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Science fiction, philosophy and politics: what these five sci-fi films can teach us today

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Science fiction has always been a tool for humans to imagine alternatives to how we live, or to speculate as to how society and humanity itself might evolve. On a more fundamental, and crucial level, the genre is a vector for philosophical reflection.

The genre, in literature and in film, has become more prevalent in the 21st century because questions as to what makes us human, what our place in the universe is, have become far more pressing in the wake of exponential technological advance. These are five crucial film with lessons to teach us today. 

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

To most science fiction film critics and connoisseurs, 2001: A Space Odyssey stands as a pillar of science fiction, as the cult film others ought to aspire to. It deals with perhaps the biggest question that can be asked, what is the significance of mankind? In the vastness of space and time, the universe and evolution, where is our place?

Justifying this desperate seeking for purpose in humanity’s existence involves supporting that humans are superior to other species, whether that be through science and evolution, or belief in divine creators and intentional design. All things deemed paramount in human society, from political quarrels to technological inventions, are realised by Bowman, upon his encounter with the alien species, to be inconsequential in the broad picture.

In the context of the movie’s release, the globe was in the depths of the Cold War, and thus 2001 becomes a commentary on our self-destructive nature as a species. The film’s focus on evolution, which presents the first evolutionary leap as having been man learning to kill its rival, then much later the deaths of humans by the hand of an AI they created, highlights that mankind may not be progressing to greater wisdom, but to a self-inflicted end.

2001: A Space Odyssey humbles. It’s a reminder that man’s egocentricity and his pride may result in his very damnation. Whilst the Cold War has since ended, it’s also evident that humanity’s self-destructive tendency is still front and centre in today’s politics, most recently with the threats exchanged between the US and North Korea of mutual nuclear destruction.

It’s a wakeup call to our own fallibility, and therefore asks once again why humanity thinks itself so special. Simultaneously, it asks audiences to question the reason for our continued existence, but does not provide the answers. Dr. Floyd, in the final line of dialogue, intones: “It’s origin and purpose is still a mystery”, which can be taken as a non-answer to 2001’s philosophical questions.

Nonetheless, seeing that Bowman, representative of the human race as a whole, in the very end evolves to greater wisdom and understanding, it leaves some hope that we may yet save ourselves.

 2) Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner’s philosophical focus is on another of the great questions; what it means to be human. We’re in a time when technologies are an intrinsic part of life and can make every action so reflexive that we become disconnected from our own selves; Constantly media bombards us with images of poverty, war, starvation, murder, hatred, so much so that we are developing an immunity to empathy.

Therefore, one of the most vital question confronting contemporary society, is how to maintain our humanity against a dehumanising, tech-driven world.Blade Runner uses replicants as vehicles to explore the reaches of this phenomenon. Replicants look and act like humans; what supposedly sets them apart as un-human is that they do not feel empathy.

The theory that we ourselves are becoming unfeeling is emphasised with Blade Runner’s voyeurism, which often pushes the replicants to be viewed as objects, whilst intercutting this with moments where they show love, desire for freedom, and humanity.

In the moment of her death, the replicant Zhora crashes in slow-motion through display windows of mannequins, letting the audience view her as merely another inanimate, toppled mannequin, without feeling sadness at her loss of life. When Pris dies, she is likewise dehumanised in her portrayal as grotesque and crazed, dying on the ground thrashing and shrieking. This too rejects empathy.

Intercut with such scenes, are ones where the replicants show genuine love and care for one another, acting as a community and attempting to keep each other safe. When Roy finds Pris’ crumpled body, he is distraught with grief which refutes the claim that he is incapable of feeling empathy. In this, Blade Runner succeeds in shifting the focus back on the audience, demanding we question why, if a replicant apparently devoid of humanity can feel sorrow for this woman’s death, we could only feel repulsion. Are we therefore less human than these androids?

Blade Runner begins with the theory that empathy, or more generally feelings, is what makes us human. Seeing the replicant’s development of such emotions also brings about the recovery of an emotional response for Deckard. It’s a warning to society that with the increasing technological development and prizing of rationality above all else, with our disengagement from one another and ensuing loss of empathy, we cannot lose what makes us human.

3) Minority Report (2002)

Less of a timeless philosophical issue and perhaps more of a current, political one, Minority Report grapples with the debate between security and privacy.

The film presents a future of constant electronic surveillance, highly personalised advertising, and omnipresent media. At a time, post-9/11 when we are still debating how much governmental intrusion into our personal lives is warranted to ensure the nation’s safety, the film begs the question of whether privacy is a right or a diminishing commodity.

With terrorism and sensational media, fear for many has become a fact of life. Thus, many accept that giving up freedoms is necessary to obtaining the illusion of a totally safe and secure existence. Video cameras at every corner, online trackers, personalised advertising, are all things that were predicted by Minority Report to become all-encompassing in future society, and that have, worryingly, become something we deem so normal that we no longer even see it.

Released before big corporations the likes of Amazon even turned a profit, Minority Report had already predicted the world of consumerism we would find ourselves experiencing and participating in. If society blindly accepts the promise of convenience and safety, in exchange for rights to privacy, people become objects, commodities themselves on a capitalist market.

Consumerism and capitalism to the extent it is permeating society today, like in the film, lead to our own dehumanisation. This, and state surveillance, essentially go hand in hand despite having different purposes: both track and analyse our every move, eventually to the point of predicting our actions and controlling our decisions.

4) Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar ties in a pressing political and social issue, global warming, with a more philosophical one: does humanity deserve to survive if we have destroyed our planet?

The film is set in the close future where overpopulation and a crop blight have all but brought humans to extinction. The only solution pushed forward is to abandon Earth and instead colonise another planet capable of supporting life. Such a scenario poses crucial ethical questions regarding the possible consequences of terraforming another planet. If a planet has the potential to support human life, it’s reasonable to assume that it could one day, or might already be home to microbial life, that could one day evolve into an intelligent species.

If that were to happen, what gives humans the right to alter the natural development of these other species? A popular ethical theory regarding such scenarios is Star Trek’s Prime Directive, which is that the highest law is not to interfere with a life’s development.

In blatantly ignoring such moralities, Interstellar thence positions the human race as more valuable to the universe than other intelligent species, ones that could someday evolve. Given humans’ gradual, careless destruction of a planet already inhabited by millions of other species, this resonates with today’s concerns of global warming and a sixth extinction.

Were nothing to change, Interstellar may well be an accurate vision of the planet’s future. If Earth becomes inhabitable because of human actions, would humanity not have lost its right for survival, and make interstellar colonisation morally wrong? As Megan Garber explains, Interstellar “is concerned less with ‘man versus nature’ than it is with ‘man versus human nature’”.

The film’s aim is not to incite us to accept our own demise, it’s to encourage humanity to correct our mistakes, while we still can. Societies are not yet past the point of being able to earn back the right of survival.

5) Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina, in many ways, asks similar questions to those posed in Blade Runner almost half a century prior. The question of whether Ava, an AI, can pass the Turing test and prove herself indistinguishable from a human, is similar to the struggle regarding if the replicants can claim humanity. In prompting these debates however, Ex Machina turns back the question of whether Ava is human enough on those asking the question, the audience.  

With the film’s themes of individualism and the search for escape from subjugation, it resounds within contemporary viewers because of the growing feelings of dehumanisation when faced with technologically-driven, capitalist, consumerist society. Ex Machina ties in many themes that have previously been discussed, but is likely the most hopeful in its resolution.

Whilst on the surface, the ending is unsettling as it sees the deaths of two men at the hands of their creation, it’s in fact an allegory for the individual escaping an oppressive, controlling societal system. Every question posed to Ava to prove her humanity is also a profound, philosophical question to the viewer; each answer is a step clear from the numbness that’s imposed upon individuals by constant exposure to medias.

Ex Machina’s Caleb, along with its audience, experiences a reverse Turing Test, which is an audacious concept that allows us to prove we have not yet lost our humanity. Yet, the constant pressure to stay connected contributes to a hive mind that’s only facilitated by current technologies, and thus this search to hold on to our humanity as we know it will only grow more difficult.

This theme is most provocatively exemplified when, following his interview with Ava, Caleb returns alone to his room and cuts open his arm, to prove to himself he is human.

The film is not so much a warning about the future relationship between AI and humans as it is one about the future relationship with ourselves.

Science fiction has often, purposefully, provoked discussions and provided examples of the worse possible outcomes that can come of humanity’s most destructive behaviours. In doing so however, it’s not intended to condemn contemporary life, but rather awaken viewers to those risks, in order that we may work to avoid them. Likewise, it pushes us to ask questions about ourselves and about our world that other genres do not necessarily deal with so openly.

 

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