Science Fiction: Where Tech Dreams About Itself
Does technology have a subconscious? If it does, look no further than sci-fi summer blockbusters like "Prometheus" at the multiplex.
At the heart of almost all technology -- whether it's the printing press of the medieval age or the iPhone of today -- is an inherent promise to make life easier, better, more magical. Yet for all the wide-eyed optimism, technology also sparks anxiety and uncertainty, especially as advances in science expand the limits of human possibilities beyond their natural scope and provoke ethical dilemmas whose consequences can't yet be fully grasped.
Human ingenuity can make the impossible possible -- it can carry voices over great distances and engineer endless ways to save and prolong life. But it can also create great destruction and fear, as seen in the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. This fundamental tension of technology, and the role of humans in it, fuels many of the stories that make up the wide and diverse science fiction genre, one of storytelling's most enduring categories.
Highly responsive to the emotions and events of the time, one only needs to look at today's bookshelves and big screens for a litmus test on the collective unconscious surrounding tech. In other words, if products and inventions are the art and practice of technology, then science fiction is the philosophy, exploring reveries, meditations and emotions provoked by our inventions.
And judging from Hollywood's latest offering to the genre, Ridley Scott's highly anticipated "Prometheus," we're still grappling with the dark consequences of what we can do with science and technology, even as the drive to innovate continues to push the limits of human understanding.
When an Alien Is Not Just an Alien
A new movie by Ridley Scott, the auteur behind "Alien" and "Blade Runner," Prometheus is billed as "sharing DNA" with the original Alien movies, though it is not a direct prequel. A ship sets out to explore clues that could lead to the discovery of the origins of mankind, only to discover a threat that may wipe out Earth altogether.
Dystopia, apocalypse, spaceships, aliens: these are just some of the elements that make up a million sci-fi stories. But similarly in the way that hydrogen, oxygen and other elements can be combined into almost endless combinations to create something unique and different, the symbols and tropes of sci-fi are remixed endlessly in stories that reflect the mores and preoccupations of the time. The aliens of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" from 1956 reflected an era rife with fears about Communism and resulting McCarthyism, while the portrayal of the extraterrestrials in the 2009 South African film "District 9" touched on the legacy of apartheid and racial strife.
Deep Roots, Enduring Appeal
The elasticity of science fiction tropes and conventions and their ability to show a vast array of perspectives has deep roots in literature, where it long developed before finding its way into film.
Literary critics disagree on sci-fi's origins; some argue that elements of science fiction pop up in ancient epics like Sumerian "Epic of Gilgamesh" or "The Arabian Nights," or even in classical texts like Greek-Syrian writer Lucian's satirical "True History" from the 2nd century, which features a set of characters traveling to the moon. Others point to Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," while others champion Mary Shelley's 1818 classic "Frankenstein."
No matter what the origins of sci-fi are, however, most critics agree the literary genre developed in tandem with scientific advances of the time, whether it was the revelations of Copernicus and Newton during the Scientific Revolution or industrialization in the 19th century. "Frankenstein," for instance, was authored during the rise of medical science as a legitimate field of study, reflecting fears of the godlike powers that some perceived physicians as cultivating.
Science fiction continued to attract fans, especially with the rise of mass media and cheap publishing. Whether through the literary efforts of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne or the reams of anonymous pulp paperbacks, sci-fi flourished as a cult genre that grew more and more popular.
The genre also grew in reputation, and the careers of authors like the late Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan flourished, each author rendering stories that reflected a gamut of sensibilities towards technology, ranging from wide-eyed wonder of Sagan's "Contact" to the political alienation at the core of Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."
Today, authors like William Gibson and Cory Doctorow continue to explore the impact and consequences of technology on human societies and psyches, their work incorporating insights into how the Internet and other wireless technologies shape everyday experience.
Sci-Fi and Film: A Marriage Made in Heaven
But sci-fi likely found its greatest flourishing as its stories found its way to film, one of the most tech-dependent artforms invented. In the early 20th century, film itself invoked magic and wonder with audiences, and filmmakers delighted in how the medium could be manipulated to create effects beyond the limits of reality.
Regarded as one of the first masterworks of early cinema, director George Melies' charming fantasy "A Trip to the Moon," based on sci-fi stories by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, featured a magician fighting off aliens, making them "disappear" through simple visual trickery. The effect charmed audiences, making "Trip to the Moon" a blockbuster of its time, a classic of early cinema and likely the first known science fiction film.
Visual effects, however, remained hokey throughout much of film's technical development, and low production values likely kept sci-fi films at B-movie status, though movies like "Body Snatchers" garnered cult audiences. But eventually the sophistication of effects shifted the scale of sci-fi stories on screen, making new directions in narrative possible. The rising levels of technical wizardry likely helped science fiction movies graduate to marquee entertainment, culminating in the launch of franchises like "Star Wars," which arguably brought science fiction to the cinematic mainstream.
The Grandfather of Sci-Fi Films
Science fiction film truly became cinematic art, however, with Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," which many critics and filmmakers consider the apotheosis of science fiction film. The story of a series of encounters between a crew of astronauts and a group of black monoliths affecting human evolution, the film was lauded for its wry ironic humor, its grandiose philosophical meditations and its visually stunning special effects.
Filmmakers ranging from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas to Ridley Scott -- all of whom went on to make their own sci-fi epics, though with highly different sensibilities -- speak in awe of Kubrick's cinematic achievement. Even though many saw "2001" as an "unbeatable" film whose technical and aesthetic achievements would be hard to top, that didn't mean directors didn't try.
"Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie, and it is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I'm concerned," said George Lucas in 1977, the year "Star Wars" was released, establishing the sci-fi blockbuster as a Hollywood entertainment staple and eventually launching one of the first of many highly successful sci-fi franchises.
However, as sci-fi visual effects became more sophisticated and films racked up box office, many filmmakers left stories behind in favor of sheer spectacle. "There is an over reliance on special effects as well as weak storylines," said Ridley Scott of modern sci-fi films in 2007.
Prometheus: Spectacle vs. Speculation
Scott, of course, went on to make his own spectacular sci-fi films that filled the big screen with epic visuals and big-concept narrative. He created the epochal "Blade Runner," which explored the lines between humans and androids, and how science can dehumanize humans and how science can find humanity in machines.
Scott also made the first "Alien" movie, which unforgettably combined sci-fi and horror genres in essentially what is a haunted-house story preoccupied with ideas of virus and contamination. Beyond its surreal biomorphic imagery, its taut thriller pacing and sheer visceral dread, it featured one of cinema's strongest female protagonists, Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, reflecting the impact of 1970s feminism. It also created, in tandem with Swiss artist H.R. Giger, an iconic monster upon which a huge franchise was built.
In Scott's return to the sci-fi genre after 30 years, the eagerly anticipated Prometheus may be his most visually stunning film yet. It features gorgeous natural vistas and majestic renderings of space, and builds upon the look and feel of the earlier "Alien" films. Like the first film, Prometheus also features a strong female lead character defined by her fortitude, intelligence and survival instincts, as well as enough high-impact action to keep hearts pounding and pulses racing.
But does it fall into the trap of spectacle over story? Clearly, the film aspires towards much more than a typical summer entertainment. Its first half pairs its somberly majestic visuals with heady metaphysical speculation, thanks to its lead character, a devout Christian scientist played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. The character is fueled by as much as wonder and faith as her own scientific drive to know and explore, and is the conduit through which the film explores one of the most fundamental questions at the heart of science and technology: what are the limits of knowledge, and what is the price for expanding beyond them?
Prometheus is ambitious on both the visual and storytelling levels, which sets up a stunning first half that the film doesn't quite deliver on. The second half of the film feels more like a conventional Hollywood film, and while the pace and action picks up, the philosophical questions get left behind.
Still, while the film's details are closely guarded, it's not giving too much away to say that a sequel may be coming, which could give Scott an even wider canvas to explore the grand, vast question posed by the film, and by the genre as a whole.
New Directions in Sci-Fi
Sci-fi stories can be metaphysical, political, spiritual and just plain entertaining, but a set of new indie and European films are taking the tropes of the genre and exploring deeply personal and emotional terrain. Danish director Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" takes the idea of planets colliding in an eventual apocalypse to create an intimate, intense family chamber drama, while 2011's Sundance hit "Another Earth," starring indie breakout actress Brit Marling, uses the idea of parallel worlds to render a quietly affecting coming-of-age story.
Television, as well, offers another large avenue for developing sci-fi work. "Star Trek," of course, was long a staple on TV, but the lowering expenses of special effects now means nearly every major network has a sci-fi series on its roster, each with different sensibilities and concerns that both fit within and expand the genre.
Once considered the realm of fanboys, sci-fi has long gone beyond its origins as a cult niche of stories. Marling, who co-wrote "Another Earth" with director Mike Cahill, believes science fiction is the future of storytelling, and the key to keeping stories fresh and relevant in an age where technology changes rapidly and shifts lives in ways we're still grappling with.
"We're retelling the same dramas from Ancient Greece," said Marling. "These stories are so fundamentally old, the mythology that they come from, the hero's journey, the way a narrative works. Science allows you to take the same story and see it from a new perspective, because the science is always new and fresh." ♦
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