Teaching ‘Philosophy and Film’ this semester, with a focus on sf, I’m amused to read this bit from a Salon piece by Michael Lind:
If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval – hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.
He’s got the film history wrong. Metropolis came before Star Wars. Hell, so did Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times: that’s dystopian sf. Also, it isn’t really right to say that the theme of Star Wars is ‘technology bad’. Star Wars is really more a case of lacking a ‘science good’ message. Also, Star Trek is conspicuously moderate in its pro-science thematizing. Kirk is the captain, exemplifying the properly adventurous equilibrium point between McCoy’s emotionalism and Spock’s rationalism. Hell, that’s the theme of Metropolis, too. You need ‘mediation’ and ‘moderation’ between pure science and … some more human source of meaning.
I think we should distinguish at least six or seven stances.
1. The straight pro-science, pro-rationality sf film. Like Things To Come or The Day The Earth Stood Still. The heroes are the scientists, the rather (coldly) rational types, and the (comic) villains are human beings, with their petty, tribal ways.
2. The straight anti-science, anti-reason sf film. I think most cases that would fall into this category are ambiguous, because they tend to involve visual machine fetishism of a sort – the romance of disaster, so we tend to get a love-hate relationship with science. Dark City, for example. The Machines in The Matrix (but this gets complicated, especially as the trilogy moves to its ‘reconciliation’ conclusion, or lack thereof – lack of a conclusion, that is.) The true-blue natives in Avatar. There is definitely a ‘let’s break the machines and get back to nature, recover innocence of childhood’ theme in a lot of sf film. There is something to be said for including Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings in this set. Tolkien is so conscious about excluding technology from his world that it amounts to science fiction by subtraction – namely, of science itself from the world. (The exception that proves the rule is Saruman and his ‘mind of wheels’, which is played up more in the film.)
3. The moderate sf film that makes a point of splitting the difference. Science is good but it needs to be humanly sensible science, not pure science, which would be mad science. The lesson is: we need to stay rooted in … whatever the film says the true, human values are: love, childhood, patriotism, friendship, community, some sort of ‘authenticity’. Possibly we need science, and admire scientists and value the products of science, but scientists shouldn’t be allowed to call the shots. A scientist who calls the shots automatically suffers from hubris and is likely to turn out to be a robot. It isn’t quite right to say that these films say science should always be a means, not an end (although some might say exactly that). In other cases, there is some acknowledgment that the impulse to science is ethically noble, in itself, but it shouldn’t be allowed to run to exclusive extremes. I can’t think of many films that thematize the conflict between science and, say, justice or fairness. It’s usually more ‘conservative’ stuff: hearth and home and heart. (Will Smith punching out aliens, or stopping a runaway computer that has decided it knows what’s best for mankind. Ripley in Alien.) This is true even when the story would seem naturally to require objections to technological practices on grounds of justice or fairness. Minority Report and Gattaca, for example: these aren’t films about the unfairness of severely punishing people who haven’t (yet) committed crimes, or the unfairness of gross ‘luck’ inegalitarianism. They end up being about ‘authenticity’. In a weird way, Robocop is a good example of this sort of ‘science in moderation’ film: the hero needs to be a mix of old-fashioned conservative and ‘rational’ product, even though the happy mix ends up being rather unhappy for the hero himself. (He’s like Kirk, if Kirk had to be made by gluing half of Spock to half of McCoy.)
4. SF films that say that science really doesn’t matter, one way or the other. It’s not good, in itself, nor really bad – nor even really a danger, except insofar as it may be a distraction from what’s really important. I think examples might be: Eternal Sunshine and A.I. and 2001. (Do you see why I think those are examples?)
5. SF films that really aren’t ‘about’ science at all, in any interesting thematic sense, despite being full of science props. The Fifth Element.
6. SF films that aren’t really ‘about’ science, except secondarily, insofar as there is some atmosphere of anxiety about science, or uncanny threat from a technological product. But really the ‘philosophical’ issue is something more metaphysical and distinct and plausibly timeless: personal identity, for example. (Maybe we could put a lot of films that might go under 4 under this heading.) Blade Runner, maybe?
Lind makes a point that points us to a possible seventh stance:
Today optimism about science and technology is found chiefly on the libertarian right. At least somebody still defends nuclear energy and biotechnology. But in libertarian thought, science and technology are divorced from their modernist counterparts – large-scale public and private organizations – and wedded to ideals of small producers and unregulated markets that were obsolete by the middle of the nineteenth century.
I don’t think there is much explicit techno-libertarian thematizing in sf film. It says something that Heinlein hasn’t been sent ‘straight’ to the screen. But the lone ‘science hero’ is a familiar figure. The eccentric inventor who isn’t a mad scientist. But it’s a bit hard to separate the existence of the rugged individual science protagonist from the fact that films like to have one person to focus on, for a variety of formal and commercial, i.e. not clearly philosophical reasons.
Of course, seven categories won’t really work any better than Lind’s regressive-progressive divide. We will still feel like Wall-E, trying to decide which drawer to put the spork in. But that’s what comments are for.
Also, I would like to report that I just re-watched all three of the original Star Wars films with my daughters, who enjoyed them hugely. But I found they don’t hold up nearly as well as I had hoped – no, not even Empire. Sorry. On the other hand, Belle and I rewatched Dune last night, and it’s great! How’s by you, sf film revisonism-wise?