When you think of sci-fi, what first pops into your mind? Laser beams? Aliens? Tight-fitting, seemingly impractical one-piece bodysuits? How about politics?
Science fiction creates brand new imagined worlds and societies which can often act to mirror our own. Now, I know, some people hate trying to find politics in their favorite movies, but unfortunately, whether you want it to be or not, politics is present in everything. From major blockbusters to commercials selling squirtable cheese - everything is imbued with a latent comment on politics.
Sci-fi does this better than perhaps any other mainstream narrative genre. As sci-fi writer Adam Roberts explains:
Any SF text must include something that isn't in the "real" world: starship, robot, a new way of organizing society, whatever. This might be material, social or even metaphysical, but it will encode difference.
Once this difference has been highlighted, it allows for values to be created regarding it. Is this future better or worse than our own? Has an aspect of humanity’s current behavior created a future ravaged by war or famine?
Some sci-fi movies, such as District 9, are clear political allegories, but almost all sci-fi includes a political message of sorts. Let’s take a look at some of them below.
Metropolis, a silent German sci-fi movie from 1927, is arguably the first big screen science fiction movie. It imagined an over-urbanized world in which class divisions were strict and marked.
Metropolis is certainly a child of its time, with its themes closely following the atmosphere of the short lived Weimar Republic — Germany’s first democracy. At this time, social upheaval was wide-spread, with Communists enjoying growing popularity, resulting in frequent industrial action and strikes. However, despite the turbulent nature of the Republic, by the latter 1920s it was enjoying a cultural and economic revival.
At its core, Metropolis comments on the increasing gulf between the aristocracy and the proletariat, a particularly pertinent issue considering the recent Russian revolution. The starkest comparison is between those who reside in the Tower of Babel and the robotic Maschinenmensch which carried out labor.
In this sense, director Fritz Lang, was articulating the displeasure of the new industrial working class. The traditionally conservative poor now found themselves in repetitive jobs in crammed factories working, like robots, with little hope of social mobility.
This theme clearly played on very prevalent issues at the time, with Germany very much being on the cusp of revolution. The final scenes feature a worker revolt in which the workers destroy the city, but simultaneously also destroy themselves with their over-zealous following of a false prophet, Maria.
Ultimately, Metropolis considers what can happen when the mechanics of capitalism are allowed to continue without regard to those who make it up — indeed it was heavily edited at the time as distributors felt it promoted communism. Regardless, it was certainly prophetic. Following the Wall Street Crash, Germany experienced major hyper-inflation, and a rise in both Bolshevikism and Nazism. We all know how that turned out...
Star Trek, 1966 - present
In the 24th century, everything seems pretty dandy. Sure, there’s the occasional space war, but for the most part humanity seems to have got their shit together.
For some, Star Trek was the ‘Official American Metaphor’, however one line of sci-fi scholarly thought suggests that far from flying the Stars and Stripes, the Enterprise was much more likely to sport the Hammer and Sickle.
It’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry was a critic of the status quo. He stuck a black woman and a Russian on the bridge of the Federation’s flagship at a time of racial segregation and Cold War tension. He also created a world which was free from money and was fundamentally a pure meritocracy — broadly following socialist beliefs. Religion (defined by Marx as the ‘opium of the masses’) has largely been eradicated, and now replicator chips allow for everyone to be provided for ‘according to their needs’. Even Picard once said:
A lot has changed in the last 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the acquisition of 'things'. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy.
Well, now we know why he likes wearing red all the time…
And finally, the Star Trekian utopia was only created after humanity had blown itself up in a major international conflagration. Out of this rose a new society which rejected conflict and moved towards inclusion. Once again, this almost directly corresponds to the original Marxist theory that a Communist state would rise after the capitalist elements had exhausted themselves in material conflict. Oh, and what about those Ferengi… not exactly the most flattering representation of capitalists...
Although on the surface RoboCop could be dismissed as standard 1980’s action schlock, it is in fact one of the most biting and scathing political satires of the decade.
At its core, RoboCop is an allegory of the politically subjective era of the Reagan and Bush years — a time marked by increasing neo-conservativism and the belief that the free market could deliver all the needs of society through a “trickle down effect”.
Against this backdrop of ‘greed is good’, is a Detroit which is racked by crime and unemployment — a clear reference to the prevailing economic situation at the time of RoboCop’s release. The Department of Housing and Urban Development had just had its budget cut by 75% during the decade, while those living below the Federal poverty line rose by 24%. These policies essentially destroyed large, former industrial cities such as Detroit, leaving them as empty husks to be exploited by corporations.
RoboCop shows a world in which privatization has reached the point where the police force is in the back-pocket of CEOs and Detroit is due to be renamed Delta City in a corporate rebranding attempt. In these situations, the elite have no interest in actually increasing the welfare of the population, since that will inevitably entail higher costs and reduced profit, but merely plan to bolster their own bank accounts and run these public services as private businesses. This of course, ironically clashes with RoboCop’s own programming to ‘protect and serve’ — an idea completely at odds with cut-throat fiscal policies.
RoboCop was certainly before its time, although privatization and gentrification were occurring in the late 1980s, it also successfully predicted the drive into the Bush years, including George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security and the relaxation of regulations on corporate owned prisons and private military companies.
Demolition Man, 1993
But sci-fi isn’t just the bastion of leftist political thought. No, it’s also been used by those on the right of the political spectrum. Take for example, Demolition Man.
Despite seeming like the quintessential mindless explosion fest, Demolition Man can actually be seen as a movie anthem for conservative libertarianism, slamming pacifism as well as the political correctness of the early Clinton years.
After super-criminal Simon Phoenix is sentenced to be cryogenically frozen for his crimes, he is later defrosted into a world devoid of crime, violence, swearing, sex, guns or toilet roll. Sounds good, right? But no!
In this sense, director Marco Brambilla presents the ultimate ‘nanny state’ in which individual responsibility has been surrendered to a government. This obviously doesn't sit well with LAPD Sgt. John Spartan, a man of action who goes on a one cop crusade to prove that against violent people, violence is the only option.
Ultimately, the movie concludes that if our vices (including the use of violence against those deemed as undesirable) are repressed, it will only create more opportunities for people like Phoenix to prosper. In this sense, it perfectly follows realist political theories developed by the likes of Samuel P. Huntington and Kenneth Waltz. Broadly speaking, these theories suggest the world is one of international anarchy in which only the strong and determined can survive and grow — and to be strong, you might need to smack someone around once in a while.
The Hunger Games, 2012 - present
The Hunger Games is a political chimera. It has been appropriated by those on both ends of the political spectrum to support their views and goals.
Suzanne Collin’s has argued against the claim she was creating an adolescent story, instead she suggests “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.” Of course, war is essentially politics in its most extreme form, and this is certainly something which occurs in The Hunger Games.
In Panem, politics has been taken to its most outrageous conclusions. For conservative viewers, they may see allegories which reference a fear of big government and interference in civil liberties. They may see a dystopian state police which carries out the bidding of a corrupt President under the banner of carefully controlled ‘Hope’. These ideas certainly aren’t a million miles away from criticism of Obama’s wide-ranging social welfare reforms and his almost messianic reputation among certain people. Ultimately, however, they may see The Hunger Games as the most severe consequence of this development - a regime which subsequently controls people and demands thanks for doing just that — government outreach at its very worst.
For the left, however, The Hunger Games could be a direct indictment of the 1%, and an allegory of the Occupy Movement. The Capitol may represent the corporate elite taken to an absurd and obscene level - a kind of neo-aristocracy which has once again confined their underlings to serfdom. The gawdy dress and exuberant styling of the Capitol certainly reference the excess of former monarchies, while those stuck in the Districts are literally imprisoned in a world of zero social mobility, despite their hard work. Essentially, if you’re born in the Districts, you die in the Districts and there’s nothing you do about it — except it seems, revolt. For the left, The Hunger Games' ultimate message could be one of communal-ism against the rampant self-interest and objectivism of those in the Capitol.
So, there you have it. Five major sci-fi movies and just some of their politics. Of course, you could write an extensive dissertation about the politics of any one of these films, so this short (well actually, pretty long) editorial is by no means exhaustive or all encompassing.
TL;DR: Sci-fi movies have politics in them!
What do you think? Do you have a favorite political sci-fi movie? Is there one message you particularly agree or disagree with? Let me know below.