Science fiction movies serve as directional indicators for the winds of the zeitgeist. In the 1950s we were served up cautionary tales about the misuse of science. We fooled with atomic energy and got gigantic spiders, a 50-foot woman, an Incredible Shrinking Man—and, of course, Godzilla. We were meant to take away from these films a sense that we shouldn't muck about with the natural order or play God.
Fast-forward to the sci-fi films of the 1990s, and the picture is much different. Now we are co-gods with evolution. Evolution is destiny, but destiny can be shaped by human science. Sure, we'll make a few mistakes, but we'll press on because it's in our nature to do so, and eventually we'll control not only our destiny, but the destiny of the universe—through science and brute force. With no creator there are no creatures, only organisms.
In Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 sci-fi novel Starship Troopers, an officer delivers a lengthy apologetic for the application of swift, merciless force in intergalactic conquest:
But does Man have any "right" to spread through the universe?
Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics—you name it—is nonsense. Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is—not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
The universe will let us know—later—whether or not Man has any "right" to expand through it.
In the meantime the [Mobile Infantry] will be in there, on the bounce and swinging, on the side of our own race.
In the recently released film version of Starship Troopers, giant insect warriors, the Arachnids, having battled Earth's armies in space, take the war to their enemy. As the film begins, they have just wiped out Buenos Aires in a surprise attack. Whereas in the novel, the Arachnids use advanced weapons and space ships, director Paul Verhoeven has de-evolved them into a horde of instinct-driven vermin inhabiting barren asteroids. In his vision, they wage war like the red and black ant battalions on Thoreau's woodpile—with their claws.
Their ability to attack other planets hinges on the queen's capacity to blast magma—a death-dealing liquid brimming with fertilized eggs—from her exoskeleton. A more insidious theme arises when it turns out that the Arachnids seem to be evolving rather quickly, learning to anticipate Earth's battle tactics and developing effective countermeasures with each engagement.
The young protagonists of Starship Troopers are four humans who enter federal service directly out of high school. Federal service ensures citizenship, which, like party membership in any totalitarian state, carries privileges. Two of the schoolmates enter the elite Mobile Infantry (MI), whose boot camp makes the marines look like a bunch of pansies. Another trains as a pilot. The fourth (in the book) becomes an electronics expert. In the film, however, he is a sort of parapsychologist who studies various forms of ESP. His small role gives Starship Troopers its amoral center.
After a disastrous engagement with the Arachnids, the mi troopers retreat. They suspect that their lack of air cover was no accident, and they are right. They were being used to draw out intelligence on the Arachnids, who, it seems, are being directed by a shared mind—a brain bug. The brain bug's cognitive powers are evolving as it literally sucks the gray matter out of captured mi troopers' skulls and metabolizes their capacity for logic.
When the troopers manage to capture one of the brain bugs, their parapsychologist high-school pal, now an intelligence officer, arrives decked out in a Gestapo-style trench coat and black fedora to explain what has been going on. He examines the captive brain bug and deduces what the hapless creature is feeling: fear. At this pronouncement, the victorious troopers holler with savage glee.
This might seem merely a variant of the standard-issue war movie, but Verhoeven the nihilist isn't playing it straight. The film implies that humans started the war, which has been raging for several years over mineral-rich asteroids. Instead of replaying the familiar scenario of righteous heroes fighting against an evil foe (the Nazis, the Imperial storm troopers of Star Wars), Verhoeven lures viewers into identifying with the aggressors.
The controlled-evolution-is-destiny theme gets a slightly different treatment in Alien Resurrection, the latest sequel to the extraordinarily successful Alien. Reilly (Sigourney Weaver) was killed in the previous installment, but now we meet her clone, who is being incubated as a host organism for an alien. The aliens are "Perfect Predators." Caring only about reproducing their own kind and wiping out all other life forms, they take no prisoners, desire no slaves, make no treaties. Naturally, a group of renegade geneticists can't resist the temptation to tame and use these creatures.
The newly cloned Reilly has a funny look in her eye, and she is very calm when she tells the scientists that they'll soon be dead. She's also a killer basketball player who can beat up the boys. It turns out that this lab-produced Reilly has inadvertently swapped a bit of DNA with the alien, who has also picked up a few genetically determined tricks from Reilly. Fortunately for the human race, the new, improved Reilly—assisted by a cyborg—is able to succeed where standard-issue humans have failed. She kills the last remaining alien, who is technically her grandchild, and blends into the vast amorphous gene pool of planet Earth. The scientists have played God, and it has turned out okay. They have enhanced Earth's breeding stock.
In the original Alien, human space travelers stumbled upon dormant eggs in an abandoned spacecraft. As the film developed, it became clear that the aliens were a force bent on the total destruction of all other species; the use of unlimited force was presented as a defensive measure.
In a few short years, scientists have progressed from cloning fruit flies to sheep. Huxley's Brave New World looms on the horizon, and while the science may be inevitable, the ethics have yet to be developed. The fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spaniards coupled maritime technology with raw, brute force to conquer and enslave the New World. Nuclear fission's first application was to incinerate civilian populations, including thousands of Japanese Christians. As genetic manipulation becomes a fact of life, scientists will undoubtedly find redemptive uses for it: screening out inherited diseases, for instance. But the potential for misuse will be incalculable. If this new knowledge is coupled with a belief that societies can manipulate the evolution of the species to a position of unquestioned dominance, the Tower of Babel will seem like a quaint diversion.
Set against such dark visions, Andrew Niccol's film Gattaca is a more cerebral, more life-affirming variation of the themes of biofascist destiny. In a world where the elite class is made up of perfectly engineered genetic wonders, a "faith-birth" renegade, Jerome Morrow (Ethan Hawke), borrows the genetic imprint of another man who has been crippled in an accident. Irene (Uma Thurman) is his foil, a nearly perfect woman who dwells on her one flaw. The visual palette is a cross between Wall Street blue and Reichstag chic; the message is a more upbeat version of Winston Smith's rage against the regime in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
These finely imagined films perch upon false premises, but they ring true, even to believers, in the current ennui. Postmodern society continues to abandon the remnants of a God-centered outlook for a Nietzschean world-view where might and technology determine humankind's fate. Biofascist sci-fi offers only the shadow of a promise—that somehow we can evolve to a higher level. It rules out the true promise of a Redeemer who is even now preparing a better end.
Stefan Ulstein is a teacher and film critic.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture . For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.