The future freaks me out
“All good science fiction has a basis in something that is plausible,” stated professor Tristan Long of Wilfrid Laurier University’s science faculty. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) couldn’t agree more. Bridging the gap between real and imaginary, NASA scientists compiled a list last year of the most plausible science fiction movies to ever hit the silver screen. Lead by Gattaca, Contact and Metropolis, the list included films which showcased the predicted potential of new and advancing technologies. But what caused these three to place first?
Gattaca, a film released in 1997, depicts a dystopian world in which a person’s social status is determined by their genetics due to the process of embryo screening and sequencing. Embryo screening requires in-vitro fertilization, which allows an egg to be fertilized outside of the body so that the zygote may be screened for genetic disorders before implantation. The result is that parents can have a better idea and even a say in their child’s level of health.
“In the movie what they do is at birth they do a genetic sequence of the entire genome of a baby,” explained Long. “They’ll run it through a computer and that computer says this individual is of high genetic quality or of possible inferior genetic quality.”
In Gattaca, every individual’s genetics are revealed and judged at birth, placing them into societal categories. These technologies not only exist in modern science but are still evolving and developing.
“In the 90s, we got to our first sequencing of a human genome,” said Long. “The cost has gone down, the speed has gone up, and it’s now possible to sequence in greater detail, much faster and much cheaper.”
Problematically, Gattaca’s characters use their technology in an unjust manner. They assume a person’s destiny can be determined explicitly by their genetics when in fact, there are various factors which play into how a life unfolds.
“We’re not at a point where we can predict a person’s life based on their genes,” remarked Long, though he stated that humans have potential to go down that road. “We could get to this dystopia in Gattaca where people [are] no longer judging people based on their own performances but based on their DNA sequences.”
Like Gattaca, Contact was first released in 1997. Unlike typical space-based science-fiction films of the time, which were known to feature men in platinum suits battling elaborate alien species, Contact is built around solid physics.
“The thing that is different about Contact is that it was written by a physicist, Carl Sagan,” said Laurier astronomy professor Shohini Ghose. “There’s of course a lot of good science background there.”
In the film, a scientist receives signals from aliens baring instructions for a machine which will enable her to travel through space by wormhole.
“A wormhole is, in principle, really possible in the sense that it is predicted by currently known laws of physics,” explained Ghose.
“According to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity… when you have very massive objects like giant stars and so on, they actually can affect, literally, the shape of space and time around them,” Ghose elaborated. “So they can kind of bend and fold it. If you fold it enough, you can get these interesting structures that are like tunnels through space time and that’s what we call a worm hole.”
Like many other “space movies,” Contact operates on the premise that there is life elsewhere in the universe.
“Do I think there’s a possibility that there is alien life out there?” Ghose mused. “Personally, yes. Our galaxy alone has a hundred billion stars and the universe as a whole has a hundred billion galaxies. That’s a huge place.”
What keeps us from knowing for sure is the matter of time. “Even the nearest stars we found that seem vaguely possible that there might be life there, are at least a hundred years in terms of one way communication,” said Ghose. “So two hundred years later, we would get a signal back – maybe.”
“There are significant barriers to being actually able to communicate between civilizations. We’d have to get to a certain level of advancement on both ends.”
Metropolis, a silent film from 1927, completes the top three films of NASA’s list.
It distinguishes itself due to its lack of an entirely scientific premise, commenting more so on the economy in the setting of a dystopian society where the rich literally rule in tall buildings over the poor working beneath them.
Laurier economics professor Tammy Schirle explained that at the time that the film was released, this was a genuine fear.
“There was no social safety net in the 1920s,” Schirle told The Cord. “If you’re laid off you get nothing. That’s the reality of the 1920s.”
This made the threat of such a division between the upper and lower class of society feasible and the fear has returned to an extent in modern times following the recession.
“There is a growing separation between the very rich and the middle class,” admitted Schirle, “And there’s a smaller gap between the middle class and [the] very poor.”
However, Schirle stated that social programs will prevent the rich from ever truly overpowering the poor. “We’ve put mechanisms in place to make sure that never happens,” she concluded.
Perhaps the reason NASA chose this particular film was its portrayal of the first humanoid robot to be seen on the silver screen.
Robotics is a recognized field and the idea of humanoid robots have nearly been made into a reality due to advancements made through ideas such as artificial intelligence.
“Robotics has a lot to do with artificial intelligence,” said Laurier professor of computer science Ilias Kotsireas. “A lot of the algorithms developed in artificial intelligence are also used in robotics.”
“The idea of artificial intelligence was, in the beginning, that we were going to teach the computer how to think and then the computer would be able to think by itself,” he continued.
“This aim proved to be too ambitious so it hasn’t happened yet. However, the algorithms and the techniques that were developed in the realm of artificial intelligence proved to be very important in a whole array of disciplines and one of them was robotics.”
Science fiction is the elaboration of ideas, as is all fiction. But every great achievement starts with an idea, and those featured here are approaching actuality.
“We are between science fiction and reality,” stated Kotsireas. Recalling the innovative author who pioneered the genre, Jules Vern, Kotsireas added, “Back when there were no airplanes, he was writing about machines that could fly. He was a visionary, and there are visionaries today.”