I Miss the Future
David Mills of Touchstone, writing on that magazine’s blog one day last week, solicited readers’ opinions as to the best science-fiction movie ever made. It required no reflection at all for me to come up with my answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey. There aren’t many sci-fi films that I consider to be worthy of comparison with 2001. Mr. Mills asked his question in the context of discussing a survey in which a number of scientists named Blade Runner as the top science fiction film. I haven’t seen Blade Runner, having been frightened away by its reputation for graphic violence, so I’ll admit the possibility that it may be better than 2001, but I imagine I would still prefer the latter. That’s because it is more than a good movie: it represents a kind of science fiction, and a kind of future, that is now for me an object of nostalgia.
As a boy in the early 1960s I fell deeply under the spell of science fiction for a couple of years. The pictures of exotic worlds and futures painted in the stories I read were almost mystically attractive to me, mainly, I think, because of their strangeness and remoteness. I directed to them what I later recognized as a displaced religious longing. The phase did not last very long, partly because most of the writing was inferior to that in the classics I was also then discovering, and partly because the vision of a future technological wonderland soon came to seem thin and shallow.
But now and then I have spells of nostalgia for those days of wonder, and sometimes in the midst of these I do slightly embarrassing things, such as seeking out and purchasing on eBay some of the very issues of Analog which enchanted me at sixteen. I find, somewhat to my disappointment but not much to my surprise, that most of the writing is even worse than I feared. Stories purveying ideas which seemed at the time very deep now seem naïve at best. Many of them seem, aside from their fanciful settings and gadgetry, almost laughably conventional: genre pieces in the basic pattern of Westerns and war stories, but done up with futuristic trappings which all too often are amusingly bound to the time in which they were written. One story, for instance, in which the special effects work of a movie crew provides a trick that saves the day, refers continually to the manipulation of tape—on a starship. The effect is of an anachronistic future, in which the electronic systems of the imagined distant future sometimes still have vacuum tubes and mechanical relays that were obsolete by 1970 or so.
And yet there is still an appeal in the endless vistas of technological marvels and galactic civilizations, and 2001 captures it better than any movie I know. It was the first movie in which technology could actually provide a convincing visual representation of what science-fictions writers and readers had previously only imagined. (“Star Trek,” for instance, never interested me much, because it was so visually unconvincing, and the stories were simplistic even by the standards of printed sci-fi.)
Thematically, 2001 is, as you know if you’ve seen it, an exercise in evolutionary wishful thinking. It supposes an ascent of human progress by evolution as directed and encouraged by an ancient, wise, and benevolent alien civilization. Stanley Kubrick had the good sense to keep these aliens offstage, so that they remain suitably beyond the ordinary. It’s remarkable how often this basic notion of salvation by godlike aliens recurs in science fiction and apparently among some scientists: the late Carl Sagan seems to have felt its pull quite strongly. It is an idea supported by considerably less empirical evidence (to wit, none) than the Resurrection, yet some intelligent people seem more willing to believe in it than in any traditional religion.
I find it fascinating that this vision of the future suffered a rapid decline even as it attained its greatest expression. I didn’t follow science fiction very closely after the mid-60s, but it’s my impression that by the 1980s dystopia was the prevalent theme. I did read a few of the so-called “cyberpunk” novels of the ‘80s, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and they were certainly grim enough. A number of very popular movies, such as the Terminator and Alien series, which are at least superficially classifiable as science fiction, are set in a nightmarish future. I don’t consider these as being quite in the running for the sci-fi prize, as they are basically horror or action films with sci-fi paraphernalia. The Star Wars series is more in the old-time mode, and I’ve always enjoyed the original trilogy enormously, but it’s pretty lightweight stuff, a comic-book style adventure the excellence of which is in proportion to its lack of seriousness.
Here’s a question for the Christian: which is better: the hope and optimism of 2001, founded on illusions and delusions, or the darkness and violence of Blade Runner? Perhaps Blade Runner is more true to the earthly condition. I suppose I really ought to see it. But for sheer entertainment, and for its capturing of a sense of cosmic mystery, purpose, and grandeur, I much prefer 2001 and its older future.Pre-TypePad