The cautionary tale of intelligent science fiction

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Roy Batty, Blade Runner

An android in his death throes, spouting a tragic soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare. A city of neon light, its architecture constructed of circuitry, its inhabitants engaged in gladiatorial combat. These scenes, from Blade Runner and Tron respectively represent iconic moments and aesthetics in cinema. They are both in their own way genre defining, that genre being intelligent science fiction.

Many sci-fi films are by their very nature intelligent, despite detractors claiming the title a misnomer. The oeuvre has spawned meditations on religion, the state, freedom, morality, technological advancement and the fundamental nature of what makes us human. No other cinematic genre is such an adaptable vehicle for allegory or metaphysical narrative. They can afford us great insight into the human condition without seeming childish, fantastical, lecturing or portentous. They often do this by disguising themselves as action films when usually they’re of significantly more substance than that.

To put these ideas into context we only have to look at the trajectory of the genre. Made at the turn of the century, Méliès magical, flickering A Trip To The Moon was a showcase for fledgling special effects, engaging its audience in wonder. Only twenty or so years later, Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece Metropolis gave us our first view of a truly dystopic vision in cinema and the image of a multi-leveled, transport reliant mega city. In the years after World War II many films were based on comics or dime store novels about men from Mars, who were portrayed as monsters. These thinly veiled references to the atrocities witnessed in Europe and the inherent fear of opposing ideologies were understandable, so despite the strong interest in space travel and machine-based advancement during this period, sci-fi films mirrored the antifascist/communist propaganda of the time with a subtext of demonising ‘the other’ as a threat to democracy and our fundamental freedoms. Even the brilliantly kitsch Forbidden Planet, ostensibly an adaptation of The Tempest for the Jetson generation, is in reality about the insidiousness of communist thought.

As in other artistic spheres, the 1960s widened the scope considerably. Godard’s remarkable noir Alphaville was released, as was Planet Of The Apes, Fahrenheit 451, La Jette, and the pinnacle of ’60s intelligent sci-fi, Kubrick’s towering 2001: A Space Odyssey. These completely realised, disparate visions of the future resulted in an incredible shift in tone which endured throughout the 1970s. Opening the decade was the uncompromising satire of A Clockwork Orange, Tarkovsky’s meditative Solaris, and the ecologically pertinent Silent Running. The end of the ’70s were to produce films as diverse as the excruciatingly paced but extraordinarily beautiful Stalker and the phenomenon that was Star Wars. The decade culminated in a cross fertilisation with horror in Ridley Scott’s Alien and mundane domesticity in Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The complexities in our imaginings of the near future had multiplied in method, style and sometimes startling prescience.

In 1982, a startling thirty years ago, two films were released that made an inedible mark on the genre. Disney’s Tron was an unprecedented visual display of what computer animation was capable of, which wasn’t a great deal. But still, as rudimentary as it looks to modern eyes, this dated popcorn flick with its thinly veiled religious themes, rotoscoping and wire frame animation appeared simultaneously retro and complex. Although it’s clearly based on the arcade games of the era it represents a definite paradigm shift in the audience’s thinking. The general public had never before seen such highly stylised machine made representations of a virtual existence. Tron was made on the very cusp of the digital revolution - notions of viruses attacking systems or computer hacking weren't really in the public domain, unless you we a tech head. Now we can all understand two computer programmes battling for control of a system. We use smart phones and digital interfaces daily, without a second thought.

In Tron, a programmer, formerly employed by a software company, suspects them of corporate espionage - they’ve stolen several video games he designed and claimed them as their own. To prove this he hacks into their system via a matter transmission programme which converts his physical body into a data stream, pulling him into the cyber world of the computer. There ensues a battle between programmer and the Master Commander (the bad guy), TRON being the security programme which ultimately frees the system. Interestingly, the programmer and his counterparts appear as they do in real life, as system avatars. It’s a direct precursor to films like The Matrix, albeit much more simplistic. Its main themes are about humans creating machines that ultimately try to usurp us, with us in turn utilising our human guile to win out over those machines on their own terms. This is a familiar historical theme in all of science fiction that also occurs in Blade Runner; even if its machines are organic, they are still technically machines.

Ridley Scott’s follow up to Alien couldn’t be more different; it’s a multi-textured spectacular, tackling notions of identity, man’s hubris, memory and the near future city. More books and papers have been written about it than any other science fiction film than perhaps Star Wars. Based on the novel by Philip K Dick, it presented an entirely new and complex future noir aesthetic. Gone are the lustrous spacecraft and antiseptic linearity of the ’70s. Instead we have a city filled with incessant rain, pan Asian architecture and hybrid slang language, a future that looks very believable to us now, as anyone who has visited New York or Tokyo and walked their evening streets will know. Its visual depth remains unquestionably relevant, directly influencing music videos, fashion and the birth of cyber punk, notably Japanese anime and series such as Ghost In the Shell. Although clearly dystopian it’s not post-apocalyptic, rather it’s a ravaged world, overpopulated, low on resources, polluted; the planet’s animals are dead and what few remain are worthy commodities.

Large transglobal corporations have genetically engineered organic androids or ‘Replicants' in order to labour in inhospitable environments on off world colonies, as such they’re banned from Earth. But interestingly, rather than create automatons, they have imbued these humanistic robots with sentience, memories and personality, along with an inbuilt finite life span. The narrative focuses on a bounty hunter, a ‘Blade Runner’ who is engaged to retire several of these replicants, who refusing to die have escaped and returned back to Earth in a bid to extend their lives. What’s interesting is that viewers ultimately sympathise not with Deckard the bounty hunter but with the wayward replicants who are trying to emancipate themselves from slavery. Within the context on their implanted memories they have developed desires, none stronger than the will to survive.

They also display moments of compassion which presupposes empathy. Not only are the machines taking over, they’ve become more ‘human’ than their flesh and blood counterparts.

There are many other technologies within the film that now somewhat parallel real life; bionic eyes, robotic pets - the ‘Esper’ system which analyses and enlarges photographs through multi-directional digital imaging sounds a lot like advanced Photoshop. The ‘Voight-Kampff’ test, which is used to determine if someone is a replicant, functions as an advanced lie detector, similar machines are now being developed utilising bodily responses and cognitive function in law enforcement. The flying cars, ‘Spinners’ may seem very far off, but the Terrafugia Transition Aircraft, a roadworthy light aircraft, was revealed at trade shows last year; the engineering company behind the design estimate car-planes will be on the market by 2015. The University of Reading has been developing robotic systems to function as companions for those with degenerative health conditions requiring support. We may be a long way away from the sophisticated genetic engineering required for organic androids but Hiroshi Ishiguro at Japan’s Osaka University has already created the ‘actroid’ HI-1, a humanoid robot capable of demonstrating instinctual behaviours.

We are closer than ever to understanding and manipulating genetics, creating huge uncertainties over the morality of selective breeding, eugenics and cloning, which films such as Gattaca and Moon have addressed in more recent years. Intelligent science fiction cinema is certainly entertaining but in more sober terms it addresses the Frankenstein complex, suggesting that if we continually advance without keeping check on our arrogance, one day our own creations will overthrow us. The machines will eventually take over, be they actual machines, such as in Terminator or the imposed virtual realities of The Matrix. The films of this sub-genre are prophecies of sorts, versions of our future and the fears we have in them being true. Read them as cautionary fairy tales, recommendations of modesty and self-awareness. We have been warned.

Words by Anna Wilson

This feature appears in the Film issue of Clash magazine, out 5th April. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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