To expand upon a series of tweets from last week, American science fiction cinema reflects the contemporary fears of society. It doesn't do a good job of projecting the future because the stories turned into movies or TV shows are selected by Hollywood producers that want to tap into a current mood. I include comic books in the discussion as comics themselves have seen origin stories change to fit the times. For all the chrome and funny noises, the stories are just playing on your fears of something new.
The 1950s and 1960s were full of space stories as well as atomic themes. Was there truly something out there? Would unlocking the atom bring us great treasures or destroy everything we know? Examples are a quarter of the Twilight Zone episodes, creature films where the creature is due to atomic testing, Spider man (atomic spider bite), Hulk + the Fantastic Four (space rays), and even the Silver Surfer and Galactus (space invaders).
The 1970s saw a continuation of space stories but the last man on earth type movies crept into play. This coincided with the space program reaching the moon as well as global fears from the early environmentalist movement that crapped out books like "The Population Bomb". The last man on earth stories reflected that fear of what would happen if a nuclear war did take place. Dystopian literature that had started in the '60s was turned into cinema in the '70s stagflation, unraveling period. Charlton Heston seemed to star in a bunch of these with Soylent Green being the best. In a decade typified by Alan Alda and Woody Allen, Heston and Eastwood were the last real men in Hollywood.
The 1980s were chock full of computer and robot movies. Computers and robots were always trying to take over the world or had taken over the world.... still using punch cards. Part of this could have been fears of atuomation in economic life as well as the basic fear of machines that laymen understood less and less. My grandfather can explain the basics of how a car uses gas to make the car move. Skype might as well be magic to him.
The 1990s focused more on genetics and biological issues, and the idea of 'is it real?' crept into play. When Hollywood adapted Hulk and Spiderman to the big screen for the 1st time, they made the Hulk a product of genetic experiments and Spiderman was bit by a genetically engineered spider. Species was about an alien whow as crossed with a human to create a hot, hybrid alien that needed to get naked. Gattaca was one of the best movies no one else has ever watched in my circle of friends, and it felt like a realistic portrayal of what genetic engineering would do to society when unleashed on the human status game. Jurassic Park was all about genetic engineering. The reality theme started with Total Recall and peaked with The Matrix. That toys with our narcissism, but also points out just how much of a circus and show people view our current civilization.
That theme of civilization being a joke or a giant production has given way to the new obsession: zombies. Zombies and the other trend, disaster movies where humans have little hope of preventing disaster, reflect our fear of civilization collapse. These trends started in the late '90s, and have been the major force for sci-fi. We do see what a joke the show that is society is and that society has become worse, but we recognize just how shitty life would be if things broke down. Shooting scores of zombies might be necessary when the EBT cards run out. There's a comet-asteroid-2012 Mayan doomsday prophecy coming that will hit no matter what, and we're forced to regroup in a smaller, less complex setting.
How transparent is the zombies for civilization collapse theme? There is a debate about zombies being the slow walking traditional type or the 28 Days Later fast moving type. I think 28 Days Later was one of the most intense moviegoing experiences because of the fast nature of the zombies, but they weren't zombies. They were infected people. I am a traditionalist in that I believe zombies to be the dead come back to life, so they are slow and have limited brain power + motor skills. Fast moving zombies might as well scream, "THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN SOCIETY BREAKS DOWN. THEY WILL COME TO EAT YOU." The fear is there though for societal breakdown. It might just be for 28 days, but that's al it will take.