These two recent films provide conflicting visions of the future. They are both set on mining outposts, a century or two in the future, but the conclusions of both films are rubbish. Neither film does what science fiction is supposed to do — tell a story of a possible future, whilst providing ideas that are relevant and useful to our current situation.
Good science fiction is not utopian — it attempts to extrapolate current developments in human history and to speculate what might actually happen in the future. This may be through a metaphor, or through an alternate history that never occurred, but the point is to engage in realistic speculation, not utopian dreaming.
In Moon, a plentiful and clean nuclear fuel has been discovered on the moon. The story follows a single worker on the lunar outpost, as he discovers that he is a clone — nothing but a human robot created to serve the mining company, and designed to die after three years so a fresh clone can take his place.
The struggle is between worker and capitalist. Natural resource workers have an enormous amount of power. They use expensive machinery in remote areas, and they can interrupt the flow of essential resources. They have huge bargaining power in struggle, as demonstrated by the enormous strikes and occupations that took place on North Sea oil platforms,
not to mention many struggles conducted by coal miners over the past two centuries.
The bosses of the Lunar mining company are aware of this balance of power — so they breed fully-formed, fully functional clone workers who will die quickly. Many mining companies today deliberately keep workers’ conditions uncomfortable, in the hope of engineering a high turnover of labour. New workers are rarely militant workers — they take time to learn
their strength and organise.
Avatar shows us a different struggle. The mining company in this film sets up an Earth-like planet, populated
by intelligent bipeds, along with millions of other species of plants and animals. For the human mining workers, the planet is a dangerous place, so they accept the authoritarian, prison-like conditions of their work. They see their head of security (a half-crazy ex-marines colonel) as a protector rather than an oppressor.
It falls to the indigenous population of the planet, along with some rogue anthropologists, to drive out the evil mining company, thereby saving the planet’s ecosystem and its indigenous culture. The natives are the social force that interrupts the flow of natural resources—they fight the mining company with bows and arrows, and almost lose the battle. At this point, the animals of the planet attack (presumably motivated by the Goddess called Eywa, the personification of
the living system that binds all living things together), and they kill the mercenaries hired by the mining company.
What are these two films trying to tell us? Firstly both films end with a deus ex machina—an unexpected element, maybe the United Nations or Gaia herself — intervening at the last minute to save the day and restore balance. Without this fantastic element, both films would have ended in disaster — a toothless United Nations would have been unable to stand up to the most powerful mining company in the world, and Gaia would have shown herself unwilling to intervene in a conflict between two species. However, the films don’t end like this. They have happy endings!
In reality, technologically advanced post-fordist management techniques are wholeheartedly supported by states and international governance bodies alike. In reality, indigenous people can’t beat well-equipped armies, and ecology doesn’t take sides in the conflict— ecology only intervenes to bring death and poverty to those left on polluted or degraded land. In reality, Eywa doesn’t take sides, and if she does, it is to kill the most precarious, vulnerable people.
In both cases, we leave the cinema having been told that capitalism and ecological destruction cannot be beaten unless a fantastic, seemingly impossible, but all powerful force intervenes in the struggle. How likely is that?