Today: April 22, 2024

Sci-Fi With Issues

Spaceships, robots and alternative realities may still be the stuff of fantasy but that hasn’t stopped science fiction filmmakers from using such ‘fantastical’ worlds as a backdrop to explore more serious subjects.

Spaceships, robots and alternative realities may still be
the stuff of fantasy but that hasn’t stopped science fiction filmmakers from
using such ‘fantastical’ worlds as a backdrop to explore more serious subjects.
Greg Evans takes us on a journey through some of sci-fi’s most socially-aware
and satirical offerings, where the worlds we see are so often just a misty
reflection of our own more mainstream lives …

Sci-fi novelists have
always strived to offer their readers more than just amazing tales. Authors
such as Mary Shelley
and HG Wells
wrote stories whose weight and intelligence encouraged serious and scholarly
analysis. However, it took a while for
sci-fi filmmakers to catch up. Rather than being spiralling epics with serious
themes, the earliest science fiction films were often ‘shorts’, designed to do
little more than entertain and amuse. In 1927, though, one movie changed all
that. That movie was Metropolis
– Fritz Lang’s
incredible epic about an
uprising against class division which, even in the 21st Century, remains of the
most awe-inspiring of sci-fi films. Technically, Metropolis is stunning but its
most rewarding aspect is its insights into the class system. Seeing the working
class of this dystopian future rise up against their tyrannical leader is one
of the most incredible sequences in cinema history. Metropolis marked a turning
point in intellectual science fiction, and cinema has never looked back.

As cinema moved into
the post-war era, studios seemed far more interested in special effects and,
far too often, interesting stories were abandoned in favour of spectacle. That
being said, the monster movies of
the era did provide a subtle commentary on our obsession with nuclear weapons
and the dangers inherent in such weapons of mass destruction. Godzilla and
King Kong both
showed us how advancements in technology could come back to haunt us. And,
while it’s unlikely that giant apes or lizards will ever attack major cities,
such monsters provided a superb metaphor for our meddling.

Another film, though,
would eclipse both of these beasts in terms of what it said about warfare. The Day The Earth Stood Still is
possibly science fiction’s greatest contribution to the antiwar effort.
Following their mysterious arrival on Earth, Klaatu and his robot Gort declare
they have an important and urgent message for all of the worlds’
leaders. The message is a warning for our own safety. Extra terrestrial life
forms have become concerned by our dependency on atomic weapons and if we do
not cease such activities they will see to our extinction. It’s a bold attack
on Cold War policies and is still as striking today as when it was first
released in 1951. The film itself has since been archived by the United States
National Film Registry as being culturally important and it is believed to have
altered Ronald Reagan’s
opinions on Soviet activities. If there was ever a film with a clear social
message, The Day The Earth Stood Still may just be it.

After the commercial
and critical success of The Day The Earth Stood Still, a new wave of exciting
and intelligent sci-fi was just around the corner. Planet Of The Apes had racial, political
undertones within its very DNA. Jean
Luc Godard
brought sci-fi to French New Wave Cinema in Alphaville, where
audiences were presented with a world void of any emotion or thought,
controlled by artificial intelligence. Even the behemoth that was Star Wars didn’t
completely overshadow the efforts of other films makers to bring social matters
into the sci-fi arena. Ecological and pollution issues were at the heart of
movies such as Silent
Running ,
Soylent
Green
and Mad
Max. THX 1138
and Solaris
looked at our potentially hazardous relationship with
technology and its role within the state. Westworld addressed our growing
dependency on artificial entertainment. A Clockwork Orange proposed radical ways
of dealing with crime and even Superman
found time to talk about scientific advances. It would take
the dawn of a new decade in the 1980’s for all this creativity to be fully
summed up in just one film.

Not only perceived as
one of the greatest science fiction movies ever, Blade Runner is often regarded as
one of the greatest films ever made. Adapted from the Phillip K. Dick novel
Do Androids Dream Of
Electric Sheep?
, Ridley Scott’s movie managed to blend
stunning cinematography with subtle critiques on society. In fact, Blade Runner
casts a huge shadow over science fiction and inspired even more films to tackle
big subjects. Escape
From New York
(crime), The Terminator (technology) and Robocop (law
enforcement) all followed in Blade Runner’s wake – keeping things fresh without
being too heavy-handed.

So where does social
commentary within sci-fi find itself in the rather futuristic sounding 2013?
Well, in rather good stead. Recent years have given us Children Of Men, District 9 and
V For Vendetta which
all took intense looks at politics and immigration. Despite being as big as a
blockbuster can possibly get, Avatar
actually managed to say some moderately absorbing things
about colonialism and the military. As for this year’s releases, things look
promising. Both Oblivion
and Elysium
take a glance at an Earth that has been savaged by war and
those individuals who attempt to restore balance to the planet’s life cycle. The Host, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
and Man
of Steel
look set to be equally inspiring.

When Georges
Melies
first filmed a small spaceship crashing into a
moon in 1902, he could never have dreamed that sci-fi could come this far and
be so important. As a vessel for exploring man’s more complex issues, directors
and writers have given us much food for thought over the years. Where Metropolis, The Day The Earth Stood Still
and Blade
Runner
dared, others soon followed. Sci-fi has become
the most unlikely source of good, social commentary moviemaking – and that
couldn’t be any better.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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