The science fiction genre is generally not taken very seriously. In fact, when most people think about it, what usually comes to mind is all of the technological gadgets. However, quite often what is missed in this evaluation is what the genre is really about. Yes, there are usually some cool futuristic devices that are introduced, but that is quite often secondary to the soul of a science fiction story. In spite of the uber secular world in which these stories take place, most of them have a definite moral center. Indeed, one might even call them moralistic (though they are hardly recognized as such). In other words, more often than not, films/novels of this genre are concerned with very specific anxieties about the future, and perhaps even how to avoid them. Thus the genre is not only a moral one, but a prophetic one as well. It proposes what the future will look like if we continue on our current path. As for all of the technology that surrounds it, that is not incidental to the plot either, for it is usually these devices or mechanisms that serve to frame the particular moral concern. However, what was once believed to be the distant future, has now become the present, and what was once thought of as a fantasy, is now a form of realism. Below is a list of 10 science fiction films that pose interesting moral and philosophical dilemmas concerning the future/present state of technology. Spoiler alert: in the process of explaining what I deem to be of interest in the following films, I reveal some important plot twists. Please be aware of this fact, for I do not wish to ruin anyone's viewing experience.
This 1997 movie starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke raises a cautionary flag concerning advances in genetic technology. Like many films of this genre, there is very little time spent outside the impenetrable glass and white washed biomedical walls. This laboratory feel is more than a little common in this style of movie. The plot of the film revolves around the way in which the government, in cooperation with science and medicine, supervises the birthing process of every individual via embryonic testing (presumably in such a society it would be safest, genetically speaking, to avoid natural birth altogether). Yet even in such societies there are "genetic mistakes". This is where Ethan Hawke comes in, for he plays the part of one of those so called "genetic accidents," referred to as an "in-valid" (along with all others who are defective like he). Those who are considered genetically above board, or pure, are called "valids". This all leaves us to ponder a question. Is unchecked genetic technology working to create a better, healthier society, or is it simply putting a friendlier face on Hitlerian eugenics?
9. Never Let Me Go
As is often the case in these sci-fi films, there is some kind of ruse that is being perpetrated on society at large by a totalitarian regime. In the beginning of the film, we as an audience only have a vague notion that something is wrong. However, as the movie progresses we, along with the central characters, begin to realize that something is rotten in Denmark- and begin to seek a way out of the "machine." All the same, in this particular film, the main characters know all along that they are a part of this "program". The story begins in a prestigious private school where the students are presumably being prepared for great things; little does the audience know that this "preparation" is not for a happy life, but so that they will be suitable organ donors for the ones after whom they have been cloned. In this, and most science fiction stories, there is an adequate amount of creepy- yet pleasant ways of saying something awful. For instance, when donors "give" until they can no longer "donate", it is called a "completion". Perhaps the most interesting part of this film is the fact that no one, including the so called donors, really objects to this injustice. The practice has become so endemic to their way of thinking that it is accepted without any scrutiny at all. Such is the reality in a culture, that once certain moral attitudes are embraced, right or wrong, they often go unquestioned.
8. The Truman Show
This movie is in some ways a little dated, but the message is nevertheless still quite relevant. Released before reality TV had become de rigeur, this prophetic picture foresaw the direction of this kind of programming. The basic story line follows a man who is part of a reality TV show- though he does not know it. Since his birth he has been part of a fraud perpetrated against him by a TV corporation that was permitted to "adopt him". Appropriately, his name is "Truman", for he is the only one on set that is not playing a part (viz. true man). Through a kinder form of totalitarianism, he is kept on this impressive set/island until the climax of the film. Beyond questioning the wisdom of our "reality" obsessed culture, the great insight of this film is the recognition that a perfectly manicured reality, as they have attempted to create, does not make for a happy Truman. Man cannot live by bread alone, and Truman is a wonderful example of man's yearning for authenticity in a world that is counterfeit.
7. Minority Report
Loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story, the central theme of this film surrounds law enforcement in the future, and the question of whether or not you can convict someone of a crime before the fact. This reminds me of an old Howard Jones song which states; "You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin." At any rate, this question is particularly poignant in this era of pre-emptive wars, political divining, and genetic predetermination. But the larger issue is centered around this indispensable question of whether or not events are pre-determined or are subject to our free will. As the movie reveals, the answer to this question is yes. Yes, there are certain things that will inevitably happen, but what can and does change is our response to these events. However, even when someone does have the gift (or curse) of premonition, the fact is they generally can only see the future in shades and shadows. For this reason, as the movie points out, it is a dangerous to attempt to play God and determine an outcome before something has really "come out."
6. Fahrenheit 451
There have been a few screen adaptions for this Ray Bradbury novel, but I recommend the 1966 version in particular. Though it is not nearly as good as the novel (of course), it still has much of the spirit of the piece. One of the amazing prophetic insights of Bradbury is that he seemed to foresee the "catatonic flat screen fad" from a distance. In the film we observe flat screens that cover the entire walls of rooms, with television programming not unlike the Oprahesque-navel-gazing-self-empowerment nonsense that has characterized the last twenty years of television. Bradbury even seemed to foresee the use of tablets. Nevertheless, the central issue he deals with in the story is the manner in which technology and intellectually passive forms of entertainment are being used to numb people and "protect" them from certain unpleasant patterns of thoughts. This is seen as a way of shielding them from any thoughts that might disturb them. Consequently, all books are henceforth to be banned because, classic literature, properly speaking, is frivolous at best, and at worst treasonous and a threat to the common good. In our society, books are becoming obsolete for a different reason (as least at this point). Due to advances in technology, we spend far more time on our tablets and laptops, reading our summarized news feeds and reader's digest versions of stories, rather than engrossing ourselves in a novel. For our purposes, the larger question seems to be whether or not we want to elevate our thoughts, or soothe ourselves with superficiality. This I would submit is not so much a shot at technology, as it is a shot at those who would use it to do their thinking for them.
This 1985 film by director Terry Gilliam (I also recommend Twelve Monkeys) is a slightly more hopeful version of the George Orwell novel 1984. They are similar in that they both depict a totalitarian regime, though not one built on mere totalitarian brutality, but rather one built on a "kinder" and "gentler" form of cruelty (see blog on the 10 Worst Euphemisms); one more likely to brutalize you by ceaselessly beating you with velvet pillows than doing so with a tire iron. However, what separates these stories is that Brazil is in fact a satire. Instead of simply presenting a government that is all-powerful and inscrutable based on its own merits, he presents one that is inscrutable and all-powerful because it is hopelessly bureaucratic. Subsequently, man finds himself utterly stifled and suffocated under a tremendous pile of papers, cubicles, and legalisms that make getting to the truth a practical impossibility. There are numerous interesting subplots of this film- like his mother's addiction to plastic surgery- but perhaps the most unique aspect of the film, which seems to run through all Gilliam productions, is this glimmer of hope, some element of humanity that lives on despite the all pervading oppression of the "machine." What he is proposing is something akin to a kind of fairytale ex machina; an interior world of heroicism and liberty that is not necessarily perceived by human eyes. The abiding fear that characterizes the director's vision of the future is not specifically the idea that there will come a time when the government will impose unjust laws (for that is already the case), but that the government will seek to spiritually and intellectually castrate us, thereby taking away our power for doing good or ill (principally turning us all into well-medicated patients). Despite proposing such a depressing vision of the world, Gilliam also proposes a kind of every day hero that is not victorious in any outwardly and obvious way, but is successful in slaying the black dragon of mediocrity and mechanization, thereby triumphing in a grander narrative wherein the liberty of the spirit is maintained in spite of every attempt to crush it.
4. I Am Legend
As is the case with some of the other films on the list, there are different versions of the same film. I thought the version starring Will Smith was quite effective in communicating a couple of interesting motifs. One such thread is what I call the Frankensteinian motif. A natural characteristic of this story line involves some form of invention/creation that goes awry (so much so that its inventor loses control over it altogether). In the case of this film, the lead protagonist is a virologist named Robert Neville (Will Smith) who discovers a cure for cancer. However, soon after this discovery is made, his "creation" reverses field and winds up spreading a virus killing 99% of the world's population. Though Neville is not killed in all of this, his "creature" develops a mind of its own and wreaks havoc on humanity. The second motif that runs throughout the film relates to the sort of effect that isolation has on a man. "It is not good for man to be alone", and this film in no way militates against that Scriptural verse. Robert Neville lives in a world without fellow human beings, and so he has no one to talk to, save a dog, some mannequins, and anything else that will listen. Even so, the film's primary focus is on Neville's attempt to find a cure for the virus and ultimately bring back from the land of oblivion the so-called "dark seekers" (the dark seekers are humans corrupted, but not killed, by the virus, who, wild with rage, seek to devour any kind of flesh they can get their hands on). This notion of a post-apocalptic zombie-like creature also has its own tradition in films, and perhaps should make us consider just how thin the veneer of civilization is once put to the test. As depicted in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the question put to us is whether we are in fact the "good guys" who endure, or are we, in the absence of civilization, little more than "dark seekers" in sheep's clothing.
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Technology makes all things possible, including things that might be better left to the fancy of our imaginations. So also is the technology that is proposed in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Taken from an Alexander Pope poem, the movie title, like the poem itself, bespeaks the happiness that one may enjoy when/if their memory were to be purged of some of the more painful moments in our lives. The central figures in the film are Jim Carrey (this is not a comedy, though sometimes it is filed under that category) and Kate Winslet, whose failed relationship is the center piece of the story. The sequencing is a bit unusual because the movie begins without you even knowing that it has begun. In other words, the two characters that meet for the first time, have already met, they just don't know it. Using new technology, both figures have chosen to receive a procedure that serves to strategically erase certain memories. The question the movie raises is whether or not it is preferable to engineer our memories so that we only remember happy things, or it is rather preferable to accept all of the memories together- even if some of them are tragic. The movie ultimately sides with the latter, concluding that one cannot extract core memories from one's life and still remain fundamentally ourselves. Indeed, in spite of our desire to make everything glossy and perfect, there is still something more perfect than a cosmetic "perfection"; a beauty that is superior because it encompasses all of the tragedy and comedy and drama bound up in this thing that we call humanity.
2. Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
This film adaptation of another Philip K. Dick novel, stars a young Harrison Ford, playing a police detective who is sent out to "retire" human androids known as replicants. Often indistinguishable from human beings, these androids were created in the first place to do dangerous (and menial) work on off-world colonies. Nevertheless, these replicants are so intelligent and powerful that they defy those in authority over them and return to earth to live among the populace (another example of the Frankensteinian motif). Because they are not permitted on earth, the authorities send out the "experts" to hunt them down. There are a couple of interesting issues that are raised in this quest to "retire" these replicants. One of the questions that is posed is how exactly does one distinguish a humanoid from a human? In other words, what makes a human a human, and if an android possesses these same characteristics, do they deserve to be classified as such? If not, why? One of the signs these detectives look for when they are attempting to test a possible replicant is whether or not they have the capacity for empathy. And indeed, even if you are a human, but you lack a certain empathy for others, you may be a prime candidate for some of the most inhuman behavior. At the end of the novel (not so much the movie), there is another interesting motif that plays out. Throughout the film, there is always a question about whether anything is real at all; from the people, to the animals, down to even the detective whose name is Richard Deckard. So desperate is he for something real, Deckard spends half of the story trying to purchase a real animal, which ultimately turns out to be a fruitless endeavor. At the end of the novel, after Deckard retires the replicants, he drives to a remote area and discovers what he believes to be a rare species of toad; however, he is crestfallen to discover that even the toad is mechanized. This scene immediately casts doubt on the rest of the story, causing the reader to wonder if there was "anything real in the story at all." As it applies to our mechanistic culture, we too might begin to wonder if flesh and blood is slowly being covered over by a wilderness of metal and wires. Incidentally, if you do watch the movie, I recommend that you not watch the editor's cut. The original movie version is- in my opinion- better because it also contains Harrison Ford as a narrator, filling in some of the gaps that might otherwise be lost on audiences.
1. Children of Men