This is from an article I originally wrote for LifeZette and had published early in August, 2015. The longer version included here includes a lot more movie references and citations. It’s long, but hopefully it’s interesting reading…
During the very earliest days of film, our collective cultural vision of the future was utopian. No wars, no hunger, no illness, and plenty of opportunity to explore the universe and create even more amazing wonders. Even back in 1902, Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon posits a future where Earthmen have the resources to journey to the moon, encounter another race (Selenites), and bring one back on their return journey.
Futurism in cinema really takes off with 1927’s brilliant class-warfare story Metropolis. Portrayed is a gleaming future where everything is grand, unless you actually notice all the downtrodden workers. It echoes H.G.Wells’ even darker vision of the future where thousands of years hence the 1% have become veritable children while the workers are now subterranean monsters who have a novel, but appalling food source.
In the 30’s, most science fiction in cinema is about exploration and good old American ingenuity. Examples are Just Imagine (1930), It’s Great to be Alive (1933) and the cautionary tale The Invisible Ray (1936) where “a scientist becomes murderous after discovering and being exposed to the radiation of a powerful new element called Radium X.”
Okay, so maybe the earliest films weren’t entirely rosy in their vision of the future, but whether the core is rotten or not, at least there’s a veneer of beautiful city and happy, albeit clueless, people.
That doesn’t last…
World War II had sufficient horrors that sci-fi mostly took a hiatus from cinema other than as comic relief. Think The Invisible Woman (1940), One Million BC (1940) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). WWII led directly to the looming threat of The Cold War, and that proved a fertile ground for futuristic sci-fi films.
Consider The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a film that still resonates with audiences: If an alien arrived and offered great technological gifts if humans will stop trying to kill each other, would we want it, or would we fight over that too? Also in 1951, When Worlds Collide offered a future where we are all getting along well, until a star is found hurtling towards Earth. We can’t save everyone, however, so how do you choose? Who gets to be on that lucky ship heading to a benign Earth-like planet out of the collision course?
Still, Hollywood 50’s sci-fi really focused on the fear of communism and alien invaders, whether masked as Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or even It Came From Outer Space (1953). The theme was identical: institutional xenophobia. That which ain’t like us is dangerous and fearsome.
But there were additional explorations of alternative, futuristic cultures in the same era, including Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) where Captain Nemo’s secret city on the bottom of the ocean is a futuristic utopia, only ruined by humans from the surface. Or the future portrayed in 1956’s Forbidden Planet, a world of unlimited power and robots doing our every bidding, even if it’s not always entirely wholesome.
The other great theme of 50’s and 60’s sci-fi — and even into current day — are cautionary tales about the uncontrolled progress of science, whether it’s environmental catastrophe, mad scientists, or nuclear fallout. Perhaps over half of all sci-fi from the 50’s address this topic, including the splendid Them (1954), The Fly (1958), The Blob (1958), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
The race to the moon heralded a new era of futurism in science fiction, one that was highly political, Fahrenheit 451 (1966) but as we headed to the moon, notably more positive. Think about the future as portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). People are polite and genteel and we have plenty of leisure time to explore the close planets and their moons. We are indeed ready for a galactic rebirth, as Kubrick suggests in the film.
Of course, go far enough into the future and it’s not quite as pretty, as Charlton Heston experienced as a man enslaved by simians in the chilling Planet of the Apes (1968), and again experienced as detective Thorn in the overpopulation warning Soylent Green.
But we weren’t done with the dangers of science, though it became more abstract, as explored in one of my favorite films of the era, The Andromeda Strain (1971). A killer germ has inadvertently been brought back to Earth from space. Now what?
Few films show a more chilling future than Kubrick’s masterwork A Clockwork Orange (1971), where Malcolm McDowell is a violent thug in a world where everyone is assumed perpetually innocent and a victim of circumstance until it’s quite literally too late for their victims. A film so alarming, it was banned for many years. Not a very optimistic future.
By the 1970’s, however, we’d walked on the moon and were decades from the last major war and sci-fi started to take on a more positive tone again, starting with the sprawling racial mix of the Star Wars (1977) universe. Even dark horror films like Alien (1979) still offered a future where we were among the stars and mining ships routinely flew through deep space seeking ores and minerals to mine and return to Earth or an outer colony.
Perhaps no film series is more optimistic than the eleven films spun out of the Star Trek series. From its beginnings on television, the series was ground breaking, offering a future where things really were pretty rosy and where there were bad people and bad situations, but they were overcome and contained by all the good people working harmoniously together to create the best, most peaceful world possible.
But competing with that was the dark, perpetually rainy, neon-illuminated future of Blade Runner (1982) and its dark post-apocalyptic cousin Mad Max (1979). Again, the future might be great for the 1% but if you look below the surface or alienate the wrong group, you’re in a world of trouble, whether it’s “more human than human” replicants seeking their Creator or a vengeful cop seeking revenge on the thugs who killed his family for sport.
By the mid-1980’s, it wasn’t radiation or men from Mars that we feared the most but rather unbridled technological development, whether the shocking revelation of The Matrix (1999), the cautionary robotic tale of The Terminator (1984), or even the dangerous cloning experiment of Jurassic Park (1993).
Fortunately there were some positive future worlds that balanced out the darkness, notably the splendid Contact (1997) that mirrored 2001: A Space Odyssey in its optimism, albeit with a bit more mayhem thrown in. The Fifth Element (1997) also offered a busy, urban future where no-one seemed to be left wanting.
The last decade or so of science fiction has lost the optimism entirely, however. Film has always been a vehicle to explore cultural zeitgeist, whether it’s fear of science, politics, race, or technology, but the latest sci-fi films now offer up an unrelievedly dark, cautionary future.
Consider the splendid Moon (2009) that explores what it is to be human and self-aware through the eyes of a clone, Minority Report (2002) that offers a peaceful future, but at the cost of people being arrested pre-emptively before they commit a crime, or District 9 (2009) where aliens arrive, just to be brutally discriminated against until they rise up to fight back.
A few more: Avatar (2009) where we travel to far distant planets and destroy the local flora, fauna and population in the interest of extracting whatever ores or minerals we humans deem are sufficiently valuable. Or Wall-E (2008) where we’ve all become so lazy that robots alleviate even the need to walk from place to place, or the really dark future of Children of Men (2006), The Island (2005), City of Ember (2008) and Terminator: Salvation (2009) where it’d be awful to live in that world.
The very latest films to come out of Hollywood continue the dark future prognostication, whether it’s the post-apocalyptic anti-science future of Interstellar (2014), the dismal time-traveling mobsters of Looper (2012), the post-invasion no-man’s zone of Monsters (2010), or post-apocalypse of The Book of Eli (2010), The Hunger Games (2014), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Divergent (2014), Elysium (2013), Skyline (2010), or … well, you get the idea.
The number of positive futures portrayed in modern science fiction really boils down to just one movie that I can think of: Tomorrowland (2015). While a pleasure to watch, it fails to invigorate Hollywood and the next batch of movies announced for 2016 and beyond continue the unrelievedly dark perspective of modern science fiction.
If cinema reflects culture, then there’s the inescapable conclusion that we have become more pessimistic, more glum about the future of our planet and of the human race. There’s just not much light out there, not much to look forward to, apparently.
One can only hope that it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy…