In her seminal essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, Susan Sontag declares that science-fiction films are not about science–they are about disaster, ‘the aesthetics of destruction, with peculiar beauties to be found in wrecking havoc.’ This is inherently true: film is quite possibly the greatest medium through which to view technological chaos, toppling skyscrapers and dystopian nightmares. Evoking the dark side of imagination, a great sci-fi film has the power to draw us into a fictional world by consistently relating it to the realm of the ‘everyday’–an opportunity to represent the fears and anxieties of society.
After an endless wave of comic book and superhero adaptations, it therefore makes sense that Hollywood has well and truly returned to the science-fiction genre in 2013. However, rather than merely offering a dose of pure escapism, many sci-fi films released this year seem more intent on making us become complicit in the ‘witnessing’ of the destruction and desolation. For example, in Oblivion and Elysium, the planet has largely been destroyed by humanity’s own careless mistakes; the world is depicted as a decaying wasteland, where the toxic atmosphere from nuclear holocaust has caused nature and civilisation to revolt.
While these films were met with varied critical reactions, in both a post-apocalyptic Earth is juxtaposed with an alternative ‘utopia’ set in space, dominated by technological sophistication and modernity. Scenes of burning cities and radioactive terrain are intertwined with spotless spacecraft interiors and artificial extravagance. Oblivion and Elysium are unquestionably emblematic of science-fiction operating in a contemporary era dominated by pastiche and self-reflexivity: each film is consumed with a myriad of visual tropes and motifs that pay homage to the genre’s enduring legacy.
However, what is particularly interesting about these films is how this machine-obsessed notion of utopia has been playfully positioned as a ‘MacGuffin’ to provide a greater opportunity to explore the patterns of disorder, politics and behaviour of the flawed characters. Less concerned with extra-terrestrial contact, these films illuminate contentious real-life issues, such as nuclear warfare and immigration, in order to force us to reflect upon the self when witnessing such devastation, specifically in terms of considering our own responsibility or implication in the events being narrated.
This sudden plethora of original sci-fi films has led some to question just ‘why does Hollywood hate the future?’ However, as Sontag identifies in her original essay, part of the ‘pleasure’ in watching these films actually comes from ‘a complicity with the abhorrent’, where the nightmare reflected is typically ‘too close to our reality.’
While this fundamental thrill from reacting vicariously to the events in a sci-fi film has intensified in the twenty-first century, it is hardly a new concept. In fact, it was the all-too-real possibility of nuclear annihilation post-World War II that actually spawned a golden age for sci-fi films. As V-2 rockets were screaming across the skies in the real world, fearsome monsters and alien invaders were terrorising major cities on the big screen.
In the 1950s, the science-fiction genre demonstrated a newfound flexibility: The War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) alternate between horror and the fantastic, functioning as two iconic examples of entertaining B-movie schlock. Most recently, Guillermo del Toro has sought to recapture the spirit of this era with his CGI extravaganza, Pacific Rim.
Even though the gruesome creatures and spectacles of disaster that feature in these American films exemplified a level of playfulness with the genre and palpable political allegory to the Bomb, there was also a reactionary quality that Katy Waldman notes eliminates any ‘moral complexity.’ In contrast, many effective contemporary sci-fi films seek to explore the moral ambiguity that has lingered in the twenty-first century since the tragic events of September 11.
Released in 2006, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is one of the finest examples of a sci-fi film exploring the genuine threats of political oppression and biological catastrophe that unnerve civilisation today. Set in a draconian-like England in 2027, where women have inexplicably become infertile and a violent social class divide has erupted, the film creates an overwhelming sense of realism and immersion through the use of sequential ‘Hitchcockian’ long takes and a hand-held perspective. By using this idiosyncratic approach, Cuarón positions the camera to extract a level of authenticity that obligates us to invest emotionally in the central character’s plight.
This is exploited to an even greater extent in Cuarón’s breathtaking space opus, Gravity, which unlike his earlier film (and most other sci-fi films released this year) casts Earth as a place of solace. Subscribing to the laws of ‘hard’ science-fiction, it is the terrifying possibility of never returning to the world, left to float aimlessly in the deadness that is space, which assaults our senses.
In order to capture the exhilarating realness of zero gravity, Cuarón utilises ground-breaking technology to flawlessly combine CGI with live filmed elements, resulting in what James Cameron declares to be ‘the best space film ever done.’ Like Children of Men, Gravity plays out as a panoptical study of human survival, where action and disaster occurs at ominous intervals, often disappearing beyond the scope of the camera lens. The thrilling veracity presents space in a nightmarish context: ‘life in space is impossible’ is superimposed on the screen at the beginning of the film, offering a haunting reminder if Earth was destroyed by catastrophe.
Analysing science-fiction in the Atomic Age, Sontag once wrote that sci-fi films ‘reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them.’ However, the appeal of the genre in 2013 is arguably less to do with allaying these fears, but instead making us ‘witness’ such chaos and discontent in depictions of the world that are often disturbingly not too distant or dissimilar from our own.
Scott Macleod is a Killings columnist, academic, freelance writer and ardent cinephile. He currently lives in the lovely town of Adelaide, the so-called ‘home of serial killers’. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWMacleod.