From Robodad to Biobitch

Almost all sciences owe something to dilettantes, often very valuable view-points. But dilettantism as a leading principle would be the end of science. He who yearns for seeing should go to the cinema... - Max Weber

Western science has given us two worlds: a Newtonian world and a Darwinian one. And if we may hazard a broad definition of our last century of scientific discovery it may be described as a series of contests between these two doctrines: physics versus biology, the machine versus the body, space exploration versus molecular research; one leading us to the stars, the other to the cell; one fashioned on inexorable laws, the other tending to statistical probability; one pointing distantly to God, the other haunted by Psyche; one indomitably male, the other undeniably female. And the winner of this contest would win unlimited funding and the complete loyalty of the masses.

For many years the Newtonian world had the upper hand in this contest; its elaborate machines promised us answers to all of our questions. Billions were funneled into robotics and space programs; telescopes and probes launched into the sky. But when transmitting back their findings, all they showed us were more bright stars, more spiraling galaxies, more emptiness, more questions. Ultimately, we lost faith in Newton and threw ourselves at the feet of Darwinian science which, wondrously, had managed to grow a human ear on a mouse's back and duplicate an unsuspecting sheep.

Over the past twenty years our change of faith, our transition from the Newtonians to the Darwinians, can be traced in a series of dark science-fiction blockbusters: the late 70s through the 80s being the last days of Newtonian dominance, and the 90s marking the rise of our Darwinian world.

Alien, 1979, Ridley Scott

This film is exceptional not only because it begins a cycle of what James Cameron would identify as "tech noir" (Blade Runner, Terminator, Robocop), but, more significantly, for the first time in blockbuster sci-fi history an alien is imagined not as a being descending from a higher civilization organized by Newton-like advances in efficiency and armed with sophisticated weapons which neatly vaporize the enemy, but instead, as a bloodthirsty primal creature engaged in some intergalactic Darwinian struggle for survival. Here the battle between the doctrines is clearly represented, and Newtonian science barely escapes defeat--only to be lost in space, drifting among the endless stars.

Terminator, 1984, James Cameron

Though Terminator pretends to be a "human" story affirming the honor and dignity of the emotional, freedom-loving human species, we cannot help but notice its admiration and worship of the efficient man-machine; the cyborg with its human flesh exterior and metal skeleton. This creature has no emotions and cannot be confused or distracted--its life has total meaning, total Newtonian function.

RoboCop, 1987, Paul Verhoeven

As a regular human, the police officer Murphy (Peter Weller) was only a weak cop with a weak gun trying to enforce order in a city that at all levels (from corporate boardrooms in the sky to small businesses on the street) had spun out of control and become, as one spectator in the movie puts it, "the heart of darkness." But as a man-machine equipped with powerful weapons, he can take direct action and return all the parts of society drifting, as it were, out of their orbits like rebellious planets back into their proper Newtonian places. (It is interesting to note that RoboCop is nearly killed in the same decaying Fordist factory where, seven years later, the T-800 model in Terminator 2, the last man-machine, is to die in a red-hot liquid bath.)

Aliens, 1987, James Cameron

Set on a planet colonized by Newtonian humans, who were quickly destroyed by Darwinian aliens, it culminates in a deadly combat between man-machine (Ripley fitted into a cargo loader) and the alien. Again, the Darwinian world loses, but not for long, its time is soon to come.

Species, 1995, Roger Donaldson

With the destruction of the last man-machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in that sad farewell at the end of Terminator 2, the stage is set not only for the post-industrial era, but also for the she-beast in Species. In this film it quickly becomes clear that the Darwinian world is to be mastered by fecund women--the reproducers, the black widows--and not by rational metal men, as was consistently the case in the Newtonian world. The story is this: human DNA is mixed with found alien DNA, and the result is the creation of an ultra-attractive hyper-instinctual super-sensual human-alien driven by the most fundamental (or funnaminal, as Joyce would put it) Darwinian principle: fuck healthy males and produce healthy babies.

Mimic, 1997, Guillermo Del Toro

In Mimic, a brilliant biologist (Mira Sorvino), who is infertile and fails to produce children with her virile mate (who is also a scientist, but a second-rate one) saves the planet from an infestation of deadly cockroaches. But her fiddling with DNA secrets results in her becoming the mother of a new breed of human-insects who, again, are driven by Darwinian motives--they not only want to survive but to dominate New York, the capital of the financial world and mission command center for all of those satellites transmitting virtual money.

Alien: Resurrection, 1997, Jean Pierre Jeunet

In this latest Alien installment, Ripley is transformed by way of DNA experiments,into an all-powerful she-beast. In this condition she is nothing like the clumsy man-machine she tried to become in Aliens, instead, here she is perfection, perfection of nature, perfection of motion, sexuality, instincts. In this higher form she becomes the mother and queen of the aliens (she also bares a resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I, or at least the drawings I've seen of this mythic creature). And at the film's end we see her descend back to Earth to rule the waiting mass and possibly ban space exploration forever.

Though pockets of resistance to the Darwianian order still persist, and many who "adore space" are gravely skeptical about a future regulated by Biotech Corporations (which service human bodies and not androids, as was the case in Blade Runner), the end of space is nigh. The official word from the 20th Century Fox studio producing Alien 5 says it all: "It will take place on Earth." Consider recent sci-fi films like Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca; both these films have made it clear that the present social value of "spacers," "star-strips," and "galactic unions" (as Nabokov once contemptuously called them in his masterful 1953 dissection of the sci-fi genre, "Lance") is no more than the vapors of pure fantasy. (La Gattaca the "genetic future" posited in the 1990 Hastings Center report by Joanne L. Finkelstein is realized. In this film, the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation's space program to Saturn's icy and feral moon Titan, functions only as a metaphor of the hero's inner desire to escape the efficient reality of the bio-utopia on Earth.)

The Newtonian world no longer takes us forward or postulates a credible future, but, instead, is useful only when one wants to look back and, as with the myth of the Knights of the Round Table, decipher the fears and dreams of a time long, long ago in a place far, far away.

Charles Tonderai Mudede is a native of Zimbabwe. He now lives in Seattle and, along with teaching literature through Seattle Arts and Lecture, contributes film criticism and reviews to Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger.