Science fiction films were there at the beginning, and they have been a constant throughout the history of film. However, while examples such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) and Metropolis (1927) were integral to cinema’s infancy, the production of science fiction films declined throughout the 1930s and 1940s, largely due to the effects of the Great Depression and the advent of the Second World War. They didn’t disappear completely, though, as during this time feature films gave way to serials based on comic strips such as Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939).
It wasn’t until a sense of ‘normalcy’ returned to the Western world in the late 1940s/early 1950s that the production of science fiction films resumed in earnest. This occurred chiefly because of two factors: the Western world’s cultural concerns of the post-war period, and the emergence of teenagers as a unique subset of the population. Broadly speaking, two distinct ‘types’ of cinematic science fiction emerged to engage with these factors: sober Cold War parables such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and On the Beach (1959) addressed said cultural concerns, while low-budget Creature Features such as Them! (1955) and The Blob (1958) entertained the teenage masses.
Everything changed in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the dawn of the counterculture movement, with many science fiction filmmakers rejecting both standardised subgenres and the typical modes of expression expected by society at large. The auteur movement reshaping European film resulted in art-house gems such as Alphaville (1965) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966); psychedelic and ‘Head Trip’ culture inspired optimistic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Barbarella (1968); the growing pessimism of the 1970s following the folly of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the OAPEC oil crisis spawned grim visions such as THX 1138 (1971) and Mad Max (1979); and certain filmmakers combined science fiction tropes with those from other genres to deliver ‘hybrid’ films such as Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which combined the tropes of science fiction, fantasy and westerns, and Alien (1979) which combined the tropes of science fiction and horror .
When the 1980s arrived, one aspect of science fiction films that had been largely abandoned during the 1960s and 1970s quickly returned: standardised subgenres. However, the subgenres of this era were no throwback to those of the 1950s and 1960s; instead, brand new subgenres emerged that are still in place today. The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986) cemented the concept of science fiction/horror, consolidating what had begun with Alien; while E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Flight of the Navigator (1986) introduced serious family-friendly science fiction. Likewise, Outland (1980) and Predator (1987) fused science fiction with action; and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) and Spaceballs (1987) introduced ‘adult’ science fiction/comedies, which had previously mostly exhibited a distinctively juvenile edge.
These new subgenres weren’t the only dramatic change of this era, for it also saw the emergence of the serious franchise, some of which were expansions of cinematic worlds created in the 1970s. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) expanded the world of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, as did Aliens (1986) to that of 1979’s Alien, and The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) to that of 1979’s Mad Max. So ground-breaking were these developments that they continue to this day; in the last decade alone, sequels have been released that expand the worlds of Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Predator (1987), as well as those of the Star Wars, Alien and Mad Max series.
Effectively all of these subgenres still exist, as seen in films such as the science fiction/horror of 28 Days Later (2002) and Life (2017), the science fiction/comedy of Nothing (2003) and Paul (2011), the science fiction/action of The Island (2005) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and the family-friendly science fiction of WALL-E (2008) and 2015’s Tomorrowland (2015
Another subgenre that came into its own in the 1980s was the dark science fiction satire.
This may seem a contradiction in light of the aforementioned continued production of science fiction/comedies, but there is in fact a crucial difference: the word comedy really functions as an umbrella term that contains many easily identifiable subgenres, while the word satire denotes one of its specific subgenres. In effect, most science fiction/comedies can be identified as a specific subgenre of comedy and placed into a pigeonhole crammed with others founded upon similar traits. There are thrill rides with an irreverent tone, such as Ghostbusters (1984); lovingly-crafted spoofs, such as Spaceballs (1987); comedy-action-dramas with a big heart, such as Back to the Future (1985); bawdy slices of juvenilia aimed directly at the teenage market, such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989); or wacky/zany/absurd laugh-fests that directly engage with science fiction’s tropes and cliches, such as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).
Satire is just another of these subgenres. However, while most of these other comedy subgenres are still in existence—Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is an irreverent thrill ride, Eight Legged Freaks (2002) is a lovingly-crafted spoof, Paul (2011) is a bawdy slice of juvenilia, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is as wacky/zany/absurd as they come—science fiction satires are nowadays quite rare.
So, what is satire? And why has it almost completely disappeared from the big screen in science fiction form?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines satire as ‘a humorous way of criticising people or ideas to show that they have faults or are wrong, or to prove a political point.’ In light of this, it is easy to see what differentiates satire from other types of comedy: while most comedies simply aim to entertain and provide a laugh, satire is intended to make us think about the cultural/societal/political problems we face. In many ways, this is a similar modus operandi to science fiction—the best works of science fiction re-frame the world we live in through the genre’s tropes, allowing us to see it in a new light. Substitute the word ‘tropes’ for the word ‘humour’ and the similarities between the two become obvious.
It is therefore fitting that certain filmmakers combined the two types in their efforts to make specific points about the societies that they either observed or were a part of, and it shouldn’t be surprising that science fiction satires really came into being during the 1970s. This was, after all, a decade of social pessimism and upheaval—as mentioned, its major and minor upheavals spawned grim visions such as THX 1138 (1971) and Mad Max (1979).
However, they also spawned science fiction satires that combined dark humour and the genre’s tropes to highlight and critique the problems coursing through Western society. A Clockwork Orange (1971) exaggerated the divide between progressives and conservatives, and the battles between gangs/tribes of youths. Dark Star (1974) satirised NASA’s slump following the successful moon landing of 1969, and the sense that space exploration had now become a mundane phenomenon. Rollerball (1975) exaggerated the commercialisation of sport, and the commensurate emphasis on violent conflict at the expense of healthy competition. The Stepford Wives (1975) satirised conservative reactions to feminism, delivering a ludicrous world in which patriarchal power systems once again reigned supreme.
In the second half of the decade, following the resignation of Richard Nixon and America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the appearance of stability returned to the Western world and science fiction satires became few and far between. Everything changed in the 1980s, though, with the election of Ronald Reagan stripping away this appearance of stability to expose the turmoil and conflict that had been bubbling away beneath the surface, and thus certain science fiction filmmakers chose to highlight this turmoil and conflict through the lens of satire. This conflict and turmoil, and the subsequent societal pressures and problems, grew worse as the decade progressed, giving said filmmakers more grist for the mill than ever before. In combination with advances in film-making techniques and a willingness on the part of major studios to support filmmakers in their satirical critiques of them, this allowed satires to rise to a place of prominence and excellence.
Escape From New York (1981), in which Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison run by the inmates themselves, satirises ‘white flight’ and the subsequent urban decay of urban centres. Gremlins (1984), in which mischievous pint-sized monsters run riot through a picture-perfect American suburb, satirises Reagan’s evocation of an idyllic America that never really existed. Robocop (1987), in which a struggling police force turns to robots and cyborgs to combat urban gangs and violent crime, satirises hard-line law enforcement and urban decay. They Live (1988), in which a blue-collar worker uncovers an alien conspiracy intent on brainwashing the population, satirises government control, wealth inequality and consumerism as a way of life. These examples—alongside others such as Repo Man (1984), Brazil (1985), The Stuff (1985) and The Running Man (1987)—combined po-faced seriousness with exaggeration, camp aesthetics and ridiculousness to hammer home their satirical points, with most frequently appearing on lists of the best science fiction films of all time.
Science fiction satires continued into the 1990s, despite many of the societal pressures and problems of the 1980s easing thanks to the end of the Cold War and the end of the Reagan/Bush presidencies. Thus, instead of satires on ‘white flight,’ urban decay, fevered conservatism or rampant consumerism, filmmakers turned to satirising America’s cultural ascendancy and military might, as seen in films such as Demolition Man (1993), Mars Attacks (1996) and Starship Troopers (1997). However, these were really satire’s last hurrah—by the early 21st century it had mostly become moribund on the big screen, thanks to a combination of factors including reactionary Western patriotism in the wake of 9/11, the rise of television as a high-quality art-form, the ‘dumbing down’ of mass culture, and most mainstream entertainment’s subsequent slow-but-inexorable abandonment of subtlety and subtext in favour of spectacle and bombast.
In fact, one of the last great science fiction satires tackled these factors to such a successful degree that the genre has struggled to regain traction ever since. This was Idiocracy (2006), a time-travel tale in which an average American soldier volunteers for an experimental cryogenic procedure. As is the way with such stories, things go awry and he is revived after 500 years rather than 1, to find himself literally the smartest person on the planet. What follows is an absurd and satirical romp in which a combination of extreme patriotism, ‘dumbed down’ culture and bombastic entertainment has rendered its future world a terrifying fun-house reflection of contemporary society.
There isn’t much subtlety or subtext to its approach or its depiction of this future world, and that is clearly the point that its creators are trying to make. In a world where such devices are considered by large swathes of the population to be not only outdated but anathema, satirising them can only be achieved by amping them up and throwing them back in an audience’s face. And so, in the age of Trumpism, rising authoritarianism and a rejection of science and expertise by both left-wing and right-wing segments of the population, Idiocracy (2006) seems less like an absurd warning and more like a cautionary tale that is coming to pass.
Perhaps that is why science fiction satires have waned and declined in popularity. After all, how do you satirise something that already seems to be satirising itself?
(Originally published in Aurealis #140, May 2021)