Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Younger readers may not be aware of this, but there was a time when science fiction movies were decidedly unfashionable. Relegated to the b-movie lots in Hollywood, they were aimed at that devoted but disreputable audience partial to stories of robots, spaceships and aliens. Science fiction movies these days are, of course, undeniably mainstream. In fact, thanks to Hollywood's various ongoing franchises, the genre is by far the industry's single biggest moneymaker. Sci-fi's massive popularity is telling: As technology continues to accelerate at breakneck speed, these stories speak to our hopes and fears about a future that's coming in awfully fast. Here we take a look at the year's best science fiction films, and what they can tell us about our feelings on the future.
GET MORE:The Future (As Seen By The Past)
Along with "Mad Max: Fury Road" -- more on that in a bit -- the British thriller"Ex Machina"
was the year's most critically acclaimed sci-fi film. The movie stars Alicia Vikander as Ava, an advanced artificial intelligence in the physical form of an equally advanced humanoid robot. With its modern Frankenstein storyline, "Ex Machina" addresses the issue of artificial intelligence run amok -- a well-worn sci-fi trope. But the movie updates the standard template with elements of gender politics, human psychology and tech industry critique. Oscar Isaac's character -- an eccentric gazillionaire with Big Plans -- seems awfully familiar, and represents a new kind of mad scientist for the 21st century.
GET MORE:'Ex Machina': Science Vs. Fiction
20th Century Fox
Dig through the archives and you'll find that most science fiction films are rather despairing. Our heroes are usually fighting some impending threat -- technological, ecological or extraterrestrial -- in a future scenario where mankind's odds are grim indeed. Often the deadly dilemma is of our own making, and the stories are drenched in fear and bitter regret. Director Ridley Scott's movie"The Martian"
goes in another direction entirely. The film's near-future setting presents a healthy American space program in which NASA regularly launches manned missions around the solar system. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) runs into plenty of trouble on Mars, but overcomes all obstacles by way of rigorous science and human ingenuity. "The Martian" is a hopeful movie at heart, and a throwback to the "hard" science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, when learned men triumphed and science was always savior. (For another riff on the theme, check out Disney's optimistic "Tomorrowland
GET MORE:The Martian: Science Vs. Fiction
Warner Bros. Pictures
The year's best science fiction film -- that's a personal opinion -- dropped in May when director George Miller rebooted his famous Australian postapocalypse franchise for a new generation."Mad Max: Fury Road"
is a marvel of visual storytelling -- you could follow the story with no dialogue at all. The movie is one long chase scene, essentially, with psychotically beautiful art design. The film's cultural concerns live in the background details, where we learn that massive ecological collapse and subsequent resource wars led to this particular apocalypse in the first place. In the world of "Mad Max," our environmental anxieties are strapped to a rusting oil tanker in the badlands of the worst-case scenario. "Fury Road" is a radically visionary film -- it's scary, and it's supposed to be.
GET MORE:Science Vs. Fiction: 'Elysium'
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Meanwhile, over in the comic book universe, Marvel's alpha franchise returned with the critical and commercial success"Avengers: Age of Ultron."
Once again, a malevolent artificial intelligence rears its ugly circuits when the rogue A.I. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) takes on Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Director Joss Whedon is known to insert playful subversions into his pop culture creations, and "Ultron" is no exception. Note how the evil A.I. emerges not from some archvillian's schemes, but rather from an well-intentioned global surveillance program designed to protect Earth's citizens. Interestingly, a similar scenario emerges in the latest 007 movie,"Spectre."
The dangers of surveillance technology are clearly on our collective mind -- at the movies, anyway.
GET MORE:'Avengers Age Of Ultron': Science Vs. Fiction
Here's one from the cheap seats: An underrated little thriller that straddles the line between sci-fi and horror,"The Lazurus Effect"
didn't make much noise when it hit theaters in February. But for students of adventurous speculative fiction, the movie has some intriguing elements. The gist: Biotech researchers develop a breakthrough medicine code-named Lazarus, that can apparently bring people back from the dead. Existentialist problems arise, predictably, and soon enough the secret laboratory is awash in blood. But gaze deeper into the premise and the story raises some spooky questions about medical technology, bioethics and end-of-life issues. Modern medicine has revealed that death is less of an event than a process -- a process that can be manipulated with technology. Should we be worried? The answer is yes.
GET MORE:Science Movies To Avoid On Date Night
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Of course, no discussion of 2015 science fiction movies would be complete without mention of this year's modest little endeavor from Disney/Lucasarts:"Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
On the meta level, the film doesn't have much direct conjecture on contemporary technology -- everything happened a long time ago, after all, in a galaxy far, far away. Plus, "Star Wars" has always been more about space fantasy than hard sci-fi, anyway. But those interested in the "soft sciences" of sociology and anthropology will find plenty to chew on. The movie is basically a masterclass on how mythology works -- how we tell ourselves the same story, over and over, in different times and places. You can tease out some interesting threads on fascism and feminism, too. The year's second-tier sci-fi films had some lessons to impart as well. You can ponder more man-vs-machine themes in "Terminator: Genisys," or the perils of genetic engineering with "Jurassic World." For social engineering, there's the teenage wasteland triptych of the new "Hunger Games," "Maze Runner" and "Divergent" installments. Young adult dystopia is, evidently, always in fashion. Oh, and don't forget to get small with "Ant-Man" -- the year's most surprisingly fun sci-fi movie.
GET MORE:'Gravity': Science Vs. Fiction
Human computation — sometimes called crowd computing — is the emerging designation for projects that employ thousands of volunteers to work with computers on small elements of a bigger problem. For instance, the approach often used in studies where huge batches of images need to be individually analyzed by, you know, actual people.
Researchers have long realized that, for certain tasks, the human brain is vastly superior than even the fastest and most sophisticated computer or artificial intelligence. When there’s a huge amount of data to be parsed, however, practical problems emerge: Research teams only have so many human brain-hours to work with.
But what if we could get tireless A.I. and efficient crowdsourcing to work together?
That’s the concept behind an article published this week in the journal Science, in which researchers propose a new vision for the future of human computation. By more effectively combining computer intelligence and human intelligence, we could set these hybrid computational systems to work on our most intractable planetary problems — like disease, climate change and geopolitical strife.
These kinds of super dilemmas have a name in the world of systems analysis — they’re called “wicked problems.” They have so many complex moving parts that they simply defy traditional problem-solving techniques.
Researchers hope that, with properly deployed A.I. assistance, human cognitive abilities can be effectively combined into multidimensional collaborative networks. For instance, newly developed techniques can provide A.I. management to crowd-based inputs, so that individual contributions can be processed by a computer, then sent on to the next person for a different task.
In the Science journal article, researchers from the Human Computation Institute (HCI) and Cornell University cite several instances in which this new kind of human computation is already being deployed on a limited basis. The YardMap.org project uses crowd-based input to map local and global conservation efforts.