"It's full of stars": the return of spiritual sci-fi?

Andy Rau

Is transcendent, spiritual science fiction--think 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner--making a comeback? A essay from earlier this year by Mark Kermode opens with praise for the recently-released sci-fi movie Sunshine, but goes on to discuss the phenomenon of high-concept, spiritually-charged science fiction films. Kermode places Sunshine in the category of films that attempt to visually explore mankind's search for God.

I saw Sunshine a few weeks ago, and while I can't issue a blanket recommendation that you watch it (it's rated R for good reason), I think I agree with Kermode's assessment. Despite its atheist/humanist underpinnings, it's an attempt to answer some big religious questions: what is God like? What would it be like to encounter an infinite, incomprehensible-to-the-human-mind being? Can humans relate to the infinite, or does God exist on such a radically different scale that we'd simply be overwhelmed by his presence? A brief excerpt from Kermode's essay:

There's a strikingly similar blend of science and theology in Sunshine, in which whizz-kid physicist Capa (played by the ethereally blue-eyed Cillian Murphy) comes face to face with his maker in the shape of a dying sun. Just as the enigmatic monoliths from 2001 act as creative gods to the earthlings, so the sun serves as both the giver of life and the source of all knowledge in [director Danny] Boyle's soul-searching movie. 'I tried to keep it visual,' says Boyle, 'because some of the ideas in the film are very hard to talk about. But when we were making
Sunshine, which involved a lot of post-production special effects, my responsibility to the actors was to describe to them what they would be seeing. I was brought up in a religious environment, and so my natural tendency was to lapse into descriptions which were broadly creationist. I'd be saying things like: "Kneel before the source of all creation, bow down before the source of all life!" And even Alex [Garland, the screenwriter], who is quite an aggressive atheist, has that same cultural instinct in the language that he uses.'

These are fairly vague and not specifically Christian questions, but it's still fascinating to see them explored on the big screen. In a way, this sort of open-ended, highly visual spiritual questioning is more interesting to me than the usual "which character is the least subtle Christ-figure?" way that religion usually crops up in sci-fi and fantasy films. The fact that the filmmakers aren't Christian doesn't mean that Christians can't find insight in their attempts to visually depict the search for God.

Anybody else enjoy this type of lofty, sometimes pretentious, spiritual sci-fi? What other such films have struck a chord with you? Some obvious candidates are 2001, Bladerunner, Solaris and their ilk; but I'm interested in hearing what other films you'd add to the list.

(Link to the Kermode piece spotted at Looking Closer.)

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment, Art