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    Elysium and Science Fiction Films that Hate Science and Technology
    By Samuel Kenyon | August 11th 2013 01:42 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Software engineer, AI researcher, interaction designer (IxD), actor, writer, atheist transhumanist. My blog will attempt to synthesize concepts...

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    I haven't seen Elysium yet, but Ryan Britt's article "Our Science Fiction Movies Hate Science Fiction" is interesting nonetheless:
    Ripping off the heads of robots like a sweaty space-age cyberpunk Robin Hood, Matt Damon is delivering future-social-justice this week in Elysium.

    Alright, so what does this have to do with anti-science-fiction? As Britt writes:
    But the vast majority of science fiction films—even the very best of them--still see the SF, the tech, the speculative concept, as the antagonist of the film.

    And that is the heart of the matter. As he says about Elysium:
    Elysium could have been poised to change that simply by virtue of the fact Matt Damon is using an SF creation--a super-powered robot exoskeleton--to fight science fiction: a space station dream paradise which allows the rich to forget about the rest of us. This is a gorgeous set-up, but it's all there is: then it becomes every Iron Man, two guys in super-powered suits hitting each other.


    I've noticed these unsettling, often grotesquely simplified, anti-technology displays myself; my only disagreement with Britt is his claim that this is a recent phenomenon. I kept a list several years ago of science fiction all films involving artificial intelligence and/or robots. The list was intended to span all decades of film. There were two categories of how a piece of technology was used in the narrative: in a positive role to humankind or the universe, or in a negative role. It seems to me that film has always had a mix of thoughtful future building vs. the future as an enemy. The list is pasted below.

    Britt also ignores recent films which in the future tech was not evil (or at least not the only evil). The first Iron Man movie contains one of the best film depictions of engineering development, but apparently all Britt noticed was guys in super-powered suits hitting each other. Aren't there any films recently that are "serious" about science and/or technology? Of course there are, such as Computer Chess. Indeed, Britt mentions others such as Moon. So the real problem is revealed--it's not that thoughtful and pro-tech films don't exist anymore, it's just that they are "in the shadow of" bigger budget efforts.

    Point of No Return


    Although many standard plots include a point of no return for the main character, the fictional world itself can return. Science fiction is best when the world is changed--and never goes back. A lot of science fiction films cheat us by going back to normal at the end. That is the one major infraction of most of Michael Crichton's techno-thrillers.

    The List of AI Use in Film


    Note this has not been updated since 2005. It should probably also include artificial creature films such as The Golem and Frankenstein.

    In a positive role to humankind or the universe:
    • Tobor the Great
    • Forbidden Planet
    • THX1138
    • Alien
    • Star Wars Trilogies
    • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy [miniseries]
    • Knight Rider [TV] (AI car)
    • Bladerunner
    • Aliens
    • The Last Starfighter (the beta unit)
    • 2010: Odyssey Two
    • Electric Dreams
    • D.A.R.Y.L.
    • Short Circuit
    • Flight of the Navigator
    • Space Camp
    • The Transformers Movie
    • Max Headroom [TV]
    • Space Balls
    • Little Wonder [TV]
    • Robocop and sequels (cyborg)
    • *batteries not included
    • Cherry 2000
    • Short Circuit 2
    • Cyborg
    • Robot Jox
    • Total Recall (Johnny Cab)
    • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
    • Edward Scissorhands (not a robot, but a golem-like artificial human)
    • Star Trek VII and sequels
    • Alien Resurrection
    • Lost in Space
    • Iron Giant
    • Bicentennial Man
    • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
    • Artificial Intelligence
    • Spider-man (powered armor)
    • Minority Report (spider recon bots)
    • Payday (has a real industrial robot)
    • The Matrix Reloaded (some automated technology is shown as necessary to human life)
    • The Animatrix (some of the robots are helpful to humankind)
    • The Matrix Revolutions (the mechs)
    • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
    • Spider-man 2 (neuro-computer interface with robotic arms)
    • Robot Stories
    • I, Robot
    • Robots
    • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

    In a negative role to humankind or the universe:
    • Metropolis
    • The Colossus of New York
    • The Day the Earth Stood Still
    • Gog
    • The Invisible Boy
    • Dr. Who [movies and TV] (Daleks)
    • Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
    • Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution
    • Barbarella
    • 2001: A Space Odysey
    • Colossus: The Forbin Project
    • The Stepford Wives
    • Westworld
    • Future World
    • Demon Seed
    • Terminator
    • Moontrap
    • Slipstream
    • Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam
    • Bill&Ted's Bogus Journey
    • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
    • The Lawnmower Man
    • Eve of Destruction
    • A.P.E.X.
    • Ghost in the Machine
    • Screamers
    • Judge Dredd
    • Virus
    • Star Trek VIII
    • A Life Less Ordinary
    • Austin Powers and sequels (fembots)
    • The Matrix
    • The Matrix Reloaded
    • The Animatrix
    • The Matrix Revolutions
    • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
    • Spy Kids movies (not sure, I haven't seen these)
    • Tomo [short film]
    • Spider-man 2 (neuro-computer interface with robotic arms)
    • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

    Comments

    Well, good SciFi is about human reaction in a believable setting bounded by technology... it's not about technology.

    You need to have the "indifferent" category - The technologicalled-up future, but the same lousy chimps (for example, "Outland" - we have more tools but it's just like in a frontier town)

    -- "In a negative role to humankind or the universe:" --

    > Barbarella

    That's not Sci-Fi, it's Jane Fonda (Hot though)

    > 2001: A Space Odysey

    2001: A Space Odyssey has the most positive role of tech I have seen. It is the enabler of the whole movie. It's just that the humans fade away compared to their creations which they no longer understand or master. As they must...

    -- "In a positive role to humankind or the universe" --

    > THX1138

    What the hell am I reading? THX1138 is Lucas' own student-days vision of oppressive collectivist control of worker drones.

    > Alien, Aliens etc.

    Not really, right? Slimy mega-corps rolls over worker's corpses and Marines and research teams to get the commercial edge.

    > Star Wars Trilogies

    That's not Sci-Fi. It's Space Opera.

    > Space Balls

    Neither is this. It's comedy (and a pretty cheap one)

    > Artificial Intelligence

    I don't know what that move was about but it sure wasn't "positive". Brian Aldiss fucks up in the original story http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.01/ffsupertoys_pr.html , Spielberg fucks up in the movie. End of story.

    Come on man, add the Patlabor series and Ghost In the Shell under "positive".

    SynapticNulship
    The list is for all genres of films (not necessarily those tagged as science fiction) which make use of artificial intelligence and/or robots. That is all.

    My assessment of negative and positive is in regards to specific AI entities in their role in the film. It is quite possible for a film to have positive use of AI at the same time as other negative tech themes and vice-versa. Indeed, one might argue that multidimensional films are more interesting.

    In real life the masses readily cling to extremist dichotomies. Perhaps this old list triggers that inclination too much. A better list would perhaps lay out the specific characters / gadgets (or maybe just events) from each movie on a 2D chart.
    Hank
    Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
    I have a hard time agreeing that hot girl robots seducing men was anything but positive. Maybe it was Vincent Price controlling them that invokes the negative imagery.

    I imagine that, like me and the previous commenter, most people will argue about the list rather than the overall point. Dystopian sells when you are the richest country in the world and have a whole lot of liberal guilt about it. Mike White did a series here of apocalyptic fiction (which was invariably due to science) and the fact that the volume was so high he could never complete it tells us a lot. Japanese science-fiction also spent decades fixed on atomic explosions, for more obvious reasons.
    SynapticNulship
    Dystopian sells when you are the richest country in the world and have a whole lot of liberal guilt about it
    Regardless of whether that is sound, one might also consider the historic dynamics of style in the film industry. Are current dystopian films actually about today, or are they just a lineage going back to the Great Depression with some thin modern ornamentation pasted on? Hollywood started out with glossy idealist romanticism, which triggered a response by creative directors (often international) to go against the Hollywood machine. I'm not a historian but this cycle seems to have happened several times up until the 40s in which German visual styles were merged back into the Hollywood machine along with some ganster movie style to create the film noirs of the 40s and 50s.

    In summary, this evolution of film in terms of what is shown, the plot (or lack of plot), visual styles, and tropes, is perhaps just as important as the point of view that a film exists because dystopianism sells well in the US. Writers and directors need to make something to keep working, and they can't usually come up with anything original. The originality is largely from the creative mish-mash of old things.
    Forgive my density, but are you saying that Space Balls portrays science in a positive light? Did Young Frankenstein portray science in a negative light?

    SynapticNulship
    Spaceballs portrays intelligent robots in a positive light.

    Did Young Frankenstein portray science in a negative light?
    No.
    The films don't hate science and technology. They intend to be metaphors of the dangers of unintended consequences and totalitarian politics. Nearly all great novels that are (or are colored by) science fiction -- Brave New World, 1984, Foundation (series), Dayworld, nearly everything written by Philip Dick -- use the futuristic sci-fi setting to demonstrate parables of loss of individual freedom and giving those in power frightening tolls to cause such loss.

    I think it has more to do with some Sci-Fi films finding it easier to portray technology as evil rather than portray the evils or shortcomings of those who created it. The most famous movie-AI, Skynet, goes off the rails because it has been programmed with the prime directive of maintaining peace, but has no limitations as to methods and thus identifies wiping out humanity as th most efficient way to create lasting peace. In the Matrix movies, the AIs are just another species, though technological. The films are even quite up front about the ambiguity of who started the war. For all we know, the humans may just be getting their just reward.
    When it comes to other technologies, they are usually used as amplifiers, and are thus scary. It is the same in our world. Technology can amplify human interactions, it has caused our economies to shoot forward, improves lives everywhere, but it also has the potential to amplify destruction. Any all-out war now would probably destroy large parts of the planet. A prospect that makes even the second world war look benign.
    Also, it is easier to make technology scary. If you don't it often looks silly. A utopian world is a world without conflict and thus a world with nothing interesting going on. Conflict is what drives societies forward, and is essential for fantastical stories. A massive tool of destruction is far more interesting than a massive tool of love and caring.

    Frank Parks
    Ya.  The movie producers have to make a product that will pay all the bills.  Good SF stories showing science in a positive frame, and there have been many, are often changed in the film version to allow what the producer believes will make the largest pile of cash.  Too often, it seems, the changes distort the story.  For example, the Robot books by Asimov. 
    SynapticNulship
    For example, the Robot books by Asimov.
    If you're referring to the film I, Robot (2004), it's even worse--or perhaps better--than you claim. The movie script was originally called "Hardwired" and was not related to any Asimov short story (I, Robot was a collection of short stories none of which had that title). Then they got the bright idea to merge the name and brand of I, Robot the book. But it's obvious that the plot and most of the characters, including the main character, were not from Asimov, although it bears a vague resemblance to the Asimov novel Caves of Steel (and it's sequels) in that a male detective investigates robot-related shenanigans in the city. IMO, it has more in common with the short story "With Folded Hands" (Astounding Science-Fiction, 1947) by Jack Williamson.

    I wrote an essay on my previous website about I, Robot back in 2004...maybe that should be resurrected as a blog post.
    Hank
    io9 has taken up the cause of bringing scientists back to science fiction: The Moment When Science Fiction Split off From Competence Porn.
    SynapticNulship
    This fragment of a comment over there is interesting [Daveinva]:
    why the single heroic scientist character resonates as such bullshit: there ARE NO single heroic scientists any longer. Cancer isn't going to be cured by the goth girl in the 59th minute of a TV show because we all know it's not going to be cured to by a goth girl in 59 minutes in real life. There are no flying cars, there are no jetpacks, there is no "Singularity" right around the corner. Just a slow, barely-noticeable climb towards Version 2.1... Version 2.2... Release Candidate 2.3... etc., etc.

    Is this popular cultural knowledge? Perhaps there haven't been single heroic scientists at all during the century or so of film.

    I think perhaps what is more realistic that affects our expectations in fictional worlds is the ultra-specialization that has happened. In 1963 Bucky Fuller wrote about the strategic change from "comprehensively anticipatory design scientists" like Leonardo da Vinci towards increasing specialization. If that specialization has continued since then...
    What about Dr Moreau's Island ? It seems to me that it is «dans l'air du temps» with what is happening in the domain of the biotechnologies ?

    Michael Martinez
    I saw "Elysium" and loved it.
    It's not really a science fiction film.  It's more of a science fantasy thriller, using the technology as MacGuffins to move the story forward.

    The story is a classic "Haves" versus "Have Nots" -- and so it's another form of Apartheid analysis ala "District 9".

    We do have "Haves" and "Have Nots" and the clashes between them expand and rebound and take new shape.

    Maybe this is social science fiction.  But maybe it's just what Gene Roddenberry would have called a "Morality Play", which was what he preferred to do with Star Trek.

    "Elysium" doesn't explain how we "got there".  It begins with us "there" and then says, "What if ..." -- so maybe that is enough to qualify it as science fiction.

    Opinions will vary for years to come.  The movie is as notable for what it doesn't explain as for what it seems to be saying: that it's important to level the playing field as much as possible, because we'll always have the "Haves" and "Have Nots" among us, no matter what we do.

    Science can't really solve that problem but it does seem to be swept up into it in every generation.

    SynapticNulship
    I saw "Elysium" and loved it.
    I just saw it myself on Saturday, and loved certain parts. I have some specific likes and dislikes which I will probably write another blog post about.

    It's not really a science fiction film.  It's more of a science fantasy thriller, using the technology as MacGuffins to move the story forward.
    One could start arguing down that path until no films are science fiction. Films are a different medium than literature, and neither one of them is real. I think we should reserve the "fantasy" tag for those films in which there's "real" magic in the fictional world which is not shown to us viewers as being technology driven.
    that it's important to level the playing field as much as possible, because we'll always have the "Haves" and "Have Nots" among us, no matter what we do.
    Or maybe it's saying actually we can level the playing field... You're right--science doesn't solve that problem--but it doesn't not solve it either. It merely enables technology which could be used as part of solutions.
    Gerhard Adam
    It merely enables technology which could be used as part of solutions.
    Unfortunately, such problems aren't actually technical problems.  The difficulty lies in the fact that our social systems aren't geared towards such resolutions, so it doesn't matter how much food we produce, because there are other factors that will prevent it from being distributed.  Similarly with most other such issues.

    Even the point raised regarding "golden rice" as being a solution to Vitamin A deficiency, we find that the technical aspects of the solution aren't particularly relevant.  What will allow it to succeed or fail is based on the altruistic nature of the scientists making the technology freely available.  In truth, the problem could have been solved decades ago by simply ensuring people had enough to eat.

    So, in the end, what causes the issues is our lack of resolve in addressing the problems, rather than the lack of technical solutions.  I always find it interesting that people want to level the playing field without considering that such solutions require varying forms of communism or socialism, which represents the set of ideologies most resisted as viable.

    It's interesting that only humans experience the "haves" and "have-nots" situation, which clearly indicates that it is also a purely human invention.  No other social creature would ever experience such a thing within a group.  Can you imagine the concept of poverty among some ants within a colony?  or within a bee hive?  or among a herd of mammals?
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    It's interesting that only humans experience the "haves" and "have-nots" situation, which clearly indicates that it is also a purely human invention.  No other social creature would ever experience such a thing within a group.  Can you imagine the concept of poverty among some ants within a colony?  or within a bee hive?  or among a herd of mammals?
    I doubt it's a human invention. It's just an extreme form of workers supporting the queen. Other animals besides humans have social structures which result in the leader being treated like royalty. Then you might argue that still, no animal in the group is left in a poverty state. But then what is poverty for a non-human that has no concept of money and little concept of material possessions?
    Gerhard Adam
    We're not talking about material possessions or money.  We're talking about food and the ability to share within the group.  The majority of problems aren't about people having iPods, they're about having food, water, and basic services that we consider to be a staple of human existence.

    You would never have a situation in any animal society where the leader horded resources while members of the group starved.  Also, the animals aren't treated like "royalty", they are treated according to the service they provide to the group.  Those "royal" animals also have restrictions that they must abide by and they are all linked by their survival.

    Bear in mind that this isn't about the entire group facing a resource shortage, this is about having plenty of resources available but due to our internal structure, we deny those resources to other humans.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    We're not talking about material possessions or money.  We're talking about food and the ability to share within the group.  The majority of problems aren't about people having iPods, they're about having food, water, and basic services that we consider to be a staple of human existence.
    Here's a film called 'Isolated: The Zo'é tribe (full documentary)' showing the first contact with this beautiful Amazonian tribe that is living and behaving exactly how you are saying Gerhard. It was published on 6 Apr 2013 and is part of a series (Amazonia: Last Call) that 'travels across Brazilian landscapes by way of one of the main links still binding the essence of humanity with the Earth: the Amazon.'

    'The filming of the first point of contact with an isolated race, the Zo'E, the encroachment on areas of the Amazonian forest previously uncaptured on film, the evidence relating to the development of the illegal trafficking of species or the recording of the immeasurable value of Brazil's natural spaces; these are just excerpts from the series.'

    'The underlying theme is the conflict between the development and conservation of one of the key natural areas underpinning the stability of the planet.' but to me the underlying theme is how beautiful and socially advanced and civilised this Indigenous and isolated tribe is. They live in almost total harmony with nature and eachother, the women use contraceptives, the tribe of 164 people has no leaders and men and women are polygamous and have equal rights, they have many of the luxuries and trappings of rich  people in modern civilisation without the IT technology and exploitation and they seem so very happy and even love and cherish their old people! I challenge anyone here to watch this documentary and not feel very moved by it.


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