Sunday, February 22, 2015

The 9 Greatest Sci Fi Flicks: what they say about humanity & technology (continued)

Continuing my list of the 9 greatest sci fi flicks of all time

4.)  Solaris (1972 version)
“We don’t want to conquer space at all.  We want to expand Earth endlessly.  We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.  We seek contact and will never achieve it.  We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want.  Man needs man!”

The space station in Solaris (1972)

(Image from

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky was not a fan of 2001, and in many ways his film Solaris is the antithesis to it.  While 2001 lionizes humanity transcending its earthly origin, Solaris expresses the trauma of being separated from home and loved ones.  The space stations in 2001 are glorious, but in Solaris they basically look like run-down trailer park homes, which suit the scruffy-looking astronauts.  In 2001, characters face the threats of AI; in Solaris, characters face traumatic memories of loved ones—memories that are literally fleshed out by the “neutrino systems” of planet Solaris, which is actually a living mind.  2001 exalts space exploration, but Solaris portrays the existential crisis that comes from that exploration, a crisis symbolized by the planet’s turbulent ocean surface.

The planet Solaris

(Image from

The moral of Solaris is that in our era of rapid, technological ‘progress,’ we may be leaving something behind: each other.  By obsessing over technological inventions to colonize other worlds, we may be laying waste to our own world.  Technological innovation and scientific discovery may be important, but not at the cost of evading those people and places we love, especially if those beloved individuals and homelands are what make us human.  While many Russians were open to this message when the film came out in 1972, others may be receptive now, because the film was remade for American audiences in 2002 (staring George Clooney).  In my opinion, the remake is good, but not as great as the original, which better captures the feeling of existential angst that's essential to the story.

5.)  District 9
“Forget about the weapons there mate, it doesn’t matter.  Forget about the weapons!”

District 9
(Image from IMDb)

If I could praise District 9 for one thing, then I’d praise it for one of most original storylines in sci fi.  When aliens unexpectedly land as refugees in, of all places, Johannesburg, South Africa, an indifferent government quarantines them to ‘District 9’ and outsources their fate to a private military firm, whose main interest lies in understanding extraterrestrial weapons.  Unfortunately, these technologies only work when activated by alien hands, leading the firm to perform inhumane experiments on the aliens.  It’s pretty clear that District 9 is an allegory about immigration and social segregation, even xenophobia and racism reminiscent of apartheid.

Inside 'District 9'
(Image from IMBd)

But look closely and you’ll notice an interesting twist.  Anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel knows that conquerors usually subjugate others through superior technologies (which, according to Diamond, are made possible by natural resources from geographical advantages).  However, in District 9, we get the reverse: it's the humans who oppress the technologically superior aliens.  While these poor aliens have no malevolent intentions, the private military firm is brutal and practically bloodthirsty.  What follows is a deep fear of destructive technologies getting into the wrong hands (ironically, our hands, not the aliens').  District 9 warns us about a perfect political-economic-technological storm: what happens when indebted governments outsource responsibilities to unaccountable bureaucracies—and in these risky situations, powerful technologies only aggravate the ethical hazards.

6.)  Interstellar
“Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.  
Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”

(Image from IMDb)

Interstellar is an excellent example of sci fi recycling themes from ancient mythology.  As agriculture dries up and civilization literally turns to dust, Cooper and his daughter Murphy discover a binary code from alien intelligence, which communicates through gravitational waves.  This code directs them to a resurrected NASA program (aptly named the “Lazarus missions”).  NASA recruits Cooper to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole to explore remote planets, where humanity may reboot civilization.  Murphy, meanwhile, becomes a NASA scientist who tries to figure out a unique equation, which could create a new technology to launch entire space stations from earth, thereby saving humanity through a massive egress.  So Cooper and Murphy resemble legendary figures, like Aeneas founding a new civilization and Moses leading an Exodus.  In this way, Interstellar is very much a mythical remix repackaged as sci fi.

Traveling into a worm hole

(Image from IMBd)

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson praised the movie for its scientific accuracy, which wraps the mythical themes of Interstellar into a Terminator-esque time loop.  At the film's climax, Cooper risks his life by flying into a black hole's 'singularity' (infinite space-time curvature beyond the 'event horizon' or point of no return), where he can collect data to solve Murphy's equation.  He surprisingly finds himself inside a 4-D hypercube, or 'tesseract', where he can observe Murphy's timeline as a spatial dimension and send binary messages to Murphy in her past and present-day life.  Of course, these messages were the higher intelligence that communicated with her from the beginning of the movie, resulting in a paradoxical time loop that completes the story.

Time travel paradoxes aside, what's up with the hyperdimensional tesseract?  You also may recall a tesseract in the Avengers, and it's an idea that artists have used before—my favorite example being Salvador Dali's painting Corpus Hupercubus (where a hypercube unfolds into a hyper-dimensional cross).  Like the hypercube in Dali's mystical art, the tesseract in Interstellar seems to symbolize a higher dimension of consciousness, where love can travel across different times and places and unite individuals that appear separate within their limited 3-D perspectives.

Corpus Hypercubus 

by Salvador Dali

(Image from Wikipedia)

The hypercube or 'Tesseract' in Interstellar

(Image from Scientific American)

On one hand, Interstellar implicitly seems to admit that human civilization on earth either has gone wrong or likely will go wrong, particularly in terms of mitigating environmental disasters.  (Given the shabby politics of climate science today, I can't blame the movie's pessimism.)  On the other hand, the movie expresses faith in space colonization, especially if humans reboot civilization by embracing a higher dimension of consciousness (namely, one based on love).  So space colonization is not just rebooting civilization—it's rebooting human consciousness as well.

Agree or disagree with these interpretations so far?  Check out the next post for my conclusion of the greatest sci fi movies.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The 9 Greatest Sci Fi Flicks: what they say about humanity & technology

Just google a phrase like the title of this blog post and you’ll find plenty of websites telling you which flicks are the greatest movies of all time.  So I’ll cut to the chase: besides typical criteria like acting, design, originality of storyline, cultural significance, etc., what makes this list unique is a spin on what these movies reveal about technology and human nature.  The relationship between our technology and humanity—probably the major mythological motif of our timehas been an ongoing discussion by philosophers in both the West and the East, but I think cinematic artists provide some of the greatest insights, especially through the genre of science fiction.

Without further ado, here’s my list, starting with the top 3:

(Warning: beware of spoilers if you haven’t seen these movies yet.)

1.)  2001: A Space Odyssey
“Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions.  Um, of course he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.  
But as to whether he has real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.”

Frank and Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey,

with HAL staring at them in the background

(Image from IMBd)

The raw storyline and realistic special effects of 2001 made it a phenomenal aesthetic feat for 1968.  To put it in context, the movie came out when scientists began taking artificial intelligence (AI) and space exploration more seriously than ever.  Director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke captured this zeitgeist to express humanity’s relationship with technology—spanning from our primate beginnings to the celestial future.

From the Dawn of Man, it was early hominids’ discovery of technology that allowed our primate ancestors to flourish (using bones as tools and weapons).  With the discovery of tools came the invention of practical arts like hunting—an example of how technology helped spark creativity during our primate beginnings.

In future space travel, humankind’s relationship with technology has become so complex that the HAL 9000 spaceship computer seems more human than the nonchalant astronauts it works with.  But HAL quickly transforms from a human-like being to a robotic Frankenstein, as suggested by that staring red eye in the spacecraft's background.  HAL is proud and sly (“incapable of error” is its claim to fame before it murders Frank and almost kills Dave).  At first, Dave is not sure if HAL feels emotion, although he almost certainly believes so when he disconnects HAL beneath its eerie protest (“Stop, Dave”).  While early hominids entered the next stage of evolution by coping with tools, Dave’s battle with HAL points to a further evolutionary stage—symbolized by Dave’s nebulous rebirth as Star-Child.

The Star-Child
(Image from IMDd)

What does Star-Child represent—using technology to transcend human limitations, or overcoming our dependence on technology?  Both maybe?  Nobody is certain.  Still, whether we depend on technology or try to move beyond it, 2001 shows how technology has shaped our evolutionary stages, which are marked by the Monolith (and musical themes like Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Atmospheres).  For me, these insights only help make 2001 the greatest sci fi flick, if not the greatest movie ever made.

2.)  Cloud Atlas
“Our lives are not our own.  From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.”

Story 1: The Pacific Slave Trade
(Image from IMDb)

A slave-trade notary turned abolitionist.  The tragedy of a musical genius.  A journalist uncovering a corporate conspiracy.  A publisher escaping a nursing home.  An enslaved clone rebelling in a dystopian future.  Survivors of an unexplained post-apocalyptic collapse.  Cloud Atlas interweaves six stories through seamless editing and near-perfect visual flow, making it one of the most ambitious feats in cinema since 2001.  Of course, with this degree of complexity, interpretation is required.  I believe the movie carries a cautionary theme and a spiritual one.

Story 2: A Musical Genius
(Image from IMBd)

A cautionary theme running through all six stories is the loss of individual freedom to bureaucratic machines, or what we could call megamachines (to use the scholar Lewis Mumford’s  term), which are enormous, imperial organizations made up of technology and people, where individuals are just cogs in a machine.  When enough is never enough for these ever-expanding empires, their bloating powers become uncontrollable (as the political scientist Langdon Winner observed, they strip people of their autonomy).  In the six stories of Cloud Atlas, these megamachines involve the slave trade, the aristocratic establishment, crony-capitalist companies, impersonal bureaucracies, totalitarian corporations, and their implosion into post-apocalyptic society.

Story 3: A Publisher's Escapade
(Image from IMBd)

Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas has a spiritual theme too, a theme I'd call technological interconnectivity.  As the movie progresses, each story has characters reincarnated from previous stories, but these reincarnated characters are connected not just in spirit but also by pieces of technology—journals, musical recordings, hand-written letters, literature, movies, and data transmissions.  After characters reincarnate, they discover actions by previous incarnations through these technologies.  Now whether you take reincarnation literally or metaphorically, the point is that our actions and technologies connect us to each other in unpredictable ways, causing ripple effects (or karma) throughout time.

Story 4: A Journalist vs. A Conspiracy
(Image from IMBd)

Story 5: A Dystopian Future
(Image from IMDb)

Story 6: After The Post-Apocalyptic Fall
(Image from IMBd)

3.)  Back to the Future trilogy
“Your future is whatever you make it.  So make it a good one…”

Marty and Doc in Back to the Future
(Image from IMDb)

There are more than enough trilogies in cinema, and there'll be plenty more to come, for better or for worse.  But I’d argue that Back to the Future I, II, and III have the most idiosyncratic script, music, and actors—three decades since the first film was released, the special effects still look great too.  

I’ll confess that much of what I know about the technologies of theoretical physics (or at least what I think I understand) comes from watching these flicks.  Like in Cloud Atlas, there is a theme in the films about ripple effects in time, where using technology (like a time machine) to make a small change in the past can cause a butterfly effect that dramatically changes the future.  

But as Doc implies at the conclusion of these time-traveling adventures, what matters most are the choices we make now, for this moment is where we recollect the past, remake the present, and begin the future.  The three misfits of the movies learn this lesson well, and they change their lives for the better: George stands up to the school bully, Marty overcomes his rashness to name calling, and Doc balances intellect and passion—and in these ways, they all rewrite their destiny and change history.

Agree or disagree so far?  For the next 3 best sci fi flicks, visit the next post.