Mainstream science fiction fails to live up to its full potential

Scene from the original Star Trek series
NBC / Courtesy/Courtesy

The science fiction genre has allowed authors and filmmakers to create new worlds where flying cars, alien races, and humanlike robots are as commonplace as a Starbucks kiosk. But, despite all these futuristic technological innovations, somehow, the social issues that plague our current society still persist. Why do we make new worlds if we give them the same limitations as our own?

Science fiction has always been hit or miss for me. While I found that I quickly fell in love with the daring casting choices and progressive storylines in “Star Trek: The Original Series,” I have been less enthused about the more recent portrayals of a space adventure gone wrong (“The Martian”, “Gravity”,” Interstellar”, “Passengers”, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”).

That isn’t to say some of these works aren’t good. “Ex Machina’s” Alicia Vikander left me deeply uncomfortable in her performance as Ava, an artificially intelligent robot that blurs the boundaries between “machine” and “human.” I often found myself shaking my laptop screen in shock when “Black Mirror” introduced its classic plot twists in their innumerable technologically deterministic plot lines. But when all is said and done — cue the music, roll the credits — I am left unsatisfied.

These are the same questions we have been asking since the birth of sci fi — beginning with “Frankenstein” — and we still haven’t found an answer.

My problem are the themes these sci-fi pieces choose to grapple with — they’re digestible, bite-size questions of morality and existentialism. If I have to see another movie or TV show that asks me what humanity’s purpose is in this lifetime, I might actually die (and then be brought back to life as an android). These are the same questions we have been asking since the birth of sci fi — beginning with “Frankenstein” — and we still haven’t found an answer.

I am tired of seeing debates over whether or not artificial intelligence enables robots to possess human emotions (“Ex Machina,” “Blade Runner,” “Her”), how developing increasingly sophisticated technology will lead to our demise (“2001: A Space Odyssey”, “WarGames”) and the dangers of exploration when aliens seek to destroy Earth itself (“War of the Worlds”, “Cloverfield”, “Independence Day”).

What bothers me the most is that the questions these films try to address intentionally play it safe. Instead of trying to spark productive dialogue by incorporating more salient issues in their narratives, mediamakers are content to simply leave audience members entertained. Meanwhile, works such as “Black Panther” have churned out weeks of fervid conversation, debate and negotiation that will likely remain relevant for years to come.  

“Elysium” is one movie that tries to break out of the mold, addressing issues related to socioeconomic status in the very premise of its storyline; when the poor are left to die in an inhospitable Earth, the rich enjoy the limitless freedom and the bounties of a fully stocked space station. It also touches upon sensitive topics such as accessibility to healthcare and illegal immigration. However, what had the chance to be a complex and thought-provoking movie fell flat when the story was simply reduced to the conclusion that “rich people are evil and poor people are good.”

JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot is also guilty of reaching for the stars and falling short of its goal. Buoyed by the rich history of the original series, the franchise took a complacent stance; it failed to provoke conversation social issues and was instead more focused on phaser fights and scary alien antagonists in the first two installments.

The last installment, “Star Trek Beyond,” attempts to return to its roots by revealing that Hikaru Sulu had a husband and daughter. Although the decision certainly drew controversy, it is undermined by the fact that acceptance of same-sex relationships is at an all-time high. Rather than a poignant commentary on LGBTQ+ representation, it felt like a last-ditch attempt in accomplishing what the “Star Trek” franchise should have been doing since the beginning: using its large and highly visible platform as an opportunity to critique the issues that plague our current society.

Instead of trying to spark productive dialogue by incorporating more salient issues in their narratives, mediamakers are content to simply leave audience members entertained.

“Star Trek: The Original Series” was a site of controversy for its casting of a Black woman during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a Japanese and a Russian character despite Cold War sentiments. They never explicitly talked about these issues within the series, but these deliberate casting choices were enough for audience members to get the message. “Star Trek” set itself up as a post-scarcity utopia with a mission was to explore deep space, presenting itself as the ideal future. The problems that beset the characters — hostile planets, mysterious diseases — came from the outside the USS Enterprise while still balancing the existentialist questions that contemporary sci-fi deals with today.

Major films and television shows are often crafted to appeal to mass audiences by avoiding addressing controversial topics and featuring predominantly white casts. But according to a Creative Artists Agency study, films with more diverse casts actually had higher box office success rates.

Maybe sci-fi cinema can do what science fiction has managed to accomplish in certain works of literature. For example, “Ancillary Justice,” an award-winning book by Ann Leckie, transforms the audience’s understanding of gender. Members of the protagonist’s species do not distinguish people by gender or sex, and they use she/her pronouns to refer to everyone. Leckie subtly encourages discourse about the function of gender and gender roles, all while telling a riveting story about intergalactic conflict.

Let me be clear: I don’t expect science fiction to turn into a soapbox to air out all of our political and social issues. But mediamakers certainly don’t do the genre justice when they fail to use the medium to its full potential: as a tool to vocalize the problems of the present and make reforms for a better future.

Contact Fionce Siow at [email protected]