Why is nearly all Sci-Fi dystopian?

For me and no doubt many of you, Sci-Fi is a favourite film genre. For that reason I find it deeply annoying that such a large majority of SciFi movies, when special effects veneer is peeled away, are little more than anti-technology Luddite tracts. Can’t we celebrate science anymore? Has SciFi become LuddFi? The blasted dystopian future-scapes that we view with monotonous regularity through theatrical off-stage blown mist, all communicate a not-so-subtle political message: if you don’t pay attention to our endless protest movements that are anti-science, anti-technology, anti-vaccine, anti-energy, anti carbon – that atom with the atomic number of the Beast – then look at all the bad stuff that’s heading your way! Only a small minority of SciFi movies rise above the rest and actually fulfil SciFi’s purpose, that is, to inspire us with the possibilities of science and technology – while also addressing its dangers and ambiguities but in a positive and hopeful spirit.

But rather than ranting on with my own prejudices, the purpose here is to set out my own list of forty or so SciFi movies of the last half century. These are somewhat randomly chosen from memory, and I have given my own brief assessment of the movie in terms of its underlying attitude to science, whether positive, negative or ambiguous. To this end I have divided them into three categories: the dystopian, which are anti-science and imply that science is leading us to a bad place; the hopeful, which show positive idealism toward science, and those I would describe as “half-and-half” – dystopian yet ambiguously hopeful in their message about science. Perhaps I am wrong about some of these films – I have not seen all of them. I hope that this provokes a discussion about people’s views on films, ones you love and hate, the important ones I have missed, and on their philosophical messages in relation to science, technology and human curiosity.

Category 1: Dystopia (science is leading us to a bad place).

Soylent Green. Trail-blazing dystopia. This 1973 classic is ahead of its time in positing fantastical CO2 global warming carnage to the environment. For the “science” story behind its blasted future-scape it plays with atmosphere and ocean like a baby playing with bricks. The moral of this story is that CO2 will turn us into cannibals.
James Bond I have entered this as a single SciFi film since all the Bond movies ever made, with the exceptions of “On her majesty’s secret service” (both versions) and “Skyfall”, have one and the same story. MI6 sniffs something suspicious, Bond meets Dr Evil at a high-class social event, Bond finds and then trashes Dr Evil’s temple of doom. The Temple of doom always symbolizes high technology, perverse scientific idealism, clean efficient organization and psychopathic evil. Routine dystopia.
Children of Men Routine dystopia, in an apocalyptic future becoming pregnant makes you an outlaw.
Avatar Routine dystopia; brilliant future technology for space travel and mind transfer end up in the hands of corrupt corporate hacks. The protagonist returns heroically to the stone age. Corporations are bad, military is bad, technology is bad, trees are good. Fantastic effects and some decent acting but Luddite brainwashing nonetheless.
Minority Report Routine dystopia; in this Tom Cruise vehicle paranormal future-seeing technology is exploited by a repressive totalitarian regime, which needless-to-say TC takes on and defeats single-handed.
Ex Machina Nice movie but routine dystopia, a synthetic human kills and escapes. Mobile phone technology attacks. But at least it generates sympathy for the robot, and humans can be bad too.
Mad Max Routine dystopia, a post-nuclear future, the earth turns into a ruined degenerate anarchic wild-west.
Gravity Routine dystopia. Orbiting satellites and space craft destroyed in an urban-legend disintegration cascade, Hollywood racism alive and well in the 21st century as the Russians are the obligatory bad guys again.
Looper Routine dystopia, future society is disintegrated, anarchic and crime dominated, the highest technology – time travel – in the hands of criminals. Cool roles by Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt and a clever time dichotomy, but reinforcing the technology-is-evil message.
Jurassic Park Routine dystopia. Brilliant science rampages out of control immediately with mind-numbing predictability.
Transcendence Routine dystopia and a criminally bad movie – literally. A blonde femme-fatale who murders scientists in protest against artificial consciousness becomes heroine. Advocates murder to stop technology.
Dr Strangelove Routine dystopia, fountain of a generation’s technophobic one-liners.
Hunger Games Routine dystopia with the added gruesome spectacle of gladiatorial fights by children. A post-nuclear dystopia in which a rural underclass is ruled by an urban elite with criminal hairstyles. Only Jennifer Lawrence can save the world.
Alien (all films including Prometheus series) Dystopic with Oedipus complex. Psychopathic aliens with telescopic dentistry turn out to be the creation of an advanced race who also, it turns out, created us in the first place. Confused? I hate the unphysicality of aliens growing from the size of a prawn to the size of a cow with no apparent source of food to sustain such growth. Grrr!
Deja-Vu Routine dystopia, albeit a great movie. Here the sense of technology-shame is tangible. Scientists who develop a method to loop time backwards by 4 days confess their guilty discovery under moral inquisition. Time travel technology saves the day but somehow remains the villain.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Routine dystopia. Zany Jim Carrey dystopia about memory editing technology, the little guy takes on the evil machine.
Surrogates Routine absurd dystopia not even saved by Bruce Willis.
Never let me go Routine dystopia, but artistically melancholic and good quality film-making. In a future society organs harvested from an underclass give the elite eternal life.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Routine post-apocalyptic dystopia but great visual effects and story, newly sentient chimpanzees take on humans for world domination.
Arrival Much heralded big budget SciFi turned out to be another dismal tract. Aliens show up and do nothing, but this is nowhere near the class of District 9. After a protracted quiz show about circular symbols, a bomb appears for no apparent reason. Anti-war cliché, preciously introspective, and pointless.
The Arrival (Not the later “Arrival”); I had to include this as the worst ever sci-fi movie. Routine dystopia, aliens disguised as Mexicans try to heat up the world to their advantage by pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. (Yes, seriously!)
Brazil Routine dystopia. The little guy against a future techno-totalitarian state flees persecution picking up leading lady en-route.
Empyrium Routine dystopia. In yet another AGW-blasted future-scape, a rich elite inhabit an orbiting space station while an underclass inhabit a contaminated earth’s surface. Predictable, as bad cinematically as scientifically.
The 100 OK a Netflix series not a film, but essentially the same story backdrop as Empyrium, with a similar verdict. Routine dystopia. Cinematically better but scientifically even worse; astonishing ignorance and inaccuracy about radioactivity, fallout and biological effects of radiation (“they’ve evolved to filter radiation out of their blood!”) A young cast easy on the eye but a plot of endless formulaic jumping between contrived dichotomies.
Event Horizon Routine dystopia. In a bizarre mix of anti-science sci-fi and medieval religion, a spaceship approaches the event horizon only to pop unexpectedly into hell. Yes hell – complete with punishment for sin, Gothic decor and Sam Niell.
I am Legend I am Will Smith. Routine dystopia. A bio scientist with posh London accent develops a cancer curing virus which turns most of the world’s population into demented killing machines. Another day in the office for Will Smith, saving the planet after technology goes disastrously out of control.
I, Robot I, Will Smith. Routine dystopia. One more Will Smith ego-trip with the most clichéd anti-technology dystopian script imaginable. Robots attack, Will Smith saves the day, the end.
Moon Routine dystopia; a corporation clones astronauts manning a lunar helium mine, until a heroic escape by one to earth leads to every progressive’s dream, the public damnation of the evil corporation in front of Congress. Technology bad, corporations bad, media hacks good.
V for Vendetta Routine dystopia with – like transcendence – the disturbing sub-plot that terrorism is OK if the targets are “right wing”. Euro-leftist wishful thinking of an American collapse is combined with a formulaic virus apocalypse unleashed with wretched predictability by the go-to-movie-Satan USA. (Who did all this bad stuff? OMG what a total surprise it’s a secret branch of the CIA-US military!) The left are trying to get intellectually creative with this near-future right wing dictatorship under “Adam Sutler”, while in the real world the risk of dictatorship from the “progressive” left is demonstrably much greater.

Category 2: Hopeful: SciFi positive about technology

AI (Artificial intelligence) A personal favorite, a powerfully refreshing break from routine sci-fi dystopia and an exception that proves the rule. Human society is failing to adapt to robots and becomes seized with violent anti-technology prejudice in a highly realistic portrayal of threatened human societies. Robots good, humans bad. A poignantly evocative role by the boy robot David and a great ending tinged with beauty and sadness.
Star Trek (all films) Boldly going where no SciFi has gone before or since – wonderfully refreshingly positive and imaginative science-technology idealism, penned by the great Gene Roddenberry.
The Martian An exception and great movie – realistic technology and a rarity for Hollywood, a gripping and highly believable sci-fi adventure. Based on real and good science and technology practically all accessible today.
District 9 Cool movie, visiting high-tech aliens are the victims, humans doing what humans do are the bad guys. The portrayal of the MSM being swept up passively in politically driven prejudice and violent repression is noteworthy. Great twist at the end, hope there’s a sequel.
The Fifth Element This Luc Besson film is a heart-warming extravaganza of exotic techno-futurism wonderfully devoid of political messages except that “love is the fifth element”. Another with Bruce Willis – his films are in all three of our categories.

3 Half and half (dystopia but with some positivity about technology)

2001 a Space Odyssey While human technical progress is apparently celebrated, with a famous musical score and inspiring visual effects, once the plot gets going technology is the villain, as Hal the computer is evil and kills people.
Star Wars Classical cinematic story-telling that is great for all ages, and clever enough for the dystopia to be subversive. On one level it creates an inspiring and attractive galaxy-scape of shiny technology and an interplanetary community. But why does every Empire spaceship look so sleek and cool, while every rebel craft appears to have been make of cereal boxes and toilet rolls? The more technology, the more evil. And the repetitive kill-the-death-star endings are mere James Bond fare.
12 Monkeys Classic Bruce Willis, dystopia but with a twist. Biological warfare nearly annihilates humanity but with time travel there is a chance to save it.
Blade Runner The backdrop is routine dystopia, a technology-blasted futurescape. However the film, increasingly recognized as one of the best SciFi of all time, develops another dimension in which the question emerges “are humans really any better than replicants?” In the end a very cool movie, rich in ambiguity, in which robots are treated sympathetically as they are hunted down by humans including one – Harrison Ford – who it turns out might actually be replicant.
Interstellar Ambiguous. The backdrop is routine dystopia, humans killed the earth by climate change (yawn). However interstellar space-craft technology provides possible salvation. We find out that a black hole is actually a supermassive library.
Terminator Routine dystopia but with a sting in the tail: Computers go self-aware and try to destroy humans but some robots (especially ones looking like Arnold Schwarznegger) change sides to help out their human friends.
Robocop This Paul Verhoeven cyberpunk SciFi is set in a dystopic crime-ridden future, however the protagonist is a prosthetically recreated human – the robocop – who is portrayed sympathetically as the hero lawman who tries to reconnect with a former humanity.
Tomorrowland Mix of routine dystopia with positivity and optimism about technology. An amusing introduction parodying manic dystopia and technology-phobia in teachers and society at large, probably guaranteed this film damning reviews in a climate of anti-technology puritanism. Schrödinger-like, reality flickers between a bright optimistic technological future and a darkly dystopic techno-apocalypse. With two wonderful child-teenager acted roles as well as quirky acting by George Clooney and Hugh Laurie.

Final Score:

Dystopia: 29

Positive: 5

Half-and-half: 8

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s