If someone asked me, let’s say about a decade or so ago, do you like science fiction? I would have scratched my head and said…er…yeah…no…maybe…? The fact is I wouldn’t have known what it was. Because on the one hand, science fiction as a genre seems to point towards spaceships and aliens, far off planets, weird happenings on earth, etc., And yet on the other, it is so subtle and thought-provoking that the idea of it being in the category of science-fiction almost passes us by.
In this post I’m going to discuss several films which I feel have reshaped the genre and broadened it so much that as a subject, science fiction now appeals to almost everyone. The first which not only appeals to mass audiences here and there, east and west, including academics and even religious people alike is of course, needless to say, The Matrix. Others, which perhaps do not appeal with the same impact, and adhere to more subtle threads of science fiction, include films such as Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, Children of Men, and Twelve Monkeys, to mention just a few. Unlike The Matrix, what these films share is a fixed or known reality in which the protagonist is questioned as a subject who has been othered, sectioned, and somehow become the antagoniser of a rationalised, well-organised systematically governed social order. These subjects who to us are normal everyday people trapped or captured within a narrative that is immersed in psychological trauma and paradoxical dilemmas often in parallel dimensions, are subjected to shocks and ordeals that only we the audience sees and knows as unfair.
For those of us not inclined to the action-packed scenarios of The Matrix or Blade Runner, it is primarily an intellectual background set in reality that grips us. The world is after all a place that we have all questioned one time or another, and perhaps we’ve all been in those places where a certain type of dread sets in when we’ve felt our life come close to a tipping point and saw that it could so easily have turned upside down. Madness is common in society, there is always someone somewhere shouting at a wall or something, and we walk by thinking, ‘what a loon, they ought to be locked up’. So when film makers and writers take it upon themselves to turn these outcasts of society into heroic figures, it appeals. We’re drawn in because we can relate, we’ve seen it, we’ve heard about it, perhaps we’ve even been there. These ‘victims’ of society are real people who we can understand and sympathise with. That is the biggest difference between The Matrix and say Donnie Darko – one is set in far-off places that not everyone relates to, while the other is set here, in the now, in a place not so far away, and in an imagination that is feasible, where home and identity is questioned but within the frameworks of a known reality.
The Matrix, Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator, Star Wars, etc., etc., are obvious science fiction films, while those mentioned above use complex, subtle methods to question power, authority, space, time, the meaning of life, being, existence etc. If I had liked Terminator for its obvious reasons in the past perhaps I would have said, ‘yes, I love science fiction’, but I couldn’t because back then, I couldn’t bear to watch a beefy man running around pretending to be a robot. I didn’t realise then that science fiction included some of my favourite films such as Donnie Darko, Children of Men and Twelve Monkeys. Now I realise that I’m not the only person to have made this mistake. Many people hear the words ‘science-fiction’ and turn off as though they were hearing about a disease that they would never get because only the geekiest among us gets it. While I love all forms of the genre these days, driven by a fascination for its changing styles and broadening spectrum as we ourselves drive the world forward into new and challenging ways in the scientific arena, enjoying, analysing and understanding every nook and cranny of any given film or book, reading subtext and thought behind it, and relishing in the improbabilities, uncertainties and possibilities of the futures of the characters and worlds I’m reading, I still question the nature of the film industry and its ability to educate us.
Going back to The Matrix, if any film has been a start to a revolution in modern day science fiction, and if there is one film that has changed mass perception of science fiction, then it is probably The Matrix. I know it’s boring terrain, we’re still raving on about it… But the reason we go on about it, is because the film did what no other film has ever done before. It addressed the questions of existence and tackled every contentious subject known to man: science, religion, fate, destiny, karma, God, technology, questions of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, being, non-being, oneness, wholeness, and so on. Added to that, the film also had great big dollops of coolness, sexiness, adventure and action. What more could a mass-consumerist, postmodern-society want?
The Matrix has been described by philosophers as a film with junk or fast-food religious and metaphysical messages and anecdotes for the masses to ponder and contemplate. In his analysis, Slavoj Zizek questions the audience’s relationship with the material. This sort of attraction towards cinema highlights not our intellectual satisfaction but satisfies our core libidinal desires. Zizek asks what is it we’re searching for; have our lives become so meaningless that we need satisfaction from an outside energy and if necessary, can we do it with whatever illusionary force there is?
“The choice between the blue or the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality… Of course The Matrix is a machine for fictions, but these are fictions which already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself… I want a third pill. So what is the third pill? Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake fast food religious experience, but a pill which would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but reality in illusion itself… Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously – on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough.”
“Slavoj Zizek on the Matrix and Video Games” [Available online, accessed 20-06-2014]