As a large, oval spaceship hovers above an Earth-like world, only animal, a pale humanoid being, crouches at the edge of a high ridge, surrounded by a spectacular, overflowing waterfall. He drinks a dark, bubbling liquid that triggers a painful reaction — a painful gasp, then violent vomiting and finally rapid disintegration. His decay flows into the waters below, where it seems to trigger a biogenetic reaction, and begins to rebuild into living cellular structures.
Is this futuristic place Earth? Who is the humanoid? What happened to him?
Then, in 2093, a scientific vessel, “Prometheus,” is on a voyage to a distant world, which seems pointed to in ancient star chart.
They believe the place may be where human life emerged. It’s a mountainous moon that orbits a large planet. At first, it looks like a barren wasteland: there are no plants and the air isn’t breathable. But then the crew notices straight lines on the ground. And as we know, straight lines don’t occur naturally.
It leads them to a vast, domed structure, where they find a monolithic statue of a humanoid head amid a decapitated corpse of a large alien. They believe whatever species had lived there was now extinct. But then, incredibly, they find its DNA is a perfect match to their own, leaving open the questions of their origins.
Could they have brought life to Earth? Why are they so far away? Is there life on another planet?
In Prometheus, Ridley Scott, the auteur behind “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” tells a story of a ship that sets out to explore clue of the origins of civilization, only to discover a threat that may wipe out our world.
Dystopia, spaceships and aliens: those are just some components often found in sci-fi. But similar in the way that hydrogen, oxygen and other elements combine to form endless, unique materials, the symbols of the genre are remixed in stories to show the mores and preoccupations of our time.
Sci-fi has an elasticity that shows a vast array of perspectives. At the heart of technology is an inherent promise to make our lives easier, better and more magical. Human ingenuity expands the limits of possibilities, often making the impossible possible. It carries our voices across great distances and engineers endless ways to save and prolong our lives.
Yet for all the wide-eyed optimism, technology also has another edge. It sparks anxiety and uncertainty, creates great fear and destruction, and provokes ethical dilemmas whose consequences we don’t yet fully grasp. And it’s those fundamental tensions and the role we play in it that fuel one of the most diverse and enduring genres of storytelling: science fiction.
Just take a look at any bookshelf or big screen for proof. If products about technology are art and practice, then science fiction is its philosophy. And judging by the films of Hollywood, like Prometheus, we still grapple with the dark consequences of what we can do with science, even as our drive to innovate continues to push the limits of human understanding.
In 1956, for example, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” used aliens to show an era rife with fears of Communism and McCarthyism, and the portrayal of extraterrestrials in South African film “District 9” touched on the legacy of apartheid and racial strife. But long before sci-fi found its way into films, it was deeply rooted in literature.
Critics disagree on the origins of sci-fi, though. Some argue its elements popped up in ancient Sumerian tales, like “Epic of Gilgamesh” and “The Arabian Nights,” or even classical texts, like “True History” by Greek-Syrian writer Lucian, which features a set of characters traveling to the moon. Still, others champion Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic “Frankenstein.”
Regardless, critics agree the literary genre developed in tandem with technological advances of the time, whether it was the revelations of Copernicus and Newton during the Scientific Revolution, or industrialization in the 19th century. Frankenstein, for example, was written during the rise of medical science as a legitimate field of study, reflecting fears of the god-like powers that some perceived physicians had cultivated.
Whether through the literary efforts of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, or the reams of anonymous pulp paperbacks, the rise of media and publishing propelled sci-fi as a cult genre. And as it grew in reputation, authors like Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov flourished on stories that reflected a gamut of sensibilities, ranging from the wide-eyed wonder of “Contact” to the political alienation at the core of “Fahrenheit 451.”
Today, William Gibson and Cory Doctorow continue to explore the impact and consequences of technology on our societies and psyches, and their works incorporates insights into how the Internet shapes our everyday experience.
Sci-fi found its greatest influence in film, due largely to its technology-dependent art form. In the early 20th century, movies began to invoke a magic and wonder with audiences, and filmmakers delighted in the way they could manipulate the medium to create effects beyond the limits of reality.
In “A Trip to the Moon,” based on stories by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, aliens seem to “disappear” by using simple, visual trickery. The effect, which charmed audiences, cemented the film as one of the first sci-fi masterworks of early cinema.
But cheap production kept its films at B-level status, despite hits, like Body Snatchers, which garnered cult audiences. As visual effects improved, though, and costs dropped, the scale of sci-fi movies began to make new narrative possible. Technical wizardry helped sci-fi graduate to marquee status, culminating with the release of franchises like “Star Wars,” which finally propelled it to the mainstream.
But sci-fi only truly became a cinematic art when Stanley Kubrick released “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a story about a series of encounters between a crew of astronauts and a group of black monoliths that affect human evolution. The film was considered the apotheosis of the sci-fi, lauded for its wry, ironic humor, grandiose philosophical meditations and visually stunning effects.
“Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie,” George Lucas said in 1977, when he released Star Wars. “It is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned.”
Filmmakers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Ridley Scott have made their sci-fi epics, but they used very different sensibilities, which speak in awe of Kubrick’s cinematic achievement. While critics often hold “2001” as an “unbeatable” film, whose technical and aesthetic achievements are unmatched, that hasn’t stopped directors from trying to dethrone it.
But as visual effects advance, filmmakers began to leave storytelling behind in favor of sheer spectacle. “There is an over reliance on special effects as well as weak storylines,” Scott once said in 2007.
Scott, of course, made his own spectacular films, filling cinemas with epic visuals and big-concept narratives. He created the epochal “Blade Runner,” exploring the lines between humans and androids, and the way science can dehumanize us, and even find salvation in machines.
Scott also made “Alien,” and unforgettably paired sci-fi and horror genres in, essentially, what was a haunted-house story preoccupied with ideas of virus and contamination. Beyond the surreal biomorphic imagery, taut thriller pacing and sheer visceral dread, the film featured the strong female protagonists, Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, to show the ’70s impact of feminism.
Thirty years later, Scott returned to sci-fi, and Prometheus was his most visually stunning film yet. It featured gorgeous, natural vistas and majestic renderings of space, building on the look and feel of the earlier Alien films. And like the first title, Prometheus featured a strong female lead, defined by her fortitude, intelligence and survival instincts, as well as enough high-impact action to keep hearts pounding and pulses racing.
But did it fall into the trap of spectacle over story?
Clearly, the film has aspired to more than a typical summer blockbuster. Its first half pairs somber, majestic visuals with heady, metaphysical speculation, thanks to its lead character, Elizabeth Shaw, a devout Christian scientist, played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. Shaw, fueled by wonder and faith, and a scientific drive to know, became the conduit through which the film explored the most fundamental question of science and technology: what are the limits of knowledge? And what is the price for expanding beyond them?
Prometheus was ambitious on both the visual and storytelling levels, which setup a stunning first half that didn’t deliver on. The second half felt like a conventional Hollywood film, and while the pace and action picked up, the philosophical questions were left behind.
Sci-fi stories can be metaphysical, political, spiritual and just plain entertaining, but a set of indie and European films are taking the tropes of the genre and exploring deeply personal and emotional terrain.
Danish director Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” took the idea of planets colliding in an eventual apocalypse to create an intimate, intense family chamber drama. Meanwhile, Sundance hit “Another Earth,” which starred breakout actress Brit Marling, used the idea of parallel worlds to make a quietly affecting coming-of-age story.
Television, too, offered another large avenue to develop sci-fi work. “Star Trek,” of course, was long a staple, but the lowering expenses of effects means that nearly every major network has a sci-fi series on its roster, each with different themes that both fit within and expand the genre.
Once considered the realm of fanboys, sci-fi has long gone beyond its origins as a cult niche of stories. Marling, who co-wrote “Another Earth” with director Mike Cahill, believes the genre is the future of storytelling, and the key to tell fresh and relevant tales in a digital age where lives quickly shift in ways we’re still grappling with.
“We’re retelling the same dramas from Ancient Greece,” Marling said. “These stories are so fundamentally old, the mythology that they come from, the hero’s journey — the way a narrative works. Science allows you to take the same story and see it from a new perspective, because the science is always new and fresh.” ♦