Finding God in Science Fiction
By Andrew Welch
June 8, 2012
It's been said that science fiction is all about ideas. Scientific ones, mostly, but also ideas about other things, like morality, religion and the human experience, because that's what stories thrive on. Even if the character at the story's heart is a robot or an alien, we need to sense the presence of a beating heart, a questioning mind, and a desire to grow and understand the world, whatever that world may be. Ridley Scott's Prometheus promises to touch on all of these as it rolls out to theaters this weekend, taking audiences to the beginning—the very beginning—of what Scott started in 1979 with the original Alien. In anticipation of its release, here are five more sci-fi stories that take viewers beyond scientific speculation to ask thought-provoking questions about God, faith, morality and what it means to be human.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Of all the sci-fi movies ever made, Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is a juggernaut. Not only is it visually breathtaking, it's experimental structure is still audacious, even after 44 years. But as striking as these features are, what has helped it endure is that palpable sense one gets of two minds—Kubrick's and co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke's—grappling with life's biggest questions, like what is man's place in the universe, and does God exist? Though God seems absent in the world Kubrick puts on screen, the appearance of a black obelisk at key moments in human evolution suggests a tension with faith and doubt. Impersonal and yet pulsating with power and intelligence, the obelisk remains a mystery throughout the movie, hanging like a God-shaped question mark over the universe and the insignificant characters who occupy it.
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Though not a movie, of course, few sci-fi stories on any screen—big or little—have looked so closely at faith and the nature of God as Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica reboot. Over the course of its four seasons, as the last remnant of humanity fights for survival against the Cylons, characters face moral challenges and questions that force them to look beyond the visible world to the invisible hand guiding their journey. The audience is challenged, too, as we watch characters we love make difficult, sometimes questionable, choices to survive. We are also asked to stretch ourselves and to imagine whether we would compromise on our own beliefs for the good of others, whatever the personal or religious consequences might be.
Children of Men (2004)Alfonso Cuaron followed up his 2004 entry in the Harry Potter series with this gritty dystopian thriller based on a novel by mystery writer P.D. James. Combining a familiar-looking future with long, elegant takes, Cuaron creates a chilly, crumbling world devoid of hope. For Christians, though, its story of a man guiding a pregnant woman to safety has particular resonance. We've seen this story before, and if its ultimately happy ending is still to come, we understand the hope this woman's child represents for the world, just as we understand the movie's sense of anticipation, of the world holding its breath. No one has to mention Christmas for us to understand we're witnessing the dawning of something new—not the redeeming grace of "Silent Night" and the Gospel, but of another kind of hope that will help set the world right again.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
In another dystopian story, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, hope is looked for not in the birth of a child but in the birth of a scientific procedure—the Ludovico technique—which leaves delinquents, like the movie's main character, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), physically sick at the thought of aggressive, unlawful or sexual behavior. Adapted from a novel by writer and Catholic Anthony Burgess, the moral dilemma inherent in the premise is religious in nature: Which, it asks, is more essential—changing someone's behavior or changing someone's heart? That question, voiced by a chaplain, strikes at the very heart of what we face everyday as we balance doubt with faith and our fallen instincts with what we know is right. A Clockwork Orange is a difficult movie, but the questions on its mind are important to anyone of faith, or to anyone in general.
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky brought science fiction and faith together directly in Stalker, Tarkovsky's fifth film. Its plot concerns the search for a mysterious room on the outskirts of civilization that has the power to grant the deepest wishes of any who enter. Compared to the other titles on this list, Stalker is the least accessible—it moves at a snail's pace, and in the end the journey seems to have been for nothing—but for patient viewers, it is a powerful parable about faith and doubt. On the one hand, you have the Stalker (Aleksandrr Kaydanovskiy), a guide of sorts, who has been to the room and knows its power. On the other, you have the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grink), the two men who want to find the room. The closer they come to it, though, the more they begin to doubt that it can really help them, until finally, what can they do but stand upon its threshold in silence? Will they go in, or will they turn back, having come so close to what they've always wanted? Stalker defies expectations at every turn, refusing to be anything but what it is—a metaphor and a meditation—albeit one with a killer surprise ending.
Of course, these are just a few of the sci-fi titles that could go on a list like this. What's more, it's a personal list. These are merely what speak the loudest to me, whether about life's mysteries and challenges or about God. What sci-fi movies, TV shows or books would you list? Which ones speak to you the loudest? Tell us about them in the comments section.