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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Green Screen : The Dystopian Future Ecology in Contemporary Sci-fi Movies

There are at least two reasons why I enjoy science-fiction in nearly every story telling medium.
One, sci-fi deals with the "what if" scenarios of everything we live in today : society, science, technology and differentiate them to the point that it relies on ours suspension of disbelief but somehow those imaginary elements are still within in the range of scientific possibility or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).
Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas". Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possibilities and I don't know why, but I always love exploring new possibilities especially regarding the choices we make today.

Two, the setting. Orson Scott Card once wrote that one most grueling yet most satisfactory step of creating a science-fiction story is the so-called "the world building" process. Writers go through a lot of hard work creating a believable setting for the characters to live in. The settings for science fiction are often contrary to known reality, but the majority of science fiction relies on a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief provided by potential scientific explanations to various fictional elements. You can even argue that in this genre, the setting plays the same important role-if not more than-as the characters.
With these two weapons at hand, sci-fi writers tell the tales of speculation of what the future might be. Of course, adapting to the spirit of the times, sci-fi stories tend to follow the general consciousness of the era. The 60's gave us many excellent space opera titles for example, because of at that time we thought that the space is our next destination.

Today, there is one common theme that has become a recurring one in today's post-modern society : ecology. Or rather, the bleak dystopian future of our ecology if mankind will continue to plunder its resources - both here on Earth and in alien worlds.
But it's all too real.
Post-Copenhagen, with no serious carbon reduction plan in sight, mankind's ecological future is far from clear. Do we reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Do we turn to renewable energy production? Or do we invent far-out technologies, like orbiting space mirrors that deflect sunlight away from Earth?
If you believe that we invent the future by 'making' the stories we tell today, then perhaps two recent sci-fi movies can reveal how the next 100 years will unfold. Typically, given the film world's tendency to tell cautionary tales, both suggest we fail to kick our fossil fuel addiction. Instead we go marauding, and this time to other worlds.
James Cameron's Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, and Pixar's Wall-E have strong ecological themes. In Avatar, humans have arrived on distant moon Pandora, in search of the simplistically named 'unobtanium', a precious element that lies beneath the natives' habitat, a giant 'hometree'. Pandora is a Gaia-like conception, where all living things are in sync. The natives are giant blue humanoids called Na'vi and they communicate directly with the environment through tendrils in their hair that literally plug into other live forms and vegetation on the planet. Company outreach workers are sent out to convince the Na'vi to leave their home but the plan fails, humans are shown to be untrustworthy and all-out war is visited upon the natives by humans eager to harvest a precious resource.
But thing go badly for the humans in Avatar. Led by a rebel marine, the Na'vi win the war and send the humans packing. But just as the Romans took the occasional knock during centuries of relentless empire building, you know that if nature is to take its course, mankind will be back with bigger guns and the steely determination to get what it wants. Unobtanium will undoubtedly be obtained. That's not what the film intends you to believe, but you know its true when the credits roll.
Yet, because Avatar (quite unreasonably) grants victory to the spear-throwing Na'vi, it has been hailed for its Eco-conscious themes. Survival, the charity for tribal peoples, recently reported that forest dwellers in Borneo, and Kalahari bushmen in southern Africa, claimed Avatar was their story. One said: the Penan people cannot live without the rain forest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. The Na'vi in Avatar cry because their forest is destroyed. It's the same with the Penan. Logging companies are chopping down our trees and polluting our rivers, and the animals we hunt are dying.

In Pixar's 2008 animated feature Wall-E, the environmental message has moved on. Yes, we're going to wreck the world, the first one hour of the film said, and turn it into a giant scrap heap, leaving the one cute robot to do the Herculean task of cleaning up our mess. However, humans, at least, will be safe, living in luxury spaceships that cruise among the stars. It reminded us that perhaps we love our comforts just a little too much to give them up. And this movie playfully mock our reluctance to get out from the trap of our own comfort zone even at the cost of our own planet.

Both Avatar and Wall-E show that environmental themes within popular fiction are maturing and accurately reflecting prevailing moods. Another example is Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004), captured the emerging panic over climate change. It depicted the catastrophic effects of both global warming and global cooling in a series of extreme weather events, which usher in a new ice age and pretty much destroy humanity. The basic message was the Earth will respond in kind if we continue to abuse it. And it suggested there was virtually no time left to do much about it.
Modern sci-fi movies are no longer (or not only ?) consist of giant robots kicking each other's ass (read that, Michael Bay ?). Science fiction, I believe, is a perfect vehicle for contemplation; to illustrate, to speculate what would happen if we continue with the choices and options that we do today in our life.
Now, a growing number of skeptics are beginning to question the science of climate change and politicians are refusing to agree global fuel rations. Given this, the altogether more arrogant vision of our future relationship with energy and ecology depicted in aforementioned movies is all the more prescient.

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