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.
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