Watching Criterion’s gorgeous new Blu-ray of Robinson Crusoe on Mars the other day, my immediate reaction was one of bemusement based solely on how ludicrous the movie appeared. I entered a state of, “Aren’t vintage sci-fi movies adorable?” Here was a man who crash landed on the Red Planet and immediately took off his helmet to breathe in the atmosphere. Then, later on in the film he not only finds standing water, but enough of it to swim in. He also has a friendly astronaut monkey to keep him company, eventually befriends an escaped alien slave who looks exactly like a human and has to traverse active volcanoes.
As entertaining as it all was, it made me think that scientifically ignorant sci-fi was nothing new from Hollywood. “As long as it looks great, who cares, right?” has been the motto for a long time, apparently. And Robinson Crusoe on Mars looks dynamite thanks to a brilliant kind of color palette that wasn’t abnormal for the time (here’s looking at you, Fantastic Voyage) but that has since gone extinct in favor of a grittier color spectrum.
And then I watched a special feature Criterion had put together on the film – a look at the science from actual scientists – and my mind was kind of blown.
Sure, by today’s standards Cmdr. Draper walking around Mars without a helmet is silly (duh, Total Recall taught us all that your head will explode), but at the time it was believed Mars’ thinner atmosphere would be uncomfortable but sustainable. The film had also envisioned a detachable, suborbital landing device years before NASA had actually announced plans to build such a vehicle for going to the moon. As for standing water on Mars, evidence at the time was that it was entirely plausible in certain locations, and that the movie made sure to crash land Draper near such a location.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars wasn’t just a light sci-fi adventure, it was genuine, speculative science fiction. Some of its predictions didn’t pan out, but some of them did and after watching that highly informative featurette I realized that maybe speculative sci-fi really is an endangered species.
Obviously there’s still plenty of speculation in sci-fi – the genre couldn’t exist without it – but I’m not talking about scenario, what-if based plots about alien invasions. I’m talking about legitimate predictions of what the future holds for mankind, of how we as a species will evolve as our technology evolves. Earlier era’s of sci-fi cinema (pre-80s, basically) were rife with speculation, but spectacle has progressively trumped intellect for the better part of the last two decades. And that’s certainly understandable given that people want to experience the magic of movies, we want to be shown things that aren’t tangible in our real world.
But what happened to the directors who yearned to do more than just that? The last film I can think of that made use of actual hard science was Duncan Jones’ Moon, and even then he had to go the indie route to get it made. It wasn’t long ago that Hollywood was interested in striking a balance between science and spectacle. Films like Minority Report, A.I. and even I, Robot all had real-world cores to support their more fanciful ideas. At some point speculative sci-fi became just too dorky, I guess, because those films more or less represent Hollywood’s last attempts at big budgets with a brain. (I, Robot may have been goofy, but its intent was admirable.)
If that’s the case, though, then who or what was the cause? I suppose the most obvious culprit would be the recent boom of superhero movies. Realistic conjecture doesn’t belong in worlds with superpowers, so I certainly don’t blame these movies for not attempting to show us a plausible glimpse into the future, but it does sting a little that they’ve taken up a monopoly on Hollywood blockbusters.
I’m not demanding that every movie coming out of Hollywood have a team of scientific consultants, I just hope that this current trend doesn’t become the norm for the industry. I don’t like seeing a blockbuster summer forecast that’s filled with either superheroes or giant robots. Is it so much to ask that the hero of a blockbuster is at least a college graduate?