Finding Hope in Sci-Fi Flicks
We’re doomed. Or at least, that’s how we’ve been conditioned to think. If the sci-fi blockbusters of recent decades are any indication of our world’s fate, the only question is whether the killer androids rise up before or after thermonuclear war obliterates society. Even if we manage to survive that, an alien invasion will probably do us in for good.
This fatalism isn’t just limited to Hollywood. Classic literature paints a fairly grim picture of the future as well, whether it’s Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s easy to accept dystopias and visions of the apocalypse, whereas a future that’s actually better than the present requires a bit more suspension of disbelief.
There’s nothing wrong with dark fiction. Cautionary tales help us confront the problems in our world. We should be mindful of the potential consequences of progress. However, we must also realize that not every scientific innovation is going to kill us. That’s why there’s more than one kind of science fiction story. Even in troubled times, science fiction can remind us that things really can get better, if we’re willing to learn from our past mistakes. Here are a few sci-fi movies that are the perfect antidote to the anxiety and frustration we’re used to seeing around us.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
During a period in which he claims to have “taken leave of [his] senses,” Steven Spielberg began developing a film entitled Night Skies. The film would have followed a rural family as they survived an invasion of cattle-mutilating aliens, and a subplot would have focused on a peaceful alien befriending a young boy. While Spielberg lost interest in Night Skies, he saw potential in the friendly alien we now know as E.T. The studio felt E.T. would be a “wimpy” movie compared to Night Skies, but Spielberg was adamant that the change was for the best.
While there’s been a bit of a backlash recently against Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality, E.T. is probably a far more memorable film than Night Skies would have been. There’s no shortage of malevolent aliens in science fiction, but Spielberg dared to cast a wrinkly little extraterrestrial as the perfect best friend. The result: a film that confronts the unknown with a sense of wonder rather than fear. While seemingly every children’s movie is promoted as “fun for the whole family,” E.T. is one of the few films that truly lives up to that standard. Not just a fun movie for kids, it’s a nostalgic love letter to childhood that can be appreciated at any age. There’s also no need to mourn for Night Skies, much of which was re-purposed for the Spielberg-produced hits Gremlins and Poltergeist.
Ridley Scott cemented himself as a great sci-fi director with 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner. He recently returned to the Alien universe with Prometheus and this year’s Alien: Covenant. Bleak dystopias and existential angst are a pattern in his films, to put it lightly. That’s why it’s so incredible that Scott, almost 80 years old, suddenly threw a curveball with 2015’s The Martian.
As anyone who has taken a high school English class can attest, conflict is one of the core elements of storytelling. In order for us to be involved in a story, bad things have to happen and people need to disagree. The Martian excels at presenting compelling conflicts while maintaining a profound sense of hope. The main struggle is between astro-botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, and the unforgiving Martian landscape, but there is some great drama among the aerospace experts determined to bring him back home. The conflicts of The Martian are not about good vs. evil, but rather a matter of decent people struggling to determine the best course of action. It’s truly refreshing to see a sci-fi movie in which no one is trying to kill anybody else. There’s also nothing more uplifting than a movie in which Sean Bean doesn’t die (RIP, every other Sean Bean character ever).
The supporting cast is among the best movie ensembles in recent memory, but Matt Damon’s wisecracking space castaway really carries the film. Even in his lowest moments, he makes for an inspiring protagonist. As an ode to problem-solving and exploration, The Martian is one of the best feel-good sci-fi movies ever made. If that’s not enough, it features a soundtrack loaded with disco hits and a David Bowie tune for good measure.
This charming Pixar film is proof that not all cautionary tales have to be dark. Like all great science fiction, WALL-E invites the audience to reevaluate their expectations. Rather than destroying humanity, the robots ultimately manage to save us from ourselves. It’s also a great example of how humor offers solace in hard times. The images of a lifeless, garbage-choked world are made bearable thanks to the film’s bumbling, trash-collecting hero. Creating a non-speaking hero was a risky move, but the film does a great job of communicating visually.
The future of WALL-E forces the audience to confront the way they’re harming themselves and the world at large. However, it does not present us with a hopeless situation. The end of the world is not the end of the line for the human race, but rather a chance to start over. WALL-E reminds us that we don’t have to ignore our problems in order to stay positive. Instead, positivity energizes and empowers us to develop solutions.
Like Ridley Scott, Arrival director Denis Villeneuve is known for exploring dark subject matter. However, the promise of directing Arrival energized him as he was in the midst of his darker projects, as he explained “I would go back in the dark, if I knew there was something with a lot of light after.” Oddly enough, Villeneuve also directed the sequel to Scott’s Blade Runner, which hits theaters this October. From there, he’s moving on to an adaptation of the epic sci-fi novel Dune. If Arrival is any indication, Villeneuve is perfectly suited to be the driving force in sci-fi cinema for the near future.
Arrival embraces what science fiction is really about. There are giant squid people riding ominous flying saucers, but it’s a far cry from the typical alien invasion blockbuster. First contact with aliens is not just a high-concept excuse for big action sequences and poorly-researched technobabble. Instead, we get a film that uses mind-bending cosmic fiction to explore the problems of the real world. Arrival balances big scientific questions with an intimate human story. There’s pain and loss, but there’s also a very authentic portrait of joy in spite of adversity.
We can learn a lot about surviving hardship from this film, even if we’re never visited by aliens. Rather than simplifying its complex story, Arrival makes us care by centering it on its well-written protagonist, played perfectly by Amy Adams. Credit should also go the filmmakers for sticking with her character as studios repeatedly requested the role be rewritten for a male lead. It’s also encouraging to see a film where ingenuity wins over aggression, and cultural divides are bridged. As far as hopeful portrayals of humanity’s future go, Arrival is the gold standard.
When considering the future, as individuals and as a species, we often gravitate towards negativity. Positive storytelling is faced with many unique challenges, but hope is ultimately worthwhile. Refreshing stories may face an uphill battle as they make their way through the dystopian wasteland of executive meddling known as Hollywood, but these are just a few examples of positive films that went on to become classics. Finding hope requires us to think outside the box. Sometimes, we have to look beyond our fears to see the infinite possibilities ahead of us.
Hope is not in conflict with an awareness of this troubled world of ours. However, hope requires a bigger awareness that transcends fear. Where there seems to be danger, there may also be potential. These films may concern alien worlds and sophisticated androids, but the same holds true for our daily lives.