Since Georges Méliès sent audiences on A Trip to the Moon in 1902, the sci-fi genre has always been one of escapism and speculation. But beneath the surface of intergalactic wars and men in monster suits, filmmakers often use the sci-fi facade to explore current social, economic and political issues as well as contemporary anxieties.
The 1950s’ heyday of the sci-fi allegory was a time when monster movies reigned supreme. Cold war paranoia and the fear of the bomb were reflected on screen in every over sized insect and prehistoric beast. It’s no accident that the enlarged ants from Them!, the gigantic octopus from It Came from Beneath The Sea and the fictional Rhedosaurus from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms were all the product of atomic bomb testing.
Overseas, Godzilla, a reptilian monster mutated by nuclear radiation, terrorised Tokyo. With the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the Japanese consciousness, it was obvious what this destructive rampage truly represented.
filmmakers often use the sci-fi facade to explore current social, economic and political issues
While these movies were often dismissed due to their B-Movie status, there were more acclaimed films that explored similar anxieties in subtler ways. The perils of our unchecked technological advancements are tackled in 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. A Christ-like alien descends from the skies preaching a message of peace. The alien has concerns that humanity’s progress in atomic power and penchant for violence will spell disaster for life on other planets, ultimately threatening our annihilation if we can’t all just get along.
McCarthyism and The Red Scare were on the mind of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the story of a small Californian town whose residents are abducted and replaced by emotionless facsimiles. Although the makers have said any links to the contemporary political climate were unintentional, the striking similarities are undeniable.
The oppression and persecution of minorities has also been commonly tread ground, perhaps best depicted in 1968’s Planet of the Apes and 2009’s District 9. The former puts humanity at the mercy of super-intelligent primates, which hints at the racism inherent in American history. The latter, set in Johannesburg, features an oppressed alien race confined to camps, which begs comparisons with South Africa’s period of Apartheid.
Though perhaps more of a horror film, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead acts as scathing attack of consumerist culture. Where do the horde of mindless zombies instinctively congregate? The shopping mall of course. Pixar’s Wall-E has a similar subtext, depicting the human’s of the future as amorphous blobs so infatuated with technology that they only communicate through computers and move around on the levitating equivalent of a mobility scooter.
Allegories provide a unique lens through which to explore pertinent issues in a more engaging manner. While those wishing to deal with the subject matter directly must do so with delicacy and respect, dealing with them indirectly through allegory gives the freedom to explore the grittier details.
The beauty of the sci-fi allegory is that it encourages viewers to engage with topics they may otherwise not give a second thought to
9/11 and the subsequent war on terror has also been the subject of numerous films and TV shows, but none has dealt with it with more virtuosity than 2004’s Battlestar Galactica. The story of a ragtag group of ships fleeing the tyranny of a race of genocidal robots is used as a backdrop to tackle such prominent issues such as religious fundamentalism, the torture of prisoners, suicide bombings, sleeper cells and the loss of civil liberties.
The beauty of the sci-fi allegory is that it encourages viewers to engage with topics they may otherwise not give a second thought to. However, they’re by no means the be all and end all. They may make for a richer viewing experience but are no replacement for a gripping story, complex characters or even just a giant freakin’ ant.