Everybody loves a good science fiction flick—the whizzing and flashing of lasers in a fierce battle; the calculated efficiency of droids and machines, friend and foe alike, and their trials and tribulations; colossal starships and their legendary journeys into deep realms of uncharted space; magnificent cities with their towering skyscrapers reaching further and further above toward the zenith like the fabled tower of Babel and gravity-defying vehicles traversing and criss-crossing each other in definite lines above the surface—what more instances can a good sci-fi flick offer that unfailingly grab our attention and still leave more to the imagination???
The possible futures that we see and which are so graphically depicted in these movies leave us all with a question in our minds- whether the described futures as seen in the movies, be it a dystopia or a utopia, can actually be true in the days to come? There have been a multitude of movies made in the aforementioned genre that have captivated moviegoer’s and cine-buff’s minds with all conceivable facets of life and societies of the future, both near and distant. In each movie, and I am sure that you all will agree, the trials and problems that the present society faces today reflects in the futures shown in the movies. Sci-Fi has made possible scenarios into reality on the big screen— a post-apocalyptic earth borne out of nuclear war and devastation, the emergence and eventual superiority of the artificial intelligence (or AI), interstellar wars being waged between different species of unknown worlds of origin and humans, time-travel and hyperspace transportation and much more that our minds can dream of the world to come— and it is without a doubt that each example described is not only a common plot element in every sci-fi flick, but at the same time integral to the question of eventual existences that humanity may have to face.
A few days back , I had read an amazing graphic novel entitled ‘The Forever War‘ by Joe Haldeman. In it, the author brilliantly describes the cynicisms of humanity as it fights out a war dragging towards a millenia against an unseen species called the ‘Taurans’. The graphic novel originally started out as a book published way back in the 80s but the themes described and the plot was way ahead of its time and as such continues to be even to this day. The best part about the novel according to me was that the whole story was depicted in monochrome rather than color— the violence, the battles, the hardships and trials of the soldiers as they struggle to maintain a sense of identity and sanity made harder by the difference of age in hyperspace travel as compared to earth-time ( this is the recurring theme of the novel- a 20-something soldier travelling for two years in hyperspace has actually aged to be around 50 in earth time!!!) were better explained in black and white— a metaphor for humanity’s cynicism and ineptitude. The novel offered a unique persective towards the psyche of the soldiers as they find themselves getting distant from the earth they once knew, the disillusionment due to their differing perspectives of their actual ages in space versus the earth, and the discrimination and apathy that they face when they arrive at an earth aged long past than when they left it to fight off an unreasonable war light years away. These themes reflect the cynicism of the human nature of today which is rampant with apatheticism, greed and social indifference, as well as the treatment of our soldiers, the foremost guardians of our society, as pariahs and outcastes. This is not a fictional aspect of tomorrow, but rather a grim reality of today. And sadly, despite it being foretold in the novels of yesterday, we have not made any concerted effort to improve upon it and ourselves in the world of today. ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks and the recently released ‘Pacific Rim‘ explore situations where the entire human race fights a war of survival against annihilation with Pyrrhic consequences, and details on the themes of worldwide collaboration and cooperation, something which is in total dearth in todays world where nations form coalitions but usually against another coalition (Case in point: Then, NATO against the Warsaw Pact; and now, NATO against the rest of the world…)
I find that many contemporary sci-fi authors and directors choose to depict the future in a more dystopian rather than utopian outlook, the reason being that our flaws and decisions of the present will culminate into a disturbing reality shown in the world of tomorrow. For example, in the movie ‘I Am Legend‘, the Crippin virus which was formulated to end cancer turns the whole of humanity into nocturnal, flesh eating zombies with the remaining humans either wiped out or confined to pocket settlements around the world; the machines in the Matrix series were designed by humans to serve humans, but the sophistication and advances in AI propelled the machines to view humans as a threat, in the sense that machines were aware that they too had a consciousness and didn’t choose to be terminated or ‘killed’ when being forced to do so by their human masters, the same logic was seen in Isaac Asimov‘s ‘I, Robot ‘ and its movie adaptation where the designer and lead programmer of the advanced series of robots (the NS-5s) was aware of the fact that the 3 Laws binding the robot to servitude and docility with no intention of possible harm towards humans would eventually be questioned by the machines themselves, owing to the ‘ghosts in the machine’ i.e. the possibility of a robot to think of itself as a singular entity capable of a having a unique, individual consciousness, thus causing them to revolt against the humans. Let me also not forget to add the grim lessons taught by Philip K. Dick in his pathbreaking works “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?” and “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” being superbly adapted into “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” respectively, wherein, the recurring theme in both movies were that the machines created and the technologies invented to fulfill our needs eventually turn against us, thereby, creating the dilemmic situations that the protagonists face and eventually overcome (even though the endings of both movies are still open to multiple interpretations!!!).
Neill Blomkamp, in “District 9” and the recently released “Elysium“, has showcased xenophobism and racial discrimination in a wondrous blend of cinematic genius. Mr. Blomkamp is from South Africa, a nation known for its racial diversity yet infamous for it history of racial discrimination, in “District 9″, Blomkamp portrays an invigorating tale of an alien ship being stranded in the city of Johannesburg , its survivors being subjugated to racial profiling, segregation and xenophobia by humans, yet the film also provides hope and emphasizes humanity even in the worst of circumstances. In particular, I especially liked the scene in which a South African official reports back on the first arrival of the alien ship in Johannesburg, not the USA, nor the UK or Europe but South Africa out of all places, the scene evokes significant meanings- Africa is considered the mother nation i.e. where man first originated and has migrated towards the rest of the world thousands of years ago, another being that South Africa is a nation with a legacy of racial profiling and segregation since the colonial period, Blomkamp himself being a native of the country wisely chose to screen a movie based on aliens and anti-social themes in Johannesburg, a city with a high percentage of diversity. In ‘Elysium‘, Blomkamp utilized the same themes but took the landscape further by showing xenophobia and segregation on a worldwide scale. “Elysium” shows a dystopian world where overpopulation has eliminated resources, plant and wildlife; the rich, powerful and elite have built the eponymous space station, a sanctuary where life is perfect, diseases and ageing are curable and virtually eliminated. The inhabitants of the station lead rich, fulfilling lives confined in their perfect sanctum and dictate the terms and conditions of life to the less fortunate still lingering on to a hapless existence back on earth. Elysium‘s screenplay and themes were similar to that of District 9, the effects being better and the cinematography more streamlined than the latter. However, both movies highlighted the discerning fact that despite all the technological advancements and progress, our inborn instincts of fear and scepticism especially towards people of other races still remain prevalent in our society, and sadly still continue to haunt us.
The notion of precognition and determinism, the ability of seeing events in the future are concepts encompassing elements both mystical and scientific. The movie “Minority Report” (another Philip K. Dick adaptation) raises the questions of the age old debate of free will against determinism, the foremost question being that whether the future is set or if free will can actually alter it. The logic upon the said question is debated by the film’s protagonists in the fourth scene of the movie where Witwer (played by Colin Farrel) while discussing the Precrime system with its officers draws upon the system’s main legalistic drawback criticizing that it arrests individuals for having commited no crime and is met with the response stating that they will, Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) acknowledges the paradox made by Witwer and answers through a demonstration by rolling a ball which Witwer catches as it is about to land on the ground. When asked why did he catch the ball, Witwer says that ‘it was going to fall’ to which Anderton replies ‘but it didn’t’ and further adds “by preventing a thing from happening has not changed the fact that it was going to happen”. This was not a negative but a very logical and scientifically astute fact, but the concept was misused to frame the protagonist of murder charges which he knew wasn’t inconceivably possible and is forced to question the system itself.
I have recently started to watch the original series of Star Trek again, rudimentary special effects aside, the series was a trendsetter and had set a benchmark for scientific reasoning and ethics regarding humans and technology. In the episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” , we see Captain Kirk’s exact android replicant being created which will serve as an efficient and better replacement of him as said by the creator, the episode explains the usage of androids and their role in the service of humanity but also questions it- whether blind and programmed servitude can replace human emotion and sentiment? The androids depicted blindly follow the bidding of their creator until their logic of existence is questioned and ultimately manipulated by Kirk to go against their creator ultimately thwarting his plans of galactic domination through the androids.
The genre of science fiction provides dense and subtle meanings to the human condition capturing the essence of the human evolutionary spirit in all its essentiality. While we may be awed by the splendor and magnificence of the worlds of tomorrow on the big screen, let us also not forget that these are possible reflections of our future as well. Our future is what we make of it; it is important, therefore, for us to realize the meaning and significance of the lessons of what the genre wishes to tell us, that let the fiction depicted remain fiction, let us not strive towards it, and at the same time create a better utopia for us tomorrow rather than the grim and squalid dystopian surroundings that we are so seemingly enthralled to as shown in the movies. Take care and may the Force be with you all!!!
- Famous Movie Robots – Sci Fi (B Movie) (onyero9.wordpress.com)
- Science Fact or Fiction? The Plausibility of 10 Sci-Fi Concepts (livescience.com)
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- 5 sci-fi writers from the past whose books predicted the future (whizzpast.com)
- Sci-Fi Month Preview: The Caves of Steel (1964) (terracognition.wordpress.com)
- 8 Examples Of Sci-Fi Tech That Could Become Big Business (businessinsider.com)