History of the Future: Prospect

Event Details

On November 8, 2023, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Prospect. This screening is part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades.

The film was introduced by award winning scholar, Dr. Jenna Hanchey. Read her introduction below.

On Prospect

Dr. Jenna N. Hanchey

There’s a viral social media post from last week that I can’t get out of my head. In it, a Western woman suggests that the death toll of children in Gaza wouldn’t seem so high if we just counted the Palestinian children killed as soldiers instead of civilians, the way they do in African contexts, it ended.

I can’t get this out of my head. How is it that we’ve come to a point where it is easier to dehumanize children, viewing their lives as worth less, dismissible, something that can be written off as necessary causalities of a war, rather than to grieve their loss? Grief, at the very least, is what they deserve. Better, would be actions that help make them safe.

But dehumanization creeps. In the post, the woman seems to think that it’s perfectly reasonable for African children—Black children—to die in conflicts. Doesn’t faze her at all. That’s the assumption that she builds the rest of it on. Next step: Why not Brown children then? They’re not like me or my children. Because of the color of their skin and where they were born, they’re something else, and I emphasize thing here, deliberately. No need to mourn them, she assumes.

Dehumanization creeps. Even the fact that deaths of soldiers in the thousands doesn’t bother us is something we might sit with. These are acceptable deaths, we assume, especially if they’re not from the US. A mass, not individual humans. No need to mourn them.

Caribbean poet Derek Walcott said of colonialism “The rot remains with us, the men are gone.” Anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler takes up this idea of colonialism as the rot that remains, examining in particular the ways that former colonies, after independence, after “the men have gone,” still have to deal with and excavate that rot in order to rebuild a life. But if colonialism is truly a rot that remains, it remains with all of us.

In my book, The Center Cannot Hold: Decolonial Possibility in the Collapse of a Tanzanian NGO, I take this up, writing: “Colonialism as rot affects not only the colonized but also the colonizer, albeit differentially. It poisons senses of ethics and politics, it leaves paternalism or hate where there should be care, it predicates development on domination.”

And so we come to Prospect. The film does a phenomenal and subtle job of demonstrating how colonialism is a rot that remains, that finds its way deep into our souls, becoming part of who we are and chipping away at our humanity as it does. We watch in the film as the rot that allows us to dehumanize other living beings creeps from one being to the next.

We’re told in the film that this planet they land on is full of “aurelac digs,” places where people can “mine gems.”

We’re presented to the idea of the aurelac as if it’s part of the landscape, fading into the background of the film. A resource to be extracted. However, as the film goes on, we as viewers become increasingly uncomfortable with this assumption. We see them cutting into what looks like flesh. Fatty tissue protecting a valuable growth. A cord that must be cut, like an umbilical cord. A sac that must opened to retrieve something precious. The acid that the creature emits, the only protection it has against being cut open and gutted and something valuable stolen from it.

To us, it looks like a gem. To us it is valuable. To us it is money: 10,000. It’s alien: Not something to mourn.

What does an aurelac child look like, I wonder? We’re never told, so I’m not ruining anything. But I can’t help but wonder: How far has the dehumanization creeped? How deep is the rot? Is it deep enough that it prevents us from noticing that we’re cutting open a living body to steal its children? Just a resource to be extracted, the miners reassure themselves.

Considering living beings as resources to be extracted is not new. Prospect, here, gives us a vision of how the rot remains, even as we leave this planet and go into space. Dehumanization is what allowed white Westerners to colonize Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean, South America—and North. And to continue to colonize some of those places. Dehumanization is what allowed for the transatlantic slave trade. The idea that certain people, because of the color of their skin, where they were born, weren’t quite human enough. Not human enough to govern, so we need to take over. Not human enough to count as people, so no need to mourn their deaths. If their deaths don’t matter, not human at all, but resources to be extracted, things that can labor on our behalf. Children can be stolen under these logics. Children can be seen as killable if the rot is deep enough.

We see the ways the miners navigate around the violence of their acts. The ways they have to desensitize themselves to what they’re doing in order to continue doing it.

There’s an important moment in the film that I see as connecting the alien creatures being “mined” to the ways that other humans are treated. One of the characters, I won’t say who, is gravely injured and must have a limb removed in order to survive, an arm that has a sickness creeping up it. The child is the one who performs this limb removal, without so much as a flinch. Steady handed, unfazed by the violence. Unfazed by the literal rot creeping up an arm that she deftly cuts off.

Afterwards she is asked, “How are you so calm? You done this before?” She answers, “Once, when I was 12 we spent a season processing Jata Bhalu. Once they were done with all the big meat cuts they had me climb inside the body cavity to clip the organs because I could get the eggs out without mangling them. It took an hour to wash the blood out of my hair every night. This is pretty straight compared to that.”

Dehumanization creeps. From stealing and killing children that seem too different from us to be considered people to cutting off limbs without a flinch.

Dehumanization creeps. From cutting organs out of one alien creature to another, slicing open its body to remove something precious and rendering it as simply “mining,” as if it weren’t alive at all.

Dehumanization creeps. From the living thing being “mined” to the miners, who treat each other as obstacles in the way of fortunes to be gained, rather than lives to be valued.

Dehumanization creeps. Seeping down the pipeline from the structures in which these miners are themselves indentured laborers, given no other options to survive, placed in a carefully created scarcity landscape where they believe that others’ survival comes at the expense of their own.

So much easier, then, to dehumanize than to grieve.  

Dehumanization creeps. It has a beginning. It begins with the histories we try to ignore. We try pretend that the rot of slavery and colonization isn’t still there. Doesn’t remain. But we can’t just ignore rot. The more we ignore it, the longer it will follow us. Even as we journey into space.

But Prospect gives us room for hope, just as our own history does. The rot does not have to remain. We do not have to treat other human beings as resources. We don’t have to dehumanize other living things to survive. The idea that human survival is a zero-sum game is a myth that we’ve allowed to structure our lives. And it doesn’t have to. We can change it.

We can choose to excavate the rot, cut it out of ourselves before it takes over, restructure the way we relate to those we might not quite understand. To value them, regardless. To value those who might not look like us. To value those who might not be born in the same place we were. To value those who might not live in the same ways we do.

We can choose to mourn their deaths. We can choose to grieve their children. We can choose to recognize their humanity.

Because, when it comes down to it, valuing others’ humanity is the only way we remain human ourselves.

Dr. Jenna Hanchey focuses her research around African Futurism and impacts of a colonial past. She is an Assistant Professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at ASU and a Senior Global Futures Scholar.

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.