July 26, 2011


Welcome back to the science fiction poster countdown — back after a brief vacation. Just ten posters remain after this week’s entry, check back next Tuesday to see which poster grabs the number one spot. I can promise it will be a controversial pick! 

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.

19. Five
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.

14. Them!
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.

Don’t forget to bear here next Tuesday for the final entry! 

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