This video essay surveys fifteen mainstream science fiction films of the 21st century, highlighting the conspicuous and melancholy recurrence of 20th century culture (songs, fashion, movies) in their diegetic worlds. I bring attention to this trend through the lens of the end of history, the ‘mythic umbrella’ under which narratives of the future are cultivated (Mosco 2004: 72). The persistence of culture from before the digital era proper, along with the prevalence of dystopian fiction, posits the transition to a globalised digital world as a fall from grace, or the ‘afterlife’ of history.
The century preceding the digital revolution saw a wave of technologies that promised to bring a final end to various social ills and physical limitations, from inequality to space and time itself. That these things remain in the digital era, alongside new technological possibilities, fuels a sense of disappointment and uncertainty. Technology is therefore all at once the motor for, result of, and compensation for disenchantment (Ortoleva 2009). These disenchanted texts, whether sombre or frivolous, hold onto the artefacts of the 'last century', when the promise of a better future was still alive. Where perhaps science fiction cinema once looked ahead to how different (and often better) the future would be, films of the last two decades rather present the future as more of the same.
This goes for the films’ design but also, importantly, the storyworlds the characters inhabit. Not only do spaceships look like Alien’s Nostromo, but their pilots will only play music published before the late 1990s. This speaks to a recursive tendency endemic to the 21st century film industry: over half of the films included in the video are themselves are reboots, sequels or adaptations. Inside the films and around them, newness is on the wane.
In bringing these clips together, I identify various connected contexts for these ‘old’ artefacts: nostalgic characters who see no value in the future around them; a commercial mechanism to sell contemporary products; a pervasive sense of nostalgia overall. Consistent is the disjuncture between 20th century culture (joyous, energetic, colourful) and the future that enjoys it (grim, robotic, funereal). The use of an audio-visual medium is used here for capturing these commonalities of tone and feeling.
Baudrillard described a similar trend in anticipation of the year 2000, noting even then a collective sense of no future, against which the defence is to gather up ‘the whole battery of artificial memory’ (1994: 9). Hollywood’s astronauts and cyberpunks have done just that; occupying the future is no longer an enviable position.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. The Illusion of the End. Oxford: Polity Press.
Mosco, Vincent. 2004. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Ortoleva, Peppino. 2009. ‘Modern Mythologies, the Media and the Social Presence of Technology,’ Observatorio Journal (8) 1-12.
Joel Blackledge is a writer and filmmaker based in the West Midlands, UK. His previous writing has been published by Little White Lies, Novara Media and Bright Wall/Dark Room. As an award-winning filmmaker, Joel has worked with the Architecture Foundation, Random String Festival and the University of Birmingham. Joel’s fiction has been published by Unbound, the Oslo Architecture Triennale and BBC Radio. Joel currently teaches media at Coventry University.