In THX 1138 , a gently amplified female voice tells the tranquilized population to "buy now, buy more." Lucas's tepid critique of capitalism is ironic, of course, since a few years later he would reinvent toy licensing, famously taking a salary cut in exchange for the merchandising rights for Star Wars . Star Wars was an innocuous film with no well-known actors and an inflated special effects budget—a film doomed to fail, most people reasoned, because everyone knew that science fiction was only for nerds. Of course, this was really an adventure movie set in outer space, and it had wide appeal not only to nerds but also to the cooler set who had never been interested in science fiction. The film was followed by two sequels.
The third, Return of the Jedi (directed by Richard Marquand, 1983), was a feel-good movie, while the second, The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner, 1980), was darker and more compelling. As a character in Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) explains, " Empire had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader's his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets."
Following Star Wars , the 1980s saw the decline of the politically engaged science fiction film. In keeping with the wider political landscape of the Reagan years, much 1980s sci-fi turned to love and family values ( E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial , 1982; Enemy Mine , 1985; Starman , 1984). Though there were exceptions, like The Terminator , films such as The Last Starfighter (1984) celebrated spectacle more than ideas. Notably, The Running Man (1987) was a spectacular action movie, but within its visual excess lurked a critique of the gaudy, exploitative nature of television culture.
Beginning with Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), science fiction became increasingly violent, and began to merge with the action film. Whereas low-budget science fiction had been common in the 1950s, 1990s films like Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and Men in Black (1997) wore their immense budgets on their sleeves and were more about awing spectators with technological prowess than provoking thought. Similarly, the return of the Star Wars franchise with Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999) and Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002) disappointed many fans who would have liked more character development and fewer video-game sequences. Notwithstanding the turn towards a big-budget action aesthetic, social critique has not completely disappeared from science fiction: The Day After Tomorrow (2004) revisited the ecological themes of the 1960s and 1970s; Gattaca (1997) recalled the nightmares of totalitarian biological control of the 1970s, merging them with contemporary fears about genetics; and Code 46 (2003) merged the old theme of population control with a timely critique of globalization.
Though there seems to be more interest in idea-driven science fiction films in the twenty-first century, such as the first Matrix installment, most fans of the genre would agree that since the 1990s the most provocative sci-fi narratives have emerged not in theaters but on television in series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994), Babylon 5 (1993–1999), and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999). In keeping with the genre's literary roots, fans of such programs have produced thousands of their own works of fiction, as well as videos, which are widely available
on the Internet. Women have been in the forefront of fan fiction, producing some of the earliest Star Trek writings and creating "slash," homoerotic stories originally focused on Star Trek characters. Though the technology of digital effects has driven the move toward sci-fi-as-action-cinema, the technologies of television and the Internet have enabled the cultivation of the genre, so that in the early twenty-first century the most creative science fiction is found not on the big screen but on TV and computer screens.
Bell, David, and Barbara M. Kennedy, eds. The Cybercultures Reader . London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity . London: British Film Institute, 2000.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture . New York: Routledge, 1992.
Kuhn, Annette, ed. Alien Zones: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema . London and New York:Verso, 1990.
——, ed. Alien Zone II . London: Verso, 1999.
Penley, Constance, et al., eds. Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Redmond, Sean. Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004.
Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film . New York: Ungar, 1988.
Sontag, Susan. "The Imagination of Disaster." Gregg Rickman, ed. The Science Fiction Film Reader . New York: Limelight Editions, 2004.
Telotte, J. P. Science Fiction Film . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Tulloch, John, and Henry Jenkins. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who and Star Trek . London and New York: Routledge, 1995.