Is Sci-Fi Dead In Our Current Age of Tech?
Are you a science fiction fanatic?
Sci-fi has been popular since the 1960s, with films like 2001: Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Back to the Future shaping the genre. It experienced a particular boom in the 2000s and 2010s as it merged with mainstream cinema. Sci-fi films from this period contribute to six of the top ten highest-grossing films ever. Yet, in recent years the most successful sci-fi films are merely follow-ups to previous movies, such as the Star Wars and Jurassic Park revivals.
Whilst AI, VR and self-driving cars were once alarming, there are now thousands of technologies at our grasp and last year, 20,000 tech startups were registered in the UK. What used to be the most spectacular fiction is now commonly accepted and no longer the stuff of cutting-edge entertainment.
So, what’s left for sci-fi to explore, and is the genre threatened by or threatening our continuous technological advancements?
Too Close to Home
Back to the Future’s flying cars are now a reality and the space conflict of Star Wars seems just around the corner as Elon Musk’s SpaceX is accused of being the first step in the monopolisation of space. With very little distance between the concepts depicted in sci-fi films and today’s technology, perhaps sci-fi has lost its allure as a form of joyful escapism.
Moreover, a key aspect of sci-fi’s appeal is its technical excellence in visual effects, which is the genre’s major award-winning category (no sci-fi film has ever won best picture at the Oscars).
Films such as Avatar and Gravity made waves with their seamless CGI. But visual success is now expected with our current technology.
If the technologies that are being portrayed in Sci-Fi now actually exist, they shouldn’t be so hard to replicate beautifully on film. As such, the appearance of Sci-Fi movies is no longer a wow factor in itself.
Our amazing technological advancements can also be seen to motivate sci-fi, rather than undermine its relevance.
Sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains that “if you’re going to write realism about our time, science fiction is simply the best genre to do it in. This is because we’re living in a big science fiction novel now that we all co-write together.”
With sci-fi, we can contextualise and interpret what technology truly means for us. Yet, many popular films and novels focus on the risks rather than opportunities of tech and depict dystopias.
One of the most recent popular stand-alone sci-fi films, Ready Player One, depicts 2045 where reality is abandoned for VR gaming. Despite illustrating the exciting future possibilities of VR, Spielberg’s film ultimately portrays humanity to be too out of touch from its roots. The 90s classic, The Matrix, and 2014s Ex Machina both explore the potential of AI to camouflage as humans and threaten our existence.
Taking inspiration from technologies now in use, these films explore the most extreme scenarios to highlight the philosophical issues surrounding the blur between human and inhuman, reality and fantasy.
Yet, these overdramatizations can give tech a bad name, hindering public adoption of technologies, such as AI and VR which can be incredibly useful in more mundane use cases, such as in commerce and workflow software.
On the other hand, as people have become more accustomed to these technologies being used successfully at work or in consumer apps, they may be less convinced by or interested in dystopian sci-fi.
Tech can Save the World
Without a doubt, the most popular sci-fi films right now are the Marvel and DC films, which take inspiration from current tech but incorporate it with fantastical superhero elements. This combination draws sci-fi further from reality and casts technology in a utopian light.
Vision, an AI character, works alongside the Avengers to protect humanity, and the opportunities offered by man-made technology are exemplified by Tony Stark in the construction of his Iron Man suit. The tech depicted is rooted in reality, but the universe enhances it beyond our current capabilities to depict a level of fantasy.
Even MythBusters’ Adam Savage couldn’t completely replicate all the amazing features of Iron Man’s suit, though his 3D printed titanium suit certainly makes headway, as it’s bulletproof and facilitates flight. This demonstrates that sci-fi can inspire future technology, as well as critically reflect on current examples.
Despite the normalisation of the tech that previously fuelled the genre, sci-fi is far from dead. The success of Marvel and DC movies show that to inspire watchers sci-fi needs to get creative with tech and take it out of this world.
Header Image: Stormtroopers from the Star Wars franchise. Image via Brian McGowan on Unsplash.