Stop me if you’ve heard this story before …
A space mission goes awry, and an astronaut gets lost in space, stuck in a claustrophobic vessel, doomed to run out of oxygen, food, or fuel, never to be able to return to Earth.
Like the haunted house trope in the horror genre, the claustrophobic spaceship has become a sub-genre unto itself in science fiction. How much so? In the last 10 years, we have witnessed the following, all with variations on this theme: Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Passengers, Ad Astra, The Midnight Sky, Voyagers, Stowaway, and the reboot of Lost in Space on Netflix. I’m sure there are many more, but these were the ones that I could easily think of off the top of my head.
There’s nothing wrong with mining such a tried-and-true premise as a claustrophobic spaceship, lost amongst the stars. It plays. Boy, does it play. But why does the genre go there again and again and again? For that matter, why can’t any of the many iterations of Star Trek get off those militaristic ships? I never thought the navy would influence so much of the future in code, conduct, and crew, but according to Gene Roddenberry, et al. it absolutely has a monopoly.
Lost in space. Military-type missions. And then there is the other big, science-fiction cliché that gets revamped, or slightly reimagined, year in and year out—the post-apocalyptic, dystopian society. They’re all pretty dismal takes on the future. Doesn’t any screenwriter see a better tomorrow?
What happened to sci-fi? When did it become so predictable, so unvaried, so unimaginative?
As a film critic and storyteller, I think there are numerous reasons that science fiction has hit a snag in its ability to deliver fresh thinking and stories that feel more unique. And most of it has to do with our ever-burgeoning technology and the future arriving at our doorsteps, decades, if not centuries, ahead of schedule.
Starting with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, filmmakers have been envisioning a future where technology took over everything. Space travel, robots, computers … these were all considered utterly fictional up until NASA put a man on the moon. After that, the future didn’t seem nearly as far off as it seemed during the Fifties and films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. The future felt like now.
And a lot of what science fiction was trafficking in, like the threat of computers to ruin mankind, evident in films as varied over the decades like 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, The Stepford Wives in 1975, and The Terminator in 1985. Today, the computers we all carry around in the palms of our hands have become man’s new best friend. These smartphones are our constant companions, and our one collective gateway to news, weather, porn, Door Dash, and a shared ride on Uber.
Indeed, the future is now. Almost everything that Gene Roddenberry envisioned in his original Star Trek series that took place in the 23rd century has come true in the early part of our current 21st century. Communicators? They’re our cellphones. Talking computers? Drones, probes, space shuttles, body scanners … all here with us now. Hard for screenwriters to imagine gadgets and gizmos of the future when Apple and other companies have delivered such hardware to us two centuries early.
Two other tropes that don’t play particularly well anymore in science fiction are space monsters and robots. Space monsters have become mostly relegated to horror, and the fact that we haven’t been able to find new life anywhere in the galaxy seems to have stalled a once solid belief that there were other humanistic species out there. The MCU may seem all kinds of strange beings in various solar systems in its Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, but alien stories are becoming rarer by the day. And how scary can they be when a microscopic virus can threaten the entire planet?
As for robots, audiences used to fear that they’d take over Earth, but now such machines seem more likely to merely steal away minimum-wage jobs and various tasks in factories. Sure, films like 2015’s Ex Machina and TV shows like HBO’s Westworld make great hay out of robots, but the AIs in such fictions seem less malevolent than their human counterparts. Interestingly, most audiences root for the machines in such fiction. But then in projects like those, the robots are more moral.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of the better science-fiction stories of the last 20 years, if not more, for two specific reasons that truly seem unique and visionary. For starters, Garland’s film may seem to be about whether A.I. Eva (Alicia Vikander) can pass the Turing-esque test of thought and consciousness, but the film was actually much more about algorithm excesses like those we find in Google and Amazon. How so? You’ll remember that inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) tells his guinea pig, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), that he tracked his internet history to get a true picture of his personality, likes, preferences, and peccadilloes. That data dump gave Nathan all he needed to design Eva to appeal to Caleb’s true self and manipulate him like the pawn that he was. But again, it’s the human being whose motives are derelict.
Time was science fiction could traffic mostly in allegory and writers had a field day with such metaphors. Planet of the Apes was about racism, Godzilla commented on nuclear contamination, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial stood out as a Jesus allegory. You do remember in that Steven Spielberg film how E.T. could bring a plant back to life with a touch of his finger, right? The character was also resurrected, but who’s counting?
Today, it seems that the better science-fiction stories are those not bending the truth all that much. The stories they’re presenting are about today, with only a few dials pushed to the right. That’s certainly true in Gattaca, the cult film from 1997 that starred Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman.
Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is a story is about Eugenics, the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Of course, what the story is really about is discrimination against human beings deemed having inferior genetics.
The main character of Vincent (Hawke) wants to travel to space but is deemed unworthy at birth due to some genetic inferiorities, including a weak heart condition. It is preposterous that one’s life should be laid out in one path or the other at such a tender age but look at how the caste systems of any time in the history of man have placed various citizens here or there because of their lineage, geography, or economics. Why not genetics, too, even though one can overcome such a thing as one lives on?
At the time, many saw the film as a commentary on the caste system throughout various parts of the world, but judging it through a 2021 lens, it’s less about such discriminations and more about self-determination of identity. As much as our nation often wants to place its people in categories: young or old, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, more and more in our modern way, people get to decide their identities for themselves. Just look at the LGBTQ+ influence on exercises in self-identify and self-worth.
Today, most workspaces, schools, etc. ask us to ID ourselves and pick our own pronouns. Vincent’s desire to identify himself as worthy of the space program, shunning society’s regarding of him as unfit, is about reclaiming, reinventing, and rebranding, just like that. Gattaca is incredibly intuitive science fiction and has not only stood the test of time, but without a doubt, predicted it.
Reality is almost always stranger than fiction, and when it comes to science fiction, the real world seems eminently more imaginative these days. Thus, any writer wanting to toil in the genre needs to really put on their thinking caps and find better allegories, fresher plots, and hopefully, locations that aren’t more suffocating space modules.
*Feature image by Jeff York