The New Primary Colors of Science Fiction
Tomorrowland, Mad Max, Ex Machina, and Hollywood's obsession with one dimensional futures.
Let's say you were to watch the three leading wide-release films that belong to a genre we might still call sci-fi—Tomorrowland, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ex Machina—and you were to watch them back-to-back-to-back, as I did last Sunday, spending nine or so hours breathing in stale theater air, bleary-eyed, as feature-length visions of the future assaulted your eyeballs.
One of the first things that might occur to you after you stumble out of the theater—besides that maybe it wasn't such a great idea to spend an entire summer day locked away in a dank popcorn pit, and thank god it's at least raining a little—was how easy it is to color code the future. I'd watched the films as part of a field podcast with some fellow Motherboarders, and one thing we wondered about, going into the SF tripleheader, was whether all the future fantasies would bleed into one another by the end.
Nope. Not at all.
Modern cinema imagines the future in primary colors, bold or bright, rendering each subgenre immediately recognizable and digestible, ready-made for easy compartmentalization. And these three films were fine examples of each: CGI blue for Hollywood future worlds, wasteland brown for the popular post-apocalypse, and static grey for indie technophobia.
Hollywood pretty much has two modes: Bleak, grimy collapse and sterile, shiny futurity. Indie sci-fi films inject some nuance into the mix, but, whether it's due to low budgets or just a currently preferred aesthetic, they tend to rarely stray from their own narrow mode of cautionary technophobia. The primary colors of the future, according to modern cinema, are blue, brown, and creepy.
Tomorrowland, which we saw first, was bright, shimmering blue. The future world it depicts features an expansive, inviting vision of a utopia: Sparkling, towering spires, vertical farms, levitating swimming pools, flying cars, and, charmingly, a bike-share for jetpacks. All backset to the azure non-polluted skies of progress. Of course, the entire scene is computer generated, so it doesn't just read like a design fiction, it feels like one.
And so did its noble, if cloying, premise, which is so deeply entrenched in the film's narrative that it all but prevented it from evolving any semblance of a real plot. The idea propelling Tomorrowland, which makes itself crystal clear about five minutes in and is continually hammered home throughout, is that we humans have given up on being optimistic for the future.
Besieged by ecological woes like climate change, dystopian culture products—a running gag throughout the film is the promotion of an apparently popular apocalyptic movie called ToxiCosmos 3—and declining science budgets, we've thrown in the towel on the future. But there's still hope, as embodied by the aforementioned Tomorrowland: a place where scientists, engineers, and "dreamers" can still do amazing things, unencumbered by "politicians and bureaucrats."
It's an idea that's about as real as it appears on the screen—fun, but completely fabricated and entirely detached from reality.
I actually really liked a lot of things about Tomorrowland, even if the plot didn't make much sense—there are killer androids, alternate dimensions, mind-broadcasters, and Clooney-on-robogirl love, and it's never really quite clear what is actually driving the plot, though again, it's ultra-clear what's driving the sentiment. And that sentiment is highly aspirational one: Imagine a better future, kids! Climate change is tough, nuclear holocaust is scary, but don't revel among the walking dead, get out there and fix things! And it helps that the protagonist is a strong, smart, love-interest-free teenage girl who kicks ass, and that the film is only boring when it's proselytizing outright.
But ultimately the film's antidote rings thoroughly hollow: That a chosen few exceptional thinkers and movers will beat back the apathy, engineer mighty things, and save us from ruin. It's a blue-sky moonshot that's not real at all. It's an aspirational, facile CGI daydream, like the film itself. 'Fixing' the future will require great collective effort, lots of sweat, labor, and ingenuity; the bureaucrats and politicians will have to be reformed, not just whisked away.
Yet it fits into the mold of other shiny, vague and CGI'd future flicks of the moment—its aesthetic and world-building are more of a stripe with superhero films like The Avengers. These places are clearly fantasies, absent the machinations of the real world altogether, lined with future-tinted CGI-imagery, yes, but more amusement park ride than substantive reflection on anything. Which, given Tomorrowland's genesis, makes a certain amount of sense.
But there's a reason that 'blue sky' research and stocks are regarded with skepticism, and the attitudes and moonshot technology evinced in the tenor and aesthetics of this film should be, too; there's nothing real about it, and there won't be tomorrow, either.
Mad Max, of course, is the polar opposite. It's shot in dark, skull-crushing browns and reds. Much has already been written about this gloriously violent film, and 98 percent of it positive. Yes, it's a great, exhilarating film that neatly succeeds in its mission objective; providing a two-hour, breakneck adrenaline rush in a fever dream world of utter decay. The unmistakable feminist undercurrent is definitely refreshing, even wonderful.
But its worldview is nearly as uncomplicated in as Tomorrowland's—Mad Max is made possible by the premise that eventually, or soon, the world will fall entirely to shambles, and humans will devolve into primitive steampunk mystics in thrall to tyrannical mutant-lords. Sure, these agents of evil are, in the end, defeated by Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa and her ilk, but let's face it, the victory will be fleeting. Everything else is still dead.
And not just a little dead. Everything-is-brown-and-desert dead. It's still unambiguously The End, and everyone will likely soon resume, as they did in the beginning of the film, spending their remaining dust-clouded days scowling at their misfortune. It's a better film than, say, The Road, Oblivion, or The Book of Eli, but it could, more or less, have taken place in any of those environments.
That is to say, the vision of the future is inherently one-note and pessimistic, regardless of the fantastic blood-stained adventures that take place there. It's the other extreme that Hollywood traffics in, contra Tomorrowland, and I hope Max's triumph of the form caps the subgenre rather than inspires even more imitators, as I suspect it will. Tomorrowland was right about one thing: we don't need more movie posters doused in the unambiguous color of death.
Recent years have seen the accelerated rise of low-budget, creative indie sci-fi, and that subgenre has been where audiences have been forced to turn for more nuanced views of the future. So, by the time we got to Ex Machina, I wasn't sure I would even be able to identify subtlety anymore, but there ended up being little all that subtle about the updated, slow-burn take on robots run amok. A fascinating film, it felt a bit like an extended Black Mirror episode—all of the aesthetic cues immediately prime us to be unsettled, and, specifically, to be unsettled by the creep of technology.
The film opens on an augmented reality-inspired shot of our protagonists' face—a hapless coder who will soon be shipped into the wilderness to 'test' an advanced artificial intelligence—and the cinematography of the rest of the film is often seemingly intended to mimic the detached, claustrophobic glare of a webcam feed (and there are surveillance cams aplenty in the film, to mirror that sentiment). Machina was grey. Except when loosed on the lush mountain wilds surrounding the experimental AI compound, our view is claustrophobic, threatened by the booby traps, just out of view, for the time being, of our own making.
In these grey, paranoid indies—think Under the Skin, the Machine, and every Black Mirror episode ever made—technology invariably runs amok. The interesting bit is in the details, of which Machina offers up a trove: That the AI was created by harvesting users' online search data, that it was built into the shape of a woman, by a man, probably because he wanted to have sex with it. That AI might actively come to not just find man expendable, but actively "hate" its creator for crimes perpetrated against it. The critique of tech bro culture is sinister and funny, too; Oscar Isaac's CEO villain is a cipher for a Google exec, and he's a misogynistic asshole, even to robots.
But the end is still predictable: those robots revolt, kill their creator, and escape into the wild, where they remain, at large, threatening all of humanity. A near-future grey, a foreboding.
The problem with Machina's world—not necessarily its script; it's an effective thriller to be sure—is that we don't much see why we're creating this AI in the first place. What could this femme fatale robot be to humans, other than a sex slave? What's exciting, not just sinister about AI? The film doesn't really raise those questions, other than to pause for a moment up front to bask in the awe of the power of what man can create.
Machina comes off as a thoughtful film, but its consensus is ultimately less nuanced than it might first appear—we should be afraid of technology. Very afraid. These grey indies almost invariably work as cautionary tales, and to varying degrees, simply leave us unnerved. And there's much to say for that—we have a lot to be unnerved about! But it's still only one facet of the future we're headed towards.
Ultimately, our sci-fi tripleheader left me trying to think of good examples of contemporary sci-fi that effectively blended the primary colors of contemporary sci-fi; anxiety, dystopian fears, and optimism. There are a few examples out there of visions that combine the blue, the brown, and the creepy—Her and, actually, Interstellar came to mind.
Her, for instance, demonstrated, in a whimsical, feasible future-world replete with interesting loping architecture and bleak corporate overtures, the companionship, convenience, even joy that an AI might provide us. Even if said AI eventually spirals off into the techno-ether (at least it does so benignly!). Interstellar is at first a highly apocalyptic supposition—but its premise rests on the anxious hope that there's another home beyond the stars, and that technology will help us get there, at a cost.
Neither (especially Interstellar, which grows increasingly absurd in its final act) were perfect films; but at least they tried to present a plausible future that incorporates the complexity of our attitudes towards—and reliance on—technology.
That was the takeaway of Summer Sci-Fi day, I think; I could reduce each film I saw to a single, but memorable, color, tenor, and message. The blue-sky future can be wonderful if we dream it. The brown wasteland of death awaits us, eventually. And the console gray of accelerating technology will unnerve then overtake us.
Extreme futures can be fun to gawk at, but they don't reflect much back about the actual, complex qualities of tomorrow. Fictions seeking to venture serious speculation about the nature of the future are going to have to blend the hues.