In 2013, with blockbuster titles like After Earth, Elysium and Oblivion, Hollywood science fiction has become enamored with the concept of humans abandoning Earth.
What can we learn from this sudden fixation on leaving Earth behind? Yes, a movie is meant to entertain, but organizations like the Center for Science and the Imagination understand that stories are powerful tools for opening up alternative paths into the future.
After all, if humanity wants to survive in the very long term, we can’t hang around Earth forever — and at present we’re completely unprepared to abandon our home. Since so much is on the line, it’s worth delving a bit deeper into these movies to see what our cultural imagination tells us about humans in the post-Earth era.
After Earth presents the hardest case to take seriously — mostly because M. Night Shyamalan is the director and a screenplay-writer, and he’s not exactly a paragon of scientific accuracy in movies. But still, the trailer hints at an interesting possibility for humanity’s future.
In the trailer, a Will Smith voice-over describes how the arrival of a mysterious alien object rapidly accelerates humankind’s technology. This results in the reckless misuse of technology we don’t fully understand, leading to depleted resources, overcrowding and a host of other problems. As a result, humanity basically ruins the Earth and has to leave for another planet.
If you ignore the whole alien angle and consider things like Moore’s Law that theorize the relentless acceleration of technology, After Earth asks some crucial questions: Will humanity always be responsible with the increasing power and control offered to us by technology? Will arrogance or hubris force us off our home world?
Then there’s Elysium, which offers a more fleshed-out set of issues to discuss. In this movie, the wealthy live off-world (echoes of Blade Runner) on the super-space-structure Elysium, while earthbound cities have deteriorated to the point that almost everyone is living in urban turmoil. The poor are decaying just like the rest of the planet, and technology seems to only widen the gap between economic classes.
The main question this movie will ask is simple: will our technology be used to help bring humanity closer together or drive an even bigger wedge between the haves and have-nots? At the same time, the film offers us some tantalizing prototypes of future technological leaps. Elysium itself could be a good model for similar (less prejudiced) endeavors in space colonies, and the cybernetic augmentations that allow the protagonist to fight back against the rich can fuel talks about altering our bodies.
Finally, Oblivion (indirect spoilers ahead) deals with subjects like cloning, artificial intelligence, memory manipulation and alien attacks. What happens if some people remain on Earth while others leave, only to return to an Earth changed beyond all recognition? How do we handle a massive cultural divergence that basically renders the same species alien to each other?
These are a lot of questions to consider, and while Hollywood might not have intended it, we can use films like After Earth, Elysium, and Oblivion to start a conversation about the distant future and the massive transformations in human life that disruptive technological innovation will touch off.
Image courtesy of gnews pics, used under CC BY 2.0 license.