Science fiction is one of the most profitable genres in film, grossing billions of dollars annually, even without including countless superhero films. Many of these popular sci-fi adventures take place in the future, and most, as you are probably aware, paint a future that most people are not rushing towards. But saddle up, my friends, because today, we have a date with destiny!
Real life is such an easy peasy walk in the park that it’s time we take our paradisiacal wanderings to one of those charming riverboats docked just down there on the park’s shore. It’s like the jungle riverboat cruise but problematic in a different way. Let’s see if ours gets the same revamped treatment as we go down the peril-packed sci-fi stream ahead. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but an alien invading, astroid imploding, pandemic spreading, natural disaster dream.
Sure enough, no sooner had we rounded the first bend of our journey. We bark up the first tree we come to. Our bark sounds very loud because this land is eerily quiet, seemingly devoid of human utterances. Though if you listen closely, there are strange, animalistic clicking sounds coming from what appear to be contorted humanoid creatures lurking in the distance. Can you see them? This is Virus Valley.
Now that everyone has lived through a worldwide pandemic, we find it a lot easier to believe in a future where a virus could eradicate civilization as we know it. Scriptwriters in Hollywood knew and tapped into the market decades in advance. Stuck-at-home, high-anxiety streamers found this content therapeutic for the nerves and would make movies like Army of the Dead, I Am Legend, World War Z, and Contagion spike up to number one status for long stretches of 2020-2021. It’ll be interesting to see if the pandemic pictures pick up or decline going forward. But now- we had better keep going forward because it sounds like those clicking noises are getting closer!
Once again floating downstream, it appears the lazy river has gotten even lazier. It slows until we run aground. The water appears to have dried up around us. Previously lush greenery bordering the banks turns brown and withers away. I advise you to wrap your scarf around your face as we cross into the dusty Climate Crisis Canyon.
Depleting our natural resources is usually one of the larger factors involved in the depicted demise of human society on Earth. Examples of planet karma include; Interstellar, Snowpiercer, Soylent Green, and even the family-friendly Pixar film WALL-E. In all of these movies, courageous and drastic measures were taken, such as; sending single fathers to outer space, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere that creates the next ice age, and of course, last but not least, cannibalism. Um, speaking of cannibalism, it’s not feeling safe anymore. Let’s scooch our little vessel back on the road before anyone gets ideas.
Barely have we begun our next paddle when a landmass materializes in front of us like a glitch in the Matrix, looking just like the park we first set out from. It seems so natural, but should we trust it? There’s an uncanniness here, like when you couldn’t tell if the article you read was written by a human or by… an A.I. Welcome to the banks of i-S1and.
Our fear and fascination with autonomous AI arrived as early as Metropolis in 1927 and continued in movies like Alien, Ex-Machina, M3GAN, i-Robot, 2001: Space Odyssey, and countless others. In the current Earth timeline, this fear is both what inspired Bing’s alter ego’s demonic levels of devotion to an NYT reporter and inspired the hair on the back of our neck to stand up upon hearing about it.
Yeah, we’re getting that feeling right now, actually- We’d better keep moving. Ah, but not fast enough. As we lift the paddle, i-S1and asks us if we’re sure we have to go. You fumble, looking for a response that’s not ‘because you’re giving me the creeps,’ but are saved by the bell as all parties become distracted by an asteroid hurtling towards our point of impact. It’s an excellent opportunity to start rowing fast. The last words we hear from i-S1and are- “Don’t Look Up“ before the fiery rock makes an impact. Now we’re sure we have to go.
You pat out the scorched ends of your hair with water from the newly made hot springs stream marveling at how surprising it is that something hadn’t fallen out of the sky sooner. Even if it’s not what you were initially thinking of. You were thinking something more like a craft carrying creatures from another planet with a world-domination stratagem. Something more like Edge of Tomorrow or War of the Worlds than Greenland.
As you’re thinking about this, a cornfield appears ahead with what appears to be a strange cutout in the middle. As you get closer, you can see a large pod at the edge of the field and then another. They look large enough to hold a person. About to inspect further, suddenly, you hear a splash in the water on your other side. You swear for a moment you saw something vaguely translucent slipping beneath the surface. “NOPE,” you say, “We are turning this boat around.”
Back on the shores of the real park (or tangible enough for momentary comfort), we can collect ourselves as we look around the Future Riverboat Cruise gift shop. It’s crowded with John Carpenter paraphernalia and various aliens knickknacks of all shapes and sizes. A seemingly empty box’s cover boasts that it can wipe out the entire human race with just one unmasked cough. Leaving it on the shelf, you wonder… “Is our outlook on the future of humanity so bleak?”
Understandably, the irreversible harm consumes us to our planet, what with the increase in weather extremes, rising ocean levels, less fresh water every year, and bees dropping like bees. But when you pool the minds of Hollywood’s best and brightest creatives, can we only come up with the worst and darkest potential for our species? Or have they done one of those fancy studies that gauge audience ratings and determined that we’re not interested in a fluffy future? Only death and world desolation whet our voracious viewing appetites.
“Soylent green canapé?” offers the shop attendant.
You wave their tray away, too focused on the matter at hand for snack foods. “Hey, but wait-” you think, “What about Guardians of the Galaxy?? That’s a really fun romp.”
I agree that it is a fun romp… that leans heavily on the fiction part of sci-fi. (If you get the chance, there’s a great Vice interview with beloved scientist Bill Nye as he breaks down a few bits of the sequel.) Sure, maybe at some point, robots could perform genetic experiments on a raccoon to give it a fully human persona. Yes, perhaps in a distant galaxy, some trees look just like our own but have a one-word vocabulary that hosts a full lexicon of meaning, but it’s a bit of a stretch- For now! Science is constantly evolving. And who knows, it just might take groot in that direction.
The concept of a friendly, big foe-fighting plant is an agreeably optimistic idea. What other options has Hollywood come up with?… Anything? Bueller? The number isn’t spectacularly high. When I put out a social media poll on the question (in the middle of a power blackout in LA, so all things considered, the best opportunity to find people on their phones), what did my DMs receive?
Of the 300 people who saw the question, two responses came in; Star Trek. Their whole shtick is peace and love meets Top Gun-level patriotism in space. The other response was Interstellar, which does have an optimistic ending after Matthew McConaughey saves the world by helping us relocate to a pleasantly cultivated space colony. It doesn’t leave us with an Earth hospitable to human life, but it does say at least we survive in a revolving space nerf ball.’
Is it that we’re uninterested in a positive outlook? You’re standing in a doomsday tchotchke shop waiting for your on-ride photos to print on an ‘I Survived’ aluminum foil hat. Or do we lack the imagination to think of an optimistic future that would still allow a good conflict in the plot? Let’s test the theory and put you on the spot, which is one of the rudest things you can do to a guest, but you’re waiting for the print anyway. (You say this is not your idea of a good time, and you’re considering returning to the deadly riverboat again, but despite your better judgment, you hear the question out.)
Can you develop a narrative that places our future in any hopeful outcome? If so, is it on Earth?…
Maybe this is why the science fiction movies on this year’s horizon appear to be less based on science-based imagined worlds and more on fantasy what-ifs. Skipping over the slew of DC and MCU that continue their world domination, another Hunger Games prequel, Dune Part Two, another Transformers and Guardians of the Galaxy are all on their way. The cherry on top, breaking through the relentless asteroid field of franchises, is Adam Driver, who is scheduled to crash-land onto our screens and a prehistoric Earth in 65. Perhaps people got a little exhausted seeing the news headlines played out in larger-than-life images and need to pretend that Paul Rudd is an ant-sized superhero instead.
However, suppose you took the time while reading that last paragraph to develop your own realistic sci-fi doom-and-gloom solution. In that case, there seems to be a window of prosperous opportunity for you to enter a not-yet oversaturated market! How financially successful this pivot in the genre will be… well, I guess that future rests in your hands, friend. Thank you so much for joining us today on Future Riverboat Cruises. We hope you enjoyed your journey and love wearing your ‘I Survived’ aluminum foil hat. May you look merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily to our future revolving space nerf ball dream.