I love Science Fiction, whether it be in literature or film/TV, but as a fan, I’m frustrated at the moment. In the past years there was been quite a lot of product in this area, but far too much of it (in my opinion) has been in the “dystopian post-apocalyptic” camp, a genre I’ve long since found tedious. Those films all essentially come to the same conclusion: that we’re screwed, as a society, it’s our fault, and the only way out is to destroy all the technology and all of society and settle for a quiet little “triumph of the human spirit” ending. The problem with that sort of film is that it’s all emotion, no logic and no reason, two things that I think are absolutely essential to the science fiction genre.
For example, the recent film Snowpiercer had some intriguing ideas and style, but it was post-apocalyptic, dystopian, full of social metaphors and had an ending that implied the only living things on earth that really matter are polar bears. Even the good science fiction films lately have had that aesthetic, including District 9 (at least to some extent, although less than in others) and even the latest X-Men movie had to go into that grim territory. Nolan’s Interstellar, released this week, is also in that camp, focusing on the the destruction of the earth as a starting point. (From the trailer, with the plucky female co-pilot and the dedicated father to a young daughter (of course), I find it difficult to distinguish between this movie and Armageddon, although I’m sure the full film will have more than just cliches.)
There was a time when science fiction sought to explore intellectual or philosophical ideas, in order to motivate society’s progress and highlight what our species can achieve, or alternatively put things in some sort of profound cosmic perspective that encourages us to stretch our imagination. But lately the films are all sending us the opposite signal: we’re bad people who have ruined the world and things won’t work out for all but the innocent (usually a child left standing in the smouldering ruins of western civilization). This is precisely the same message people were writing and proclaiming 2000, probably even 3000 years ago, except now it’s wrapped in a secular language. It seems like somewhere along the line we completely lost confidence in our culture and civilization, if our science fiction products can be believed.
To put it another way, 25 or 30 years ago, we had Blade Runner and Mad Max, and they were fine: GREAT, in fact. But we also had ET, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, and even real-life based films like Apollo 13. Today you really have to seek out the hopeful and non-apocalyptic sci fi, but it’s there (Andy Weir’s The Martian is a great book, Soderbergh’s Solaris is underrated and Duncan Jones’ Moon was a great flashback to an earlier era, even if its plot twist hinged on corporate duplicity). I think the influence of anime and Manga had something to do with changing the aesthetic towards a darker, more violent place. Interestingly, this is similar to the effect that Sergio Leone’s westerns had on their American counterparts in the 1960s. Before Leone, we had High Noon and The Searchers. Great films, but of a certain type. After Leone, we had The Wild Bunch and The Outlaw Josey Wales, leading to films like Unforgiven and shows like Deadwood. It was a great and creative place to bring the western, and gave new life to a tired genre. In a similar way, perhaps anime showed western filmmakers how to pare down the generic texts, to distill it to its essential poses and moments, and then string them together on a fairly ordinary plot. When this works, it works very well, but the most famous westernized version of Manga, The Matrix, was… say it with me, now… a dystopian post-apocalyptic scenario in which human civilization destroyed itself and must seek redemption through violence. To be fair to Manga, certainly some of that genre is full of thoughtful, spiritual contemplation, but that aspect rarely if ever makes it to the big screen.
Just to be clear: I’m not arguing for an absolutely anti-dystopian sci fi cinematic landscape, where we only see people in clean uniforms and white corridors or we see poetic images of flowers and rainbows, but there has to be some sort of balance. There is another genre emerging of sci-fi film, one influenced, it appears, by video games and horror films, the “found footage” style. When it works well, we get something like Europa Report, and when it works less well we get the atrocious Apollo 18. This is a curious sub-genre and while, because of its roots in horror cinema, it does tend to go for the easy “monster eats us all” drama rather than something more profound, it’s not precisely the post-apocalyptic cliche, so it warrants a nod.
As I said from the top, I’m a science fiction fan. Dyed in the wool, own a first-edition novel, have an origami unicorn made of tinfoil sci-fi fan. The fact that I, of all people, am not satisfied with the products the film world is putting out these days should be a big wake-up call.
Which is why, on Sequart’s sci-fi week, I’m just tossing out a challenge to filmmakers and audience to ask for something different, something hopeful, thoughtful and powerful. It would be nice to see more old-fashioned science fiction. I’ll be discussing a few of the rare exceptions to this pattern in future articles this week, but this is my full-disclosure orientation, or if you like, a statement of taste and an admission of bias.