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Cinematic Science Fiction In the 1990s
Towards the end of the 1980s there was a trend for science fiction to return to emphasising the present with the aid of futuristic settings. ‘Robocop’ is one example. ‘The Running Man’ is another. A nation controlled by the mass media that has very few morals? Hmmm, familiar. This trend ran into the 1990s, a decade in which science fiction films were smothered with sequels and CGI. The Alien series should have been killed off with ‘Alien: Resurrection.’ The Robocop franchise should have been killed off after the first one. Independence Day was for the destruction fetishist. ‘Star Wars: Episode I’ erased all happy memories of the initial trilogy. ‘Doctor Who,’ that true testament to the future (before it became London-centric), almost died with the terrible 1996 film.
The tendency for science fiction was either to sequelize the 1980s, prop up a rotten story with special effects, or to comment on the present, albeit in weird and sometimes wonderful ways. For example, ‘Gattaca’ went face to face with genetic engineering. Now, there were some diamonds in rough, like ‘Strange Days,’ ‘Event Horizon,’ and ‘Dark City’ (‘The Matrix’ before ‘The Matrix’), but overall the future did not look bright for science fiction. In an age of ‘victory’ for liberal capitalism, the future was so predictable that it did not need further elaboration. The ‘End of History’ meant that science fiction could be reduced to either emphasising the nature of problems in the present, or creating (and destroying) the ultimate opposition to liberal capitalism: fascism.
Cinematic Science Fiction In the Early 21st Century
And the true start of the millennium happened with 9/11, and science fiction has suffered from an obsession with the present ever since. There were very few science fiction films in the first decade of the 21st Century that were either a) good, b) a positive portrayal of the future and c) hopeful. The Matrix set a renewed vigour for dystopian 1984-style science fiction, which is all pretty tired now. See ‘Equilibrium,’ ‘The Island,’ ‘V for Vendetta’ (actually okay) and all the other Matrix sequels. The desire for a true enemy to rival liberal capitalism has resulted in the creation of a Nazi-esque mirage, the ultimate but unlikely threat to the West. The Matrix also renewed the desire to see machines destroy their creators. So we had ‘I, Robot’ and the third and fourth Terminator films. All three of which range from mediocre to terrible. The main colour for science fiction films became an ugly gray, where no foliage or sunlight exists. Most pictures are unremittingly bleak, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and depressing. They are strangled by the fears of global warming, terrorism, overpopulation, recessions, and widespread poverty and disease/viral outbreak.
The 1970s have returned, but with even more emphasis on the extra moral dimension that ‘this is the future if we don’t act now.’ ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is basically ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ but with better CGI and worse acting/scripting. Spielberg has lost his enthusiasm for science fiction as well, so you have the trash of ‘A.I.’ and ‘War of the Worlds,’ the latter of which has more than a few nods to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Even ‘Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith’ gave Lucas an opportunity to splurge his two cents on the Iraq War and Bush. ‘If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy’, Anakin squeals as he fights his mentor. Hello George Bush! And the similarities continue; Emperor Palpatine starts a war to divert attention from his true motives, Bush went into Iraq for oil (or so I’ve heard); Palpatine gets himself elected as Supreme Emperor for life and everyone else gives up their civil liberties, Bush passed the Patriot Act…You get the picture. Even my beloved reboot of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ always tackled the present (as does its prequel, Caprica), be it the religion/politics dichotomy that exists in America, terrorism, the Iraq War, etc.
In fact, in a perfect revolution, the only film of recent times to depict a positive future that wasn’t poisoned by the present was the ‘reboot’ of Star Trek. It was an semi-enjoyable jaunt, a renamed remake of Star Wars that flouted the present to give us the future. None of the greyness invaded the special effects, which were bright, imaginative, and immediate. However, remakes of classic science fiction films (‘War of the Worlds,’ ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ etc) usually only exist to comment on the present (and makes oodles of money), without offering anything new or innovative (or slightly enjoyable). The story is kept pretty much the same, but without any creativity. Imagination is substituted with an issue relevant to the present.
In an age so apparently concerned with the future, it appears that we are actually obsessed with the present, and that is no more obvious than in the medium of science fiction. In the early 21st Century, the majority of science fiction films literally faded to grey. Going to watch a science fiction film consisted of pointing out the references to 9/11 or the Iraq War. Very little pleasure is garnered from viewing future visions of the present. I’m not dismissing the exploration of the present in science fiction. That is a necessary appendage of science fiction, an exquisite delight of science fiction. That’s how the sci fi train got rolling, with the B-Movies of the 1950s that were allegories of the Cold War (aliens as Soviets etc). ‘Star Trek’ was an antidote to the Cold War. As J G Ballard once wrote, science fiction should be a kind of ‘visionary present,’ not an ultimate future. His short sci fi stories explored the psychology of the present using the tools of the future. This is not how modern science fiction works. The psychology of the present is implanted into the future, without questioning the motives behind it. Modern science fiction is in desperate need of a literary psychoanalyst such as Ballard (RIP Ballard, you were the best). And the constant references to the present, and the imitation of the present in lieu of the future is what bothers me.
Since ‘Mass Effect’ was first released, science fiction cinema has improved. We had the brilliant and hopeful ‘Arrival’ only last year. In seven years, things have changed for the better. But we’ve still lost the future in the terrified culture of the present. There are hundreds of ways that we posit humanity can be wiped out, and they are all glorified in news reports and articles. A flu/virus/new AIDS outbreak, climate change, comet/asteroid collision, sentient machines turning against us, a terrorist dirty bomb, nuclear war…it’s hard to envisage the future through the mist of unclear and present danger. Every day we turn the corner from a previous threat to collide with another, even more dangerous one.
And that’s another reason why I returned to ‘Mass Effect.’ It’s a game full of optimism for the future. The glory of a human race that has travelled the galaxy is expounded upon at every pause for breath. Bright colours pervade the screen; sunlight covers the open ground like a beacon of hope. Earth is still the thriving centre of humanity’s power, experiencing a new golden age. Climate change and overpopulation are problems back home, but are tempered by humanity’s interstellar success and the general well-being of Planet Earth. You can visit the Moon, where in the distance Earth can be seen, not destroyed by overpopulation, but still that gleaming vision seen from the first astronauts a lifetime ago. You join together with a variety of aliens to defeat a terrible enemy, bent on destroying not just humanity, but everything. Instead of the dull, mechanic sounds that hover over modern science fiction films, the positive 1980s jingles add more colour to the initial picture. In short, it’s a return to the 1980s in spirit, and a return to the likes of ‘Star Trek’ in being. And that’s what science fiction needs, desperately. When ‘Mass Effect’ came out, science fiction had two films up for nomination in the upcoming Oscars, ‘Avatar’ and ‘District 9.’ They both propounded a negative view of humanity in the future.
What we need is a ‘Mass Effect’ for the cinema age. Even the second ‘Star Trek’ film delved into terrorism and fear of the future. We need a massive space opera, on the cinema or on television, that actually gives us some hope for the future. We need science fiction that will make us leave the cinema with a smile on our face (and maybe a tear of happiness). There’s always time for dark, depressing science fiction cinema. But we need more positive representations of humanity, not negative ones. Yes, some people are bad. Some people are good. Some people are both. But let the heroes be good, not shades of grey. Let them be complicated, but not the anti-heroes that we so often see. Writing all of this has made me tempted to buy an Xbox One and ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda.’ I just want a ray of hope in my life!
Click here for Part I