Looking at Sci-Fi Through a Rose-Coloured Lens

I love science fiction cinema. It is, by far and away, the genre from which I derive the most joy. I love the exhilarating action sequences, the awe inspiring special effects, the darkened city streets slick with rain, I love the thrill of new technological imaginings, and I love the neo-noir aesthetic that colours these futuristic worlds a darker shade of dystopia (available in limited palettes of blue, green or charcoal). What I love most however, are the skilfully crafted hypothetical futures, which prompt us to ponder human nature and ethics in the here and now.

So it is with great joy that I am experiencing the current resurgence of the genre. When the latest blue-tinted trailer explodes onto the screen my skin erupts in a rash of goose pimples, my heart kicks up a beat, and I dare to hope that this is in fact, the next Blade Runner, Terminator 2, Dark City or Matrix. And while many of blockbusters do fail to deliver (Prometheus, Looper, Elysium and After Earth among them), a great deal of my pleasure derives from that one great film I find after sifting through the sea of Hollywood crap.

And so friends, it is after my most recent trip to the cinemas, that I pause to take stock and reflect upon, what is for me, the high and low point of the current cycle. Let’s begin with the low.

On the face of itDoug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow quite clearly has the makings of a classic sci-fi flick. Its narrative is set in the not-too-distant future. This future is beset by alien warfare. The survival of humanity requires the demonstration of awesome technological might, by both the characters that populate the EoT world and the filmmakers who created it. (That said, while a small contingent of fans are lauding the special effects as a successful demonstration of technological might, my husband has duly noted that the look of the aliens, the governing logic for the alien behaviour, their Achilles heal, and indeed, the military technology used to combat them, have all been blatantly ripped off from Matrix Revolutions). The narrative time loop also clearly signifies “sci-fi,” as does the presence of Tom Cruise.

What this film lacks, however, is the requisite thematic concern with the relationship between the human and technological, or indeed, the human and the alien. A good science fiction film has us questioning basic assumptions about our own humanity. Think for instance, of the specialized “PreCrime” police department in the Minority Report, a film which locates its characters in technologically-advanced future, as a means to explore the ethical tension between a desire for safety, and the ability to exercise free-will. Think also, of the “more human than human” Replicants in Blade Runner, with their unprecedented capacity for memory and compassion distinctly lacking in their human counterparts.

For my part, what sets the excellent sci-fi film apart from the merely good, is the refusal to provide a sense of narrative closure, prompting audiences to continue questioning and participating in this world long after the credits stop rolling.

While a quick tour through the internet reveals a preoccupation with the ending of EoT (see here and here for examples), I think this is more an indication of sci-fi fans desperately trying to grapple with the survival of both protagonists against all logic. While Hollywood is certainly notorious for tacking inappropriate “happy” endings onto the tail end of otherwise great films, this is not quite the case in this instance.

Ultimtely, EoT fails to utilise its sci-fi motifs and conventions to illuminate anything new or pressing about human nature and its evolutionary path. For instance, the implications of Cruise’s transformation from hapless victim into military machine are not explored. The time loop that enables him to achieve this transformation is not rendered such that it gives us pause for thought about the repetitive and senseless brutality sustained by the rampant militarism represented herein. And it is difficult to ascertain what kind of threat to humanity the aliens could plausibly embody. Disappointingly, they seem to merely function as a one dimensional catalyst for Cruise’s evolution from selfish deserter to selfless hero(has anyone checked for the US military in the credits?) In short, missed opportunities abound.

So what, then, is my high point for the current cycle of the sci-fi genre? Her. That’s right, Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her.

While a controversial claim, I would suggest that aside from the fact that we view the world of Her through a rose-coloured lens, it clearly qualifies as sci-fi on a number of counts:

  • it represents a futuristic world, albeit, the not-to-distant future;
  • it imagines new technology within its narrative, though it does not rely on ground breaking special effects to bring this world to life, that said, imminent technological advancement is fundamental to its narrative;
  • and its themes are squarely centred on the relationship between humans and technology.

What allows this film to take up an esteemed placed within the sci-fi canon is its carefully crafted love story between man and machine, (a vast cinematic tradition that stretches back to Metropolis), which challenges its audience to maintain a clear distinction between “human” and “machine.” The film carefully renders our increasingly complex and emotional attachments with everyday technologies - in this case the operating system in your personal computer - and shows us the subtle ways that our humanity is transformed through their regular use.

Like Terminator and the Matrix before it, Her represents a world in which AI emerges as a reality. However unlike the usual dystopia brought about by thinking machines, Her dares to explore the less spectacular possibilities brought about by such a development. For instance, possibility that the technologies that we create are not actually concerned with our demise, that they will in fact exist in an alternative reality, and may indeed choose to move on to enjoy a future without their would-be masters/victims.

By blending sci-fi and romantic conventions, the film is also able to offer us what I referred to earlier as the thrill of the new, in the form of a narrative that looks at the very personal affects of technological advancement. Extending the themes of Jonze’s earlier and equally brilliant Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, technology is not the bringer of domm per se, but rather illuminates how humans use technology to overcome emotional hardship, explores the multitude of ethical conundrums that such a use brings about. And it is these insights, I think, which constitute the more valuable contributions to the genre to date.


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