part of the poster’s central image. The interaction of the male figures skulking around the letterforms conceptually reinforces the film’s narrative, and makes the typography all the more interesting. The somewhat orgasmic woman at the top of the poster is a bit of a distraction, though an unavoidable one: I can’t imagine a poster from this period that didn’t have at least one large representation of a human face / figure. The concept centering around the title type is great, but it does require the figures to be quite small.
18. The Blob
The poster for The Blob promises more than the film is able to deliver, but that often goes without saying in this countdown. Provocative illustration, great big type, believable fear from the female figure, and nicely stacked boxes up top give this a lot of style.
17. The Astounding She Monster
This is dripping with mid-century style — get a load of the planets at the top of the design — the controlled precision with which they are rendered brings to mind fifties textbook illustrations, just as the rest of the design evokes the covers of countless dime novels. I love the pose of the figure, the way in which her hair isn’t just hanging down and the positioning of her arms and hands — the poster creates a strong sense of mystery by hiding her facial features from the viewer. What really makes this poster fascinating though is the male figure holding a rifle at the bottom of the design. The way in which he is engulfed in flames, and by “way” I mean the high contrast, graphically bold rendering of both the flames and the figure itself, is astonishing for a poster of this age — such graphic devices didn’t really take hold until the computer era of graphic design, which came with the debut of the Apple Macintosh in early 1984.
16. The Fly
At first the grid pattern in use here recalls the poster for The Incredible Shrinking Man, but the similarities between the two designs cease there — with the poster for The Fly coming out ahead. The sense of scale at play in the Shrinking Man poster is clearly an aspect of the film itself, whereas the juxtaposition of the large female face with the small figure just above is purely compositional, and adds a more subtle layer of meaning that the other poster lacks. The type design here is original, and representative of its era, while the large rectangular forms (both in black and red) off set the machined rigidity of the mesh pattern — which cleverly hints at the multi-faceted view from the eyes of the fly himself.
15. The Amazing Transparent Man
Entirely apart from the design, be sure to read the text in the “Warning” box at the bottom of the poster. It’s a great example of the gimmicks producers would try to increase attendance. From a visual perspective, there’s just nothing not to like here: the use of a white silhouette perfectly communicates the idea of the film, and also provides the perfect focal point to apply the title type — if we were to pick that text up and move it to another location in the design, the amount of unused, unencumbered white space would make the poster feel empty and boring. Yet the artist has given us just enough explicit information to understand that the title character is not one of the good guys. I’m less certain about the action vignettes going on around the central figure. With the exception of the bank vault that we see showing through the right leg, I think I’d prefer this if the remaining images were removed, leaving nothing but the vivid blue background.
I have to be careful here. The best designers in the movie poster business worked at the Warner Bros. studios B department, and they cranked out many truly amazing posters throughout the late forties and fifties. The designers there came closest to having a “house style,” characterized by a stacked box grid structure, expert text typography, large white borders, and even the consistent application of Futura Extra Bold. They also regularly used a limited color palette (as we saw in the noir countdown), though that isn’t in play for any of the sci-fi posters. The poster for Them! is emblematic of another thing that made the designs so special: carefully rendered illustrations, evident in the detail of the giant ants themselves, as well as the fleeing figures and the car in flames. Before all is said and done (as in, next week!) we’ll see an even better example of the WB poster style, but this is still one of the best.
13. Fire Maidens of Outer Space
Great subtle details make this poster: notice the male figure at the bottom of the poster actually physically interacting with one of the “see” boxes, using it for cover; also notice how the designer overlapped the “O” in “Outer” with another one of the “see” boxes — such minute attention to detail creates that hallowed sense of gestalt that makes some designs (and designers) better than others; check out the eyes on the creature — what’s he staring at?! Notice as well that the female figure has lost a shoe. And finally, the all-consuming flames and attention-grabbing colors hold the entire design together.
12. Plan 9 from Outer Space
Many of the comments I’ve gotten so far have talked about how the posters for these films are often better than the films themselves — such was never more true than it is with this example, for what is generally considered the worst film ever made. Yet the poster is not just good, it’s damn good — and I appreciate it all the more for it’s cheapness; it’s one of the only two-color posters of the era, and certainly the only one that scored a spot in this countdown. I talked at length in the film noir poster countdown of the power of strong diagonals and a limited palette, especially when the colors used are black, white, and red, and this poster is a fine example, even if the black areas could be a bit more deep. The simplicity of the poster is striking — after all, how many posters have we seen so far that have exercised very little constraint? In a genre where poster designers tried to cram in as much scintillating information as possible, the best posters often have the most stark designs. The designer does a fine job of creating depth as well, using color, scale, and layering to show a fore- middle- and background. The title type seems to anticipate the Star Wars introduction typography, curiously. A wonderful poster, yet owing to the infamy of the film far too pricey for most collectors to contemplate.
11. Invasion of the Saucer-Men
One of the posters that sets the gold standard for science fiction posters at auction, with examples selling anywhere from three to five-thousand dollars each — and it’s easy to see why: it has all the elements we have come to expect, everything about it is iconic and representative of the genre. We’ve got frightening and original creatures, a beautiful girl (inevitably in the clutches of the aliens), a cityscape besieged by flying saucers, fleeing masses, and plenty of “see” boxes. The content in this example is reinforced by a really strong design, particularly in the title typography (reminiscent of the Star Trek type-style) and the way the “see” boxes are handled. This is one of the great ones.
Welcome to the final post in the countdown of the 50 greatest posters of classic science fiction. It’s time for the top poster to be revealed! Remember (or refer back to the first post) that this is not a countdown of the best science fiction movies, but of the posters that marketed them instead! Without further ado, let’s wrap this thing up!
10. The Cosmic Man
Compositionally, this is one of the more striking posters in the countdown, even if we’ve seen more elegantly rendered illustrations elsewhere. What really makes this a success is how the artist was clearly thinking of the future positioning of the typography when the illustration was still on the drawing board. The title type is perfectly situated and is executed in a style appropriate to the period. The illustration itself is a stunner, particularly in how cleverly all of the disparate elements are layered into the design. The juxtaposition of the colossal figure with the planet shapes and the landscape in the foreground is incredibly interesting — especially the placement of the large planet nearest the viewer — pretty daring! The thin lines that emanate from the planet are a nice detail. Another strong element is the sunburst pattern that frames and highlights the title character’s Nosferatu-like features. If it were up to me, I’d remove the “out of this universe” tag box from the top of the poster and shift it to the bottom, allowing for the points of the sunburst to continue to the poster’s bleed. Regardless, this remains one cool poster.
9. Beyond the Time Barrier
This is just a beautifully executed poster in all regards, with an original type solution married to provocative imagery (the green figures in particular!). In a few of the higher ranked posters I’ll discuss at length some of my philosophy about hand-rendered versus computer-generated typography, but I should take a moment now to buoy my later argument by noting now that while I think hand-rendered title typography (when appropriate, of course) is almost always superior to titles formed from existing typefaces, there are plenty of beautiful examples of the latter — and this is one of them. Hang on a second — obviously I realize this type wasn’t created with a computer. I’m just referencing an argument I’ll make later and think it’s germane to mention that the title type for Beyond the Time Barrier is of the style that the modern computer can create and manipulate with ease. Nevertheless, it isn’t the typography so much as the gestalt that earned this its spot.
Never were the concentric circles used more successfully than they are here. The poster for Gog, with its unusually dark background, is just fantastic — one of the most designerly in the countdown. The dark background, the growing circles, the collaged feel of the imagery (especially the danger signs — brilliant!), the surprising restraint of the tagline at the top, and that great image of Gog himself all combine to make this original poster a true gem. If it were up to me I’d make the type at the very bottom smaller, but it’s the poster’s only weak point.
7. Attack of the 50 ft. Woman
Does anyone mind if I cheat a little? If so, that’s OK — just reserve this spot for Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. I included the posters for The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast because in terms of theme and execution they are so incredibly similar to this one, yet the Woman poster is the best. She’s rendered with more care, and stands in her environment more realistically than her male counterpart, who appears almost to have been cut and paste into his (note The Amazing Colossal Man’s left leg / ankle).
Note also in the poster for The Amazing Colossal Man the many discrepancies in scale. The Man himself is positioned essentially in the background of the poster, yet the largest “normal” sized figure in the poster is the woman in his grasp. Okay, we’ll call that artistic license; but notice also how the two gun-shooting police officers at the right middle ground are actually larger than the tank in the foreground — that, I can’t accept. In contrast, the illustration for Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman is correct in all of its proportions. And if we are granting artistic license, it’s best used in how she appears, based on the size of the “normal” figures, to be almost 200 feet tall! If only she were looking at us!
6. The War of the Worlds
You know, that clutching hand is pretty iconic — one could remove all of the typography from this poster and most film fans would still easily guess the title. Yet ironically that famously grasping extra-terrestrial hand is not what I love the most about this poster, and I’d bet that most graphic designers would agree with me — it’s the type that makes this one of the best in the countdown! As often predicted in the films under discussion here, we have come to live in a world dominated by computers. For the past twenty-five years the Macintosh has transformed the world of the graphic designer — and the changes wrought by technology have not always been positive, particularly within the realm of typography.
I spend a great deal of my working life explaining to students that graphic design has far less to do with the computer than they think. Design students typically enter college thinking that the designers swipe their images from Google and then match them to some trendy downloaded typeface. After four years they don’t leave that way. One of the first things they learn from me is that human beings respond best to type and imagery that appears to have not originated electronically, but instead from the human hand. A happy preponderance of contemporary designers certainly think so — pick up a copy of Print magazine’s Regional Design Annual from the last decade and you’ll find the hand-made on every page. (And while Print has devolved into a silly magazine that fails in almost every way to represent the design world, in this one way, at least, they get it right. Sorry, I digress.)
The simple cursive scrawl of the film title here is one of the best pieces of pure typography in the countdown. And although the work here obviously predates the era of computer graphics it’s telling to point out that what makes the typography here so timeless is that it simply couldn’t be accomplished via any digitized typeface or Photoshop filters. That’s why it’s so powerful — because it’s powerfully human, and therefore utterly original. Amazing both in it’s simplicity and level of detail, it’s an exquisite piece of work that mixes color, texture, and scale through both script and block letterforms. I may sound like a geek here, but great type like this brings out the geek in me.
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Another poster that merits its ranking because of its originality. Little did I know when I began this process that so many of the top designs would qualify on their ability to avoid (or at least put a new spin on) the design and image clichés that prevail throughout the genre, and that we’ve spent so much time detailing in these posts. With that in mind, it’s easy to see what makes the poster for Invasion of the Body Snatchers so good: the handprint. It’s so central to the story, yet the designer has also used it as the primary image in the poster, gigantic and graphically powerful, the “tie” that binds all of the posters elements together. If you can, try to imagine this without the handprint — the figures would then appear to simply float in the open space of the picture plane. The print anchors them, gives them ground upon which to stand. Without it they would appear to be falling like raindrops.
And how about the colors? The red to yellow gradient really makes this one pop, and evokes the split-fountain printing technique that was so popular in the Hatch Show Print style music posters of the day. The poster is a fine exercise in compositional balance as well: note how there is a sort of zig-zag pattern that works its way through the positioning of the many figures, and especially in the application of the individual blocks of text type. These elements all weave their way from the top of the poster to the bottom, creating a sense of balance with hardly any of the individual pieces actually being centered, except for the text block at the very bottom, which acts as a “foundation” for everything else. It may at first appear haphazard and jumbled, but this is skillful stuff.
4. Village of the Damned
For a moment or two at the beginning of the process, I toyed with this in the top spot. While I think this is a wonderful design in almost every way (and easily affordable for anyone who wants a copy), it has a few problems that keep it out of the top three. My biggest issue is the image at the top-right corner — If I were the author of this poster I’d simply remove it and enlarge the blue head of the child to encompass the newly-opened space. That head is absolutely fantastic (not to mention the crux of the entire film), but compared to the relatively large size of the busts of Sanders and Shelley and the “Beware the Stare” tagline, the child’s head is just too small. Meanwhile, the image of the trench-coated figure surrounded by children is suitably strange (get a load of the kid directly behind him — weird!), it adds little to the poster’s ability to tantalize. Finally, the photographic landscape at the bottom of the design is extraneous. It’s a muddled and confusing image choice that forces the designer to make the title typography too small. I’d rather lose the image altogether and reconfigure the type treatment into two stacked lines — possibly stressing the word “Damned” in the process.
Despite my complaints, there is still a lot to like about this, and it richly deserves a spot in the top ten. Let’s not forget how creative this poster is, not only in it’s use of limited color and striking imagery, but especially in how it utterly avoids the clichés that run rampant in most of the other posters in the genre. For that reason alone it warrants a high spot, even in the design wasn’t so delightful.
Just for the fun of it, I fooled around in Photoshop for a few minutes and rearranged some of the elements. Were I taking this seriously, I would have maintained the green blob shape around the title, but I just wanted to bang this out and didn’t have the time to redraw the blob in the style of the original. Same goes for the wavy lines that indicate the child’s stare — for the sake of time I chopped them off in all of the areas outside the young man’s face. But, hopefully you get my drift!
3. The Thing from Another World
How could anyone see this poster and not head directly for the box office to buy a ticket? As a designer I’m astonished that a type-only poster could make it past the studio money-men, but what a challenge this offers to potential viewers! Be sure to click on this and look closely at the enlarged image — the level of detail in the illustrated type is truly amazing, it had to be a labor of love for whomever took the time to render the letters. Again I return to the comments I made in the blurb for The War of the Worlds: what makes this so great is that the type has effectively become the image — you can lose yourself in marveling at it, and it resonates to us even more today because we know that no computer could possibly generate such exquisite letterforms.
Yet the incredibly high ranking doesn’t spring merely from the visual risk of a type-only poster, it comes also from how appropriate doing so was conceptually. Think about it: there no way the poster can ask the question “Natural or Supernatural?” and then actually show us the Thing. Everyone knows that even though this is a first rate movie, the creature himself isn’t visually striking enough to entice anyone to go see the film. It’s the mystery that makes us buy a ticket. And this poster, because it takes that sense of mystery and puts it on steroids, becomes one of those rare pieces of graphic design that solves its prescribed problem almost perfectly.
2. Forbidden Planet
I’m betting that this is the poster most sci-fi aficionados following the countdown guessed would grab the top spot. After all, this is the most justly famous image to come from the genre throughout the 1950s. In terms of color, stylization, and careful execution the image of Robby the Robot gently cradling an unconscious Anne Francis is both stunning and wonderfully fantastical. The background is a pure artistic delight. In so many ways it epitomizes the best of classic science fiction, and the quality with which it is rendered so far eclipses the similar image on the poster for Tobor the Great that any comparison almost seems silly.
So why not the top spot?
I placed it here because although this is the strongest and most representative image in the countdown, the rest of the design doesn’t hold up as well as the top poster; and while the image for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms trails this one by just a little, the other design considerations of that poster inarguably outstrip this one. The biggest problem with Forbidden Planet is the large text box at the bottom. I understand better than most that being an MGM product, the stars’ names had to be made quite large — yet certainly the artist could have continued the illustration to the bottom of the poster and simply placed those text items on top, in a readable, light color.
And then there’s the title type. It was a struggle for me to divorce my affection for this film, not to mention my familiarity with its type solution, from my judgment of the poster. And while this type is just fine, again it fails to measure up to the type in not only the top poster, but a few others from the countdown as well. In the end though, I feel comfortable placing this firmly in the second spot, in what proved to be only a four or five horse race anyway. This is one of the most familiar and beloved film posters of all time — a claim even the top poster can’t make.
1. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
I’m certain some readers will take issue with this selection, thinking that a more iconic film should warrant the top spot. But remember — this is a poster countdown, not a movie countdown, and the poster for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is simply the best of the bunch, hands down. It’s flawless in every way, and certainly deserves to occupy the top spot. Let’s break it down in terms of Illustration, Typography, Composition, and Concept:
Everything you need to know about the illustration can be summed up in the figures fleeing from the beast. We’ve seen many such figures before, but none rendered with the same style and verve as this. The artist has considered each pose, and each figure is executed with the same level of care — look at those facial expressions! Nor do the figures get “fuzzier” as the recede into the background — the bus is rendered with the same degree of detail as the people. Much the same can be said of the buildings. They are as realistic as can be, even in the way they shatter and tumble to the ground. The beast himself seems to have been custom-fitted to this landscape, and he’s pretty scary — from the saliva dripping from his jaws to the steam coming from his nose, no details have been left out. I only wish the spikes on his head overlapped the white type box in order to heighten the sense of depth!
The typography — all of it — is the best in the countdown. From typeface selection to arrangement to the brilliant touch of adding scales to the word “Beast,” this is simply as good as it gets. Take special note of how the designer has used boxes to contain the various taglines and balance the composition. The poster boasts a whopping five taglines, and the designer has effortlessly integrated each. The design feels claustrophobic (a good thing) without feeling cluttered (a bad thing). That patented Warner Bros. poster shop technique of maximizing the white space around the edge at the minor expense of image size gives the designer the opportunity to dynamically overlap various design elements around the edge of the poster, inject that much more life and movement into the finished product.
If we think of graphic design as the juxtaposition of type and image in order to communicate a message, this poster is a master class.
Thanks for reading! Let me know how I did, and feel free to disagree with my choices. This has been a lot of fun.