Staff writer Henry Roberts ruminates on the long history of science fiction’s interaction with its given contemporary.


One of science fiction’s greatest assets is its persistence in popular culture. From the earliest days of cinema, signified in Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, we have been fascinated with seeing science fiction onscreen. The genre has seen variations in across historical traditions. One of the reasons for the genre’s popularity and survival lies in its flexibility. As well as allowing for the excesses of human imagination in ways other genres cannot, it can move with the times, and in doing so incorporate the themes of such times. Science fiction responds directly to humanity and our lives: it appeals to our dreams and reveals our nightmares. By responding to contemporary political issues; examining our subjective traumas or merely providing escapism from our day-to-day existence, there is perhaps no better filmic genre than science fiction to help us live our lives.

Cinematic science fiction, dating back to early cinema, has served a dual role of entertainment and social commentary. Metropolis, set in a dystopian future, spoke volumes on industrialisation and class struggle in Weimar Germany. Popular American sci-fi from the Cold War-era, though a spectacle cinema and popular with the masses, commented on its contemporary context. In an era of suspicion and anxiety, science fiction was used to both entertain and comment on the dangers everyone could face if we all lose sight of our common humanity. By appealing to humanity as a collective, many science fiction films call for a recognition to our collective humanity in the face of such crises, and at times reveal the consequences of not doing so. This has been a standard for onscreen science fiction, with The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. the Flying Saucer all playing off humanity’s sense of community, and the dangers of letting this community disintegrate in the face of a foreign threat, perceived or otherwise
This trait of science fiction still exists today. Arrival seeks to do just this, offering a global solution to a global problem, but examined on an individual micro-level. The film posits that when the world is in crisis, we will revert back into a planet of cooperating and hostile nation-states. Science fiction thus forces us to consider the benefits of greater cooperation and of seeing each other and ourselves with a more cosmopolitan outlook, by positing problems that require such a response.

Some offer warnings- with their views of dystopian futures- of what is to come if we do not tackle the great contemporary issues of our times (climate change; unregulated capitalism; the progress of technology). In these films, there is no need for an unworldly threat to humanity as in an alien invasion; the threats hypothesised in the films are real. While it is not the main intention of these films to act as a rallying cry- they are, of course, movies; they entertain- they still possess an omnipresent authority over humanity and human nature. Their superiority, whether aesthetically or thematically accomplished or not, seems to know what will divide us and, accordingly, what will unite us.

However, particularly in recent years, science fiction has not just concerned itself with ‘external’ issues. The genre has sought to explore and better understand subjective ‘internal’ issues on the level of the individual. If one limits science fiction to outer-space, then one would be ignoring the possibilities the genre has in exploring such ‘human themes’ normally associated with realism. By allowing greater variations of factors, this ‘subjective science fiction’ is thus greater enabled and equipped than other genres to explore human themes. It is from the detachment of science fiction from the ‘real world’- time travel; memory eraser; planetary collisions- that the genre is able to fully attach itself to our feelings.

In many ways, Charlie Kaufman’s films could not feel more earthly: introverted characters, office spaces, continuous themes of loneliness and love. But much of Kaufman’s output is of course science fiction. Being John Malkovich takes us through a portal in a mundane office that leads us, literally, into the mind of Hollywood actor John Malkovich. In Malkovich, by allowing us a voyeuristic view from the literal perspective of another, we are allowed to indulge in the pleasures of viewing. However, by taking this to the extreme, we are also shown the dangers of obsessing over these very human desires. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we are taken literally inside Joel’s memories, Kaufman is enabled to explore what it means to regret and love.

In About Time, for example, no attempt is made to explain the science or logic behind the central family’s time-travelling ability; to do so would miss the point. Rather, we take the ‘logic’ of the fictitious elements of the film for granted, and so can concentrate on the film’s themes of love, regret and chance. In Under The Skin, it takes a murderous alien, dressed as a human, to reveal to us core traits of human nature. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia sees a planet crashing into Earth, and uses this as representation and contrast to its central character’s severe depression. And the copious amounts of cinematic work presenting artificial intelligence (A.I.; Ex Machina; The Terminator) inevitably present to the viewer questions regarding human nature, chiefly: what does it mean to be human? Whilst still acknowledging the collective of humanity, these films posit questions concerning humans on the individual level. The sci-fi elements of these films are, in large part, used to address the subjectivity of their characters.

By presenting the spectator with these themes, science fiction cinema attaches itself to the most vulnerable aspects of our lives. Even if these works do not provide answers, the questions science fiction raise more often than not always revert back to fundamental questions of humanity in some way. Should humanity remain on earth, or can it exist elsewhere in the universe? Given the opportunity, should we amend the past to suit our present desires? Can and should humanity be created in machine form? By bringing ‘sci-fi’ properties into the reality of the film, science fiction is thus better enabled to explore the complex but real aspects of man and human nature. We as spectators are enabled to gain a better understanding of ourselves through these science fiction works.

That is not to say that science fiction must take on these grand themes of external or internal struggles in order to help us live our lives. Indeed, the Spielberg-Lucas style of science fiction is best suited to this function as it provides that important feature all of us need to indulge in every so often: escapism. With Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park and a plethora of other on-screen science fiction works, one can look up at the stars and indulge in fantasies that take one away from the problems of human existence. These films do themselves an ultimate service in being more or less devoid of high-minded traits. Where some give us isolation and depression, here we are granted companionship and adventure. While these films offer the human themes of love and death, they do so to aid their stories. And while cinema has always offered us protection from the ‘real world’, films that completely detach themselves from reality are perhaps most able to temporarily bring us out of our stressful, mortal lives and allow us to forget. Science fiction at its best can help us live our lives by allowing us to escape.


Henry Roberts