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.

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