The Existential Foundations for Science Fiction (Tyler Hummel, 12/02/23, Voegelin View)

[M]ore challenging and artistically complex cinema is still being made and wildly embraced. In the past decade, a number of surprisingly challenging and thematically complex works of science fiction have broken out into mainstream popularity in a manner that would seem surprising, were it not that this small wave of intelligent films seems to have momentarily crested.

This cluster is the subject of SUNY Polytechnic Institute associate professor Ryan Lizardi’s new book Existential Science Fiction, which offers a narrow but meaningful unpacking of this strange trend. As he argues, between 2012 and 2019, audiences received numerous high-budget science fiction films that managed to be both audience-pleasing spectacles and high-minded examinations of the nature of identity and human connection—these including Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation, and Ad Astra.

Lizardi defines “existential” as “[what] it means to exist as a human being.” These films all come from different philosophical backgrounds, but what they share in common is a desire to muse on difficult questions about what it truly means to be human. These films, despite their science-fiction dress, are fundamentally about us, as human beings. As our author writes,

What is it about our current cultural landscape that fosters content dealing directly with questions about our identity, our memory, our continuity of self, but does so through the setting of science fiction and space exploration? These works seem to be leveraging the external trappings of the science fiction genre … to explore internal thematic ideas of reaching without and within ourselves to find a continuity of our individual and collective identities.

The trend doesn’t stop with cinema. He also identifies the video games Assassins Creed, Bioshock, Soma, and Death Stranding as high-concept science fiction games worthy of discussion and extends his study to include the television shows Legion and Westworld. Lizardi doesn’t necessarily thread the needle of this trend with any sort of theories as to why this trend happened. He acknowledges fully that Hollywood is a capitalist industry and that these trends are likely profit-driven more than intentional, particularly given the diversity of the artists and mediums behind this trend.

The point being where profit lies: the Culture Wars are a rout.