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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Chris. I love your choices. I became a Wachowski fan last year with Jupiter Ascending. Never heard of them before but realized I might have seen a couple of their movies. I never watched Cloud Atlas, but now you have lead me to it. Thanks. It gives me one more great story of interconnectivity and powerful empires vs. what the hell is freedom watch and ponder.