In the 2016 film Arrival, the end of the world happens suddenly. People can barely remember what life was like only days before an invasion—in this case, by extraterrestrials that could as easily be a virus—and while alarm and panic are common, initially humanity is incapable of sorting its way through chaos, stupidity, and delusion to arrive at courage, coordination, and farsightedness. All of this is to say that if you saw Arrival when it was released, it was one movie, and if you watched it hunkered down in your overground bunker during the Great COVID Storm of 2020, it was a different movie. By the same token, this piece you’re reading now about science-fiction movies—which, in the time-looping spirit of Arrival, was written before I wrote it—is different from the piece written in an alternate present when we weren’t all living in our own science-fiction movie. Welcome to Paradoxia, the planet of pandemics and crossed purposes.
It’s as accurate to say that science-fiction film and television grew up with me as that I grew up with them. I was born and raised in the 1950s, when science fiction became a full-blown genre after decades of one-offs like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a 1920s dystopia in which movie buff Joe Goebbels recognized a Reich if he ever saw one. Presupposing any future at all, let alone a bright one, was quaintly optimistic in a time of Depression, Nazism, Stalinism, and Eastern European crematoria. By the 1950s, however, the combination of McCarthyist paranoia and a technology that created the motion picture itself before moving on to nuclear oblivion had a resonance that exceeded aesthetics: giant radioactively mutated ants swarmed the screen in Them!, celestial globes careened our way in When Worlds Collide, and, as ironists will appreciate, invaders from Mars in The War of the Worlds were felled by a pandemic to which the rest of us were immune. There were other invaders from Mars, including those in Invaders from Mars, which is where I came in: in a deft stroke of programming, Invaders from Mars, about a boy whose parents were turned into Martians, played on TV every afternoon after school for a week on Los Angeles’s Million Dollar Movie. This film explained everything—of course our parents were Martians!—and was a variation on 1950s science fiction’s most potent metaphor, also exemplified by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Parents we loved, life partners we loved, the country we loved, all became unknowable strangers.
I turned out to be the most unknowable stranger of all. That was the message of Forbidden Planet, in which an intergalactic exploration goes awry on a world called Altair IV, whose similarity in name to altar couldn’t have been accidental. In vivid Eastmancolor, with a nearly $2 million budget, state-of-the-art special effects, and the prototype of every robot to come, Forbidden Planet abounded with mysteries to a little kid. What was this thing called the Id that materialized at night in monstrous form? What was The Tempest, on which Forbidden Planet was based, and who was this Shakespeare dude? Most profound of all, what accounted for the barely concealed splendors of Anne Francis? Forbidden Planet anticipated science fiction’s great break between the technological fascination of novels by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and the pop-surreal literature of ideas by Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin, who were less interested in other worlds than in the ambiguities of “reality” in ours. A contemporary of Asimov’s and Heinlein’s bestriding this schism was a former Royal Air Force radar scientist named Arthur C. Clarke, subversively posing theological questions in Childhood’s End and “The Sentinel”—the latter of which provided the map for an American expatriate filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick.
It would be an overstatement to claim that 2001: A Space Odyssey blew up American cinema the way George Lucas’s Star Wars did nine years later, but ultimately the impact was as great, dividing movie history. I saw 2001 on Hollywood Boulevard as a teenager with my dad, a science-fiction buff, who left the Pantages disgruntled as I crawled amid my mind’s upended furniture in a daze. Kubrick was a former Look photographer who never stopped dreaming in moments, and 2001 was about the moment at the End of Moments. Few pictures so split intelligent viewers between those who found it visionary and those who found it claptrap, but in its pursuit of oblivion, 2001 took science fiction from the merely galactic to the defiantly cosmic. In the box office battle between philosophical ideas and technological gee-whizzery, of course 2001 lost to Star Wars, which anticipated not just 1980s Reagan culture, in the same way that 2001 was the counterculture’s apotheosis, but also the computer-generated special effects that would take over movies (and with which Lucas would eventually update his own magnum opus to sanitized effect). The medium’s very technological nature, in other words, guaranteed a techno-centric enthusiasm that literature couldn’t match (and from which literature was therefore liberated). Yet Star Wars never would have happened without Lucas’s previous indie failure, THX 1138, which itself wouldn’t have happened without 2001.
So when I watched Arrival again recently with my 22-year-old son, he asked with some amazement, “How did this ever get made?” By which he meant, what studio executive signed off on a brainy narrative about language, chronology, and 2001’s evocation of the eternal? Something has happened to science fiction in the 21st century because something has happened to the 21st century itself: when ideologies in conflict are as much spiritual as political, science fiction’s preoccupations have gotten headier. While there continue to be films in the late-20th-century mold of Star Wars, Alien, and The Terminator, nonetheless Children of Men, Minority Report, The Martian, Get Out, Melancholia, Ex Machina, Her, The Shape of Water, Annihilation, High Life, Under the Skin, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and Blade Runner 2049—the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 landmark, which, Star Wars aside, remains the single most influential science-fiction picture since 2001—work on another level. Some are better than others; some take more chances; all, however, are for grown-ups and occasionally people who don’t even like the genre. Human emotions like love, loneliness, and despair, and social issues like oppression, racism, and environmental enlightenment, aren’t second thoughts but primary and urgent. In Arrival, a mother’s grief frames and gives meaning to the extraterrestrial plot rather than the other way around.
Science-fiction television is more complicated because television is more complicated, with a worldwide audience that’s reflective of everything and therefore reflective of nothing. When there’s an audience for anything, the question is whether it’s big and passionate enough to sustain entries from Doctor Who to Picard, the latest of countless spin-offs to Star Trek, which precociously struggled to survive for three seasons in the 1960s. Two other landmark series, The Twilight Zone and The X-Files, also were driven by cults just large and zealous enough to keep them on the air. The Twilight Zone was nothing but ideas, an anthology series of 20-minute memes-before-their-time, while The X-Files improved on the concept with two continuing characters—one a man and one a woman—whose sexual friction coexisted with his faith in the inexplicable and her conviction that anything inexplicable was definitionally untrue (flipping male-female stereotypes about intuition and left-brained skepticism). But although TV science fiction embraced ideas instead of technology because it had little choice, given minuscule budgets and a medium dominated by writers, mass audiences still prefer related genres that color within the lines, be they Buffy the Vampire Slayer horror or Game of Thrones fantasy. By and large, American culture still isn’t sure what to make of ambitious science fiction: a 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was just starting to overcome both memories of the original show’s cheesy late-1970s rip-off of Star Wars/Star Trek and deliberate echoes of 9/11 when it chose to end on its own terms after some 80 hours of episodes.
By then, Battlestar Galactica had become to science fiction on TV what The Wire was to crime drama. Establishing clear moral distinctions at the outset, the series didn’t take long to upend every assumption viewers brought to it, including those about the genre itself, with characters who not only lived grown-up lives, drinking, drugging, and having sex, but also were lost in both the outer universe and a multitude of inner universes. Indicative of the show’s audacity, the third and penultimate season was when the series either (a) raised its stakes in a way none had done before, plunging through Dickian wormholes labeled Humanity, God, and the Void, with one scene in which characters spoke entirely in Bob Dylan lyrics, or (b) jumped the shark. (The correct answer is a.) If we’re all still living in a science-fiction movie by the time you read this, which is to say in our bunkers with 80 hours to kill, the Galactica is boarding now in any number of broadcasting streams. The beginning of the world waits at the other end.
Steve Erickson is the author of 10 novels, including Shadowbahn and Zeroville. He writes regularly about film and television for Los Angeles magazine and holds the position of distinguished professor at UC Riverside.