Worlds Apart: Changing Society through Science Fiction

Inspired by Glasgow Film Festival title, Karmalink, Young Selector Toby, has created a whistle-stop tour through one hundred years of the science-fiction genre. Read on as he reflects on what kinds of sci-fi were popular in each decade and why…

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WARNING – Minor Spoilers Ahead!

Science fiction films offer a unique property. Looking to the future is always linked with the present, a manifestation of the current hopes and fears. They offer a snapshot into the ethos of the time, and it’s fascinating to see how this societal train of thought changes across the decades. It should come as no surprise that much of what gets made reflects the narratives of the time, and that’s exactly what I hope to explore today. Join me as we journey back into time, using the light of the silver screen as our compass.

The end of WW1 brought the roaring twenties, a time of consumerism and intellectual flourishing. But there were cracks under the surface, especially in Germany, where street violence and economic collapse were rife. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis captures the sense of a growing rift between the classes of an urban dystopia through symbolic imagery. Gang violence also imbues The Mechanical Man, as a robot is used to terrorise the streets of Italy.

The Wall Street crash of 1929 was one of a series of events that led to the Great Depression. This manifested itself in an onslaught of creature-features like Frankenstein, and King Kong. Each showed a deadly presence stalking the streets, praying on the weak and vulnerable. Perhaps this reflected everyday life in the 30s, and the worries that redundancy and homelessness brought with them. Landmark film The Invisible Man also imagines the insanity that comes with discovering you’ve become a creature yourself…

The war-torn 40s brought sci-fi innovation to a halt, with most big pictures being sequels. It’s interesting to note that outside of science fiction, the latter half of the 40s was an inspired time for Hollywood, with Casablanca, Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life (among many others) bringing a fresh perspective to cinema. The public didn’t need sci-fi, they’d already lived through their worst nightmares.

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The Machine

The effects of WWII still imbued much of the 50s, as the silver screen showed humanity under attack from a variety of invasions. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a horrifying exploration into the post-war paranoia of the time, noted for its anti-communist themes and resistance against control. However, this post-war era was significantly different from that of the 20s, with family values and the importance of the household. The Day the Earth Stood Still shows solidarity against an imposing alien race that exists out of the corner of our collective eye.

The swingin’ 60s was a time of great divide. Free love ideals were punctured by the Civil Rights movements, political assassinations, and a wave of bombings. Science fiction looked

for a way out, turning to the future to see what mankind would make for itself. Some results were fantastical, such as the adaptation of H. G. Well’s The Time Machine, whereas others, like The Planet of the Apes reflected a more apocalyptic version of the future. These films also show an awareness of technology starting to creep in, something that would become clearer in the years ahead. 2001: A Space Odyssey was an early warning sign for the way science fiction was heading.

The 70s might be known for its partying, but the films of the time had us looking to the stars. The Space Race and the moon landing of 1969 expanded our collective horizons up towards the sky, and at what we might find there. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a psychological exploration, while Alien imagines a slightly gorier turn of events. There was also greater unrest with forces of power, with Soylent Green imagining the lengths a government would go to keep us in check.

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The Matrix

Life in the 80s is generally remembered as a time of peace and simplicity, before technology took hold. This was reflecting in sci-fi, as a variety of more family-friendly subgenres were born. Back to the Future and E.T. showing a more playful and family friendly side to the aliens. Maybe they don’t all want to hurt us! The eighties also kick-started a new type of sci-fi film with Blade Runner, as the lines between human and machine became indistinguishable. This would continue into much of the late 80s.

The 90s refined this new menace into a real possibility. Never had the threat of dangerous scientific advancement been as apparent as during the loom of the new millennium and Y2K. The future had arrived, and along with it came two new threats. The Matrix theorised that humanity exists inside a giant computer, and Jurassic Park wondered what happens when we get a bit too ahead of ourselves. It’s interesting to note that while more family-friendly than some other contenders, Jurassic Park predicted the scientific revolution that would imbue much science fiction is recent years.

The new millennium arrived, and perhaps to the surprise of many, life carried on. But where exactly where we going now? This thought plagued much of the 00s, with I Am Legend envisioning a world burnt. Avatar suggests a more hopeful outlook, a fresh start and a colourful world where nature still ruled. As the internet spread, it brought with it a greater awareness of issues like climate change. This resulted in perhaps the most poignant sci-fi film ever made, WALL-E. The message couldn’t be clearer. It’s the children that need to know about this.

Scientific research has advanced lightyears in the past ten years, and it now seems that real-life discovery overshadows the stories portrayed on the screen. Western filmmaking focused heavily on this golden age of discovery, with films like Annihilation and Arrival following groups of soldiers and scientists that band together against a common enemy. It’s usually the work of an intrepid bright spark that leads the way through the warfare. However, it’s Nolan’s epic Interstellar that walks a perfect balance between the human aspect of research, and the toll that it takes on those alive today.

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So where do we go from here? It’s hard to know for certain. Perhaps this exercise is one that is best done with the power of hindsight. As we recover from a world under lockdown, it’ll be fascinating to see where we go from here, and what themes emerge.

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