From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Alien to...what?

Lovely piece by Jason Resnikoff on how his father's viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and Alien in 1979 reflected his hopes and dreams for technology and humanity.

Science fiction is a Rorschach test of our collective forward-looking sentiment, and as Resnikoff's father was a computer scientist working at Columbia's Computer Center when 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered, science fiction resonated for him as an almost personalized scripture.

2001 is the brainchild of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, who intended the film as a vision of things that seemed destined to come. In large part this fact has been lost on more recent generations of viewers who regard the movie as almost entirely metaphorical. Not so. The film was supposed to describe events that were really about to happen—that’s why Kubrick and Clarke went to such lengths to make it realistic, dedicating months to researching the ins and outs of manned spaceflight. They were so successful that a report written in 2005 from NASA’s Scientific and Technical Information Program Office argues that 2001 is today still “perhaps the most thoroughly and accurately researched film in screen history with respect to aerospace engineering.” Kubrick shows the audience exactly how artificial gravity could be maintained in the endless free-fall of outer space; how long a message would take to reach Jupiter; how people would eat pureed carrots through a straw; how people would poop in zero G. Curious about extraterrestrial life, Kubrick consulted Carl Sagan (evidently an expert) and made changes to the script accordingly.

It’s especially ironic because anyone who sees the film today will be taken aback by how unrealistic it is. The U.S. is not waging the Cold War in outer space. We have no moon colonies, and our supercomputers are not nearly as super as the murderous HAL. Pan Am does not offer commercial flights into high-Earth orbit, not least because Pan-Am is no more. Based on the rate of inflation, a video-payphone call to a space station should, in theory, cost far more than $1.70, but that wouldn’t apply when the payphone is a thing of the past. More important, everything in 2001 looks new. From heavy capital to form-fitting turtlenecks—thank goodness, not the mass fashion phenomenon the film anticipated—it all looks like it was made yesterday. But despite all of that, when you see the movie today you see how 1968 wasn’t just about social and political reform; people thought they were about to evolve, to become something wholly new, a revolution at the deepest level of a person’s essence.

Over one decade later, he watched Alien for the first time.

Consider Mother, the semi-intelligent computer system on board the Nostromo. Unlike HAL, who has complete knowledge of every aspect of his ship, Mother is perfectly isolated in a compartmentalized white room, complete with shimmering lights and padded walls. Whereas the Discovery makes an elegant economy of interior decoration with limited cabin space—it was a set where Kubrick allowed no shadows to fall—the Nostromo is meant to look like a derelict factory from the rust belt. My father thought the onboard computers looked especially rude for 1979, as though humanity’s venture into space would be done not with the technology of the future but the recent past. There’s a certain irony in this now: the flight computer used in the Space Shuttle, the IBM AP-101, effectively had only about one megabyte of RAM, which is more or less 1 percent of the computing power of an Xbox 360, but because of its reliability, NASA kept using it, with infrequent upgrades, into the 2000s.

The makers of Alien called this aesthetic-of-the-derelict “truckers in space,” which is fun but fails to capture the postindustrial criticism embodied in the Nostromo. Within the ship—a floating platform without a discernible bow or stern, akin to an oil rig—there are enormous spaces that look more like blast furnaces gone cold than the inside of a spaceship: a place of rusted metal, loose chains, forgotten pieces of machinery, of water falling from the ceiling and dripping to the floor to collect in stagnant pools. The ship’s crew bicker over pay and overtime; they follow company orders only begrudgingly. They are a very different, far more diverse group than the clearly white-collar crew of the Discovery. Inside the Nostromo, the threat does not come in the shape of a super-rational computer, a Pinocchio who wants to be a real boy. Instead, the danger is a wild animal lurking in the shadows, one that is unimaginably vicious. “The perfect organism,” Ash, the science officer, calls it, because it can survive anything. This? You ask yourself. This is evolution brought to perfection? A demon from Hell who is essentially indestructible, with acid for blood and two separate rows of fangs? What happened to the space baby? But there is a sick logic in calling the alien perfect. It has an unimpeachable record of wins to losses, and when all the world has become a contest, winners with perfect records are perfect.

And where, in all of this, is Mother? If the alien were set loose on HAL’s watch, he would probably neutralize it all on his own, automatically, as it were. Mother, on the other hand, spends the whole movie like a fated southern belle hooked on laudanum, locked in her room. She can’t even advise on how to defeat the monster. The computer cannot help. No costly investment in heavy capital will keep nature at bay. This was a lesson people were learning in 1979, by way of pink slips and foreclosures and sad car rides down the main drags of shuttered, lonely ghost towns where once factories had stood with thriving communities around them.

Fast forward over thirty years into the future, and neither vision seems entirely accurate. While an individual computer is vastly more powerful than the ones in the 70's, it's their ubiquity, portability, and ever-connected nature that is reshaping the world.

Meanwhile, space travel is perhaps not as far along as imagined in the movies, but efforts from private-sector billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and others have sustained (renewed?) interest and research in space travel and exploration (and, if you want to extrapolate that line out one more interval, to colonization).

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a sci-fi movie that best reflects humanity's current relationship to computers, the internet, and outer space. Even if you drop space exploration from the requirements, I'm not sure which movie I'd put in such a lineage. I liked The Social Network but it is a movie preoccupied with the personal relationships of the founders and less with the technology itself.

Interstellar is the most obvious recent choice as it has an Earth that is failing (perhaps our most popular dystopian nightmare), space travel driven by the private sector, and a candy-bar shaped computer robot named TARS who helps out our protagonists (human-computer cooperation). However, It glosses over the chasm between where we are today in the midst of the third industrial revolution and a time when AI enables robot companions like TARS, one we can interact with via natural voice commands. Its concluding message about love as a mechanism to transcend space and time is also an abrupt deus ex machina plot twist that just leaves behind what is, until then, a very pro-science plot.

I'd probably select The Matrix over either of those, and I'd throw Her and Wall-E in the mix, but none of those feel exactly right. All of those capture what will continue to be an increasing emphasis on living in a virtual or digital world of information in place of the physical world. The Matrix captures some of the super intelligent AI fears that have gained traction in the past year. Her has a very different take on the complexities that we'll confront when we first achieve a convincingly human AI. Most notably, the economics of companionship and love change if it becomes an abundant rather than a scarce good through digitization, but how much do we value such love, companionship, and sex because of its scarcity?

Having mentioned Interstellar earlier, it's worth mentioning Inception as well. Instead of exploring outer space, it explores what might happen if we make great leaps in venturing into inner space instead. Human consciousness becomes the frontier. Like many other sci-fi movies, though, Inception is quite attached to the physical world. Cobb and his team break into Robert Fischer's mind, but only in the hopes of breaking up a company in the physical or “real” world. Cobb's wife makes a fatal error when she chooses the virtual world over the “real” world (or confuses the two, the consequences are the same), and Cobb's redemption arc depends on his rejection of the now virtual ghost of his wife to return to his children in the real world, like Orpheus journeying out of Hades where he'd gone to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice. The still spinning top at the end of the movie leaves the audience in suspense over whether Cobb is indeed reuniting with his kids in the physical world, but most audiences read the ending as  endorsing the real world as higher value, otherwise the reunion at the end would feel false in some way.

I'm still waiting for the movie that takes the assumption of the development of virtual reality to its logical conclusion: the complete abandonment of physical reality. Almost all sci-fi movies default to the primacy of the physical world and its concerns, perhaps because that feels like the most humanist position. This is the knee-jerk vantage point of public reception of technology: deep misgivings when it conflicts with the concerns of the flesh. People who spend time with their faces buried in their cell phones are seen as rude, socially inept, uncivilized, and, at some fundamental level, inhumane (inhuman?).

But what if those people are just opting out of the numerous inconveniences and shadow prices of the physical world and choosing to engage with the most efficient delivery mechanism for mental stimulation? The issues seem particularly timely given all the activity around virtual and augmented reality. The technology is still relatively crude and a ways off from achieving what we generally mean by “reality”—that is, a simulation that instills absolute belief in the mind of the observer—but it seems within the time horizon ripe for exploration by sci-fi (call it 25 to 50 years).

I'm not arguing that virtual or augmented reality are superior to real life, but stigmatizing the technology by default means we won't explore the dark side of the technology with any rigor. It's the main issue I had with Black Mirror, the acclaimed TV anthology about the dark side of technology. The show is clever, and the writers clearly understand technology with a depth which supports more involved plotlines. However, the show, like many technology critiques, only travels at envisioning the first and often most obvious downside scenarios, as in the third episode of the first season, generally the most acclaimed and beloved of the episodes produced to date. (It's not my favorite, that scenario has been recounted again and again when it comes to total recall technology, and so I was dismayed it's the one that is being picked up to be made into an American feature film.

Far more difficult, but by extension much more interesting, would be to explore the next level, how humans might evolve to cope with these obvious problems. I'm not a fan of avant-garde that defines itself solely by what it's against, rather than what it's for. Venkatesh Rao dissects the show in one of the better critiques of the program:

According to the show’s logic, all choices created by technology are by definition degrading ones, and we only get to choose how exactly we will degrade ourselves (or more precisely, which of our existing, but cosmetically cloaked degradations we will stop being in denial about).

This is where, despite a pretty solid concept and excellent production, the show ultimately fails to deliver. Because it is equally possible to view seeming “degradation” of the priceless aspects of being human as increasing ability to give up anthropocentric conceits and grow the hell up.

This is why the choice to do a humorless show is significant, given the theme. Technology motivated humor begins with human “baseness” as a given and humans being worthwhile anyway. The goal of such humor becomes chipping away at anthropocentrism, in the form of our varied pretended dignities (the exception is identity humor, which I dislike).

It's problematic that as soon as you understand the premise and wayward trajectory of each episode, you know it's going to just drive itself off that cliff. Going one level deeper, from stasis to problem and then to solution, would likely take longer to film each episode, and perhaps that was a harder sell for network television. It might not be a coincidence that the Christmas special with Jon Hamm was longer than the in-season episodes and was the strongest installment to date.

Coincidentally, given my discussion of the need for a sci-fi movie that examines the implications of virtual reality, [MILD SPOILER ALERT ABOUT THE XMAS SPECIAL] the Christmas special focuses on literal de-corporalization and its impact. The tip of a thread of something profound about humanity peeks out there, I hope some of our sci-fi writers and directors tug on it.