Society Through The Lens Of Science Fiction

Science fiction is not dead! The accomplishments received by the film Arrival (directed by Denis Villeneuve) prove how potent sci-fi can still be. The movie nabbed eight Oscar nominations (and got the Best Sound Mixing award), crowned as the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Sci-Fi/Horror movie of 2016, and received the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. For movie-goers who enjoy science fiction, Arrival was a breath of fresh air as it trailed uncharted paths that other sci-fi movies tried but failed.

Sci-fi television series like Black Mirror and Westworld also enjoy positive reception – gaining a loyal pool of audience within the larger public. Historically, there was a period when the said genre was frowned upon. Critics used to associate sci-fi to formulaic world-building and simplistic storytelling. But I think that this is not the case anymore. People today really enjoy the visions that it presents. From a socio-cultural vista, science fiction serves not only as an artistic medium but also as a technological compass that thinkers and builders can adhere.

The new breed of excellent/popular science fiction movies of the 21st century (A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Inception, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, even Star Wars and Star Trek to name a few) shows that it is an ever-evolving brand. It is dynamic, heterogeneous, and has still much to show. This piece will specifically talk about sci-fi, its definition and significance. It will also list remarkable (but low-key) sci-fi movies that you probably missed.

What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction (also known as sci-fi) is widely defined as a brand/genre of fiction with stories gravitating around the topic of science and technology in the future (example of popular themes are space travel, extraterrestrial contact, time travel, parallel universe, multi-linear dimension, and the reckoning of time). An article published by Read-Write-Think reasons that it is important that sci-fi stories should be, at the very least, guided by the principles of real science (a decent balance of fictive and realistic laws and cognitive logic).As much as possible, it should navigate within the realm of future possibilities for it not to become a form of high-fantasy.

Movie Listing

Here’s a short list of great sci-fi movies that you should check out. These movies are of my own choosing. They do not necessarily have the best cinematography or the biggest production budget. But these films made me reflect about life, future, reality, even death. I also believe that I will be viewing these movies again and again in the future. I assure you, they are worth the watch. See for yourself!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

This movie was based on Douglas Adams’ book (with the very same title) and was directed by Garth Jennings. The protagonist Arthur Dent, an ordinary human attempting to protect his house from imminent demolition, ‘fortuitously’ tangles himself into a chaotic mesh of galactic adventure to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The character-development and world-building is as whimsical and genius as it gets. It drives the philosophically damning point; that sometimes a pipe is just a pipe (I’m looking at you Magritte)!

Famous line: “Don’t panic!”

Dune (1984)

Similar to the first film, Dune is based on a science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. The movie was written and directed by none other than David Lynch. Dune explores how feudalistic a society can become despite unparalleled technological advances. The movie centers on a politically contested dessert planet called the Arrakis – the very source mélange or spice. It is an addictive drug that allows its user to see the future and to prolong life. In addition, it is the sole mineral used for interstellar travel. The movie showcases a universe of Machiavellian politik and erudite scheming (akin to G.R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”, but positioned in an interplanetary level).

Famous line: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will    face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear’s path, and only I will remain.”

Solaris (1972)

Solaris is an Andrei Tarkovsky film. If you’re already familiar with his works, you may immediately imagine things like ‘lengthy’, ‘slow’, and ‘desolate’. Alas! The movie sluggishly unveils the mystery foreign planet (called Solaris) that drives cosmonauts nuts. Psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to investigate this phenomenon, only to discover dark mirrors of his past. This movie successfully tells us how haunting our memories and apparitions can be.

Famous line: “You mean more to me than any scientific truth.”

Children of Men (2006)

This is probably one of the best movies (not only within the bounds of sci-fi genre) produced for the past twenty years. Director Alphonso Cuaron masterfully realized a dystopian world where no children have been born for the past two decades. The movie portrays how nations and governments collapse due to biological limitations and political idiocracy. As the film rolls, it steadily disarms the audience, challenging them to rethink the superficiality of human existence but, at the same time, pushing them to celebrate the importance of a single life. Mind you, this is not your typical love story.

Famous line: As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”

Final Thoughts (On the Value of Science Fiction) …

 “Why” is the engine that drives good science fiction, and good stories in general. The ability to project ourselves into future worlds is a powerful tool for asking why this world is the way it is and how we can make it better. It’s time to break science fiction out of its ghetto and use it as a common language to connect the arts, humanities, and sciences. – Ed Finn, What is Science Fiction Good For?

Many scientists and academics today are enjoying the interdisciplinary narrative being cultivated by sci-fi works. A number of popular scientists are even engaging the very works produced by the genre. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking hosted a TV show titled Masters of Science Fiction in 2007. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson habitually reviews numerous sci-fi films. Primatologist Jane Goodal even mentioned that the book Tarzan and the Apes inspired her to understand animal behavior and social patterns. And biologist Daniel Lee (author of Scientific American’s The Urban Scientist) enjoys the movie Dune for it explores the concept of environmental conservation and imperialism. We can even say that it aspires children to pursue or, at the very least, like science.

More than these big names, the genre encourages the public to think future trajectories, tensions, and ethical challenges of tomorrow. It poses question not limited to science but also in other academic discipline like philosophy, political science, sociology, humanities, and the likes. It explores our place in the universe, nature of reality, and role of human agency in shaping larger imagined communities. In the process, the genre presents alternative society that functions differently. It is true that human beings are not in the position to reinvent social fabric within a day. But science fiction allows us to imagine a future that we may have (or we yearn to avoid).