Flying cars, dodgy genetics and Jar Jar Binks – we sift out the best and worst of on-screen science
Thanks to Blade Runner (1982), the now not-so-distant future is set to be a massive anti-climax. In Ridley Scott’s vision of 2019, we are driving flying cars, speaking to each other in an exotic fusion of German and Japanese, and Harrison Ford is young and beautiful. The next four years won’t bring us any of those luxuries; the best we can hope for is probably a flexible iPad. Let’s hope the Blade Runner sequel, ideally with Ryan Gosling joining Deckard’s space-police brigade, is so awe-inspiring that we forget how bland the future has turned out to be.
We’re not demanding our sharpest scientific minds dedicate themselves to the study of Star Wars, but if some techies have enough time to invent the smartwatch, it does seem ridiculous that we still don’t know how lightsabers work or where the Ewoks are living. The film industry works tirelessly to deliver inspiration for techies; surely there are some spare engineers who could finally invent teleportation devices? Our sci-fi shopping list is long, so to make things simple, we’ve picked some absolute must-haves for scientists to work on. Some sci-fi inventions should obviously remain on film – dodgy genetics, Jar Jar Binks – so we’ve also included scenarios for scientists to avoid like a bad Star Wars prequel.
DO: GIVE US IMMORTALITY AND ETERNAL YOUTH
Starring in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bowie transfixes us as alien interloper and genius inventor Newton. Searching for water to save his family from the drought wrecking his home planet, Newton just wants to rebuild his space-pod and fly back with supplies, but life on Earth is too overwhelming. The consumerist civilisation he has crashed into corrupts him; he succumbs to the pleasures of alcohol and starts watching eight TVs simultaneously. The poor humanoid can’t even go up a lift without getting a nosebleed. Finally, he is betrayed by one of his few human friends and ends up imprisoned by scientists. It’s not an enviable position to be in, but at least Newton’s androgynous beauty doesn’t fade during the decades of his incarceration. We’re indebted to Nicolas Rogue for immortalising Bowie as a yellow-eyed extra-terrestrial, but we’d be even more grateful to any real-world mastermind who could immortalise us too.
DON'T: RAVAGE OTHER PLANET'S RESOURCES
The gigantic sandworms in Lynch’s sci-fi epic Dune (1984) are worshipped as gods by the Fremen people of planet Arrakis, but also feared for hunting down and crushing the melange-miners. Melange, also known as “the spice”, is a valuable narcotic, but the mining process attracts the killer sandworms. Dune offers an important message for anyone aspiring to colonise other planets, like the astronauts chosen for the Mars One mission. Only the Fremen messiah Paul (played by the ever-wonderful Kyle MacLachlan) has the power to control the sandworms of Arrakis, but such visionary leaders are rare outside the realms of science fiction. Maybe it’s wiser to use our own natural wealth more economically rather than fixating on other planets. Covered in sand dunes, Jupiter’s brick-red moon Titan is supposedly the most earth-like planet in the solar system, a possible out-post for future human society. If there are giant drugged-up sandworms writhing there, though, we should probably leave them alone.
DO: DIGITISE US
Trippy visuals and a geek-speak heavy script make Tron (1982) one of the weirdest films to fall off the Disney production line. After failing to hack into a computer system that is vying for world domination, Jeff Bridges is sucked into the video game he designed himself by a digitising laser beam. It would be difficult to understand Tron’s plot if the characters didn’t fulfil the usual stereotypes – bad-guy Brit, rogue American hero, token woman love-interest – but the film’s Pac Man-era graphics make you want to jump inside your telly box. Could an elaborate version of the 3D printer make this possible? Once our VR-fascination is exhausted, scientists think about pixelating people so that we can play inside our favourite video games.
DON'T: WIPE AWAY OUR FLAWS
A utopian world-order, enforced by a brutal regime, is the ultimate sci-fi storyline. In Serenity (2005), Joss Whedon repackages this classic concept, warning us of the perils of a science that plays god. Five hundred years in the future, researchers try weeding out all aggression for the betterment of society. They release a pacifying chemical into the atmosphere of planet Miranda, but the drug is so effective that the inhabitants don’t doing anything at all and just wait to die. A small group, however, have the opposite reaction and become raving cannibals, surviving to terrorise the solar system.
The dystopian visions of films like Gattaca (1997) are less removed from the realms of possibility. Europe has already been so deeply scarred by eugenics-inspired atrocities that it may seem inconceivable that the misuse of genetics, or misinterpretation of Darwian theory, would ever be permitted in the future. However, as our understanding improves, ethical debates raised in Gattaca will remain relevant. Shocking many in the scientific community last month, Chinese scientists reported genetically modifying a human embryo for the first time. The group at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou were attempting to cure a fatal blood disorder, but they say their research was rejected by top scientific journals due to ethical objections.
Designer babies, and the tyranny of genetic discrimination dramatized in Gattaca, are probably further off than media reports imply, although the worries are understandable. The immediate concern is one of safety. Precisely because our techniques are still rudimental, scientists worry that this is a form of Frankenstein genetics that shouldn’t be performed on embryos yet.
Ultimately, scientists are infinitely more constrained than we may think. In many ways, Children of Men (2006) most accurately reflects how the scientists feel themselves: struggling, confused, bound-up by the seemingly inexplicable laws of nature. We’re not on the threshold of a techno-autocracy because the human imagination often gets there first, advancing an ethical discussion long before the science is sophisticated enough to be abused. As long as science fiction remains inventive, our worst imaginings are unlikely to materialise.