What happened to sci-fi?

Last month a panicked US press reported on a situation that is out-science-fictioning the whole of contemporary science fiction cinema. Hundreds of millions of people in China are living in the crosshairs of 200 million electric eyes: CCTV cameras equipped with facial-recognition artificial intelligence. This web of surveillance technology doesn’t just catch heroin smugglers and murder suspects. It enables authorities to recognise faces, trace movements, to map travel, track internet usage, find the indebted and keep civilians in line. This dystopian dreamworld is real, and it’s a more imaginative scenario than that presented in Ant-Man and The Wasp, or any of this year’s science-inflected films.

Here’s a paradox. For an entertainment industry fixated on adaptations, science fiction literature has all the fuel Hollywood could ever need in the books of Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke. Here’s another paradox. As the world IRL has become increasingly like science fiction, Hollywood’s aptitude for the genre has died away.

The past year’s sci-fi cinema efforts are testament to how a key story in contemporary sci-fi is its withering. Annihilation, the new film by one of cinema’s more lucid sci-fi voices, Alex Garland, attempted a shot at brainy, visual intelligence, but was whisked away from theatre screens by its nervous distributor, instead debuting on Netflix to mixed reviews. Not since Arrival and Midnight Special in 2016 has popular cinema played in the mythical, high-concept place that we associate with the genre at its richest and most complex.

Most of the past year’s lot are mere comfort food. War of the Planet of the Apes, Spiderman: Homecoming, A Wrinkle In Time – these films are all about cool tech, and they have science-y elements, but as James Cameron recently pointed out, for the most part, science has been demoted from science fiction. ‘We can see the market drives us to a sort of science fiction now that’s either completely escapist and doesn’t require a technical consultant – an example of that would be Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s just fun,’ he said. ‘We don’t care how those spaceships work or any of that stuff works.’ There’s no deep interrogation of how stuff works in Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest Disney-Lucas effort, or Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which frittered away critical ideas about its virtual reality premise for 1980s gamer nostalgia.

The gulf that Cameron is speaking of is that between hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. In the latter, the genre’s most identifiable elements – a strongly futuristic visual style, and plots like travel through time and space – are transplanted into action films with lots of fiction and little science. Superhero films have become the genre at the multiplex, and absorbed sci-fi into a softer realm, in which story is subservient to the corporate imperatives of incorporating multiple licensed characters into a single franchise, and CGI is a means to spectacle rather than substance. Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are the kind of soft sci-fi that Albert Brooks called cinema as ‘a nonthreatening artform.’ The same goes for Blade Runner 2049, a most inessential sequel: the corporate need for a new franchise outweighed the actual need for a new story to exist.

It’s this avalanche of superhero films that has sucked the space away from anything beyond the comicbook mould, as Ridley Scott found last year with Alien: Covenant. The prequel returned multiplex sci-fi to some thrilling quasi-horror themes, and was as pulpy and camp as you could crave from popular cinema, escalating through the storytelling beats we know from the previous Alien stories (landing on a foreign planet, body invasion by a malevolent extra terrestrial). But mass audiences missed it – it didn’t have a dozen comicbook characters to mobilise multiple fanbases, or the Marvel hype machine behind it, in which each merchandise-supported film functions as an advertisement for the next. Likewise, the box office movement to superhero franchises has squeezed out smaller arthouse efforts at ideas-based, low-fi sci-fi (like the work of American independent filmmaker Shane Carruth, as well as romcoms – some genres just ebb and flow, as pointed out in a recent GQ story on sci-fi’s decline.)

Along the way, sci-fi has depoliticised. Spectacle has replaced critique. Most sci-fi today just isn’t about very much, nor does it have much feeling to it – the feeling of not knowing who you are, like Deckard and Rachel in Blade Runner; of longing for someone you’ve lost, like Kris Kelvin in Solaris; the feeling of fear for your life, as in Alien; of pure awe and wonder as in Close Encounters with the Third Kind.

Longform TV has undoubtedly stolen some of the space for hard sci-fi. Black Mirror – ironically now produced by uber-data-gatherer Netflix – consistently punches out a river of high-concept stories in hour-long episodes, so much so that Charlie Brooker has just about invented his own fearmongering subgenre. His finest concepts though, I think, hinge on our complicity with present-day, rather than future, technology: will the debut episode, in which the manipulations of viral social media bring down an acquiescent British prime minister, ever be beat?

Anon, which arrived earlier this month on Netflix, is emblematic of many of the problems in hard sci-fi at present. Its writer/director Andrew Niccol has made a career of worrying about the future. He’s a fine thinker – adept at dreaming up conceits that are simple and yet go a long way, cutting to the core our conformity with tech. But as a writer and director, his films rarely evolve beyond the promise of their basic premises. To my mind, his debut script, The Truman Show, remains his most evocative work, for much the same reason that the Black Mirror debut episode does – though it predicted the genre of reality TV, the technology was available in the present day. What Truman really critiqued was our values; the way technology would be used to stream, edit and narrativise real lives. A recent profile on Niccol claimed that his original screenplay ‘is more naked in its despair than the script that was shot.’ That may be so, but that light touch is often essential to good sci-fi: Truman director Peter Weir approached Niccol’s script with irony, buoyancy and deftness – a sensibility lacking Niccol’s straight-faced directions of his own later scripts.

Anon has a classic Niccol concept. In a digital dystopia where all memory is recorded and privacy is obsolete, Clive Owen plays a homicide detective pursuing a criminal who has evaded the memory-recording system. But Anon shows no interest in character, just barebones concept and story. Niccol draws on the conventions of a noir, in which detectives are hard-boiled with a soft centre, but Owen’s man has no emotional depths, and Seyfried’s nameless murderer is really a cypher for Niccol himself, who says almost the exact things as her in media interviews. Seyfried is reduced to enunciating the film’s themes in clunky dialogue: ‘It’s not that I have something to hide. I have nothing I want you to see.’ In other words, Anon has no interest in people and psychology, only tech. At the same time, it’s not quite weird and schlocky and reckless enough to be a great B movie. And that makes for very flat storytelling.

The frustrating thing is that, despite the film’s limited and misanthropic imagination, its central thesis is correct. We give up our data to advertisers and online media empires, civilians publicly stream their own surveillance footage and authorities find the missing and the criminal with facial-recognition software. A mogul with a name beginning with Z has hijacked the internet and ad-supported social media empires have replaced journalism. Planet Earth is already too dire for sci-fi.

Science fiction once seized on tech-related anxieties of the day. Now we’ve folded those anxieties into our expectations of daily life – they’re a given. Technology won: algorithms choose our news, robots swipe our groceries, apps allocate our work and steal our wages, Blade Runner-style video billboards adorn our malls, cars drive themselves, data is leaked and sold, elections are swayed. So much of what was predicted in film and literature has arrived with so little fanfare. And if technology today is shackled to the needs of capital, so is mass storytelling and popular cinema.

That means that future science fiction is going to have to get a whole lot more political or imaginative about what our prospects on Earth and beyond look like. It will need new, diverse voices from beyond the ranks of the white male writers of the past, as Rian Coogler has shown in Black Panther, the biggest black sci-fi fantasy, and an exception to sci-fi’s decline. Just as Wake in Fright captured Australia in a way that no Australian director could, we need outsiders to look back into the data-driven world we live in.

It turns out we weren’t that uneasy about technology at all – or at least not uneasy enough to delete our accounts, log off and change our ways. Many of the industry’s mainstay voices, like Niccol, now seem anachronistic. There’s the kicker. Humanity played itself; we played ourselves. In doing so, we might just have wiped out the relevance of the genre that warned of our demise.


 Image: Metropolis, 1927

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and researcher, published in Guardian Australia, The Toast, Indiewire, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Overland, Meanjin and others. She is a contributing editor to Metro and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).

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