Continuing the series begun with my dumb list of game movies, we take a very incomplete look at real attempts to do something speculative and interesting with film and TV. The idea was that, in addition to voting the entries up and down, people would add their own thoughts. This happened, a bit. Not much. Here we go alphabetically, again — which as before is not necessarily the order in which I wrote the material.
Most sci-fi just tries to entertain with some familiar archetypes — space ships, lasers, weird alien life forms. Some sci-fi uses the archetypes as a thin veneer over familiar drama that could be staged anywhere.
Real sci-fi does one of two things. Either it pushes a scientific concept to its logical extreme, to study the effects of that idea on everyday life, or it uses a scientifically plausible scenario to push cultural concepts to their logical extremes in order to comment on contemporary life.
Either way, hard science fiction uses a rational understanding of the universe to explore the irrational way that we interact with the world.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The first half is perhaps the only movie to attempt a completely accurate portrayal of space, and space travel. Even further, Clarke and Kubrick tried to envision a world in which space travel (of this plausible sort) was an everyday occurrence, scattered with familiar brands and services. This is literary sci-fi, on a screen. There’s no real debate.
Blade Runner – The Final Cut
What if androids became so sophisticated that there was no sure way to tell them apart from real people? And what if those androids were wholly owned by corporations — and only produced in the first place as a disposable labor force? What if corporations ran all government and police matters? What would all of this mean for the value of life?
Children of Men
For about 20 years, the human race has been infertile. This has caused gradual problems to the social infrastructure, such that the UK is one of the only organized societies left — that organization retained by force. A few people claim to have a cure to that infertility, but such a cure goes against the established organization. Also, any baby who, against the odds, happens to be born is an immediate treasure and contraband for scientists the world over. Children of Men is a very nuanced and thorough exploration of that central “what if” that drives all serious science fiction.
Carl Sagan worked on this film for about twenty years before it went before the cameras, and then died just before it happened. Somewhere in the middle he shrugged and compiled his materials into a lovely novel, about a female scientist who finds herself in the middle of a possible first contact situation. Her work is her life, and she puts all her faith in her empirical skills. As chaotic as the universe seems, ultimately it all makes sense if you pay enough attention and are rigorous enough in your methodology. Then she is presented with a completely inscrutable situation, where all she has to go on is her own subjective impressions. The movie is also good, though it boils the book’s themes down a bit much and weighs spirituality higher than it needs to be.
So what happens when designer babies become the norm, and everyone with money or connections is sure to weed out all but the “best” genetic traits in the next generation? You get a society split between the genetically predictable and the genetically random — the products of natural births. Although it’s illegal to discriminate, it’s also simple to test. And no halfway decent employer is going to want to rely on unpredictable elements. You can see where things go from here, and write the movie on your own. Not exactly the most subtle allegory, but a worthwhile effort.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Every day you wake up, and someone else seems a little… off. They look the same, they have all the same memories, but everything human about them seems to have vanished. There’s a science fiction explanation, but really this is a discussion about the isolation of modern post-industrial, urban and suburban life.
Both the 1978 and the 1956 versions of this film are excellent in their own ways. The remake is actually closer to the original vision of the 1956 film, previous to studio interference, and has an extra layer or two of social satire about the self-oriented change in American culture over the 1970s.
Sam Rockwell is (so far as he knows) the only custodian of a corporate Moon base. For three years, his only companion has been a dubious AI voiced by Kevin Spacey. Then Rockwell’s character gets into a major accident. When he wakes, everything is just a little off. And when he starts to pick at the corners, his whole worldview shifts by one leap after another.
This is neat stuff. It could practically be a stage play, if you ignore the detailed and plausible depiction of Moon life. Moon takes cues from earlier serious sci-fi films like 2001 and Solaris, then ambles off in its own direction to explore the rights of the individual and the meaning of life in a world where corporations dictate policy and own everything down to individual DNA.
The Outer Limits (1963)
As with any anthology series, the quality and focus of the show depends on the writer. As often as not, though, The Outer Limits serves as a menagerie of fairly erudite short-form speculative fiction. Each episode could well be a short story in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. What we lose in deep exploration of a premise, we gain in a shotgun of odd juxtapositions, observations, and half-formed ideas. The best episodes could easily be expanded into an intense, thoughtful two-hour feature. The worst, well — they’re over in 25 minutes.
Quatermass and the Pit
In one breath, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass is both trashy pulp and highbrow science fiction. In the US, his work is practically unknown; in the UK it’s as much part of the cultural DNA as, say, The Twilight Zone.
Over 26 years, Kneale wrote four TV serials. Three were adapted into slightly trashy yet much more watchable feature films. Of those, the third movie — Quatermass and the Pit — is probably the best Quatermass you’ll get, and also the most widely available. So that’s fortuitous.
While digging a subway line, engineers unearth the remains of an ancient space ship. All who contact the remains of its inhabitants start to behave oddly. The movie proposes various theories about the development of man and the significance of our subconscious impulses.
This list should really include Tarkovsky’s 1972 original, but Soderbergh’s remake is worthwhile in its absence.
A station orbiting a distant planet has a strange effect on its personnel; they are constantly barraged with a warped sense of reality, built out of projections of their own memories. As it turns out, these projections are the attempts of an alien life form to communicate with the crew.
Adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris uses the material of space travel to delve into the human psyche and explore both our means of communication and our subjective concept of reality.
A pretty good movie that is diminished a bit by its legacy. You watch this, you’re going to be waiting impatiently for that famous line — which turns out to be one of the last lines in an unusually long film. So there’s a bit of an anticlimax, if that’s how you come at it.
Whereas in Children of Men our waning resource is fertility, here it’s food production. You see, there has been a population explosion. Exactly the opposite problem. And it’s not that food is unavailable; it’s that whatever food is available is heavily controlled. Furthermore, you don’t want to know where they’re getting the raw materials.
Another near-future story in the vein of 2001, Danny Boyle’s astronauts drift in the opposite direction to Kubrick’s, toward the center of the solar system. For whatever reason, the Sun is dying. We have a fission device that may reignite the star, but only enough material on Earth to build two. The first got lost somewhere along the way, and now the backup team is all we’ve got. Along the way the second team finds the hulk of the first vessel, and goes to explore it. Not the best idea ever.
Sunshine does a good job at depicting space travel. Of particular note are sequences when crew members are forced to float through space unprotected. They survive, with heavy sunburn and decompression sickness; maybe they’ll need a couple of fingers amputated.
The story is interesting, too.
The Thing (1982)
Much more so than the 1951 Howard Hawks adaptation, John Carpenter’s film embodies the horror and paranoia of John Campbell’s novella. It’s basically your standard base under siege format, except crossed with a social and existential paranoia that you can apply to any number of real-world scenarios. Any person on the base could be the monster, including you. Beyond that, the imagination involved in the monster design is kind of extraordinary. It takes its memory not only of human anatomy but of every other life form, terrestrial or not, and adapts those features pragmatically to its current circumstances. Some very big picture thinking here.