Beloved author Larry Niven famously said that the one and only universal message of science fiction is that “there exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently.” Thinking differently about science fiction should mean creative reflections of society and a multitude of storylines. But, sadly, mainstream sci-fi movies and TV are usually pulled toward one cliche plot catalyst or another. If a big science fiction story in a TV or film isn’t relying on violence to create tension, then the story seems to come in the form of an anti-technology parable. Lately, as violence finds itself in the rearview mirror of mainstream science fiction, a paradigm shift seems to be swinging towards more science fiction focused on technophobia.
The recent Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, Passengers, is an outer space epic in which there is only one violent scene in the entire movie. Lawrence nearly murders Pratt because she discovers he’s woken her up early from suspended animation without her consent. Other than this one scene, Passengers is superficially refreshing insofar as it’s a big sci-fi movie that’s not about murder in space, or murder in future times. Star Wars or The Matrix, or The Terminator or Blade Runner, et al. may be wonderful for lots of reasons, but like so much sci-fi on the screen, these films all rely on story tension caused by the degree to which different characters are adept at violence and/or murder. But while Passengers seems to have evolved past violence, it still relies on the crutch of technophobia which is another big problem in mainstream science fiction.
Passengers falls into the writing paradox movie and TV sci-fi often struggle with: If it’s not about killing the bad guys — or just killing — then it’s about the evils of technology. From robot revolutions on Westworld to the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, science fiction which presents itself as a “cautionary tale” about too much technology is weirdly just as lazy as the shoot-em-up-violent variety. Everything breaks on the starship Avalon in Passengers, meaning the only bad guy here is the spaceship itself. When there’s no human element to the antagonist, how much can our protagonists really change and grow?
Because science fiction is just like any other kind of fiction, it’s open to all the same cliches. It often falls into tropes that help the audience autofill in their experience, especially when it comes to death or destruction. Seriously, just look at the kinds of films that are critically acclaimed or the sorts of TV shows people binge mostly. Fact: Most spoiler-alerts are connected to character deaths or heavy-handed moralizing twists.
Even supposedly intellectual mainstream science fiction, like Battlestar Galactica or Westworld, sometimes double-down on these cliches. Not only is there a lot of murder and death in both shows, but the audience is also invited to believe that technology is the devil behind it all. The derided finale of Battlestar Galactica even posits that the only way to escape the cycle is to go back to nature entirely.
Where’s the balance? Why can’t a science fiction movie or TV show talk about technology without having a heavy-handed technophobic message? Or, if the show/movie is pro-technology, why does that tech have shoot or kill people? An older example of that rare balance comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Obviously, people in all of Star Trek are pretty pro-technology. In fact, the premise of Star Trek rests on the idea that Earth was united because starships were able to break the warp barrier and change everyone’s perception of their place in the universe. So, Star Trek says that technology can save us. They’ve even got a friendly robot named Data to prove it. But Star Trek has the Borg, too, a kind of cyborg harbinger of internet addiction, a cautionary tale about technology which doesn’t throw the cyborg baby out with the bath water.
Saying any given episode of Star Trek is smarter than Passengers might seem like cheap shot, but it’s important to think about why this is true. In what reads like a classic Star Trek set-up, Passengers presents a very human dilemma in a sci-fi setting. What does loneliness look like in the future? On long space voyages? Ostensibly, the drama of the film would like you to think it hinges on the very ethically dubious choice Pratt made in waking up Lawrence from suspended animation “early.” Because Pratt was space-crazy when he made this decision, it seems like his unethical behavior and how those choices would impact a decades-long relationship on space ship could be interesting. And yet, the movie only shows us these characters when they are young, hot, and fighting against a spaceship that just doesn’t work right.
The film lets both Pratt and Lawrence off the hook with the human conflicts because nothing is their fault, really. If their spaceship just hadn’t broken in the first place, none of this would have happened. True, Pratt woke up Lawrence against her will, but the space ship’s faultiness woke him up first, because technology sucks. It’s not their fault, it’s the reliance on technology that screwed them both.
Seemingly, this could have been written differently, and the plot of the film could have still worked. Chris Pratt’s job on the spaceship could have required him to wake up early if he was, for example, a maintenance man for the functions of the spaceship. This job could have lasted a year. His loneliness could have manifested itself the same way it did in the film: He could have freaked out and woken up Jennifer Lawrence early, but this time, he’s not off the hook because of a faulty starship. As it stands Chris Pratt is absolved of his sins because the technology just didn’t work right. Passengers never attempts to answer the many interesting questions it poses because it sets up technology, and not humanity, as the bad guy.
The shift in science fiction is toward blaming technology instead of more traditional antagonists, because lately, it’s easier than blaming ourselves. We’d like to believe that faulty technology — like Twitter bots built to spread “fake news” during the 2016 election — have nothing to do with the fact that we incentivized clicks and then built social platforms that don’t have fact-checking written into their sharing algorithms. Villainizing technology is a reductive, but comforting, choice when faced with problems we ourselves created. Having a violent monolithic bad guy might be too allegorical at this point. At the very least, the messed up broken sci-fi tech in something like Passengers is a more appealing zeitgeist scapegoat, than say, killer aliens from outer space.
The rare contemporary exception to this problem is the film Arrival. This is a science fiction movie that didn’t need to rely on either anti-technology rants nor on a murder plot to create a compelling and stimulating story. Instead, a movie about an alien invasion wasn’t about an invasion at all, and the conflict wasn’t solved by being mad at technology or by anyone blowing anything up. Why can’t more science fiction films and TV shows be like Arrival? The easy answer is that for now, it’s not what studios or showrunners believe the people want.
Arrival didn’t comfort its audience by pandering to clichés or coddling viewers by avoiding or writing around uncomfortable ideas. Arrival might have been a “different” kind of science fiction than more basic technophobic fare like Passengers. And as Larry Niven said, thinking “differently,” is what science fiction is all about.