STAR E-200. The Imagination of Disaster: American Science Fiction Cinema and Television


  • Professor: Charlotte Szilagyi
  • Term: Spring
  • Days: Th
  • Time: 5:50-7:50
  • School: Harvard Extension School
  • Course ID: 26006

A century after science fiction studies solidified as a discipline and entered popular culture, Hollywood science fiction cinema captivates audiences by the radical transformations of the human condition it envisions. Technological immortality, time travel, teleportation, parallel universes, extraterrestrial life, space exploration, cyborgs, robots, aliens, mutants, human evolution, and dystopian societies—these tropes of advanced science and technology capture our attention now more than ever. Often eerily prescient oracles, sci-fi cinema's prophetic sights and sounds foretold, time after time and with compelling accuracy, the trajectory from science fiction to science fact. With humanity entering the Anthropocene epoch, where human activity exerts unprecedented impact on the environment and climate—and with human beings increasingly replaced by the posthuman—Hollywood sci-fi cinema has become the premier force in playing out the imagination of disaster. In the quest to overcome humanity's limitations, sci-fi cinema—a cinema of "what if?"—confronts us with questions, offers answers to some, and forces us to ask ourselves even more. How might we make sense of sci-fi cinema and its strong appeal? What is its relationship to science, technology, politics, history, other genres, and pop culture? In what ways is sci-fi cinema influenced by advances in technology? Conversely, how does sci-fi cinema influence scientific inquiry itself? Above all, to what extent is sci-fi cinema transformative? Can powerful works of science fiction not just describe the future, but also change it? At a time of an exponential expanse in empirical knowledge and technological ability, but also, crucially, a time of human history nearing a critical point of no return, the mission of this course is threefold. First, we examine the iconography, tropes, and conventions of the science fiction genre to interrogate how this speculative cinema, due to the radical questions it poses, and the alternative social scenarios it envisions, emerges as the most revolutionary film genre. Second, we investigate specific ways in which sci-fi cinema has reflected—and reflected on—acute social and historical phenomena such as automation, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, surveillance, copyright, privacy, first amendment, race and gender inequality, totalitarianism, national security, racial profiling, smart weapons, the specter of nuclear war, eco-fascism, the posthuman, corporate greed, manipulative media, immigration, complicit governments, global pandemics, and climate change. Third, we probe the ways in which the Hollywood sci-fi, with all its dystopias, catastrophes, and cautionary tales imagining total disaster, is ultimately a fundamentally optimistic genre. We examine titles including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Planet of the Apes (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Soylent Green (1973), Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), 12 Monkeys (1995), The Matrix (1999), Children of Men (2006), District 9 (2009), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010), and Interstellar (2014), Westworld episode "The Original" (2016), and Stranger Things episode "The Vanishing of Will Byers" (2016).