Reflections on Science Fiction films

 

by

 

Stuart Fernie

 

 

 

 

Purpose of science-fiction films

 

Clearly, science-fiction films appeal to the imagination of lovers of the “what if …. ?” scenario, hypothesising different pasts, presents, futures, worlds or people, but they serve also to increase awareness of situations and attitudes on present-day Earth and its reality.

 

Science-fiction films can allow us to study familiar societal, human and/or psychological issues, but examined in unfamiliar contexts with a view to lending clarity to various aspects of these matters.

 

It is perhaps hoped that by transposing issues, or by exploring potential outcomes in the future of policies being considered at present, these issues may be viewed with greater objectivity and understanding, enabling us to deal with concerns and problems more reasonably and with greater perspicacity.

 

It is, however, rather curious and ironic that such an outlandish (sometimes literally) genre should actually be used to study essentially human characteristics, failings and accomplishments. A mutually accepted fiction (by both maker and viewer) lends greater distance and objectivity to the viewing of science-fiction, and allows bigger themes to be dealt with perhaps because the audience is more willing to accept exaggeration and microcosm within an entire premise which is knowingly (and acknowledged to be) false, yet the genre works best when infused with human traits and characters with whom we can empathise.

 

Perhaps these points are best illustrated by example:

 

 

 

Science-fiction started early in the history of cinema, just a few years after the birth of the moving picture in the 1890s, when Georges Méliès created “Le voyage dans la lune” in 1902. Demonstrating the potential of mankind (in terms of space exploration) as well as the potential of the relatively new moving picture, Méliès also incorporated implied criticism of colonial attitudes in the way in which inhabitants of the moon are treated as subordinate by the “conquering” and rather pompous scientists, an early indication of the way science-fiction can be used to make pertinent points about human society and nature.

 

Of course, the film also suggests that technology can open the way to possibilities previously thought closed or not considered at all, and that imagination and ambition may lead to reality.

 

The film may be viewed here on YouTube.

 

 

Science-fiction need not, of course, be about journeying through space and time to meet inhabitants of other worlds, but may be focused on society on Earth, with its rich source of material for discussion and criticism.

 

 

In 1927, Fritz Lang made “Metropolis” (available here on YouTube), a massive film in terms of length (about two and a half hours), budget (over five million Reichsmark), scale and ambition. It is a story of love, industrialisation, mechanisation and the chasm between ruling and working classes. A truly remarkable feat of film-making which uses its genre to make clear the social ills it sets out to depict, and for which it seeks solutions.

 

 

“The Day the Earth Stood Still”  1951, Robert Wise

 

 

The original was made in 1951, shortly after the production and implementation of nuclear power and weapons. An alien, Klaatu, arrives on Earth to warn Earthlings of their responsibility toward themselves and others in the universe now that they have discovered nuclear power. The Earth will be watched and judged by alien forces who will not hesitate to protect themselves from human aggression.

 

That the warning came from an obvious outsider was intended to lend even greater weight and authority to the warnings mouthed by many at the time, though clearly such warnings carried no weight with leaders of the major nations of the time as they embarked on the great arms race that marked the 50s, 60s and 70s, and which indeed maintains a presence to this day.

 

The remake follows a very similar path, but broadens the concept of protection to protection of the life-giving Earth from the race that threatens its destruction – humanity.

 

 

“Forbidden Planet” 1956, Fred Wilcox

 

 

“Forbidden Planet” is a spectacular film whose influence has reverberated across much of science-fiction ever since, yet it has its roots in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and is actually a study of ego and one man’s obsession with having things his way. Of course, the film takes this fundamental notion and carries it to entertaining extremes while incorporating observations on man’s place in the cosmos, love, personal development, loyalty, duty, ego, vanity and curiosity – all very human traits laid bare against the background of a secluded inhabitation on an isolated planet, and laced with humour and some quite astounding special effects.

 

Quite apart from the “artistic” success of the film, it also provided something of a blueprint for a franchise that has made its presence felt for some fifty years as I write, and which is showing no sign of disappearing – “Star Trek”.

 

 

Gene Roddenberry created “Star Trek” to give expression to studies of our most human traits set against a backdrop of excitement and adventure in space. Over the years it and its offshoots have dealt with a myriad of emotions and issues such as racism, responsibility, friendship, religion and seeking God, duty, love, anger, remorse, pity, envy and doubt over one’s purpose in life to mention but a few. And all of this is set in imagination-inspiring backgrounds and plots.

 

Inspiring scientists to actually develop technology which appears in the series, and even inspiring some to study and learn the completely fabricated and artificial Klingon language, few TV shows can lay claim to have exercised such an influence not just on viewing habits, but on behaviour and society as a whole, and the reason is not the sci-fi environment but rather the profound humanity of its characters.

 

In the late sixties, there started another highly successful and innovative franchise, “Planet of the Apes”. Although it spawned several film sequels, a TV series, a remake and a further re-imagining of the basic premise, none has managed to outshine the dazzling 1968 original.

 

 

The film sums up, in many ways, what science fiction films invite viewers to do – to see ourselves and our society in a different and perhaps clearer light. Using role-reversal, the makers of the film try to shed light on various aspects of our society, focusing on our treatment of animals, religion and science, man’s ego and curiosity and of course man’s willingness to inflict pain and suffering on his fellow man.

 

For a fuller discussion of this film, please click here.

 

Also in the late sixties, the mighty “2001, a space odyssey” was released (or launched?). While brilliantly made with quite staggering special effects, I’m afraid this story of inspiration, curiosity, identity, faith and artificial intelligence left me somewhat cold and uninvolved. For me, it was more of a lesson than a drama.

 

Hot on his success with “Planet of the Apes”, Charlton Heston made a few more forays into science-fiction in the 70s, notably with “Soylent Green”, a film based on the contemporary obsession with overpopulation and the inherent problems of food supply and health care, and which offers a novel and repulsive way of dealing with such matters.

 

 

Combining sci-fi with the mystery genre, Heston investigates various deaths and in the process uncovers a variety of unsavoury truths about the society we are predicted to have created. Apart from the above-mentioned food and health problems, these include benefits accorded to the wealthy, a rather disdainful and misogynistic attitude toward women, and a rather autocratic view of authority and policing.

 

A prize example of the way in which sci-fi can be used to extrapolate directions our society and culture may take in the future.

 

“Rollerball” (1974, Norman Jewison) was another fascinating, if at times slow and stagy, foray into a possible future in which sport, in particular the sport of Rollerball, has replaced war and aggression in society.

 

 

Society is managed by a group of corporations run by faceless and characterless individuals whose sole purpose is to maintain the status quo. Rollerball exists to prove that team work is essential to success, and the individual counts for very little. To ensure a “happy” life, citizens need only accept without question decisions and measures taken by heads of corporations.

 

Jonathan E (played by James Caan) proves to be a threat to corporate-run society as he takes on cult status with fans of Rollerball due to his skill and longevity in the game, and measures are taken to ensure his influence, indeed his very life, will be curtailed. As Jonathan queries his directives, he starts to question first various aspects of corporate-run society, and then its very core.

 

Another notable example of the sci-fi genre turned on the nature and mores of society, this time with a warning of the dangers of corporate-run society.

 

For a fuller discussion of this film, please click here.

 

In 1977, George Lucas made “Star Wars, A New Hope”, a film many consider the greatest sci-fi film ever, followed by two sequels. The first trilogy undoubtedly combines all the elements to make a great sci-fi film – love, courage, friendship, principle, family conflict and resolution, and even religion and faith are distilled down to “the Force”.

 

 

All of this is delivered with a sharp script which develops themes and characters within a structure of adventure and with humour and a lightness of touch, allowing audiences to enjoy the action while engaging with the underlying issues.

 

However, the second trilogy suffered from a bloated budget (if necessity is the mother of invention, can it be said that an excess of money stifles ingenuity?), bloated action sequences and special effects (bigger is not always better), a dull as ditch water script (where is Han Solo when you need him?), tired and wooden performances (due in part to the invasion of special effects and having no-one to bounce off), overemphasis on the political theme (reduced to the minimum necessary for the first trilogy) and a nominee for the most annoying character in the history of cinema – Jar-Jar Binks.

 

On top of all that, the engagement and youthful belief in principle have all but gone, leaving behind a shallow copy of the original and questions as to whether the producers actually understood what was appreciated and admired in the original. Of course, maybe they did recognise these weaknesses and that is why they started with episode 4.

 

“Alien” 1979, Ridley Scott

 

 

“Alien” is a film that works across several genres – sci-fi, thriller, suspense, mystery etc.. Building fairly slowly until the action explodes on screen (literally), the film then proceeds at a steady pace, delivering shocks, horror, suspense and action as the crew are hunted by the vicious but valuable alien they have unwittingly brought on board their vessel, yet the film does a great deal more than that.

 

Underpinning everything is the fact this is a merchant vessel whose owners are devoted to profit. The company considers all crew members expendable in the face of vast potential profits to be made from studying this creature and developing weapons from it. The android, Ash, apparently malfunctions but is in fact slavishly following its programme to capture and protect the alien being.

 

There is even a nod toward social division among the crew, and the question of the value of their own lives, and the issue of the place of women in society is raised as those women in the crew appear to be treated as second-class citizens, though Ripley proves the detractors mightily wrong.

 

These themes recur regularly throughout the series, especially that of profiteering at the expense of employees’ lives.

 

“Blade Runner” 1982, Ridley Scott

 

 

“Blade Runner” is a slow, atmospheric and fascinating film about our search for answers to the eternal questions of who we are, where we come from and what our purpose is.

 

Deckard is a detective tasked with finding and “retiring” (or killing) replicants (artificial humans) who have malfunctioned and who may pose a danger to humans. Some of them seek out their creator in order to gain answers to questions about their origins. In the course of the film, Deckard is forced to question his own nature and what it means to be human.

 

For a fuller discussion of this film, please click here.

 

The “Terminator” films investigate the area of artificial intelligence, with mankind perhaps becoming too clever for its own good and creating machines in the future which develop consciousness and which send back through time killer robots to prevent the rise of resistance movements threatening them in the future.

 

 

Time travel and its consequences have long been a favourite plot source for sci-fi films, and they are dealt with well here.

 

The second film in the series is probably the most successful as it examines leadership, friendship, human rights, duty and humanity.

 

“The Matrix” 1999, Larry and Andy Wachowski

 

 

Science-fiction based on the philosophical precepts of Plato, “The Matrix” manages to combine action and excitement with some rather complex philosophical concepts – no mean feat!

 

Basically, it boils down to the division of the body and the mind (or soul). Plato believed (and influenced most of Western philosophy and religion in the process) that knowledge is innate and the body serves only to draw that knowledge out of us. It follows, then, that the body may be dispensed with if contact can be made directly with the mind, which is the centre of reality.

 

Here we have a film that investigates the possibilities of a world in which the mind rules, but the mind is not susceptible to the same physical restrictions as the body, leading to thrilling visual and intellectual spectacles.

 

The sequels appear “tagged on” and, like “Star Wars” before them, develop the spectacle but fail to live up to the premise of the original.

 

Cloning is a popular topic among makers of sci-fi films, and has been treated in a variety of ways. “The 6th Day” (2000, Roger Spottiswoode) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger offers cloning as the premise for a series of action sequences and is fairly light-hearted and entertaining. More interesting and thought-provoking is “Moon” (2009, Duncan Jones) in which a lonely technician on the moon slowly uncovers the truth about himself as he questions his past and considers his future. This deals nicely with identity, the value attached to life and the whole issue of considering clones as second class or inferior.

 

 

 

“Oblivion” (2013, Joseph Kosinski) is a beautiful-looking film which deals with the slow discovery of truth about reality despite appearance, our dependence on memory in assessing reality, the inherent value of life (whether cloned or not), the value of freedom and the spirit to fight for it, and of course love which inspires acts of self-sacrifice.

 

“Elysium” (2013, Neill Blomkamp) is a much-disparaged film warning of the increasing division in society between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

 

 

The wealthy live a life of luxury and good health on board Elysium, a satellite circling the Earth, while the poor scrape a living on a ravaged Earth and face health issues.

 

Denounced by many as left-wing propaganda, the film nevertheless raises issues of freedom and fairness in society today.

 

“Prometheus” (2012, Ridley Scott), like “Blade Runner” before it, deals with the age-old questions of identity, purpose and the overwhelming desire to meet our maker.

 

Criticised by some who wanted this prequel to “Alien” to resemble the original more closely, this film is much more ambitious and thought-provoking, inviting us to ponder the possibility that if we were to meet our maker, perhaps we may be disappointed …. .

 

For a fuller discussion of this film, please click here.

 

 

These thoughts are, of course, entirely subjective and the films mentioned are not intended to be a comprehensive list of the best sci-fi films available, but rather film that offer some insight into the themes and topics that can be usefully developed within the science-fiction genre.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page.

 

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

 

Stuart Fernie

Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.