The dire future warnings of recent sci-fi films

Feature Ryan Lambie 7 May 2014 - 06:53

What do the future warnings of films such as Elysium, Transcendence and RoboCop tell us about present fears? Ryan takes a closer look...

NB: The following contains mild spoilers for Transcendence.

Shiny silver suits. Jet-packs. Atomic-powered cars. That cosy old idea of a technological utopia, crystalised so unforgettably in shows like Lost In Space and The Jetsons, was abruptly and firmly displaced by the bleak and cynical dystopias of the 1970s and 80s. Soylent Green presented us with a horrifying future city, over-crowded and duped into eating hideous processed food. The Terminator imagined a 21st century where humanity had been all but wiped out by intelligent machines, and where even humans in the past weren’t safe from their cold grasp.

Grim visions of the future are far from new in science fiction, and their ideas often contrast starkly with reality. The year 1997‘s been and gone, and Manhattan is far from the prison island presented in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Then again, science fiction’s futures are seldom meant to be Nostradamus-like predictions - they’re extrapolations of where we are in the present, and where our current position might lead us in the coming years.

The science fiction films of the past 18-or-so months have introduced their own versions of the future. So what are they warning us about, and how do they tie into the thoughts and fears of contemporary scientists and journalists? Let’s start by taking a look back at a sci-fi action flick from last summer.

Elysium, The Purge and The Hunger Games

Neill Blomkamp's Elysium presented a future world where the divide between rich and poor has stretched out into a chasm. Los Angeles has devolved into a polluted, poverty-stricken dustbowl by the year 2154, while the wealthy have long since migrated to an orbiting space station - the Elysium of the title. Here, the world's one percent live in gilded luxury, surrounded by marble, acres of greenery and glittering architecture. Robot lackeys tend to their every whim, while unfeasibly expensive medical pods cure their ailments. Back on Earth, blue-collar factory worker Max (Matt Damon) resolves to break into the heavily-guarded Elysium, his goal: to heal his stricken body in one of those med-pods.

The dire warning: Blomkamp has said in interviews that his orbiting billionaires' playground is meant satirically - a pointed exaggeration of the present. "The entire film is an allegory. I tend to think a lot about wealth discrepancy,” the director told The Telegraph. “People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.”

Blomkamp has also argued that Elysium isn't a 'message' film (it's an "observation", he told us last year), but it isn't difficult to see parallels between Elysium's wealth gap and the concerns raised in recent articles and books.

"London has become a citadel, sealed off from the rest of Britain," wrote The Guardian's John Harris this month. Harris argues that the rising property prices in the UK's capital is gradually sealing it off from the rest of the country and transforming it into a playground for the wealthy few. Taken this way, Harris' cautionary view of London could see it become a kind of grounded Elysium in years to come - a billionaires' paradise without the science fiction overtones.

The situation isn't confined to London, either. In a similar vein, economist Thomas Pikkety, in his recent book Capital In The Twenty-First Century, warns that the growing gap between the ordinary and the wealthy is not only widening, Elysium-style, but also endangers the very fabric of our monetary system.

"Although I am not a politician," Pikkety told The Observer, "it is obvious that this movement, which is speeding up, will have political implications – we will all be poorer in the future in every way and that creates crisis. I have proved that under the present circumstances capitalism simply cannot work."

Elysium isn't the only recent sci-fi film to explore this topic. The Purge imagined a near-future America where the population is controlled by an annual, 12-hour event where any crime can be committed without fear of conviction. The most affluent citizens close the gates on their fortified mansions, leaving the rest of the country to unleash its fury on itself. The future offered up by the Hunger Games books and films is similarly dystopian: an unfeasibly wealthy, decadent Capitol wields absolute power over the rest of Panem - a post-apocalyptic North America split up into districts of varying prosperity.

The stories and audiences are very different, but the underlying thinking in Elysium, The Purge and The Hunger Games is strikingly similar: allow the gap between the rich and poor to grow too wide, and the results could be grim for all but the wealthiest.

Transcendence

As the age of artificially intelligent computers draws near, a resistance movement called R.I.F.T. aims to disrupt scientific progress with a string of terror attacks. Computer genius Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is caught up in one of these attacks, and has his consciousness uploaded to cyberspace by his grieving wife and scientific partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). The perfect interface between human and machine appears to have been achieved, but is the result a benefit or a danger?

The dire warning: At a conference last June, scientist and Google engineering director Ray Kurtzweil predicted that, by 2045, computer technology would have exceeded the power of the human mind. "Based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain," Kurtzweil said, "we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold." 

Kurtzweil further suggested that forthcoming technology would allow us to achieve a kind of immortality, with our minds uploaded to computers like Johnny Depp in Transcendence.

"We're going to become increasingly non-biological to the point where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important anymore," Kurtzweil continued.

Many of these concepts are explored in Transcendence, but the film's unusual in that it doesn't necessarily depict these scientific breakthroughs as inherently negative (we're treading carefully here to avoid spoiling things). The warning in Transcendence, perhaps, is not so much that scientific progress will destroy us, but that our own fear of technological progress will have its own potentially devastating impact.

RoboCop

Director Jose Padilha's RoboCop remake imagined its future law enforcer as a cybernetic puppet made by a corporation eager to foist drone technology on a distrustful American public. As OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) plans a nationwide PR stunt that will lend a human face to his future of law enforcement, the wounded cop inside RoboCop (played by Joel Kinnaman) attempts to overcome the confines of his programming.

The dire warning: Anxiety over the use of unmanned drones has become quite prevalent in the media in recent years, and the University of Sheffield's Professor Noel Sharkey has been a particularly insistent voice of concern.

"Over 4,000 robots are serving in Iraq at present, others in Afghanistan," he wrote back in 2007. "And now they are armed."

Padilha's RoboCop presents its own version of what a drone-led future occupation of the Middle East might look like, complete with colossal ED-209s stomping down dusty streets growling "peace be upon you" as the local populace cowers in terror. Padilha depicts a future where the government, corporations (as embodied by OmniCorp) and the media all conspire to wield power for its own sake.

"There is a political debate that’s going to happen around the use of drones and the use of robots in war," Padilha told us earlier this year. "It’s a serious issue. You can think about it like, if America pulled out of Vietnam because soldiers were dying, if robots were there instead, what would have happened? It’s true that the automation of violence opens the door to fascism. And it’s a real, serious issue. I think in 10, 20 or 30 years, countries are going to start talking about legislation, where they’re going to have to decide whether they should allow robots to kill people, or allow law enforcement to become automated."

RoboCop's concerns about drones, privacy and free-will aren't necessarily incompatible with Transcendence's less dystopian view of scientific progress. Technology can and has done wonderful things for society, but like all concentrations of power, it's when that technology is used as a tool of oppression that it can become dangerous.

We won't necessarily see an orbiting space station for billionaires built in the next century, or scientist upload his consciousness to a computer, or robot law enforcers take to the streets of Detroit. But what these science fiction films and others do is crystalise the concerns of the present in a way that no other genre can.

Social division, far-reaching technological change, and the dangers of power wielded for its own sake - by casting their imaginations out into a possible future, filmmakers can lend a voice to the concerns and realities we all face in the present.

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