Tuesday, March 3, 2015

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

7) Planet of the Apes (1969)

“Beware of the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.  Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed.  Yeah, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land.  Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours.
Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.”

Planet of the Apes
(Image from IMDb)

The plot is simple (civilization destroys itself and apes take over the world), but it carries deep themes.  In fact, Planet of the Apes has so many scientific and allegorical themes built into it that they’re inconspicuous while watching the film but striking after some reflection.  The scientific themes include elements of biology (evolutionary changes of primates) and physics (time travel via relativity).  The allegorical themes tackle a range of social issues, such as religious dogmatism (discussing evolution is heresy in ape society) and social stratification (where chimps are the brains, gorillas the brawn, orangutans the bureaucrats, and humans the slaves).  And some themes are both scientific and allegorical, like the eventual nuclear annihilation of human civilization.

Destroyed remains of the Statue of Liberty
(Image from IMDb)

Speaking of which, few movie endings are as unforgettable as the scene where Charlton Heston’s character Taylor drops to his knees before destroyed remains of the Statue of Liberty and curses, “Damn you!  God damn you all to hell!”  Taylor's cursing ends the movie but begins some thought-provoking questions.

Although early hominids survived by building technologically advanced societies (as movies like 2001 and Interstellar like to illustrate), will they destroy themselves by the same means?   Will humanity survive in the future by making more advanced technologies, or will technological advancement result in existential risks that inevitably destroy everything (namely, through nuclear annihilation—keep in mind the movie came out during the Cold War)?

Planet of the Apes cleverly raises these questions about human civilization and technology better than any other movie.

8) Gattaca

“There is no gene for fate.”

Bioengineering chaos in Jurassic Park
(Image from IMDb)

Engineering a hero in Captain America
(Image from IMDb)

Space is not the only scientific frontier.  The human genome is also a mystery we’ve unraveled, which inevitably raises ethical questions.  When it comes to genetic engineering, for instance, some films are more sardonic than others.  Jurassic Park gives a worst-case scenario when it comes to bioengineering—unpredictable chaos ensues.  Captain America give a more hopeful picture—improving someone’s genes is morally acceptable if the individual is a good, compassionate man and hero.

Genetic discrimination in Gattaca

(Image from IMDb)

Gattaca may be the most underrated film on this topic, and it shows the ethical implications of genetic engineering in detail.  In this movie, the future is one in which social status is determined by genetic makeup.  As a result, many parents favor 'genetic selection' procedures over totally natural childbirths.  What's at stake for their kids?  Well, depending on what traits they inherit, society classifies them as either ‘valid’ or ‘in-valid’: the ‘valids’ enter high-paying professions, but the ‘in-valids’ are condemned to low-paying jobs.  The main character in Gattaca is a naturally born ‘in-valid’ who speaks poignantly of the injustice:

“I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin.
No, we now have discrimination down to a science.”

This character is Vincent, who’s well aware of his ‘in-valid’ status, because he’s often compared to his ‘valid’ brother Anton, who was conceived with help from a genetic selection procedure.  Although Anton is genetically superior, Vincent eventually beats him in a swimming contest and even saves him from drowning.  Vincent then leaves his brother and home life, falsifies his entire background, and forges a ‘valid’ identity to work for Gattaca, a space travel corporation.  His goal: to escape this genetically determined hell on earth by faking his identity all the way to outer space.

Gattaca brilliantly dramatizes the dangers of genetic discrimination: Vincent’s trials include close calls with genetic investigators as he secretly plants hair, skin cells, and urine samples from a valid donor to pass them off as his own.  But Gattaca is also about the power of the human spirit over genetic mechanisms: Vincent ultimately beats his brother in swimming contests out of sheer will, and he fools the authorities through his own cunning and help from others.  At heart, Gattaca is a story about mind over matter, human will over genomic machinery.

9) The Terminator

“Listen, and understand.  That terminator is out there.  It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.
It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

The Terminator
(Image from IMDb)

In spite of Darth Vader from Star Wars, the Borgs on Star Trek, or the Replicants in Blade Runner, the Terminator is by far my favorite cyborg.  Unlike other cyborgs, the Terminator can be intimidating and amusing, scary and funny.  His look is unique but unassuming—for all we know, he’s just some biker dude.  And let’s face it: no other cyborg in cinema has as memorable a catchphrase (“I’ll be back”—there’s even a Wikipedia page for this famous line, which is incredible, considering that Schwarzenegger spoke fewer than 100 words in the first Terminator film).

Terminator 2
(Image from IMDb)

But the main reason I find the Terminator more fascinating than other cyborgs is because his character alters, adapts, and reboots from movie to movie, and we see these transformations from our human perspective and his robotic perspective.  To start with the human perspective

In The Terminator, he’s literally a heartless killer in pursuit of Sarah Connor.

In Terminator 2, he’s a reprogrammed, reformed protector of Sarah and John Connor.  After he destroys T-1000, he sacrifices himself for the future safety of humankind.

Terminator 3
(Image from IMDb)

In Terminator 3, he’s a mix of protector and killer.  When John first confronts the Terminator, he asks, “Are you here to kill me?”  However, the Terminator's mission is to protect John from the T-X machine.  Then, after he’s corrupted by the T-X, the Terminator almost kills John.  Finally, the Terminator reboots his CPU and saves John.  And yet the Terminator does reveal he will murder John in the distant future!

As the Terminator character transforms from movie to movie, the audience is also able to see him from a robotic perspective: his first-person, subjective viewpoint of what the world looks like from inside the Terminator’s 'head' (or CPU).  Seeing the world from the ‘eyes’ of the Terminator shows that he’s not just another robot; he’s a “cybernetic organism,” a creature with living flesh and an intelligent mind.

In the end, the Terminator franchise raises a sublime question: Should we fear the rise of the machines?  

Well, you probably have nothing to fear from your calculator or smart phone.  But watch out for what may come out of robotics or cybernetics, because scientists just might succeed in creating a living, Terminator-like cyborg.

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