[16 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At it’s very best, science fiction makes us think. It asks us to ponder the tough questions and consider the complicated consequences of messing with science, space, technology, and our own fragile grasp of same. It often contemplates ideas bigger than us, using a shape of things to come creativity that’s part warning, part welcome. Of course, Star Wars came and wrecked havoc on the genre, using its space operatics to turn quality science fiction into action adventure in the galaxy, but even within its movie serial designs are ideas that expand our concept of who we are, and who we might be. It’s an approach that’s often yielded uneven results, especially when the desire for eye candy and brain busting special effects take precedent over the one thing great speculative fiction cannot live without, ideas.
With that in mind, and the attempted intelligence of Johnny Depp’s upcoming Transcendence preparing to perplex moviegoers, we believe it’s time to remember the movies that made science fiction one of our favorite cinematic stops in the first place. Again, we aren’t dealing with films that use space or extraterrestrial intelligence (or science, or computers, or whatever) as a means of basically reinventing the action film. Nor are we arguing art vs. approach here. We take the “thought-provoking” part of this piece’s title very seriously. Finally, this is just our interpretation of the genre. Others see depth in such otherwise superficial films as Avatar, or Inception and to them we welcome the debate. Indeed, for us, such serious sci-fi requires discussion and dissection. So let’s being with the movie that more or less started it all:
Considering when it was made, 1927, and how forward thinking it was, it would be a crime not to include this film on any list of thought provoking sci-fi. In fact, the entire allegorical narrative here created the core conceits that would come to play a part in the genre for the next 40 years. At the center of this story is the notion of humanity vs. technology, the idea that man can be manipulated by science to do and act in ways antithetical to his best interest. With its robot villainess and corporation corruption, we could be watching a film from 2027.
While the metaphor for race and racism is obvious, Rod Serling’s riveting adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel also touched on the idea that our then current Cold War could result in some horrible future shock for everyone. Indeed, the final shot, often pointed to as one of the great twists in all of cinema, suggests that the shape of things to come will be nuclear and not at all pleasant. Naturally, the many sequels in the franchise had to fill in the gaps, but at least at the beginning, Charlton Heston’s Taylor understands that something is not right… and the answer is profound.
Before The Matrix made the idea of virtual reality and the real world uber cool, Alex Proyas delivered this mesmerizing movies about aliens searching for the means of saving their race via studying humans. The main premise sees a man, accused of murder, living through a neo-noir nightmare. Only after he discovers the white-faced ‘Strangers’ does he begin to understand the guinea pig like nature of his existence. There are a lot of parallels to the Wachowskis winning efforts, but here, Proyas is particularly tuned in to the whole notion of acting outside yourself and discovering who you really are. His hero is not “The One”, just someone.
Shane Caruth is a filmmaker worthy of serious, serious attention. His most recent effort, Upstream Color, is one of the best movies of the last ten years. Oddly enough, it was a decade ago that we first discovered this brilliant jack-of-all-trades, using his undeniable imagination and limited budget to create one of the most compelling movies about time travel ever. Hoping to make a fantastical idea more relatable and down to earth, he succeeded in showing that science may have the answers, but without humans to fully understand and exploit them, all technology offers is theory. A truly remarkable work.
Yes, it has more action than your average thought-provoking effort and there is a blockbuster mentality to the look and feel of this film, but after the genre reinvention via Star Wars, Ridley Scott‘s epic to proper science fiction (not just mere “dogfights in space”) stand as both a visual feast and a true mind bender. The idea of Deckard’s actual delineation (is he “man or machine”) matched against a Los Angeles that actually feels like the Pan-Asian melting pot it is destined to become give the viewer the appetizers for the coming cinematic banquet. Such food for thought becomes far more nourishing the more times you savor this film’s flavors.
Charlton Heston again, this time taking on what was then one of the most disturbing ideas in all of early ‘70s social policy. In confronting a world population pushing 3.9 billion, the movie manufactured a dystopian 2022 were resources have been depleted, millions are in poverty, the elderly can choose assisted suicide, and food is a coveted commodity. In response, the government comes up with the Soylent foods, including the controversial title comestible. As a cop trying to track down the killer of a prominent figure, Heston discovers the truth about what the populace has been eating. The ending still sends shivers up one’s spine.
In which we have the opposite problem as presented in Soylent Green. Humans have been rendered infertile, and with the population in chaos, science is struggling for answers. When an immigrant woman turns up with child, our hero (a worn Clive Owen) must accompany her to a safe house less radicals kidnap her and use her status to start a revolution. Tense and involving, with lots of notable action to book, recent Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron creates a recognizable future shock where the extinction of the species could hinge less on biology and more on the breaking point of people. A visionary effort.
Using a trio of settings—the ancient past, the scientific present, and an enigmatic future—Darren Aronofsky managed the unthinkable. He created a film about death and about dealing with mortality which actually investigated the nature of existence and the problems with hoping for life everlasting. Some were confused by the constant jumping between times, but with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the leads, we definitely get the substance of the split story. He doesn’t want his wife to die. She wants him to learn how to cope and forgive. Somehow, Aronoksky even tosses in the Fountain of Youth and makes it all work.
For those who’ve never seen this amazing film by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, here’s a very crude comparison: Solaris is Event Horizon without the horror overtones or trip to Hell plotting. Instead, the title planet uses the brainwaves of the astronauts orbiting its surface to supply “visions” of their past that may or may not be real. There’s also the notion of leaving everything behind and the realization of what that really means as part of the subtext. While some call this film “slow”, it’s actually deliberate. In having the narrative play out is such a manner, the audience also understands the truth about being alone in space.
As one of the greatest films ever made, Stanley Kubrick‘s sci-fi masterpiece asks us to consider our place in the cosmos, and just adds some intriguing possibilities to play with our perceptions. We begin with a spark toward evolution. When then get a link between our worlds and others. Then, just as astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is about to make contact, a rogue computer named HAL takes over. The resulting combination of wayward technology and alien unknown returns to its man/animal roots, using Bowman as the next great “star child” link in creation. As explorations of where we fit in the universe go, there are none better.