Why We Love the Apocalypse

During the very earliest days of film, the future was utopian. There were no wars, hunger or illness, and we had plenty of opportunity to explore the universe. That couldn’t be more different than what we see on screens today. Death, destruction and decay are the norm, and hope is a four-letter word.

Our first significant science fiction adventure, 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon,” offers a future where Earthmen have the resources to journey to the moon, overcome another race (Selenites) and return safely.

Futurism in cinema really takes off with 1927’s class-warfare story “Metropolis,” however. Portrayed is a gleaming future where everything is grand, unless you actually notice all the downtrodden workers. In the ’30s, sci-fi is about exploration and good ol’ American ingenuity. Think “Just Imagine” (1930), “It’s Great to be Alive” (1933) and the cautionary tale “The Invisible Ray” (1936).

World War II had sufficient horrors that sci-fi mostly took a hiatus from cinema other than as comic relief. “The Invisible Woman” (1940), “One Million BC” (1940) and “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” (also 1940). WW II led directly to the looming threat of the Cold War, and that proved a fertile ground for futuristic sci-fi films.

Consider “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), a film that still resonates with audiences: If an alien arrived and offered great technological gifts if humans would just stop trying to kill each other, would we find peace, or would we fight over that too?

World War II had sufficient horrors that sci-fi mostly took a hiatus from cinema other than as comic relief.

Still, Hollywood ’50s sci-fi really focused darkly on the fear of communism and alien invaders, whether masked as “Invaders from Mars” (1953), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) or even “It Came From Outer Space” (1953). The theme was identical: institutional xenophobia.

But there were additional explorations of alternative, futuristic cultures in the same era, including Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), in which Captain Nemo’s secret city on the bottom of the ocean is a futuristic utopia, only ruined by humans from the surface. Or the future portrayed in 1956’s “Forbidden Planet,” a world of unlimited power and robots doing our every bidding, even if not always entirely wholesome.

The other great theme of ’50s and ’60s sci-fi — and even into current day — are cautionary tales about the uncontrolled progress of science. The subjects ranged from environmental catastrophe to nuclear fallout, with the occasional mad scientist thrown in for good measure. Perhaps over half of all sci-fi from the ’50s address this topic, including the splendid “Them” (1954), “The Fly” (1958), “The Blob” (1958), and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957).

The race to the moon heralded a new era of futurism in science fiction.

The race to the moon heralded a new era of futurism in science fiction. Think about the future of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). People are polite and have leisure time to explore the close planets and their moons. We’re ready for a galactic rebirth, as director Stanley Kubrick suggests.

Three years later, Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) shows a terrifying future where Malcolm McDowell is a thug in a world where everyone is assumed perpetually innocent and a victim of circumstance until it’s quite literally too late for their victims.

By the mid-1970s sci-fi offered a more positive tone again, notably thanks to the “Star Wars” (1977) saga. Even dark films like “Alien” (1979) offered a future where mining ships routinely flew through deep space on commercial exploration. Perhaps no film series is more optimistic than the original ten films spun out of the “Star Trek” series, which offered a future where things were pretty darn rosy.

But competing with that was the dark, perpetually rainy, neon-illuminated future of “Blade Runner” (1982) and its dark post-apocalyptic cousin “Mad Max” (1979). Again, the future might be great for the 1 percent but the rest of us are in a world of trouble, whether it’s “more human than human” replicants or general lawlessness.

By the mid-1980s, it wasn’t radiation or men from Mars that we feared the most but rather unbridled technological development, whether the shocking revelation of “The Matrix” (1999), the cautionary robotic tale of “The Terminator” (1984), or even the dangerous cloning experiment of “Jurassic Park” (1993). The latter sparked this year’s most popular film sequel.

Fortunately there were some positive future worlds that balanced out the darkness, notably the splendid “Contact” (1997) that mirrored “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its optimism, albeit with a bit more mayhem thrown in. “The Fifth Element” (1997) also offered a busy, urban future where no-one seemed to be left wanting.

The past decade or so of science fiction has lost the optimism entirely. Consider “Moon” (2009), which explores what it is to be human and self-aware through the eyes of a clone; “Minority Report” (2002), which offers a peaceful future, but at the cost of people being arrested pre-emptively before they commit a crime; or “District 9” (2009), where aliens are brutally discriminated against until they rise up and fight back.

The very latest films continue the dark future, whether it’s the post-apocalyptic anti-science future “Interstellar” (2014), the dismal time-traveling mobsters of “Looper” (2012), the post-invasion no-man’s zone of “Monsters” (2010), or post-apocalypse of “The Book of Eli” (2010), “The Hunger Games” (2014), “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014), “Divergent” (2014), “Elysium” (2013), or “Skyline” (2010).

The number of positive futures portrayed in modern science fiction really boils down to just one: “Tomorrowland” (2015). But why? What happened on our way to the future that we have become glum and pessimistic? Why are our heroes now “super” with greater powers and capabilities than us mere mortals?

Perhaps that’s just how we explore ideas as a global culture in a technological age.

Last Modified: August 6, 2015, 1:00 pm

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