Science Fiction Films Essay

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Science Fiction Films

On September 11, 2001, many people reacted to the news reports as if these were advertisements for another Hollywood blockbuster like Independence Day. All of it seemed like a movie, including a scene with the WASP president addressing the nation in a moment of maximum danger. Not since December 7, 1941 had Americans felt so threatened on their own soil, although in general they had been spared the worst horrors of the 20th Century that so many other countries had experienced. This time, however, the movie was real and the outcome was not necessarily going to turn out like a Hollywood ending. Science fiction films like Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999) had certainly reflected various strains of fear, anxiety and paranoia in American culture and society. So had the bug-eyed monster (BEM) movies of the 1950s and 1960s, when nuclear war seemed a very likely possibility. Above all else, though science fiction has excelled in expressing contemporary fears about out-of-control science and technology, whether nuclear weapons during the Cold War or computers, robots, androids and artificial intelligence in Blade Runner and The Matrix. In the former, humans were paranoid about intelligent machines becoming too much like their creators and therefore no longer content to be slaves, and in the latter the machines already had taken over and enslaved humanity. Apart from a group of rebels, not only had humanity ceased to human at all, but was no longer even aware of physical reality. Instead, the program created by the supercomputer had become reality. Both films also feature individual heroes who defeat the agents of the system in the case of Neo-in The Matrix or the killer cop Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, who regains his humanity by learning to love and empathize with the replicants.

In science fiction, the threat to the planet and the human species can take many forms, natural or artificial, created by humans or by aliens. Paranoia about technology that runs out of human control or threatens the very existence of humanity and its identity has been a staple of science fiction ever since the original Frankenstein novel. Both Blade Runner and The Matrix are highly dystopian and "technophobic" films, despite all the high technology on display.[footnoteRef:1] Cold War science fiction, with its well-known anxiety about nuclear weapons and radiation, was often "saturated" with paranoia about science and technology.[footnoteRef:2] In many movies over the last twenty years, however, the threat has been from natural disasters, climate change, comets, earthquakes and volcanoes, all of which reflect real world anxieties about damage to the environment. Especially in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War, "the agent of destruction…now most often preludes active human agency or responsibility."[footnoteRef:3] Hollywood cannot resist using these because "some of our planetary violence is so cinematic that it automatically makes for gripping movie scenes."[footnoteRef:4] Often the events depicted are impossible or at least highly improbable, but audiences find them plausible because "we don't fully grasp the complex natural processes of our planet." Human responsibility if far more clear cut in The Matrix and Blade Runner, though, since people originally created the technology that later became a threat to them. [1: Edward D. Miller, "The Matrix and the Medium's Message" (Social Policy, Summer 2000), p. 56.] [2: Despina Kakoudaki, "Spectacles of History: Race Relations, Melodrama, and the Science Fiction/Disaster Film" (Camera Obscura, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2002) p. 119.] [3: Kakoudaki, p. 111] [4: Sidney Perkowitz, "Our Violent Planet" in Sidney Perkowitz (ed) Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World (Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 70.]

The Matrix has dialogue referring to the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, who described the social and economic system of the contemporary world as hyper-real. In the film, hyper-reality has become totalitarian and absolute, replacing the physical world with a virtual or simulated one. Apart from the rebels, "no one knows that their minds are operating inside a dream that is programmed for them," which carries the "latent paranoia" of Baudrillard to its extreme.[footnoteRef:5] This is Marxist false consciousness with a vengeance since most human beings are not aware that they are simply slaves to the system existing in a condition of complete unawareness. Some real-life scientists like Bill Joy and Kevin Warwick actually welcomed the kind of future described in The Matrix in which illness, old age and the human body have basically been abolished. Joy was employed at Sun Microsystems and wrote that "the future doesn't need us" and predicted the next stage of (directed) evolution in which machines replaced bodies and the mind would exist forever, while Warwick fantasized about becoming "one with his computer."[footnoteRef:6] According to the film, humans had developed the Artificial Intelligence (AI) that eventually enslaved them, but then tried to cut off its solar power by scorching the atmosphere. Those who survived were driven underground while the computer turned the rest of humanity into "living batteries in immense power plants."[footnoteRef:7] [5: Miller, p. 57.] [6: David Lavery, "From Cinespace in Cyberspace: Zionists and Agents, Realists and Gamers in The Matrix and eXistenZ (Journal of Popular Film and Television Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 2001), p. 152.] [7: Lavery, p. 153.]

Only a few radicals and revolutionaries have the courage and insight to even recognize evil system and struggle against it, and in this case a band of multicultural rebels are at war with simulations that look like parodies of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI agents, all white men with identical suits, white shirts and short haircuts. They literally are 'the suits' at war with the countercultural underground. As the rebel leader Morpheus informs Neo (Keanu Reeves) when he begins to understand that he is a slave to a machine "it is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."[footnoteRef:8] Agent Smith, the leader of the systems security force, informs Neo-of his loathing for humanity and how the original Matrix was truly a perfect world without pain, death or suffering but "it was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops [of human batteries] were lost." This led him to conclude that human beings were "a virus" and "a cancer of the planet. You are a plague."[footnoteRef:9] Smith hates humans so much, including the way they smell, that he cannot bear even to be simulated as one. Paradoxically, though, the film has a conservative message in that the rebels cannot with without the superhuman, which fits with the Hollywood convention that "social change is only through the heroic action of a hyperkinetic individual," such as Neo-or Rick Deckard.[footnoteRef:10] [8: Lavery, p. 153.] [9: Lavery, p. 154.] [10: Miller, p. 56.]

Multicultural teams and partnerships became the new normal in Hollywood films during the 1980s and 1990s, although this did not reflect social reality as much as anxiety and fear about the state of race relations in the United States. Although the civil rights movement of the 1960s was supposed to have 'solved' the most difficult problems such as segregation and lack of voting and citizenship rights, the true condition of minorities in the United States was far from equality, especially in social and economic life. This was reflected to the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson case in Los Angeles, but in Hollywood movies like Independence Day and Men in Black, minority and white heroes often teamed up to battle the forces of chaos and evil. Will Smith, who was not "threatening to a white, middle-class audience," was partnered with a geeky Jewish scientist played by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, for example, while their actions were praised by a WASP president.[footnoteRef:11] In The Matrix, the rebel Morpheus and the Oracle are black, while the machine side is represented entirely by rigid, authoritarian white males.[footnoteRef:12] Unlike some of the other films in which "the alignment of the white male hero with the black male hero enables the reaffirmation of a patriarchal bond," the rebel side has heroes of both genders, even if they lack Neo's godlike powers. [11: Kakoudaki, p. 129.] [12: Kakoudaki, p. 127.]

In the Blade Runner world, of course, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a loner until the replicant Rachael humanizes him, but the postmodern city of Los Angeles has a very rigid class and caste structure. Those at the bottom of society literally are at the bottom -- on street level -- while the rich and powerful live in glass towers above the masses. As in film noir, the streets are dirty, dark and dangerous, and in the movie seem mostly inhabited by minorities and immigrants who speak their own dialect while the middle and upper classes speak English. Deckard is also warned at the start that if refuses to be a Blade Runner then he will simply be reduced in status to one of the 'little people'. Their treatment is not all that much better than that of the replicants, except that they are allowed to exist in a society…

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