Overtaking the future in 21st century science fiction cinema
If science fiction cinema of the 20th century was to harden us towards our potential ends, will science fiction in the 21st century highlight the irony of these ends increasingly becoming reality?
In French, futur antérieur is a tense used to describe a future action or event that needs to happen before another can occur. For example, ‘they will have to finish their dinner before we depart’. The direct English translation is ‘preceding future’ or ‘previous future’. Speculation on the future is something that is built into language — and the time this speculation has the true effect on is the present. The act of thinking about the future comforts us in the present, and also inures us to the potential events the future might hold.1 Our capacity for thinking of the future holds within it the promise of our ability to also change it.
Traditionally, science fiction cinema functions in extremes: utopian and dystopian; a society idyllic or corrupt. The plots of these sorts of films, if we can allow for generalisation here, tend to play out around a revelation in which certainties are brought into question. In dystopic science fiction (think Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), the message is conventionally that any attempts to escape the injustice of an authoritarian power is dealt with by re-transcribing the rogue agent into the current system: escape is not possible. The placement of the film in a vague ‘future’ comforts the viewer — this is not our reality and we needn’t be concerned with the possibility of it becoming so.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, to a lesser extent, in Aronofsky’s The Fountain 2006), the fantastical power of cinema is brought to bear, creating a vision of the future that transports society forwards. It centres on the discovery of a flawless black monolith, an object that accelerates man’s evolution from the apes, and again from space faring explorers to a final, transcendental state. The future does not hold destruction but rather a Messianic opening towards humanity’s full potential. Quirkier films such as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element 1997 or the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes, while their poetic qualities are no match for the subtlety of Kubrick’s classic, are nonetheless films that share an important characteristic — they are pure fantasies. Powerful science fiction presents a situation in which the two extremes of utopia and dystopia create a murky combination, through which a comparison with our own reality is possible and the political and moral messages have greater effect. Alien 1979,
Blade Runner 1982 and the more recent District 9 2009, for example, deal with futuristic settings that are not ruled by overt extremes. In them, recognisably human characters struggle with issues that concern our present — enduring questions of human psychological drives, political turmoil and corporate control are posed here. Environments, though sometimes depicting futuristic landscapes, meld the past, present and future to timeless effect. In Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, this timeless quality is taken further. It is almost impossible to see a difference between the world depicted in the film and our current society. Set in London in 2027, humanity is infertile and the mood bleak. When young female refugee Kee is found pregnant, Theo (played by Clive Owen) works tirelessly to move her to the coast so she can rendezvous with the Human Project; an underground society working to heal humankind’s literal inability to ‘deliver the future’. The majority of the film is shot in a realist fashion in densely packed East London slums, showing disturbing scenes inside a refugee city and the pervasive fear of terrorist plots and the ‘other’, fuelled by government sponsored advertising. In Children of Men, our current reality is merely accentuated, producing a worryingly reflective social analysis.
Where 2001: A Space Odyssey envisions an opening up of our full potential, and Children of Men, a point where the future and the present are indiscernible, post-apocalyptic films like John Hillcoat’s 2009 release, The Road, epitomise the final point: the apocalyptic event has happened — we are beyond the end.
Rationalising our potential death is pointless once the end actually arrives. An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, The Road describes our world after the collapse of the biosphere — the structure of the natural world. Little natural life exists. Groups of men and women roam the highways of North America, harvesting the last remaining form of sustenance: humans. The film’s characters do not have names. They are simply Man, Boy, Woman. In a parallel to Children of Men, The Road embraces a ‘present’ quality. There are no ‘futuristic’ elements besides the fictional, unexplained catastrophe that has caused the world and its inhabitants to experience slow, uneventful deaths. As much as the environmental devastation depicted in the film is beyond any scale currently seen, the subject’s relevance to our own ecological situation is obvious. However, in a sly twist, life continues beyond ‘the end’ in an anticlimax on a grand scale. We must live with the mistakes we have made.
For French philosopher Alain Badiou, future antérieur means more than a way to talk about the future in the present. 2 It amounts to what Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek calls ‘overtaking oneself towards the future’ 3 — acting now as if the future one wants already exists, thereby bringing about a radical change prior to its eventuality. If science fiction of the twentieth century was to harden us to our potential ends, is it possible that science fiction in the twenty-first century will highlight the irony of these fantastical ends increasingly becoming our reality? As much as we must recognise the numerous ways in which the world might end, films such as Children of Men and The Road attest to these futures slowly becoming the present and to the need for more than our simple recognition of them. As Žižek further asserts at the end of In Defense of Lost Causes:
. . . instead of saying ‘the future is still open, we still have the time to act and prevent the worst,’ one should accept the catastrophe as inevitable, and then act to retroactively undo what is already ‘written in the stars’ as our destiny. 4
The message of these films? Act today. Overtake the future.
Tim Walsh is Assistant Public Programs Officer (Children’s Art Centre), Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art.