Few genres better lend themselves to metaphor than science fiction. Like the horror film—atop which all manner of symbolism has been traditionally projected—sci-fi often resembles a kind of empty vessel readily filled with keen insights, which makes the practice of extrapolating social and political allegories from such films, especially from a historical remove, all the more satisfying intellectually. This is not to imply that heady metaphorical readings of science fiction films are anything less than compelling or valid, both of which they very often are. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that our tendency to seek (largely unintended) subtextual depth from horror and sci-fi in particular is founded on some fairly problematic assumptions about the genres themselves, both in terms of their shared history and the implied value of their form.
The roots of cinematic sci-fi, of course, can be traced all the way back to the inception of the cinema itself, a genre born in the magic of Georges Melies and “A Trip to the Moon”. But despite its legacy, the reputation of science fiction as an essentially frivolous genre has more or less endured since the halcyon days of the sci-fi B-movie, a period which for better or worse has long defined our overriding perception of the ambitions and limitations of the style. Which is to say that with the exception of self-consciously major works from outlying auteurs—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” remains the preeminent example—science fiction continues to be regarded, in a general way, as fundamentally less serious than other genres. Though not quite as overtly ghettoized as horror, it’s nevertheless regarded in the popular imagination as somehow inherently trivial, a breeding ground for little more than shallow spectacle and superficial special effects.
This line of thinking leads many to the rather misleading conclusion that a sci-fi film, and in particular a low-budget or B-movie sci-fi film, isn’t likely to have been deliberately imbued with meaning or import of any significance, which makes it the job of the critic to read the film as a product of its time and place. This accounts for why, when we talk about, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we tend to describe it as indirectly responding to rather than actively commenting on Red Scare paranoia. We find it easier to accept that a B-movie was subconsciously playing into cold war anxieties rather than thoughtfully articulating them: you can see similar rhetoric cropping up in discussions of the social or political climate and films like "Godzilla" or "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in most cases denying the artist responsible for the work in question responsibility for serious metaphor and allegory.
It’s true that many of these films, especially during the 1950s, were not necessarily aware of the depth of their own conception, and were any of the artists behind such films to retroactively deny their intention to work in symbolism, readings about cold war fear or implicit propaganda would remain no less valid or interesting. But that’s true of all films—readings can always be compelling whether they do or do not cohere with an artist’s original vision—and yet it’s only sci-fi and horror that continue to be relegated to the status of permanently unintentional meaning, each film a perpetual “product of its time” to be regarded as blank texts made without thought. And this still happens: even Steven Spielberg’s "War of the Worlds," made by one of the American cinema’s most prominent auteurs, was rarely discussed as a film deliberately engaging with post-9/11 anxieties, leaving such readings to lofty afterthought.
The exception to this tendency, for whatever reason, is satire. Our fascination with science fiction as cautionary tale obviously goes back a long way—it has a basis in literature as much as in film—and we’re still happy to accept a sci-fi film as self-consciously expressing a coherent idea so long as that idea is readily understandable as political critique. The template is veritable cliche: a film is set in some dystopian future world of overt surveillance and oppression, the film a terrifying vision of a place where freedom has been eclipsed by state power and whatever magical drug/incredible technology/televised battle royale. But this kind of artist-admitted “meaning”, which usually begins and ends with a base social fear exaggerated to the point of unquestionable awfulness, very rarely engages with the world in any intelligent or significant way, and it only qualifies as symbolic only insofar as some tenuous connection may be drawn between this future world and our own. A discerning viewer would be hard-pressed to call The Hunger Games a functional “satire”, if only because, if it is indeed satirical, what is its target? A contemporary culture obsessed with the spectacle of violence? The fear that government power will continue growing until we live in a brutal world dictatorship? This isn’t exactly revelatory.
This weekend sees the American release of the new Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle "Oblivion," another film in which the only intended meaning one can extrapolate sits right on the surface. The film is essentially post-apocalyptic—it’s set on an uninhabitable earth, not unlike "Wall-E"—but if the point is to suggest that we are on the verge of rendering our planet unlivable, we’ll hardly be amazed or devastated by the critique. It’s more likely that, many years down the line, we’ll look back on "Oblivion" as (probably unintentionally) responding to our current social and political climate, tapping into anxieties regarding, say, burgeoning drone warfare, which the film in fact includes. Perhaps that’s the point of our tendency to extrapolate hidden meanings from sci-fi films: we want to find the message that’s there without yet knowing it, the import only apparent from at least a minor historical remove.