The screen opens to a desolate wasteland. Remnants of some great city can be seen in the background. Humanity is all but extinct with only a few bands of wandering humans scavenging the wasteland. If you’ve paid the smallest amount of attention to Hollywood, you may have noticed a trend in sci-fi. To blow-up the world and show what happens after.
Whether it’s in the form of a YA dystopian society (The Hunger Games, Divergent), dystopian sci-fi with humanity fighting a never-ending war against some threat (Terminator: Genisys, Oblivion), or a nuclear/environmental fallout (The Book of Eli, Mad Max: Fury Road). Right now, the popular thing to do is blow-up the world and see what happens. There are many theories you could come up with about why this is so. That’s not why we’re here today. I want to go in the other direction.
These dystopian sci-fi films like to put the protagonists in a world where humanity already lost. To showcase the struggle of living in a world that’s harsher and more savage than our own. At the same time, it showcases the inevitability that our world is going to die. At some point, Hollywood got very depressing about humanities future. So what happens when we aren’t?
You get films like Tomorrowland and The Martian. One was a flop while the other is one of the biggest films of 2015. Let’s start with the flop. Tomorrowland had plenty of issues. These mostly revolved around the narrative and the often conflicting dialogue structure. However, while the ending could have been reworked to be less sappy, it gave us hope. It aimed, somewhat ambitiously, to demonstrate the power that one person has to change the world. Echoing many of the same sentiments that today’s scientist (see Neil Degrasse Tyson) tell the scientist’s of tomorrow.
Honestly, Tomorrowland works far better as an animated film in my opinion. It targets a broader younger audience that is quickly showing that positivity is the way to go. An audience that grew up during the golden age of animation plus the families that have young children that enjoy animation would be far more receptive.
The Martian has a different approach when it comes to optimism. Set in the near future (2035 or 2047) where the world is not only still in one piece but we have reignited our journey to the stars. Here you have one man stuck on Mars whose only goal is to survive. What is so engaging about this film is the display of the indomitable human spirit. Sure, there low times in the film where Mark Watney, our protagonist, hits more than a few setbacks. Things explode, fail to work, and just plain go wrong. However, he and NASA never give up.
Here again, you have a future where humanity isn’t on the way out but thriving. A story where humanity comes together for the greater good. Not only that but The Martian is more science than fiction. Any problem is solved with scientific know-how and the resources available. Where most movies might create some nifty plot-device to solve a problem, the characters are forced to use the resources they have available to them that would most likely actually be available on a similar Mars mission.
What I’m getting at is there is a place for the optimistic sci-fi drama. Where humanity is able to avert whatever disaster is looming regardless how big or small. An important distinction I want to make between this and say your superhero or run of the mill action adventure is the basis in science. You have regular people who have struggled and put in the time to learn something that inevitably saves themselves or even the world. It is much more of an earned victory.
Is this the beginning of a new trend for sci-fi? Maybe. I sure hope it is and look forward to more.