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Sci-fi movies leave me empty. Isn't the real world dramatic enough? | Prove me wrong


Alison: Shelley, I think sci-fi movies are a waste of time. If I’m going to spend a couple of hours watching something, I want the characters, and how they relate to each other, to be the hero of the story. When I watch sci-fi, it seems like the machines, the special effects and the fantasy are the main point of the film. I know for some people that’s about escapism, but how can it provide an escape if what’s on screen is fundamentally unattainable in real life?

Sorry, but it just leaves me empty. Prove me wrong, Shelley.

Shelley: Ali, that’s like saying historical stories are about horses and carts! You’ve got it all wrong. Sci-fi isn’t about escapism, it’s about us. These fantastic worlds are just exaggerated versions of the world many of us already live in. Putting particular technologies under a fictional microscope enables us to explore the moral and ethical conundrums these technologies raise long before they become mainstream. Often these films are cautionary tales about paths we could – but shouldn’t – traverse.

For your sci-fi movie homework, I’d like you to watch Gattaca (1997), starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. The film is set in an imaginary future, when the genetic selection of desirable traits for potential offspring is common. While on the surface, genetic selection that can eradicate disease might sound beneficial, the dystopian outcomes are obvious when viewed through the eyes of a character whose family couldn’t afford to buy him the highest IQ and a healthy heart.

A film like Gattaca gives people a framework for thinking about genetic selection when it confronts us in the real world – like it did in 2018 when Chinese researchers confessed to gene-editing twins. Let me know what you think.

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Other good examples are Blade Runner (1982) and Ex Machina (2014), which consider our moral obligations to artificial intelligence. The Net (1995) explores the consequences of a world in which our entire identities are digitised. And Her (2013) looks at the emotional fallout from spending too much time interacting with a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa.

At their heart, these films aren’t about technology at all, but rather what it means to be human.

Alison: Would it be churlish of me to point out that three of the five films you have recommended were from last century? Are good sci-fi films that rare? I write as I am watching Gattaca and I wish I could say I have been persuaded. Is it a cautionary tale or is it a look into someone else’s imagination? It tells the story of genetic selection and an underdog who cheated the system to try to achieve his dream.

What I don’t understand is why that storyline has to be set in an imagined time in the “not-too-distant future”. Far from making the potential pitfalls of genetic selection ring true, in my view the dystopian nature of the story undermines its credibility. Because it’s happening in a world that does not reflect our own, it’s easy for the viewer to dismiss the ideas as fantasy.

Blade Runner is a distant blur from the 80s for me. Yes, I saw it, but remember little else other than Harrison Ford was in it. I rewatched the trailer just now, which said it was supposed to be set in 2019. That undermines its credibility right there.

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I guess I also feel that so many of these movies are about men and patriarchy and who is the strongest, meanest, richest or most powerful. Frankly, it just makes me angry that those themes dominate not only this life, but any life set in the future.

Prove Me Wrong is a new summer series in which Guardian Australia colleagues argue over whose tastes on popular culture, food and leisure activities are right … and whose are wrong.



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