Science Fiction



SOCIAL CRITIQUE

Though some 1950s films contained anti-war messages, science fiction turned much more sharply to the left in the 1960s and 1970s, addressing issues such as corporate corruption, government duplicity, and ecological destruction. In 1971's Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster , nuclear anxieties have receded, Godzilla has become heroic, and the Smog Monster is the product not of the military but of the private corporations that have dumped toxic chemicals into Tokyo Bay. In Silent Running (1972), humans have destroyed all of the natural vegetation on Earth, and the only trees left are in giant greenhouses floating in space. The story is set in motion when the protagonist is ordered to destroy the greenhouses and return to Earth.

The film portraying the greatest ecological disaster is surely Soylent Green , in which the greenhouse effect has made Earth into an inferno and overpopulation is extreme. Only the rich have access to fresh food, while the rest of the population is forced to eat government-produced wafers that turn out to be made of dead people. The only thriving business is a posh suicide service, which is affordable for poor people because their bodies are needed to feed the living. High-class hookers are furnished with apartments. In fact, prostitutes are literally called "furniture," and though the protagonist (Charlton Heston) briefly connects emotionally with one piece of furniture, the film offers no hope that love or family can assuage the agony of this dystopian world. Pointedly, the film opens with the murder of Joseph Cotton, an actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and ends with the suicide of Edward G. Robinson, another star of that era. In this cruel world, there is no room to respect old heroes. The new era is embodied by the sweaty, virile Charlton Heston. Symbolizing neither old Hollywood nor the method actor of the 1950s, this swaggering dimwit is the star of the future.

In addition to tackling ecology, science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s reacted to two important social movements of that era, civil rights and feminism. In Planet of the Apes (1968), American astronauts land on a planet run by apes who have enslaved humans. The apes see humans as inferior beings with no rights, and the police apes are significantly darker than the rulers and scientists. These darker, armed apes can easily be read as symbols of the black power movement, and their domination of men (whites) as positive or negative, depending on the politics of the viewer. To drive home the film's civil rights subtext, in one scene fire hoses are turned on unruly humans. Years later in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)—which is, with John Carpenter's (b. 1948) They Live! (1988), one of the few progressive science fiction films of the 1980s—a humanoid black alien slave fleeing white alien bounty hunters crash lands in New York City and takes up residence in Harlem. Taking a more literal approach than Planet of the Apes , John Sayles uses his black alien character to probe race relations in contemporary America.

Though criticism of racially motivated injustice has been allegorized in a number of science fiction films, the genre has been less progressive in its response to the feminist movement. In Demon Seed (1977) a woman is raped by a computer. In Logan's Run (1976), sexual liberation and the hippie credo "never trust anyone over thirty" have created an amoral and totalitarian society; "free love" is clearly shown as a destructive force. In A Boy and His Dog , a sexually uninhibited woman is eaten. The men of The Stepford Wives (1975) replace their troublesome, outspoken wives with docile robots devoted to housecleaning and sex-on-demand; this male

Steven Spielberg.

chauvinist fantasy is presented in the most negative terms, and many viewers have interpreted the film as feminist. In what is probably the most overtly feminist science fiction film, Born in Flames (1983), women unite to seize media control after a failed peaceful revolution. Though less overtly feminist, Liquid Sky (1982) is notable for its critical representation of sexual relations; aliens come to Earth looking for heroin but instead get hooked on the pheromones released by the brain during orgasm. In extracting the pheromones they kill the orgasmic individual, but the film's heroine survives each attack because her lovers are callous (or are simply rapists) and care nothing about her sexual satisfaction.

Though science fiction films of the 1980s were generally conservative in their representations of the family and women. James Cameron's (b. 1954) The Abyss (1989) offers a perfect example of the punishment and rehabilitation of the outspoken "bitch" wife, while the Ripley character from the Alien series is clearly a product of feminism. First introduced in Ridley Scott's (b. 1937) Alien (1979), and reappearing in Aliens (1986) and two more installments in the 1990s, this powerful female character challenged previous representations of women in science fiction (and horror and action) cinema. Earlier women of science fiction were most often docile romantic leads, or occasionally resourceful like Patricia Neale's character in The Day the Earth Stood Still . Ripley, though, was consistently strong and smart. The third Alien film even took a pro-choice stance: denied a metaphorical abortion of the alien growing inside of her by the powerful men who control the corporate future, Ripley deliberately plunges to her death to defeat them.



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