Media has a very significant impact on the public understanding of science, be it news or entertainment media. Science fiction films are one of the most influential forms of entertainment media and they reflect our contemporary views of science, but are they able to predict our future? Though science fiction is very influential and does at times serve as an inspiration to current scientific research, it is not always accurately represented. Scientific theories presented in these are often subject to extreme creative lisenceing. The science in these films does not speak out only about the status of science but also the impact of science in society and the role that it plays in societal status. It also gives us an interesting take on how possible non-scientists look at the future of science and technology.
One key area in which sci-fi determines our future is in technology. Many of the technologies seen in science fiction writing can be compared to magic in the fantasy genre, often as deus ex machina plot devices. Technology like the hyper-drive in ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ or Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver are examples of this. However, sci-fi stories have inspired technical engineers and inventors to make what was once science fiction, science fact.
One such individual was NASA physicist Jack Cover. Inspired by the character Tom Smith from Victor Appletons ‘Daring Adventures in Elephant Lands’, Cover designed an electronic incapacitator weapon which he called the ‘Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle’ or Taser for short.
Similarly, Martin Cooper who was director of R&D at Motorola in the 1970’s, claimed the design of the first mobile phone was inspired entirely by Captain Spock’s Communicator in Star Trek: “That was not a fantasy to us … That was an objective” (Ferro & Swedin, 2011, p.136). After the industrial revolution, the technological potential of science ran wild in the minds of science fiction writers, and their vision of the future has shaped the aims and objectives of a generation of scientists. Submarines, helicopters, and rockets all appeared first in the pages of science fiction; planted in the minds of children who would grow up to build the concepts that had inspired them.
However, science fiction is not always so encouraging. Sometimes writers are frightened by the progress of science and use their fictions to warn of the dangers of scientific advancement. One highly relevant example today is the development of Artificial Intelligence. It is the general scientific consensus that we will create AI in the next 10-15 years (Cadwalladr, 2017) but science fiction has been warning us of the dangers of AI since the 1920’s. Films like Terminator, The Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, have warned of the singularity: “a time when super-AIs improve at exponential speed, causing such technological disruption that poor, unenhanced humans are left in the dust” (Sample, 2017). One hopes that as science fiction was so brilliant in inspiring the creation of positive technology, it will also be effective in warning our young scientists of the dangers present as we move into an era where sci-fi magic becomes our new reality.
Though science fiction has been known to make novel predictions concerning technological developments, its lack of real science calls into question its ability to predict future events. Screenwriters in Hollywood often manipulate the authority that science has in society to present a storyline based on impossible events that defy the basic laws of physics. Science fiction can, therefore, be argued to be a reflection of our society’s current state; most specifically the lack of science education that most members of the public obtain. Science fiction regularly lacks the insight into actual scientific concepts required in order to make predictions for future scientific events; there is no way that science fiction can determine our future as its projections are based on fictional scientific ‘laws’, and therefore the predictions can never be carried out – No matter how far our scientific knowledge and technological developments progress, in space no one will ever hear us scream, nor will we grow potatoes on Martian soil (sorry Matt Damon).
Science fiction’s distinct lack of credible science provides an insight into society’s poor standards of science education and the commonplace of pseudosciences and fiction being believed publicly to hold the same authority as science itself holds. Having said that, one could argue that science fiction is based on a narrative and not the science used in said narrative. “Watching science as it’s really done rarely produces an adrenaline rush” (Thomas, W. 2008). It is meant for entertainment, not education, and therefore cannot be afforded some creative license when presenting impossible scientific events.
Although it can be argued that science fiction often predicts products of the future, its ability to comment on present-day society is also a novel trait of this genre. Traditionally, science fiction is seen as a trivial and fabricated form of entertainment, though often, the truth lies in the margins of its structure.
This is especially relevant when looking at science-fiction films such as ‘In Time’, which utilises science to remark on the state of society today. ‘In Time’ de-contextualises the social-construct of time, and looks at how society would function if time were used as currency, rather than money. Replacing money with time demonstrates the contemporary issue of ever-growing wealth inequality that people face within our society. Through this concept, the film highlights the struggles of humanity, whereby people die if their ‘time’ runs out. Using time as a commodity, the characters can buy more lifespan, and it brings out the social divide through time, which we experience financially. Though the science may not be fundamentally accurate (Justin Timberlake stops aging at 25), there is weight in the moral of the film. Human relations and the general structure of the unequal society that we live in are exposed in the fictional setting of the film. Using science to comment on societal issues, such as social and economic inequality, often succeeds in subtly starting a dialogue concerning issues within society, that may otherwise be difficult to start.
Though the surroundings and setting of the film is scientifically fictional, the reflection of society is clearly visible and poses as a powerful form for structuring a commentary on sensitive topics that are otherwise ignored. The entertaining medium of science-fiction makes for an effective method of combating issues surrounding society. An example of this exposure of current-day topics is evident in the film, ‘Interstellar’, where issues surrounding global warming are tackled in a futuristic setting. An alienated context, which may be of a futuristic world or even another planet, allows for the human emotions that are displayed to be the most relevant aspect for the watchers. This, therefore, makes science fiction an ideal genre to reflect present-day ideas regarding society. This is also the case for most entertainment programmes and films in the present day. Inspiration is often found in the struggles of the present, though they can be de-contextualised and explored in new and exciting settings.
Science fiction films do have a powerful voice in many areas of not just scientific research but also societal issues. There are films which successfully utilise their power to have an impact on their audience and hopefully inspire new scientific research models. There are some films where creators stretch their artistic licence and make the science unrealistic and may misrepresent aspects of science which may have a negative impact on the public understanding of science. In spite of this, science-fiction films do carry an element of truth, and represent our current status; not just in science and technology but also the ways in which our society functions.
Cadwalladr, C. (2017). Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so…. the Guardian. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/22/robots-google-ray-kurzweil-terminator-singularity-artificial-intelligence
Ferro, D. L., & Swedin, E. G. (Eds.). (2011). Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains. McFarland.
Sample, I. (2017). AI is getting brainier: when will the machines leave us in the dust? | Ian Sample. the Guardian. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/15/artificial-intelligence-deepmind-singularity-computers-match-humans
By, Margot Blackman, Alaw Davies, Josh Tidey and Vaish Mohan.