We’re fast approaching the final frontier. These futuristic movies, TV shows and books envisioned what it might be like when we get there.
Imagining interplanetary life is a hot topic, and rightfully so. At some point in the not-too-distant future we’ll no doubt be left with little choice but to up sticks and leave ol’ Mother Earth to her own devices. Either that or face certain destruction at the hands of an Amazon delivery drone revolution. Personally I’m quite attached to my two-day shipping, so colonizing a bunch of aliens is an ethical fence I’m willing to hop over if push comes to shove. And perhaps it won’t be so hostile? Who knows — maybe one day humans, Martians and the android birds and bees will shack up together in some 22nd-century robot-hippie lovefest, introducing a trans-species of flesh-droid Klingon into the next millennium. A (posthu)man can dream…
…of electric sheep and a whole lot more (to take a leaf from the book of one Philip K. Dick). These six movies, shows and novels have been enshrined in the corridors of history for their efforts at imagining our future on other planets. Some without hope, some with headstrong optimism, but all with a certain confidence in its inevitability: one day there will indeed be life on Mars.
Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t watched one of the movies that follow, skip to the next one to avoid spoilers.
1. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) & Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
The original peace-and-love, multicultural fantasy set in a future of intergalactic democracy, laser-beam showdowns, and nerd gang signs. Star Trek originally hails from the hippie generation of ’60s counterculture, but its ’80s and ’90s reboots really took it to the next level. Set 99 years after the original series, Next Gen follows the escapades of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and crew as they discover new civilizations and negotiate their way out of sticky situations with angry Klingons “to boldly go where no one has gone before” (note the gender neutrality!). Voyager one-upped its predecessor in its progressivism, planting a woman at the helm and decking out the crew with equally sophisticated and tech-savvy females, each with a penchant for solving puzzles and occasionally going ham on bad guys with their laser beams. All told, if we forgive the spandex obsession, Star Trek dreamed up quite a radical vision of our future space fantasia.
2. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Set 30 years after the end of the first movie, recent Academy Award winner Blade Runner 2049 reimagines, through stunning cinematography and special effects, the posthuman planet of its predecessor “post-blackout.” The replicant AI slaves built to serve and protect their human masters have advanced in design, but the planet(s) they call home have continued to resist their integration into the rights and liberties of their organic counterparts. Where Blade Runner (1982) asked what it means to be human, its sequel tackles the contemporary territory of “post-truth” in a post-9/11 world of social media, climate change and capitalist endgames. Rick Deckard is back, played by Harrison Ford, alongside his replicant protégé agent “K,” played by Ryan Gosling, who is tasked with closing down what remains of a replicant resistance to the police state. Humans fear the replicants have developed the ability to reproduce, thereby collapsing the distinction between the two “species” and upsetting the power relations. “K” plays his role in uncovering the myth’s reality, discovering that the first organically “born” replicant is in fact Deckard’s daughter. In so doing, he introduces a new hope for his species and for a more empathetic and humane existence on Earth.
3. WALL-E (2008)
Once we had R2-D2, then there was RoboCop, Bender, and eventually God Disney brought us WALL-E: a lovable robot garbage man left behind to clean up the mess made by our descendants. Released in 2008, the movie presents a dystopian vision of our world post-financial-and-environmental meltdown. It reverses the traditional human/robot paradigm by portraying WALL-E as the empathetic hero of the story rather than just some mindless AI droid. This subverts the usual scare narrative that intelligent machines and futuristic technology represent humanity’s greatest threat, instead suggesting that humans are in fact responsible for their own demise. It proposes that the misuse and abuse of such technologies would lead to self-exile from the planet we so desperately need to stop exploiting. What makes WALL-E such a success is that it reminds us of our destructive actions while maintaining comedy and romance at its core.
4. Moon (2011)
Moon continues the paranoia foregrounded in the Philip K. Dick canon, speculating that in a future society unrestrained from the “surly bonds of earth,” the most dehumanizing practices of contemporary society might be refined and rocketed into space. Moon follows the solitary routine of a single astronaut (not quite) alone on the Earth’s space station on the moon, monitoring precious resource extraction for the survival of those back home. But there’s a twist, and the movie’s unraveling reveals the lonely center of the plot: Sam Rockwell’s character is in fact a clone of a clone of a clone (etc.) of a once-upon-a-time real astronaut, brainwashed and programmed to carry out this solitary labor in peace before eventually being retired. The periodic video chats with his wife and kids back on Earth are in fact simulations of their long-lost ancestors. In this way, the movie invites the viewer to acknowledge their uncomfortable position as beneficiary to this speculative exploitation, and in so doing hints at the resemblance of our current practices.
5. Total Recall (1990)
Where Blade Runner dealt with the question of what it means to be human in a posthuman world, Total Recall raises the stakes to interrogate the fundamentals of reality, dreams and identity. Both adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories, the movies share a concern with the conflicts likely resulting from “a life galactic.” Mars is by now colonized and a site of conflict since the discovery and ensuing search for a secret alien artifact. When the protagonist of Total Recall, played by none other than the Terminator himself, starts having disturbing dreams about Mars, he begins to question the authenticity of the world around him. In a plot that dips and dives through espionage, romance and rebellion, the only constant is the inconstancy of reality as we know it. Eventually it transpires that Arnie’s character is either a spy with fake memories or a revolutionary whose memories have been erased. As he tries to find out who he really is, the only sure thing is that interplanetary life might be as riddled with corruption, deception and greed as any existence on Earth.
6. Artemis (2017)
Andy Weir, author of The Martian, has written a follow-up that’s been gaining acclaim across the country. Winner of last year’s GoodReads Choice Award, Artemis is set 70 years in the future when humans have colonized the moon. A sci-fi thriller, Artemis follows the adventures of the young, witty criminal Jazz Bashara. Jazz grew up in Saudi Arabia in a blue-collar family, and as an adult she works as a porter on the moon’s only city, Artemis. The author says writing was originally just a hobby while he studied programming in college, but that’s precisely where the science of the two novels originates. Despite his NASA-geek pretensions, however, Weir explained in an interview that he’d never go into space, as he suffers from severe anxiety: “I write about brave people. I’m not one of them. […] I’m afraid of flying!” But this is also the source of the novel’s dynamic twists and turns, he said, as “when you’re writing a story, if you’re thinking of everything that can go wrong, that helps you write the story.” Luckily we have imaginative authors like Weir to speculate about the obstacles we might face jet-setting around the galaxy before we actually run into them ourselves. Most of all, the novel tackles some crucial questions. Like why in this fancy space age does a character like Jazz even exist? Or how can we cultivate life on the moon while poverty’s still alive and well?
So there you have it. Some of these stories are just good old escapist fun, and the rest of them attempt to grapple with the chance that someday, somewhere, perhaps in a galaxy far, far away, we might just figure out how to live not just differently but more justly. They achieve this not simply by telling us how to be better through happy endings, but by refusing to wrap up the stories neatly with a little bow, tasking us instead to go out and address our current issues on Earth. So be inspired, go forth, and seize the day! By the time we get to Mars, our fate will already be sealed for the millennium ahead. Let’s make it a good one!