Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why so few utopias in science fiction cinema?

Why are there so few genuine utopias in science fiction cinema?
By: Langdon Winner
(This is a talk I gave at a panel on science fiction at the conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Copenhagen, October 19, 2012.)

Ray Bradbury, one of the celebrated founders of modern science fiction writing, once observed, “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.”  
What are we to make of this sage, but gloomy comment?
A couple of years ago I began teaching an undergraduate course at my university, Science Fiction Cinema and Social Criticism.  Several undergraduates had spoken to me about the idea, suggesting a seminar where they could draw upon science fiction movies as an opportunity to speculate about humanity’s prospects.  It turns out that for many college students, men and women, science fiction serves as a window into philosophical reflection.  This happens at a time in which opportunities of that kind are quickly vanishing.  On my campus, for example, the philosophy department has morphed into a Department of Cognitive Science, a field that has about as much philosophical imagination as a washing machine manual.  
The class I eventually offered asks students to read books that shed light upon issues in both classic and contemporary sci-fi movies.  We start with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” reading Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto,” along with several short pieces of 1920s German philosophical writing on the decadence of industrial society.  From there we move to “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” punctuated by readings from post-World War II nuclear scientists.  Eventually we arrive at an encounter between “The Truman Show” and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion as a way to feature the unsettling tensions between fantasy and reality in today’s America.  Without going through the whole list of topics, it should be clear what the course tries to do.  As you’ve noticed, I construe the category “science fiction” very broadly, trying to match it with texts I hope the students will find challenging.  Old-fashioned scholar that I am, during the term I quietly celebrate as student papers show increasing attention to ideas and arguments in the books and gradually de-emphasize the plots, characters and images in the movies. 
After the first experimental version of the course, I looked back over the syllabus and noticed a disturbing fact.  All of the films in the course from “Dr. Strangelove” to “1984” “Blade Runner” and others were in a key signature of dystopia or post-apocalyptic landscape.  Since I don’t want to burden my students with any more gloom and foreboding than they already have, I decided to look for some optimistic, hopeful, forward looking, pieces of  science fiction, if nothing more than as a of a change of pace.  It’s not that I don’t like the dreary tales of dystopian sci-fi; I enjoy spectacles of villainy, conflict, collapse, and technology run amok is much as the next guy.   But I thought it would be useful to offer a little contrast and to expand the horizons of debate. 
It should be clear that science fiction is not a field of professional expertise for me.  I’m not really an avid fan of the genre, not a scholar who studies its written or cinematic history in detail.  Hoping to find some guidance, I asked a number of friends, including Michael Bennett (law professor, sci-fi enthusiast and organizer of this panel), people more heavily involved in this area of inquiry, to suggest films or videos I could show that are utopian in the sense that they project a better world, one in which people live long and prosper.   I was surprised to find that my friends and colleagues had few if any suggestions.   A common response was that are several episodes from the Star Trek television series, both first and second generations, that depict space explorers in encounters with arguably superior civilizations out in the far galaxies. 
But as I previewed some of the programs suggested, all seemed pretty thin.  None offered a strongly utopian vision with enough substance to inspire a good discussion about possibilities for creating a better world.  I also began to read scholarly books and articles that seemed to offer some guidance, Peter Paik’s formidable From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe, for example.  But unless utopia means an imagined alternative society minus the expectation that the place will be ideal or at least improved over ones know previously, scholarly studies of this kind, including Paik’s, actually explore grim dystopias, not hopeful utopian works of writing and cinema. 
So I began to wonder:  Why is this so?   What is the reason for the dark, dreary tone of so much of science fiction, especially in the movies?
The question presupposes an obvious fact, namely that the story of progress in modern history and its associated narratives – growth, development, innovation, and the like have all been triumphalist in tone and content.  Better science = better technology = improved human wellbeing.  Lift your glass!  Early modern utopias, from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis well into the nineteenth century, often described imaginary, vastly improved societies, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, for example.  Works in this tradition suggested that science fiction writing would play a formative role to help readers envision a substantially improved world and to take the steps toward realizing it.  Bellamy’s book actually inspired a small social movement that set out to build the new model of industrial society his novel outlines.
In twentieth century sci-fi, however, especially in the movies the dominant themes are almost never visionary in a positive sense.  The themes that rise to prominence are one of dread, monstrosity and calamity, all of which can be quite entertaining.  A typical story shows the origins and consequences of a deliberate or inadvertent misapplication of the power of scientific technology.  That often serves as the fundamental backdrop through which individual characters in the drama find ways to triumph, finding love, honor, dignity – often as a saving remnant that foreshadows a new beginning.  
The dystopia depicted in “Gattaca,” for example, finds the genetically inferior Vincent Freeman (hint, hint) struggling to slip through the cracks of an inegalitarian political regime based upon biotechnology.  After a series of close calls heroic maneuvers, he finally succeeds in his dream, boards a rocket ship and blasts off to the moons of Saturn.  In one variant or another, this has become the standard format of sci-fi movies over the decades: individual solace is achieved on a background of monstrosity, futuristic warfare, dystopian social organization, and apocalypse.   
There are obviously good reasons why filmmakers prefer to draw upon this familiar conceit.  The ominous problems described by science fiction offer dramatic tensions and conflicts that can be explored and resolved in 90 minutes of film.  If handled with any imagination at all, climaxes in such settings can be vivid, exiting and even uplifting.  The all-too-predictable sentiment is (especially in American science fiction movies) that there will always be good people among us even as society goes systematically nuts and the world falls apart.  If nothing else, such scripts are reliably good box office.
One reason I generally avoid new sci-fi films is that this tried and true, sometimes engaging format is supported by cinematic spectacles  -- shootouts, chase scenes, massive explosions, and eye-popping special effects -- as directors throw in the towel and abandon any interesting ideas they may have had earlier, preferring to fill the screen with bombs and fire.  It’s probably a good thing that Philip K. Dick did not live to see the usually tawdry cinematic adaptations of his wonderful stories.   As they dissolve into a barrage of dazzling visuals and loud noise, the challenging ideas from Dick’s fertile imagination are simply overwhelmed.  
Why are science fiction movies fashioned in such dark hues rather than other colors on the theatrical pallet?   It cannot be solely because directors and producers need to sustain dramatic tension.  Shakespeare wrote dramas not only in the mode of tragedy that explored the dark recesses of the human hearts and minds, but also in the mode of comedy in which key conflicts are generated by well-meaning characters tripped up by mistaken identities, magical spells, and absurd machinations all of which are eventually resolved to the benefit and delight of all (or most) of those involved.   I’m not arguing that science fiction writers need to draw upon genius at Shakespeare’s level, only that there are good alternatives in comedy, romance and fictionalized history that have served well in genres other than science fiction.
Why, I wonder, are there almost no amiable sci-fi comedies?   Yes, there are some marvelous films of dark humor.  “Dr. Strangelove,” for example, is a send-up the bizarre rationality of Cold War militarists and intellectuals in the Pentagon and Rand Corporation.  One could also mention Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” a gracefully amusing tale of a gadget filled dystopian future, an absurd mirror of 1960s America.  One can also mention also the tender mercies and comic predicaments in Robin Williams robot romance “Bicentennial Man.”  But none of these are utopias in the sense of projecting a better world for human living structured around new scientific knowledge and superior technology.  The best we ever get is dystopia with a broad, menacing smile.
Of course, it may be that my question here simply defines a void.  The simple fact may be that for whatever reason, the writers have not written the stories and the filmmakers have not made the movies that imagine a world superior in its practical moral qualities than the one in which we live today.  Science fiction, especially the lineage of science fiction cinema, seems lodged permanently in the heart of darkness.  I find that puzzling and rather sad. 
There are, however, some very good possibilities for stories ahead.  Not since the Mad Max series of three decades ago have we seen any ingenious science fiction movies about a fairly certain prospect just around the corner, that modernity’s great global technosphere, one largely based upon a one time bubble of cheap petroleum, will crumble as that puddle dries up.  
By the same token, Hollywood has not yet fully acknowledged a scenario strongly projected in piles of scientific reports on climate crash, namely that worst case projections are becoming most probable outcomes, pointing to a world in which temperatures spiral out of control, rendering large portions of the Earth uninhabitable.  Perhaps movie makers are, like those in Washington D.C., still reassured by the vaguely comforting term “climate change” and the belief that, hey, there’s still plenty of time to do something.  
Similarly, film makers have not come terms with a situation revealed by recurring social upheavals in recent years, including the May 15 movement in Spain and the Occupy Movement in the US, a situation in which visions of modern democracy premised on a science and technology based prosperity for everybody everywhere, has (by all statistical measures) been replaced by staggering levels of inequality, accompanied by blatant forms of oligarchy – government of, by and for the 1%.
Perhaps the good news is that, whether as tragedy or dark comedy, there are still many good scripts to be written.  But imaginings of a true utopia?  That now seems completely beyond our reach.

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Note:  A full syllabus for the most recent version of my Science Fiction Cinema and Social Criticism course appeared in a posting here last fall.


  1. Anonymous2:01 PM

    Maybe we (the movie makers and movie watchers of 2013) know deep down inside that the people of 2113 will resent us for screwing it all up for them. We're aware that the future's history books will speak poorly of us for not recycling. We know that the preconditions necessary for a dystopian hellscape are being laid by us now. But it's OK because we comforted ourselves by making movies about "things that could never actually happen."

  2. Anonymous2:04 PM

    PS: It is REALLY hard to comment on your blog!

  3. In the movie *Gattaca*, I don't see any of the "shootouts, chase scenes, massive explosions, and eye-popping special effects" that you speak of--which is one of the many reasons why I've shown this film in class to several groups of students over the years.

  4. Anonymous6:32 AM

    im having the same problem looking for footage of a Utopian society for a presentation. there are plenty pics i could use by artists but i want actual footage of people walking around outdoors in a perfect clean world. seems every movie set in the future shows dark overcrowded citys immersed in corruption :( if any one knows of any movies/scenes or any footage at all that show a more beautiful future society please reply, but it must be modern footage from say the 80s onwards. cheers

  5. Anonymous4:37 PM


    A clear Utopian film is Lost Horizon (to set a standard) there is another Utopia found in Forbidden Planet ( but lost due to 'monsters from the ID). We see Utopia in Metropolis (for the Elite) in 20,000 Leagues Beneath The Sea (the Nautilus), The Time Machine (sort of for the Eloi, until the Morlocks ring the dinner bell), First Men In The Moon ( albeit for insects), Things To Come... to name a few.

    Mr. Anonymous

  6. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I would say The Fountain (space travel segment) and eXistenZ both depict a form of utopian society.

  7. When I was little I used to love watching science fiction which involved giant animals like pirana, godzilla, dinosaurs, anaconda. But these days as I have grown up... I love watching space movies because there I find "utopia" sort of picturization.

    Best Regards,
    Kunik Goel

  8. Gattaca is a Utopia. Think about it. In every way but one - i.e. discrimination based on genetics - the society depicted in Gattaca is superior to our own. And, after all, people with superior genetics are, by definition, genetically superior. In Gattaca, absolute science rules, there is no place for superstition, or faith, or quaint notions about "the human spirit." In Gattaca, such ideas have been eradicated and humanity has become exactly what modern science and progressive politics says it should be. In Gattaca, man has been perfected - and yet the world of Gattaca is a nightmare - which, I think, is the point. Dystopia and Utopia are two sides of the same coin: what is a Utopian paradise to one person, necessarily is a Dystopian nightmare for those who do not share that person's vision of what is good.

    To assume that one person's idea of what is good would be Utopian requires that person to assume that only their ideas are worthwhile, and the ideas of others with whom they do not agree are unworthy to be thought. And yet what is the basis for their belief that only their ideas are good? Science? Which brings us back to the Utopia of Gattaca, or Religion?

  9. I think somebody stole your article

  10. First counter-example that comes to mind is the Soviet movie "The Andromeda Nebula" ( ), adapted from Yefremov's eponymous book - one of the great utopias in sci-fi literature. Apart from that indeed, I can't find any significant counter-example where the utopian society is a central theme - even after trying to cheat and checking whether books quoted in Fredric Jameson's seminal book about sci-fi and utopia (Archaeologies of the future) had been adapted. The oft-announced adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy will be an interesting example. There are some utopian elements in modern Chinese science-fiction though (e.g. wandering earth) - which says a lot about the current state of ideologies, if not econmic systems, in the East and in the West.