|Jeff Russell's Starship Dimensions|
Maybe it's just me, but I feel like science fiction has a bad reputation. I have a distinct memory of going to see Oblivion with some friends, after which they said that it was fun but a little too unreal. While they enjoyed it for what it was, they didn't see the thematic value it contained. I don't think this was their fault as a viewer; on the contrary I get the feeling that the reputation of science fiction as little more than escapism conditions our brains to ignore the films' deeper aspects and just enjoy their spectacle. There are gonna be some spaceships, some aliens, and probably some battles between the spaceships and the aliens. Then when people do get critical of sci-fi they level their critique at the wrong things: you can't use a fire extinguisher as a jet pack, artificial gravity wouldn't work like that, those aliens don't look real. We need to change the way we think about science fiction because it can be much more than mere fantasy. (Massive spoilers ahead.)
"Who's there?" This is the first line from what is probably the most widely known and frequently quoted work of fiction in any genre, Shakespeare's Hamlet. With these two words the stage is set for the entrance of three of the most time-honored themes in literary history. By asking Francisco (and by extension the audience), "Who's there?" Bernardo is also asking three things: I see you there, but who are you, what reality lies underneath your appearance; I see you there, but who are you, how do you establish and understand your identity; I see you there, but who are you, what is it that constitutes you as a human being? These three themes—appearance, identity, and humanity—are developed throughout the play and are part of the reason the play has endured for so long. These are also themes which are developed by many sci-fi films in unique ways which would me impossible to duplicate outside of the realm of science fiction.
Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) has one of the most famous movie endings in sci-fi film history. The titular body snatchers, or pods as they're often referred to, invade earth and begin making copies of people and destroying the originals. The only real way to identify if someone has become a pod is by the terrifying scream they emit to alert other nearby pods of an intruder. A group of friends band together to try to escape with their bodies intact, but are slowly picked off one by one.
In the film's final moments, the protagonist Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) witnesses the love of his life Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) becoming a pod. Despite seeing the transformation and knowing at some level what it means, Matthew hesitates for a minute, refusing to believe what's happening. His eyes report the appearance of Elizabeth even though his mind knows the reality underneath is something much more sinister. This contrast of appearance and reality is hammered home in the last scene. There's a jump cut from the last time we see Matthew to an indeterminate time in the future. Nancy runs into Matthew and is clearly glad to have found someone else who hasn't yet become a pod, until Matthew opens his mouth to let loose their trademark scream, leaving Nancy petrified at the horrific reality that lies under Matthew's benign appearance.
But we have some distance from the film now that the film community has had 30+ years to study it. When it was originally released, while it's reception was largely positive, it was appreciated more for its effective horror scenes (especially when Matthew destroys the growing pod version of himself) and for the fact that it was an effective and faithful remake. Even to this day there are those who only value it in this narrow sense. But there's so much more beneath this beautiful (horrific?) exterior.
See also: Tron (1982), They Live (1988), eXistinZ (1999), The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is a movie about a remote group of scientists who discover a hostile alien which can perfectly imitate the form of living things around it. The movie begins, however, with heavy helpings of character development. This establishes that these men have lived every moment of the past few years of their lives together and have an intimate knowledge and understanding of each other. Then the Thing enters and everything falls apart.
When the crew discovers what the Thing can do, they realize that their fellow men aren't all who they appear to be and that the stable identities they relied upon aren't as secure as they once thought. Any one of them could be the Thing transformed to look like a fellow scientist. They lose their trust in each other and paranoia breaks out. By the end of the film there's only two of them left alive, and even then they're cautious about how they act. Maybe the scariest thing of all about the movie is that it makes the claim that there really is no way to validate someone's identity without looking at things at a microscopic level (they resort to blood tests), and even then all we can know is whether you're not something else. There's no positive, concrete guarantee of our own identity.
Again, however, our current appreciation of this film did not come immediately. In fact, Carpenter perceived The Thing as one of his biggest failures based on its reception. Audiences focused on one aspect: it's gore. Critics thought it was an excessive, disgusting pile of goop, and fans praised the film's groundbreaking special effects. While the film is considered a success today, it's in terms of its visuals and production despite the fact that it has so much more to offer.
See also: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Total Recall (1990), Gattaca (1997), Minority Report (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) uses humanoid robots called replicants to discuss what it means to be human. Rick Deckard is a blade runner, a combination detective and hitman tasked with destroying illegal replicants. In the course of his duties, he meets Tyrell (the man who owns the giant company which manufactures replicants) and his daughter Rachel. He quickly finds out that Rachel is actually a replicant herself, living her life unaware of her artificial status. This is possible through artificial memories implanted during the replicant's creation. Thus we first broach the subject of what makes us human in a negative fashion: it's not our memories since they can be faked.
This question is then slowly turned from a negative to a positive. Deckard and Rachel fall in love, and at the end of the film Deckard rushes home to see if she's alive. At the entrance to his apartment is an origami unicorn which recalls a previous moment in the film when Deckard dreams about a unicorn—something he never tells anyone. This shows that perhaps Deckard's memories are also artificial since someone else has access to them, and places the seed of doubt in Deckard's mind that maybe he is also a replicant. The audience is forced through his train of thought, and the only possible answer to determine what makes you human provided by the film is the empathy tests. It might be a simple answer to a complicated question, but it works: empathy makes us human.
Blade Runner has seen the most drastic change in opinion of any of the films here mentioned. While there were some who appreciated its stunning visuals and advanced production design, many were put off by the ambiguous storyline and somber mood. The majority of viewers didn't quite "get" it. After three decades we seem to finally have figured out the film, but as with the two previous movies even Blade Runner isn't always praised for its thematic value as much as its beautiful imagery and jarringly accurate vision of the future.
See also: THX 1138 (1971), RoboCop (1987), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), I, Robot (2004), Moon (2009)
There's a common misconception that movies have recently come to emphasize action over plot. From the very beginning of cinema, the medium has struggled with this dichotomy of spectacle vs substance. George Melies used film as a way to create elaborate magic tricks not so very different in entertainment value from today's special effects before moving to combine them with a story in the famous A Trip to the Moon. The problem with the way we watch science fiction as I see it is that our focus is so rarely on the story. Even when we like a movie, we tend to couch our applause in terms other than the meaning of its narrative. The point I would like to make is that no matter how "dumb" a movie is, it always has a message to send, even if that message is written into the movie by accident. As Slavoj Zizek once said about watching "terrible" movies, "There is always something worth seeing."