Published January 14, 2015
Going to see a blockbuster film like "I, Robot" may be just a simple Friday night for many this summer, but some trend-spotters say science fiction (search) movie themes are hitting closer and closer to complex current cultural and political issues.
Concerns over terrorism, fears of big corporations, big government and invasive technology are all real-world issues that have been touched on in recent films like "I, Robot," "Spider-Man 2" and "Minority Report" — not to mention the upcoming "The Manchurian Candidate," a political thriller with a hint of sci-fi thrown in.
"One of the things that popular culture is doing with the notion of terrorism is to represent terrorists as soulless, as clones, as another type of being," said Priscilla Wald, an associate professor of English at Duke University. "It's science coming together with politics to displace one concern onto another."
Wald said movie bad guys, whether they are machines like in "I, Robot" or real people like in "Spider-Man 2" or "The Manchurian Candidate," reflect Americans' fears about terrorists and loss of identity.
"They're creating monsters — not the ‘James Bond' type of villain, who is one who loses his soul, but one like in 'Spider-Man 2,' Doctor Octavius, who, despite his best efforts to prevent it, has his humanity overcome by something that makes him a monster," she said. "We have to label people who commit terrorism as inhuman...We literally want them to be inhuman."
Of course, sci-fi monsters have been around at least as long as 1959's "Plan 9 From Outer Space," but experts like Josh Calder, a futurist consultant and editor of www.futuristmovies.com, say that while the fundamentals of sci-fi flicks haven't changed, they are becoming increasingly relevant to today's social concerns.
"Americans always tend to distrust authority. We spend a lot of time worrying about threats to freedom. So what we change, mostly, is what is threatening that freedom," Calder said.
Sci-fi enthusiast Sumana Harihareswara said she's noticed the films have started making the enemies closer to home.
"We see humans and human creations as the villains, where before it was monsters and aliens from outside humanity," she said. "The implication is that we're afraid of ourselves."
In "I, Robot," man-made robots start thinking for themselves and go bad; in "Spider-Man 2," a human is taken over by mechanical arms; and in "The Manchurian Candidate," a global corporation implants a soldier with a brain chip to control his actions.
Calder pointed out that while sci-fi movies have stuck to their traditional formulas, some of the tropes used in the films are fast becoming more fact than fiction.
"We are seeing real world proposals for more omnipotent, omnipresent systems of observation that totalitarian governments are depicted using in sci-fi movies," Calder said.
The recurring theme of Big Brother-style governments or corporations that monitor citizens, along with fears about manipulating human genetics, are the major hot-button issues sci-fi movies will continue to explore, said Calder.
In the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," which opens Friday and stars Denzel Washington (search) and Meryl Streep (search), technology implemented by a multi-national corporation is used to control people's behavior — a method the film's director, Jonathan Demme, said is closer to reality than people realize.
"[The film] had aspirations to be science fiction," Demme told FOXNews.com. "But the more we researched what kind of experimentation and what the new frontiers are in scientific efforts today to alter personality and shape the way people behave — either through implants, electronic impulses or genomic restructuring at the prenatal stage — we discovered, you know what, it's all kind of either happening or they are out there trying to make it happen."
Calder also pointed to another Denzel Washington flick, "The Siege," as accurately and ominously pointing to real world issues. In the 1998 movie, New York City becomes the target of escalating terror attacks by Islamic extremists.
At the time, San Francisco Examiner movie critic Walter Addiego dismissed the film as needlessly working itself "into a righteous lather on the question of overreacting to terrorism." Now, of course, it seems eerily prophetic.
Washington told FOXNew.com that while movies can predict true situations, the reality is much scarier than fiction. He recalled a trip to Ground Zero three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in which it was all too clear this was not the movies.
"I met the night shift boss or whatever and he took me all around and I must have heard 30 or 40 times, 'Hey this ain't 'The Siege,' eh Denzel, this ain't 'The Siege,' is it?'" he said. "And unfortunately, through a lot of the research I did, a lot of what FBI guys were telling me and CIA guys were telling me is what happened."