Bright Lights Film Journal

Future Imperfect: Sci-Fi’s Nationalist Narratives

The future’s no future, but that’s okay – your spaceship is almost ready!

Science fiction is, inevitably, an American genre, its narratives – literary and cinematic – fueled by the 20th century American ethos of endless expansion. While its antecedents are clearly continental – Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, the 19th-century European utopian novel – the form, like jazz music or comic strips, evolved and matured in the United States and thus draws on and recapitulates American myths, even when it questions or rejects them. Expansion requires a kind of spiritual imprimatur that science fiction is uniquely positioned to give – persuasive images of a utopian future of peace and power, exotic gadgetry and pleasure-filled leisure that are just around the corner if people are willing to put their faith in science and a mindset of progress without end. Science fiction’s narratives of course operate on many levels, but here I’ll concentrate on the genre as a key element in building – and more important, perhaps, selling – the American empire.

The physical growth of America depended on the expropriation of land and the colonization of its owners, a process mythologized in stories of the Old West with its self-sacrificing settlers, brave pioneers, and romantic gunslingers. The enemies were Native Americans and Mexicans who resisted the white outsiders who came armed with both weapons and a self-derived moral/religious sanction. American appropriation of European science fiction followed a similar, if less bloody, pattern, and in a triumph of marketing, cheap “pulp” magazines like Argosy, the Thrill Book, All-Story Book, Astounding Science Fiction, and Amazing Stories made future visions deriving from European models available to every household. These stories, supposedly aimed at the white teenage boys who would eventually become the men who would be running society, were mostly adventure tales about leisure-based futures, lost races hidden in jungles or polar ice caps, planets filled with monsters, automata and Golems, and imaginary voyages. The pioneer spirit that drove the journey into the jungle or the future or the stars was often concentrated in one brave explorer – a strong, young, white American – whose single-minded purpose was to confront and conquer the unknown. These stories from the early part of the century melded a European tradition of fantasy and horror with the Old West myth of discovery, acquisition, and exploitation. Science fiction brought the nationalist narrative of America’s westward expansion into the present and on to the future. It allowed the pioneers of the previous century to trade their Winchesters for ray guns, and their covered wagons for rocket ships, modernizing the myth of American hegemony.

The pivotal work here is a literal bridge between the mythic expansionist zones of the 19th (the Old West) and 20th (outer space) centuries: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Under the Moon of Mars, which first appeared in serial form in the pulp All-Story Magazine in 1912. Burroughs’s hero John Carter begins his fictional life as an amalgam of familiar figures that together make up an archetype of the aspirations of budding pioneer capitalism: the gold prospector whose fortunes can form the basis for an industrial capitalist society, and the soldier whose function it is to protect that society and capital.

From a cave in the West, where he’s hiding from hostile Indians, Carter is inexplicably whisked off to Mars, where he appears naked, shorn of his earthly vestments and the past that they signify. His adventures on the red planet comprise a vivid ethnography of an alien culture that recall the explorer narratives of Columbus et al. from the golden age of discovery and colonialist exploitation. Like the Native Americans encountered by Columbus, the “green man” Martians are portrayed as childlike, emotionally immature, mindlessly destructive. Their “evil” ways are ascribed by Carter’s love interest, a human-like princess, to a society arranged clearly along communitarian lines. While these strategies appear to make sense given the planet’s desperate ecological conditions (it’s a virtual desert), the princess denounces it in specific anti-communitarian terms: “A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common.” Carter, like his predecessors back to Columbus, is a highly sympathetic, reasonable, and humane character who radically disrupts the Martian ideal of community by “humanizing” the natives. In spite of his seeming reluctance to do so, he manages to kill a large number of natives, while showing them that kindness and love can be more effective than brutality. In spite of the planet’s wrecked ecology and constantly warring tribes, Mars is ultimately Carter’s private fiefdom and utopia, a place where his heroic nature, violent instincts, and quasi-superhuman powers can find full expression, culminating in his achievement of something the Martians are incapable of – the salvation of their own planet from imminent doom. In the midst of the exotic trappings, it’s hard not to notice the subtext of the ascendancy of capitalism over socialism in Carter’s triumph over the Martians.

Under the Moon of Mars was published two years before the start of World War I, but as a literary form, science fiction came of age against a backdrop of social rupture, and the genre can be seen as one way the culture attempted to make sense of these changes by stabilizing the myth of American expansionism. The 1920s and ’30s were marked by the Great Depression and the increasing shift from a rural economy to an urban, technology-driven society. The end of the 1930s saw the beginning of World War II, and the pivotal change, one that altered both science fiction and civilization forever, occurred when American scientists split the atom, created the bomb, and used it as the first weapon of mass destruction at the end of the war. Evidence of internal discord over such officially welcomed events was ever-present in the form of disenfranchised Native Americans, blacks, and other marginalized groups, who acted as reminders of the brutal aftereffects of expansion.

The anxieties of the post-nuclear age and the Cold War dampened the idea of a future of unchecked gain and leisure-class pleasures without killing the nationalist trends in science fiction narratives. Ancient models for western hegemony continued to be mined by writers like Isaac Asimov, whose famous Foundation trilogy (1942-53) was based on his reading of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Asimov’s faith in a small scientific elite being able to overcome a cosmic Dark Age was balanced by other, less sanguine portrayals of the future as seen from a tumultuous present. C. L. Moore’s Judgment Night (1945), for example, poetically details the ill effects of “manifest destiny” in a terrifying future wracked by intergalactic wars and genocide. Moore presents a science fiction Shangri-La in the pleasure planet Cyrille, where time is suspended and any kind of fantasy desired can be lived. But Cyrille is a temporary oasis, a miniature version of those 19th century utopias that can’t survive the harsh realities of a nuclear age. By the 1950s, dystopias were far more common than their more pleasant counterparts in the genre. Even a writer like Ayn Rand, who heartily promoted the spread of capitalism, is unable to present a utopian future for America – the grim milieu of her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) is generally considered a coded version of the Great Depression decades earlier.

Destination Moon

Questioning voices like Moore’s and even Rand’s are individual, and thus perhaps less in the service of unexamined capitalist myth-making than the collective, collaborative voices that make up a movie, where the stakes are far higher. Science fiction as a subject for cinema goes back to the beginnings with Méliès – not surprising considering the early cinematic preference for novelty, nonlinear spectacle, and special effects over narrative. But in spite of scattered later efforts like Frankenstein (1931) and Things to Come (1936), sci-fi cinema only matured in the 1950s, roughly within the parameters of written science fiction’s golden age (1940-1960). The earliest “modern” science fiction films – Destination Moon (1951), Rocketship X-M (1950) – naturally take their cues from written science fiction, as evidenced by the number of writers – Robert A. Heinlein, for example – who participated in filmed versions of their work. But the propagandist thrust of these early films was deemed so crucial that the complexities of a writer like Heinlein had to be minimized, the doubts reduced. Heinlein’s novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), which became the film Rocketship X-M, described a Nazi revival on the moon, but America was now more interested in communists than Nazis. Producer George Pal gutted the drama, created a dazzling special effects show to reassure audiences that the atomic age was indeed a good thing, and invoked the specter of Bolshevism. The film presents outer space as a fresh frontier, a place of unexplored cosmic beauty, but also, perhaps more importantly, as the next springboard for American expansion. One of the scientists puts it in blunt military, expansionist terms: “The first country that can use the moon for launching missiles will control the Earth!”

This and other of the early sci-fi dramas made space travel not a luxury but an imperative in countering the threat of creeping communism. Further persuasion was added in the form of then-cutting edge special effects, with plot subordinated to spectacle in the anti-narrative manner of Méliès. Many of the “rocket dramas” are simply showcases for special effects. What mattered was the realistic penetration of the firmament by America’s sleek, gorgeous chrome rocket ships. (By the 1970s, special effects would catch up with the imaginative projections of written science fiction and detail in film, in a way impossible in the 1950s, the actual colonization of space.) The scientific Shangri-Las of the decade were often simply painted backdrops, brief tantalizing views that came at the end of a long space flight. Films like When Worlds Collide (1951) gave audiences the same kind of visceral thrills as a roller-coaster, but with a better payoff. When the space travelers in that film finished their voyage, they emerged not in an American amusement park, but in a quasi-American frontier, a vast, untouched cosmic Eden obviously rich in resources and ripe for “development.”

Still, in spite of the optimism of a culture where vacation trips to the moon, food pills, and moving sidewalks were announced as just around the corner, America in the 1950s was also plagued by social problems. Behind the proliferation of new leisure-affording appliances lurked the fear of nuclear holocaust; behind the happy face of a progressive, pluralistic society on the move were disturbing images of impoverished blacks who would not benefit from the rapid changes in society. Science fiction was also positioned to work through these internal difficulties, even if only in veiled ways. (A film like Creature from the Black Lagoon, for example, can be read as a racial allegory, with the monster of the title a projection of white paranoia about sexually threatening black men chasing white women for the purpose of sexual desecration. Cultural anxieties around such constructs assured some sympathy for this outsider character, even as he met his inevitable death.)

Forbidden Planet

After the initial flurry of optimistic rocket movies in the early 1950s, the same kinds of fears that informed written science fiction began to creep into science fiction films. Fear of the frontier often overwhelms the imagery of optimism. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) don’t so much explore space as locate it as a psychic zone inside the characters, an inscrutable source of human destruction and a metaphor for the unknown terrors that materialize when “progress” is valued more highly than community and peace. In both films, humanity is victimized by veiled versions of celebrated technological breakthroughs. The “shrinking man” dwindles and finally disappears after being touched by mysterious particles from the sky, surely the final grim result of splitting the atom. Body Snatchers chronicles the easy yielding of identity and emotion in a world in which the pleasures of small-town life and community are no longer certain in a post-nuclear world.

As a virtual catalog of the decade’s dreamed-of innovations – automated houses, a robot servant, nature tamed – Forbidden Planet (1956) should have been a utopian dream and a key work in the canon of expansionist apology. But this “forbidden planet” is in a sense as limited and earthbound as the two films mentioned above. First, as an update of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it looks backward, not forward. Second, it shows the “house of the future” as a nightmare of sterility and psychic dislocation in spite of the extreme material comforts it affords, the clear implication being that the end result of progress unchecked is atrophy and death. The film’s monster is the ultimate incarnation of the raw human element untouched by civilization – Professor Morbius’s runaway id, violently asserting itself in the face of a future trying to eradicate it.

The questioning attitude behind films like Forbidden Planet finds fuller expression in a key work of the 1960s, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This film, of mixed origins (Kubrick is American but lives and works in Britain), repudiates the myth of the conquerable, exploitable frontier in its picture of the universe as a deadly space, driven by incomprehensible forces, indifferent to the strivings of humanity. Kubrick’s vision of space and future is as beautifully bloodless as Forbidden Planet’s artificial paradise, Altair 5.

In the 1970s, more politically aware audiences continued to embrace an anti-expansionist agenda. By now the nationalist narrative was increasingly rejected. Corporations, the chief beneficiaries of expansionism, were reborn as deadly amusement parks (Westworld, 1973), or faceless entities that systematically murder “useless” citizens (Logan’s Run, 1976) or convert them into a renewable resource – edible wafers – after the usual sources have been depleted (Soylent Green, 1973). WestWorld is particularly intriguing because it recreates three environments that were pivotal in the creation of the American mythos: ancient Rome, medieval Europe, and the beloved Old West become lethal spaces for leisure-class vacationers – a startling image of an appropriated history suddenly turning against its exploiters.

But myths are more easily forgotten than destroyed, and the 1970s also saw the resurrection of a primitive, reactionary science fiction form – the space opera. George Lucas’s seminal Star Wars (1977) retrieved the nationalist narrative from the early days of science fiction, specifically from the work of 1930s pulp writers like E. E. Smith, whose Lensman series stressed entertainment and spectacle over self-examination. Another source for Star Wars was the 1930s sci-fi serial a la Flash Gordon, where good and evil are so clearly differentiated there’s no need to think about them. Lucas’s use of the phrase “the evil empire” for his villains is telling, since that was America’s Cold War nickname for Russia. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan was among many who listened when Lucas spoke; he called his outer space missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, “Star Wars.” Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has linked the ethos of Lucas’s film, with its emphasis on the visceral pleasures of destruction on a cosmic scale, to America’s 1991 war against Iraq, where an estimated 200,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed “off-screen.” In both cases, death is made thrilling but it’s also sanitized, unseen, its consequences never acknowledged or reckoned with.

If 2001 uses spectacle to philosophize about the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme, and the hopelessness of trying to “conquer” space, Star Wars reconfirms the myth of the cosmos as a kind of masculine play space, where primal battles between competing masculine forces can be replayed as they were in the science fiction literature of the 1930s.Star Wars’ then state-of-the-art special effects ushered the science fiction spectacle into the modern age, in spite of its reactionary underpinnings. Lucas brought another innovation that’s become a major aspect of U.S. cinema – the mass marketing of imagery from the film in the form of McDonald’s lunches, action figures, and other corporate-totemic references. Audiences could now become more intimately involved with a movie – and the myths it promulgates – by literally taking a small part of it home with them as a constant reminder of those myths. If they could no longer conquer the frontier themselves, they could at least be associated with someone, something, that did.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) marks a temporary backlash against the imperial saga of Star Wars. While the special effects are again the lure, Scott’s future is bleak, even despairing. The opening tableau, Los Angeles in 2039, is a vast cityscape at night, with massive explosions of flame bursting into a black sky. By day the city is almost equally dark, a garbage-strewn, multiracial metropolis that looks like a filthy medieval village. The godlike Tyrell Corporation, an unholy alliance of science and capitalism, has turned the world into the equivalent of a pig sty. The innovations of the future don’t create leisure or pleasure in this cramped, commerce-driven world. Tyrell’s inventions seem frivolously self-indulgent, as in its creation of quasi-human “replicants”; or anti-human, as laser guns and flying cars are used mainly to oppress and kill the citizenry. Star Wars’ emphasis on marketing is satirized here in the image of a huge video screen advertising Coca-Cola, counterpointed by an off-screen voice that offers the promise of yet another frontier when the Earth – read: America – is in chaos: “Visit the off-World colonies!” Scott turns an intrusive device – the corporate-sponsored “product placement” that’s now de rigeur in film – into an anti-corporate motif, as Coke becomes both part of, and complicit in, a nightmarishly crowded, polluted mise-en-scene. It’s surely significant that Blade Runner also attacks one of the icons of the nationalist narrative. Star Wars’ Han Solo, a double for those boyish 1930s science fiction heroes who conquered “evil empires” through sheer determination, reappears in Blade Runner as a killer cop who brutally murders the replicants, modern automata whose only crime is that they long to be human.

By the 1990s, the nationalist narrative was again firmly in place, buttressed by powerful special effects that had audiences suspending disbelief in record numbers. Corporate product placement reaches a peak in the films of this period, with corporate logos strewn throughout the frame as a now accepted part of the mise-en-scene. Spielberg, the master marketer, has again recalled the Méliès approach to science fiction as spectacle; the special effects in his two dinosaur movies are so good that the beasts no longer seem to be imposed on the frame, but an integral part of it. Spectacle, simplistic conflict, and smugness replace moral and narrative complexity in most of the decade’s science fiction films, no doubt because filmmakers correctly interpret the latter as distracting and unprofitable.

The Fifth Element

Concurrent with this phenomenon is yet another resurrection of the Aryan male as savior. In films like Total Recall (1990) and the Terminator series (1984, 1991), Arnold Schwarzenegger approaches a Nietzschean ideal as a super-muscular, almost cyborg-like hero who must save the world from alien attack. (As an outsider himself, an Austrian bodybuilder turned Republican/actor, Schwarzenegger is a near-perfect symbol of American hegemony.) Perhaps as science and capitalism hasten the world ever-closer to its end, men with bigger muscles are required to save it, and Europe again becomes a recruiting space. The validity of sheer force in fighting off alien threats is a constant motif throughout the decade. In Independence Day (1996), Will Smith is a pilot who dispatches a powerful alien by simply punching it in the face; and even the president of the U.S. shakes off his dignity and gets into the act, maniacally driving a plane directly into a massive alien construct waiting to destroy Earth. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) also features a stubborn, fists-first American superhero, this time Bruce Willis. Like Schwarzenegger and Smith, he uses his bare hands when technology – well, laser guns – fail against the alien hordes. The ecological disasters that are the down side of progress are briefly touched on in The Fifth Element in references to “the fog,” a vast unlivable area on Earth’s surface that forces the populace to exist in vast skyscrapers and travel in flying cars. The film’s almost amused indifference to these dire effects of expansion is increasingly typical of the genre. And in its smug, jocular tone, The Fifth Element affirms what earlier films like Total Recall and Independence Day seem to say: the future is dystopic, but don’t worry about it.