In her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag argues that science fiction cinema is an example of pure spectacle: The core of the film lies not in the feelings of the characters but “the aesthetics of destruction” — the real protagonists are the machines, not the people. This impulse might explain why narratives that take place lightyears away can contain romantic values that seem stuck in the Jane Austen era.
This year’s Passengers was described as a romantic comedy in space; really it’s a story about a sexual predator whose victim is stuck with him on a basically unmanned spaceship. Chris Pratt’s character, Jim, is one of the 5,000 passengers on board who are headed for a human colony. The passengers have been put in hibernation to survive the long journey, but due to a technical error, Jim wakes up 90 years too early. Like an Adam seeking a companion, Jim wakes up Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, effectively killing her chances of arriving at her destination alive. Yet, as if by Stockholm syndrome, Aurora falls for the man who trapped her; the only man she’ll see for the rest of her life. In a particularly eerie scene, after finding out the truth, Aurora jogs through the ship to release her anger. Suddenly, Jim’s voice resounds through the entire vessel, begging her to forgive him. He sits in the master control room, watching her every movement on the stack of security cameras, pleading mercy through the sound system. No matter how fast she runs, she cannot escape his almighty voice.
When real life is stranger than fiction, storytelling assumes an extra responsibility
At a time when real life is stranger than fiction — when narratives in books seem more real than events unfolding in real life, when reality TV has begotten a real presidency — storytelling assumes an extra responsibility. The same week that Kellyanne Conway concocted the term “alternative facts” to describe White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s blatant lie, George Orwell’s 1984 sold out on Amazon. We do not have the luxury of differentiating what we see on our screens from the forces that shape our daily lives; we can no longer afford to ignore the societies that science fiction blockbusters portray.
Of all film genres, sci-fi is the one most suitable for reimagining the future, not least because its blockbusters have a much broader mainstream appeal than other elements in our polarized and fragmented media landscape. At a time when even family members of different political convictions can no longer speak to each other, the outlandish worlds of sci-fi can still facilitate table conversation in which politics are merely touched upon metaphorically. In his “Metamorphosis of Science Fiction” (1979), theorist Darko Suvin wrote, “The aliens — utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers — are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror to his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.” The best examples of blockbuster sci-fi films — Blade Runner, The Matrix — have often, famously, imagined the future precisely as a way to understand the present.
As Suvin wrote, the genre as a whole has the ability to present us with new possibilities for remaking society, showing us utopias in which “relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community.” In Mary Shelley’s foundational Frankenstein, the “machine” — Frankenstein’s monster — is equipped with more complex emotional responses than many of the human characters in the novel: the technology was a vehicle through which the characters’ personal connections were exposed and tested. Star Wars is more about questions of morality than the technological possibilities of space travel.
Amid the divisiveness of the current political climate, a subcategory of sci-fi cinema becomes newly relevant. Romantic science fiction films — ones that explicitly explore human relationships through technology, or offer new paradigms for intimacy — shift the genre’s focus to the future of human connection. The emotional worlds we create together, and the way we provide care within them have everything to do with justice and quality of life; why shouldn’t science fiction, in addition to imagining new paradigms for social and political life, offer new paradigms for how to treat each other? Recent examples like The Lobster and Never Let Me Go use the successes and failures of their technologies to test the successes and failures of their characters’ romantic relationships. In these films, monogamous romance is society simplified: the protagonist is literally negotiating a life together with the other. The dynamic, as in Passengers, can be regressive; but at best it can serve a purpose, as a basic unit with which to build new possibilities for interpersonal equality.
In the first scenes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we meet Joel, played by Jim Carrey, on a cold February morning. Coincidentally, it’s Valentine’s Day. He decides to skip work and hop on the train to Montauk. He’s the kind of guy who’s always drawing something in his notebook, and midway through a sketch he meets Kate Winslet’s Clementine, a blue-haired girl who doesn’t care about touching up her roots, or doing anything too strictly. They talk, they drink, and later on, they end up on Clementine’s sofa. “I’m gonna marry you,” Clementine tells him. “I know it.”
Those who have seen the movie will know that Joel and Clementine have met before. In fact, they used to be in a romantic relationship together, which ended so badly that both decided to employ the services of a company to erase their memories of each other. Eternal Sunshine has been praised much and often, but its acclaim is due to its innovative narrative arc as much to its defiance of what a reasonably mainstream sci-fi film can be. Eternal Sunshine uses a machine — a clunky mind-eraser that looks like a hood for hair perms — to explore the limits of human love.
In Eternal Sunshine, Joel finds out that Clementine erased him first. The doctor who treats them both tells Joel that Clementine was too upset by the memories, after which Joel decides to do the same. The film was released in 2004, before the ubiquity of social media popularized a sense that our memories are most vivid when externalized, and that deleting an unpleasant experience from a timeline is equivalent to deleting it from our lives. Eternal Sunshine foreshadowed a reality that would soon follow: Social media would enable us to curate our memories by erasing the photos — and people — we no longer like.
The film’s technology poses two questions: Should we escape or confront our painful memories? And do these painful memories separate or unite us? Halfway through Joel’s forgetting process, he starts to resist, as he realizes he does not want to forget about Clementine after all. In the end, the wiped-out Joel and Clementine find a way to re-unite and listen back to the tapes of the memories they’d lost (the clinic had recorded them on cassettes — the film was made before all sci-fi sets were designed to look like Apple interfaces). They get back together, not despite, but because of the upsetting details they remember.
If Eternal Sunshine is about the perils of shutting ourselves off from that which makes us uncomfortable, then Her takes a leap into isolation. The 2014 film is shot in Instagram-worthy pastels, and set in a near future in which the outside world looks pleasant because everyone can retreat into chat-boxes and video-games to express their anger and loneliness. People on the streets are speaking, but only into their headsets, retreating into a world that’s comfortable not only because it’s tailored to their individual wishes, but because it allows them to ignore the wishes of others.
Why shouldn’t science fiction offer new paradigms for how to treat each other?
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man who writes handwritten letters to strangers for a living and yet is unable to connect emotionally to those in his own life. He develops a romantic relationship with his OS, who is called Samantha and is brought to life by Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. Throughout the film, we see Samantha’s intelligence developing, though it’s unclear whether that’s because the AI is getting smarter or because the OS is learning how to behave according to Theodore’s emotional preferences. Compared to the smoothness of his romance with Samantha, real-life dates seem messy and ugly. The one blind date he has turns awry quickly, and a mix of alcohol and awkwardness drives the woman to lash out and walk away. Theodore’s ex-wife makes an apt observation about him while they sign their divorce papers: “You always wanted a wife without the confrontation of dealing with anything real.”
Theodore and Samantha’s romance doesn’t last. In the end, the OS leaves him because her intelligence has grown too fast — she’s moving on after her software update. There seems to be a word of warning to men: women who are too perfect always leave. Both Clementine and Samantha are manic-pixie-dream girls, attractive women with otherworldly features that support the male characters’ quests in life. Viewers experience both through the male point of view, as fantasies that are only acceptable when they fulfill the man’s needs and desires.
Eternal Sunshine and Her present the same question: Should we escape into ourselves, or do we choose to confront, and therefore connect with others? Social technologies can offer us ways of isolating ourselves, turning away from the pain and ugliness of humanity, if we choose to use them that way. The contradiction embedded in our growing digital connectivity is that human connection seems to increase and decrease at the same time. A swipe-left or a Google search for a certain kink can connect us with an online community, and yet, it also allows us to close ourselves off from people whose experiences do not align with ours.
An episode of the speculative TV series Black Mirror provides a more expansive worldview. The first half of “San Junipero” tells the story of girl meets girl in a bar: one is shy and naive, the other outgoing and full of experience. After a courtship that takes place in the vicinity of a dance floor, they end up in bed. Yorkie, a shy girl played by Mackenzie Davis, reveals that she’s never done it before, asking Kelly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to guide her. The next scene cuts to a shot of smashing waves.
The reason for Yorkie’s inexperience turns out to be the fact that she got into a car accident at 21 years old and ended up paralyzed. San Junipero, where the girls met, is not a real place but a virtual reality the dead and nearly-dead can upload their consciousnesses into. “This is a party town,” Kelly says, a place where life can be led without real world consequences and its inhabitants can choose whether they want to live in 1987 or 2002. Kelly can smash her hand into glass without hurting herself, and people sleep with each other as if living in a hedonistic paradise.
The timelessness and limitlessness of San Junipero creates a space that is literally and metaphorically without bounds, a space in which non-normative relationships are possible. In San Junipero, a quadriplegic who has been in a coma for decades finds love with a cancer patient who has outlived her husband and daughter. It is because of San Junipero that Yorkie pursue a life and a love not influenced by her conservative parents, who could not accept her sexuality. Kelly, on the other hand, learns to choose life even though her husband and daughter were not able to do so. Kelly and Yorkie face a choice to escape their earthly lives or to remain; both choose to escape into the technological device, leaving their physical bodies behind, their souls forever uploaded into San Junipero’s database. In this case, choosing to escape the real world is not choosing to disconnect: it is exactly because these two individuals were able to escape their real-life limitations that they could connect sincerely.
At a time in which national borders are tightened and social gaps are growing, popular science-fiction can expand the boundaries of what we think is possible, and provide a middle ground in abstract for a divided public to consider its future — not only as a collective, but interpersonally. Romance, in symbolic context, involves literally putting yourself into the other: it is connection and empathy practiced in microcosm. The choices these characters face are a cases study in one of the most crucial questions of our time: How willing are we to be connected — whether technologically or politically — to those who are not like us?