The Magic of Sci-Fi Movie Posters: Their Inner Design Power
Wendy Tabor RGD shares her top 5 sci-fi movie posters based on composition, imagery style, typography and success at capturing the plot.
Movies have always been a part of my life. I was putting my VHS tapes in by myself at age two. My first trip to the movies was at age 5. Ever since those highly formative years, the magic of movies remains an endless source of inspiration and joy in my life. As a designer, I have since gained a deeper appreciation of the art of the movie poster. Even though movie theatres now have to contend with the powerhouses that are streaming services, the art of the movie poster has not become lost to time just yet. There are still foundational qualities of the timeless movie poster.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The style of this poster comes as a curiosity to those accustomed to seeing high-resolution photography. The collaged black elements show no value and most of the humans in the cage are featureless. An ape is the only character in a photograph, establishing dominance. The gradient is reminiscent of a sunset or a sunrise, depending on your point of view.
At the top, the copy sets the main character’s intention and at the end of the copy, there is a clever piece of composition that gets overlooked. The final line is interrupted by the title and picture. Further down the poster, the viewer sees featureless humans in a cage. There is one human who has features and the fact that we can see their face as he looks at the ape suggests a significant relationship.
Remembering that this poster was designed in a pre-Adobe era, the typography captures the environment. The ascenders in various letterforms suggest the challenges an ape would have if they could write with a brush. The movie credits are in a thin condensed font. Although, if one takes a closer look, there is a handwritten quality. There is minimal modern technology used within the story and the typography reflects that.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This poster is a popular and well-known example of a montage composition. Immediately, our eyes are drawn to Han Solo and Princess Leia in a tender moment. In a cold palette, this provides some warmth. Afterwards, the eye gets drawn to the left, where we see Luke riding a tauntaun. Note that Luke is facing away from his friends, hinting at a journey. Looming is Darth Vader. A shadow-like positioning serves his role well in the composition since he uses the Force and his political machinations throughout the movie.
The illustrative effort in this poster still holds up over 40 years later. What stands out the most is how the glue that holds this poster together is the ice and snow. The details of the tauntaun's fur make him seem more life-like, showing individual tufts catching the light. The metal of Darth Vader’s helmet shines through thanks to the snow and lighting.
Typographically, this poster evokes a sense of speed and adventure. While the overall composition creates the space essential to integrate the copy inside, the credits are not the most legible.
The Matrix (1999)
Compositionally this poster serves to establish the cast and environment. It is also possible to determine some of the actions that will take place throughout the movie. Neo’s pose places him as the main character, but he is in a defensive stance. He has his weapon out and his jacket is billowing, shifting everyone behind him. It speaks to his mission to protect his friends and place his love on a pedestal.
The logo and copy are also noteworthy because the action movies and actors of the time rose to success at a meteoric rate. Strategically placing Keanu Reeves’ and Laurence Fishburne's credits at the top proves to be an effective tool to draw attention to the leads with copy and placement. Integrating the detailed texture of binary code with the back-alley environment would not be logical to draw by hand.
The Matrix, though released in 1999, came just after the era of heavily textured logos that resemble the movie branding equivalent of Microsoft Word Art. It aims to be serious and the typography certainly reflects that. The old-school typeface and the “glitched” logo are more suited to this movie. The credits show more but use a very condensed typeface. It is not the easiest thing to read, but it is not the primary item in the hierarchy of this poster.
The Martian (2015)
With isolation comes exploration through composition. Matt Damon in his astronaut suit takes up almost the entire frame. The nemesis of the movie shows in the helmet reflection. The reflection is an instance of Mars becoming a character. The red planet's inhospitableness is the primary antagonistic motivation and the composition shows it.
The compositional contributions of the copy and logo are also rendered well. What makes this poster stand out in terms of composition is the call to action on Damon’s face. The design initiates a high-stress survival mode permeating every scene where Damon’s character is on Mars. A clever detail to note on this poster is the treatment of Ridley Scott’s line. It appears embossed on the metal on the top of the helmet.
For the image style, photography was the only way to go. This poster needs that level of hyperrealism that drawings cannot achieve.
Given that The Martian is a science fiction movie that takes place in the present time, typographic choices need to walk a particular line. The copy has more impact than the typeface, however, as the typeface is rather unremarkable.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Since 2049 is the sequel, it makes sense to integrate some elements from the first movie. The duality in the composition also hints at choices or being on the precipice of a pivotal event. This hint also is shown in the direction in which Ryan Gosling’s character, K, is positioned. He is on the left red-toned side, where he starts as a Blade Runner doing his job. But as the visual direction indicates, there will be choices leading him to the other side — towards Ford’s character, Deckard. The imagery style of this poster is partly photographic, having an illustrated background.
For typography, the main item is the lack of copy, which leads the viewer to focus on the title logo. Like the original Blade Runner, the movie logo references the 80s ad-venture feel, popular at the time.
Wendy Tabor RGD is a generalist graphic designer in highly regulated industries. Practising her craft since 2014, she has learned the art of taking highly technical information and turning it into thoughtful and engaging design. Wendy brings her creative and technical expertise, her multifaceted storytelling ability and her insatiable curiosity to the design world.