Growing up, I was obsessed with science fiction. For one glorious, youthful summer I read nothing but science fiction from the 1960s. I’ve seen Starship Troopers at least 18 times by now, and hearing the opening fanfare to Star Wars will always make my skin tingle.
Science fiction, or sci-fi, has a strong utopian impulse – what Philip Wenger (2005, p. 79) calls the desire for an “utterly transformed, radically other, and/or redeemed existence”. At its heart, I see it as a genre that deals fundamentally with the future and the infinite possibilities that lie between utopia and dystopia.
Of course, these works are necessarily situated in their historical contexts. As a concept, utopia is “more perfect” than the state of the world, but only in relation to “the society of its historical moment” (Wenger 2005, p. 80). This means that while utopias tell stories about other worlds and societies, they also reflect our own.
Capitalism, as a discourse and ideology, will also shape the way in which we envision the future. A popular quip, often attributed to the critic and theorist Fredric Jameson (2003), is that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagine the end of capitalism. As the ebbs and flows of capitalist discourse change, so too do images of the future in sci-fi.
I have always been fascinated by these “archaeologies of the future”, to use the title of Jameson’s book. What follows is my own expedition into Hollywood’s images of the future in sci-fi film.
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Using the film website Box Office Mojo, I compiled a list of all films that were classified as “science fiction” from 1980, when the database starts, to 2016. I also included categories that were potentially related, such as “post-apocalyptic” or “Man vs Machine”.
To make the list more manageable, I selected sci-fi films that were among the top 100 grossing films in the United States in the year they were released. I then went through the list and struck off any that did not explicitly have images of the future. By virtue of their commercial success, I assumed that these films (often Hollywood features) had some effect on the popular imagination. Being commercial films also meant that they were intended to make profit – capitalist cultural commodities at their very core.
There were obviously limitations to my method. I had to initially rely on Box Office Mojo’s definitions of sci-fi, had to make judgments on what films counted as sci-fi (I chose to exclude Marvel’s superhero films, for instance), and finally had to decide on how to categorise these visions of the future. Culturally significant films which did not deal explicitly with the future, like Star Wars or Jurassic Park, were excluded as well.
I settled on a final list of around 150 films, and divided how they depicted the future into five sub-genres: non-negative (and positive) futures, pessimistic futures, dystopian futures, post-apocalyptic futures, and space-based futures. I then plotted each sub-genre’s proportion among blockbuster sci-fi films in the same year, aggregating the numbers into four-year intervals to smooth out the bumps and dips.
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What is most striking throughout these 26 years is how obsessed Hollywood is with conflict and violence. Susan Sontag (1966) wrote that sci-fi is fundamentally about disaster and the aesthetics of destruction; “one of the oldest subjects of art”. This is no surprise: the formula of binaries and their oppositional interaction, dating back to at least classical Greek thought, grounds this compelling narrative of conflict and contrast in thousands of years of storytelling.
Who features in the “us” and “them” of dialectical opposition speaks volumes about the historical moments that produced these films – their hopes, anxieties, and tensions. Most films fixate on who “they” are, but the more daring ones self-consciously question who “we” are.
Working through the decades, the 1980s saw the peak of the space genre. It presents two broadly contrasting images. First is the adventure film – where valiant heroes are pitted against a villain or an evil empire. The ideological boundaries are clear in films like Flash Gordon (1980). The titular hero, American and blonde, is pitted against the evil Ming the Merciless, an orientalised and paper-thin veil of the yellow, Asiatic horde. The Star Trek series (1960s – 2010s) presents a subtler take on this. The writer and sociologist Peter Frase has noted that the series, particularly on TV, situates itself in a technological, post-scarcity utopia, where capitalist exchange has withered away. However, this “communistic equality is obscured by the military hierarchy of Starfleet”. Given the hero-villain setup of the films, the promise of exploring post-capitalistic emancipation instead becomes a plot about a crew “gallivant[ing] around the universe in a metaphor of naval exploration” (Frase 2016, p. 48).
The second type of space film depicts space as a setting of isolation and terror. Exemplified by the Alien series (late 1970s – late 1990s), the threats that befall the protagonists are not only from without, in the form of the titular Aliens, which are sinuous and grotesque. They are also from within, taking the form of the interplanetary mega-corporation the protagonists work for. This is an entity that will sacrifice humanity, in body and in spirit, to weaponise the Aliens. In the age of Regan’s America, which exalted the virtues of military might and giant industry, the metaphor is clear. Not only do the threats come from a primal and inhuman “Other”, external and incomprehensible to “our” values, but also from the military-industrial complex that constitutes the heart of “us”.
These films, according to academic Vivian Sobchak (2005), are at once lamentations and monuments to the Regan era. Dystopian futures dominated by giant corporations and the military feature strongly in 1980s as well, in exceptional films like Blade Runner (1982) and Robocop (1987). The triumph of capitalism extends to the grim futures of its own creation.
The 1980s also sees the peak in popularity of the “merely” pessimistic vision of the future, where familiar types of social and political organisation face looming threats. Though more benign, films in this category such as Scanners (1981), Wargames (1983), and Alien Nation (1988) share similar themes with other films of their decade: giant corporations, aliens, and the military complex. The pessimistic film is never particularly prominent, perhaps reflecting Hollywood’s (and our) desire for greater spectacles of imagined catastrophe.
The 1990s saw an increasing prominence of dystopian film, in which humankind survives disaster, but social organisation drastically deteriorates. In many cases these films feature aspects of modernity that slip from our control. Forms of governance or technology are taken to their logical extremes; where we might have once controlled them, they are poised, or have already, taken control of us.
In one type of dystopian film, the theme of the strong-armed and repressive government responds to chaos and societal collapse: a conservative beacon of order and justice in a universe gone mad. This is evident in films like Judge Dredd (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). But order comes at a cost, as the heroes are themselves parts of this larger, oppressive system. Sobchack (2005, p. 271) sees these films as counter-cultural critiques of the “generic conventions” of previous decades. Indeed, beneath the gory and jingoistic veneer of Starship Troopers lies a critique of unintelligent and single-minded militaristic nationalism.
The other type explores the rapid proliferation of technology and interconnectivity, and takes these concepts to exaggerated extremes. Films like Johnny Mnemonic (1995), The Matrix (1999) and even The Truman Show (1998) depict worlds where their protagonists struggle with the boundaries of what is real and what is virtual. Social structures are challenged and made more complex by the introduction of a virtual reality that spills over into everyday, material life. This virtuality is often used for commercial or malicious intent, with the spectre of a profiteering corporation lurking close by.
Films from the 2000s and 2010s are dominated by the dystopian and post-apocalyptic, with images of overwhelming catastrophe and violence. Humanity is confronted by disasters that are often of our own doing. It is a turn that is highly self-conscious, which realises that the sources of our fear, anxiety, or shock need not come from a vague place “out there”, but have been within us all along.
The zombie feature, which dominated so much of the cultural landscape in the 2000s, is no longer the supernatural tale of decades past. It is rationalised, becoming a clinical (or weaponized) tool of science gone horribly wrong. In a thematic nod to films from the 1980s, militaries or corporations are inevitably involved in causing or containing the outbreak in films like 28 Days Later (2003), I Am Legend (2007), and the Resident Evil series (2000s).
Where strong-armed government was a bastion of order in the 1990s, their image inverts and becomes one of misery and injustice in the 2000s. In Children of Men (2006), V for Vendetta (2006), and The Hunger Games series (2010s), our dystopian futures are the creations of authoritarian governments. Their protagonists are nonconformists within the system, fighting an unjust establishment in the name of freedom and emancipation. These films are emblematic of the G.W. Bush administration’s war on terror. While they feature valiant images of rebellion and suggest democratic “regime change”, the figure of the oppressive government could both represent the dictatorships and oligarchies of “failed states”, or the creeping authoritarianism of the western state apparatus.
These two decades have also seen a growing ecological awareness in the popular imaginary. Environmentalism and activism, with their 20th century roots in books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, have their own Hollywood moment. Films like WALL-E (2008), After Earth (2013), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) deal directly with the apocalyptic effects of unmitigated climate change and environmental catastrophe. Though wrapped in a heartwarming tale of romance, WALL-E levels a sharp critique against capitalist consumerism. It is overconsumption that has destroyed the planet, with the spacefaring human exiles becoming swollen and obese on an unceasing diet of junk food and digital media. Of all the futures that Hollywood posits, the poignancy and immediacy of climate change is the most real and most certain.
Throughout these four decades, films that hinge on the positive have been consistently in the minority. (I was hesitant to label them “optimistic”, and perhaps in a reflection of my own imagination of disaster I labelled them “non-pessimistic”.) A handful of examples stand out. These deal with the triumph of the human condition over the impersonality of technology, as in Real Steel (2011), or in the face of overwhelming adversity, as in The Martian (2015).
But the most interesting of these are the rarest breed. These are Hollywood films that explore deeper questions of the human condition, and what it means to be human, via conscious and mediated interactions with technology or alien Others. Her (2013) and Arrival (2016) are technically about artificial intelligences and extraterrestrials, but their message is ultimately about the subjectivity and vulnerability of being human.
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While this brief archaeological excursion has shown us how social fixations and sci-fi representations have changed over time, one cannot help but be drawn back to Jameson’s aphorism. Is he right in saying that the “invincible universality of capitalism” works to convince us that “there is no alternative to [capitalist] Utopia” (2005, p. xii)? While Hollywood’s high seat of cultural production has become increasingly deft at reimagining our social, political, and even environmental futures, it has remained curiously silent on forms of economic organisation.
But recent films have shown us glimmers of a more self-conscious production of utopian imagery and social commentary. Commercial as these films are, sci-fi has come a long way.
I, for one, am ready to be whisked away.
Galvin Chia is currently studying political economy at the University of Cambridge, and graduated from the ANU with degrees in Arts and Economics.
Frase, P., 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.
Jameson, F., 2003. Future City. New Left Review, 21 (May – June), pp. 65 – 79.
Jameson, F., 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso.
Sobchack, V., 2005. American Science Fiction Film: An Overview. In: D. Seed, ed. 2005. A Companion to Science Fiction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Ch 17.
Sontag, S., 1966. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador.
Wenger, P., 2005. Utopia. In: D. Seed, ed. 2005. A Companion to Science Fiction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Ch 5.
Box Office Mojo, 2017. Yearly Box Office. [online] Available at < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/> [Accessed 22 February 2017].