Whatever happened to science fiction that was, you know, fun?
I asked myself that question while watching trailers for this summer’s crop of sci-fi blockbusters. On the one hand, there’s the charmingly titled Oblivion, in which Tom Cruise returns to an earth ruined by ecological disaster and discover new ways in which man’s inhumanity toward man has impacted the development of society. On the other hand, there’s After Earth (pictured), in which Will Smith and his son return to an earth ruined by ecological disaster and fight for their very survival while confronting their inability to relate as a family.
Both films are filled with the eye-popping special effects that make for box-office smashes these days, and the presence of such big names as Cruise and Smith won’t hurt things, either. And yet there’s something particularly hopeless about the tone of both films; unless either (or both) has a climactic deus ex machina, it’s likely they’ll end with the earth essentially destroyed, no matter how happy the ending is otherwise. “Congratulations!” the message would appear to be, “The day has been saved, but we still killed out planet — call it a semiwin?”
There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude. There appeared to be no problem that couldn’t be dealt with either by the one-two punch of positive thinking and, well, punching— or by intellect and inspiration: new inventions were dreamed up that automated everyday tasks and made the impossible not only possible but also commonplace.
The zenith of such optimistic science fiction was perhaps the original Star Trek, which presented a vision of humanity that had transcended societal ills like racism and bigotry, resorting to violence only when the situation called for it. (Which, admittedly, seemed to happen on a weekly basis.) Such strong belief in the ability of humanity to overcome its worst impulses continued all the way through the 1980s revival, Star Trek: The Next Generation, with an almost off-puttingly perfect crew demonstrating how boring life could be without outside stimulus.
Of course, Star Trek returned to life with 2009’s J.J. Abrams reboot, and there’s a new installment this year. Surely Star Trek Into Darkness offers an antidote to dystopian science fiction?
Or maybe not.
The redirecting of Trek into a commentary about the nature of terrorism and revenge is an interesting choice, and one that seems at odds with traditional Star Trek values. That’s perhaps intentional; producers have spoken about making this movie for those who don’t like Star Trek, and it’s clearly been judged that this is the best way to reach new audiences. After all, while the idea of a humanity that’s evolved past its basest tendencies may seem far-fetched, the idea of wanting vengeance after a terrorist attack is, in this world, all too easy to understand.
That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.
Such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole. Certainly, at the time, there was much to be disillusioned about; the optimism and hope of the late ’60s fell apart as the hippie dream of a new Age of Aquarius came face to face with a reality filled with an unpopular war, civil rights riots and all-new reasons to feel suspicious of and disappointed in those in authority, so it’s hardly any surprise that the future became a darker, less inviting place.
The problem is, science fiction seems to have become stuck in a rut of hopelessness. It’s difficult to remember the last mainstream science-fiction project that didn’t include at heavy dollop of cynicism and surrender at its core, and that strikes me as a failure of the genre as a whole. Science fiction is all about imagining the new and unimaginable, surely. If we can’t imagine a world that isn’t a mess because of what we’ve done, shouldn’t we try harder?