Readers Write In #88: Science Fiction: A Genre Whose Time Has Come

Posted on July 23, 2019

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(by Vineet Jacob Kuruvilla)

It was while watching the Arrival (2016) I realised that things have changed. Of late, there has been a deluge of content in pop culture, especially in the visual medium, around science and technology and its impact on society. The technology itself may not be the crux in all the story but it is very much there. I am not talking about technologies like the pen in your hand or the toaster in your kitchen, the impact of which are either local or takes time to spread. I am referring to technologies like the internet and artificial intelligence, the kind whose outcome will be felt, no matter where you are and before even the maker realises what he has just unleashed. The speed at which it spreads and the sheer scale of its reach is scary and exciting at the same time. How it will mould our lives is unpredictable and often unforeseeable, even the sharpest visionaries among us fail to see its ramifications. This is precisely what makes science fiction, in the 21st century, exciting drama. Except for occasional films like Terminator (1984, 1991) or Jurassic Park (1993, 1997), never before have I been thrilled about the sci-fi genre. 

People have awakened to the potential for new and interesting stories in this genre especially people like me, who found most sci-fi movie plots contrived. Just look at where production houses are putting their money in. In 2018, according to Business Insider 29% of the then-upcoming content on Netflix will be science fiction and fantasy and this was the most popular genre on the platform in 2018 overtaking comedy. Similar trends can be seen on Amazon and HBO platforms and the trend continues in 2019 as well. Even a cursory look at IMDB data shows no other genre has increased as much as sci-fi in the last ten years. The fact that technology has made it easy to make sci-fi films might partly explain this surge. But, that does not explain the popularity of the genre. I believe, technology like telecommunication, internet, AI and other spin-off techs have become ubiquitous. Devices and technology, which used to be in the hands of select few, are now in everyone’s hands. Sci-fi movies have become about how these technologies have changed or are going to change the lives of its characters. This is something we are still grappling with in our own lives be it issues as simple as addiction to smartphones or as complex as a rogue Artificial General Intelligence agent. The average person on the street is almost on an equal footing with the technical people in this global debate as there is only so much even technical people themselves have figured out. Hence, with the current sci-fi movies/shows, the “realist” audience finds themselves on comfortable turf.

Take the example of the 2015 Hollywood film The Martian. It talks about an astronaut inhabits Mars albeit just for a limited time. Not only was the movie critically acclaimed, but it was also in the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year. Extraterrestrial inhabitation was not even a topic of interest among common people twenty years ago, maybe even ten. But now, we have Elon Musk’s SpaceX on one side, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin on the other discussing this very topic in mass media. It was just a few weeks ago that Elon Musk posted on social media a poster which said “Occupy Mars”. His company is currently testing Starship spacecraft that is capable of carrying 100 people to the Red Planet. In my mind, the film did not come across as futuristic or speculative fiction even when I am fully aware that there is still a long way to go before we actually inhabit Mars. That is because these are all now in the realm of possibilities and given the current state of technology and the pace at which it is progressing, the public is able to believe in such a future.

The success of Netflix series, Black Mirror, is another case in point. The show comes across a sci-fi horror show. It’s a brilliant show about everything that is possible with technology and everything that can go wrong with it. The show discusses the role of mass media, surveillance, big brother governments, and organisations, about the psychological effects of technology, memories and so on. The show is a massive hit and is critically acclaimed. Again, we are able to imagine the future depicted in the series. The social credit system that has been launched in China is eerily similar to the ones shown in Black Mirror. It’s, most of the time, tough to watch and gives its characters and us, the viewers, no respite from the downside of technology and the situation we find ourselves in. 

That brings me to my biggest grouse about the current trend i.e., an overwhelming number of shows in this genre presents a bleak or dystopian future. It is almost as if technological progress just can’t get anything right. Just see Black Mirror! Or Her (2013)! Or look at Steven Speilberg’s Minority Report (2002). I loved the film and I felt the concept of Precogs and pre-visualisation of crime were brilliantly presented. But then, the whole system has to go cuckoo, isn’t it?  Else, where is the drama?! And, if Tom Cruise is in the lead, he’s got to run, right? When I watch these sci-fi tragedies, I have an inkling whether they write the story as a doomsday scenario to give the picture more gravitas. The sci-fi movies I’ve seen which had a fun premise or was cool are considered as whimsical, mainstream, masala movies. Think Back to the Future (1985) (or even the Bond series)! Only a reflective person can imagine a future based on the past and looking at the trends of the present. It would need courage and much more creativity to imagine a future that bucks this trend.

We’ve just dipped our toes in the sci-fi ocean. Human beings are unpredictable. Imagine the complexity and possibilities that will open up when we add technology to the mix! Some say, there are no more original stories to be told and that filmmakers can only experiment with form and narrative styles. This might be true with regards to stories of pure human drama, the kind Iranian cinema specialise in. We might be moving towards an era of human+tech drama. What shape and form human society will take only time will tell. Time will also tell what our cinema will be like and I am excited to see what is in store.