For some of us, myself included, one of the “opportunities”, so to speak, brought about by the pandemic, has been the time to watch more movies than in previous years - quite the paradox with movie theaters being closed-. I’ve enjoyed a lot of science fiction movies, a genre that imagines possible futures driven by technology; some catastrophic and others more optimistic (although, spoiler alert, science fiction tends to love chaos and dystopia). The genre usually depicts a futuristic or fantastic world where science and technology (sometimes fictitious) conflict with human nature and social organization.
Depending on how you define it, the genre can be categorized as old or new. In cinema, the start of science fiction tends to be marked by the French short film “Voyage dans la Lune” (1902) (you can see it here - it's 15 minutes long), or Voyage on the Moon by George Mélies. Since then, cinema has continued to evolve and has acted as a sort of time capsule that draws from reality and brings together the thoughts, dreams, fears and desires of mankind throughout the years
What’s most interesting is that, beyond entertainment, science fiction movies also provide us with scenarios that can help us reflect upon the kind of future world (or planet, given the state of space exploration) we want and how to get there.
Below is a list of 5 movies that depict a future shaped by disruptive technologies with drastic consequences on society, and a few words about the warnings and lessons they teach us.
Metropolis (1927) - Germany
Metropolis is one of the first great science fiction stories in cinema. While a silent film may not initially sound very appealing, it has aged very well. In fact the Guardian recently wrote about the experience of watching Metropolis nowadays. Moreover, the editing and production design, with its sets of a futuristic city, a world of underground machinery, and the contrasting luxurious world above ground, all framed by German expressionism, is quite impressive. It inspired films such as Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985).
The story told in Metropolis still resonates in today's world, even almost a century after its release date. It takes place in a futuristic city during the year 2026, when society is divided between those who live in luxury above ground and those who work underground. A similar division of society has been predicted by Yuval Noah Harari in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, although the division he proposes is that of a useful class, the ones who drive the economy, and another class with no purpose. There is no doubt that technology is already creating a gap, which, if we are not careful, might become so wide it divides society entirely. In fact a key conversation topic nowadays is how we can ensure that new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) systems, for example, have an inclusive impact.
Metropolis’ underworld is made up of elaborate machinery on which society’s existence depends entirely, but, after having crossed the lines between the two worlds, the movie’s protagonists start to question and reject it. As Metropolis demonstrates and as we’ve seen time and again in our world, the use of technology is not necessarily a vehicle for freedom, but can rather be a reflection of society’s injustices. Just look at the educational field, post-pandemic. While many classrooms, students and teachers have moved to a digital world in order to continue functioning, many are left out of this experience due to poor or inexistent connectivity in rural areas of Latin America, creating an evermore palpable digital divide and exacerbating existing inequalities.
You can find this movie on YouTube (watch it here) (2.5 hrs)}
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - United Kingdom and United States
2001: A Space Odyssey is sure to be found in all existing and future science fiction lists and has even been included in the list of most boring movies. Technology is central to the film. Not only is it set in a futuristic spacecraft, one of its main characters, HAL 9000, is an artificial intelligence (AI) system that appears to be sentient and evil. Our Alexa is still a while away from an intelligence as human-like as the one seen in the movie.
Technology is also the starting point of both the narrative and the conflict. In that sense Kubrick, the director, suggests that technology is intrinsically linked to human history, having fundamentally evolved together, and finishing by proposing that technology is a reflection of humanity - or at least that’s what I think the movie is about. You can draw your own conclusions when you see it, as I am sure there are multiple interpretations. This fusion between nature and humanity reminds me of the work carried out by the Dutch organization Next Nature Network, dedicated to exploring the ways in which technology and nature merge.
Nowadays, with the Perseverance rover landing on Mars, 2001 may seem more imaginable than in 1968 (release year), when space cruising was still a longshot and Neil Armstrong hadn’t even walked on the moon. Thanks to Perseverance, we now even know what another planet sounds like (you can listen to it here). Although we are 20 years behind the technological advancements in the movie, plans are currently underway for various space odysseys, from Mars to Venus. No HAL 9000 for the moment, though.
Watch it on Prime Video (2 hrs., 44 min.)
Akira (1988) - Japan
Akira is one of the emblematic films of the cyberpunk subgenre. When it was released in 1988 it was the most expensive animated production in history. By this time science fiction was already complex enough, so a definition like the one we presented at the beginning of this article may no longer be sufficient to encompass what we see in stories like Akira. This is why it helps to think in terms of subgenres: Cyberpunk can be summed up as high tech, low life.
The story of Akira, the main character, takes place in the futuristic city of Neo-Tokyo in 2019, full of buildings and neon lights, with dazzling technology that is reflected in the setting, in its motorcycles, and its deadly lasers (how accurate was Akira's prediction?). In the film, they take maximum advantage of animation to touch that thin line between science fiction and fantasy. I find it hard to imagine the same spectacular effects, even using today’s state-of-the-art 3D computer graphics, to achieve what they did in this animation. Akira has psychic powers. There is teleportation, telepathy and visions of more catastrophic futures.
Despite the fantasy elements in Akira’s metropolis, it is not difficult to spot reflections of today's big cities, where we find violence and corruption in streets illuminated by neon lights. Cyberpunk can give us a good idea of what the future could hold for our Smart Cities. Driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), they promise a future of interconnectivity, although the innovations face an apparent dead end in the face of security and privacy protection. As I said above: high tech, low life.
You can find it on Netflix (2 hrs.)
Snowpiercer (2013) - South Korea, United States, and Czech Republic
In a similar way to Parasites, a recent film by director Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer delivers a critical commentary about the organization of society. Society is able to survive thanks to the cult of the machine, reminding us of Metropolis. However, in this case, the venerated technology consists of an engine powering a train that never stops and is carrying Earth’s last survivors. The rest of humanity was wiped away after a failed attempt to resist climate change ended in the total freezing of the Earth (a slightly failed attempt...).
One of the train cars is dedicated to children’s education, teaching them to worship Wilford, the developer of the survival machine, in an almost religious manner. It would seem that he never stops to think about how his invention has led to deep-rooted inequality along with the train wagons.
An equivalent to Wilford's engine in the real world could be AI systems, thought of as "all-powerful". The idea that these systems cannot be wrong is common, creating a kind of mindless submission of human beings to the system’s results, taken as irrefutable facts and not mere predictions. Among the most virulent criticisms of the progress of AI systems are the injustices furthered by the algorithms, which of course are originated by humans. These lead to results that are biased (in terms of gender or race) along with catastrophic repercussions. Sometimes it seems that the development of new technologies, like Wilford's timeless engine, moves much faster than the exploration of potential impact and how to mitigate risk.
You can watch it on Prime Video (2 hrs.)
Primer (2004) - United States
Primer is considered a cult science fiction movie despite it being a very low-budget debut feature. What is interesting is that it provides a glimpse into the evolution of the genre and the breadth of stories it allows. Unlike the other films on this list, Primer takes place in a world very similar to our everyday world (pre-pandemic, that is...) and it does not seek to imagine a possible direction for society. Instead, the story centers on two people who, from their own garage, develop one of the most revolutionary technologies ever dreamed of: a time machine.
Time travel has inspired hundreds of science fiction stories, from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five the literature to award-winning short films like La Jetée (you can watch it here - it lasts 28 minutes) (1962), including very recent series like Germany’s Dark (2017) or the United States’ Rick and Morty (2013); this genre offers practically endless possibilities. In the case of Primer, an absurd environment is created using technology. The inventors of the time machine do not have a previously outlined plan for each trip and the film runs with the multiple timelines that play out, over and over again.
There is an important warning to be heeded in Primer: the failure to identify the risks involved in the use of new technology. In and of itself, technology is neither good nor bad. It is the use of any given technology that needs to be responsible. For now, science fiction is the closest equivalent we have to a time machine, in that it transports us to various futures where we can see the risks without having to live through those catastrophic scenarios. Perhaps these fictional plotlines can help us rethink the steps we’re taking.
You can watch it on Mubi (1 hr., 20 min.)
The future remains a mystery
The films mentioned above demonstrate the internationality of concerns for just and dignified futures. From Japan to England, the United States, South Korea, the Czech Republic, France, and Germany, all of these movies reflect how fears and dreams about the future have no geographical boundaries.
Artistic works of science fiction are key in providing us food for thought to help us imagine and build desirable and just futures. They show us fragments of possible futures, which warn us of risks that we may not yet take into account, and guide us to prevent these dystopias shown on screen from becoming reality. An example of the importance of science fiction in our days is that of the French army. In addition to recruiting people with expertise in politics, IR, etc., they have hired science fiction writers to imagine future scenarios in order to be prepared for any digital threat to come.
While art and science are often seen as two very different elements, science fiction literature and film become a fundamental vehicle for reflecting on scientific and technological developments. We do not have time machines to reverse the steps taken so far, but we do have the power of science fiction to imagine and shape our future. Let's start creating a better one.
Look out for the next blog post in this series in which we’ll continue exploring possible futures based on science fiction. You can check out the Spanish version of this blog post here.