Category Archives: Science Fiction Concepts

Takes On The Soul

Any film dealing with the topic of artificial intelligence must also take on the heady topics of consciousness and self awareness. I wish I could remember the name of the researcher, but she was quoted in a research journal as saying that, no matter how much we learn about the physiological workings of the brain, we will still be no closer to explaining the subjective experience we call consciousness. Still, be it neuroscience or science fiction, we find the underlying concept that the soul is merely physical: patterns of electrochemical activity traveling along organic, neural circuits. If this assumption is correct, then truly artificial intelligence can be created in the laboratory. Then again, the creation of artificial intelligence does not automatically preclude the existence of a nonmaterial soul in human beings.


Concentrating on a neo-noir approach and grotesquely distopian imagery, Blade Runner (1982 Warner Brothers, directed by Ridley Scott) touches on this theme but pushes it more into the background. Owing more than a little to this visual approach, it is considered as one of the best science fiction movies of all time. There is a poignant emphasis on the desire of the replicants to continue living, and a sense of tragedy therefore underlies the story.


Starring Harrison Ford, an effectively villainous yet nuanced Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, and an evocative Sean Young,  Blade Runner was loosely based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, written by Philip K. Dick.


The movie which more satisfyingly explores my stated theme is Ex Machina (2014 Universal Pictures, written and directed by Alex Garland).


There are mind bending discussions with several layers of deception. These serve as information dumps which advance the plot without dragging it down. Rather, they heighten the suspense.


But the two men played by Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson  revolve around the androids chillingly played by Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno.


Two elements that really resonated with me were the psychological study of the android under the auspices of a type of Turing test. This involved the transformation of a machine into a woman within the perception of “her” interrogator.



I was intrigued by the concept behind the physical nature of the artificial brains of the androids. That particular visual made my mind race, and the accompanying explanation of forming and removing connections (as our own brains are constantly doing with synapses between neurons) made proper but not tedious reference to certain findings of neuroscientific research.



As a warning for those who might object, there is some nudity which I felt was not essential to the plot, and there is a bit of violence, as well. This is dark, disturbing stuff, but it is extremely well made. I think it appropriate to give credit where credit is due.

Burning Books

First, there was the book by Ray Bradbury. In retrospect, the author said that he considered himself a fantasy writer and that Farenheit 451 was his only science fiction novel.


Then came the movie (1966 Universal Pictures)…


… and then a remake by HBO starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon.

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Aside from the book itself, I consider the 1966 movie a beautifully stripped-down piece of art. Directed by the famous Francois Truffaut, associated with the French New Wave in cinema, it achieves a distinctive look (making effective use of the color, red) which has aged surprisingly well. I like science fiction that depends more on concepts than on special effects, and this is another good example from the pre-CGI era.


The story depicts a conformist, illiterate society which watches rather than reads. Firemen burn books to prevent the public from engaging in critical thought.


Justification for this is provided in the argument that knowledge makes us discontent and that this leads to unhappiness. The film therefore implies that happiness is not the determining factor in the quality of human life and character, an assertion that modern culture in the west might regard as heretical. The individuals in this society are infantilized, narcissistic, and chemically dependent – all to keep them in a state of happiness. They “read” comics without words…


… and gaze naively at widescreen television monitors mounted on walls.


Remember, we’re talking 1966, here. Some of the warnings in this movie are more true today than they were then. The citizens in this society inform on each other. Is this really so different from outing or vilifying people on the internet? It should make one think carefully before clicking. We are not all of us qualified journalists, and that includes many journalists (hint: fact checking and source verification).

Oskar Werner plays a fireman with a developing sense of curiosity and conscience. Julie Christie plays two roles as his wife and as a teacher in the literate underground.



Two scenes really haunted me. One was the burning of a hidden library. The woman who owns it chooses to burn with her books rather than turn informant.


The other scene shows the “Book People” memorizing and reciting books  to prevent them from being lost forever.


If you like an intellectual ride that doesn’t depend on eye candy, this is a movie worthy of your consideration.


A Different Kind Of Green Alien

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I originally saw The Andromeda Strain (1971 Universal Pictures; directed by Robert Wise) in the theater. I was a high school biology student, and I was impressed at the time by how much science was actually in this picture. It reminded me of my classes and even of some of my teachers.

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Based on the book of the same title by Michael Crichton (at the time a medical student who is shown in the background during one scene), the film contains a good amount of scientific background information, and it is a good science procedural as well as techno thriller. The pacing is slower, allowing more time to think while watching. Robert Wise was an excellent and well known director, and this is far from being a B movie.

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Robert Wise and a young Michael Crichton.

The plot unfolds at an intriguing pace, and this  movie contains elements of horror, suspense, and mystery.

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The special effects were excellent for the pre-CGI era, and the look has aged well. Production values were good, taking advantage of real scientific equipment for many scenes. The underground research facility was well-designed.

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What really intrigued me was the discovery and description of the extraterrestrial pathogen. This is perhaps the most original concept for an alien life form that I have seen in a movie. Keep in mind that this idea was groundbreaking at the time of the book’s publication and the subsequent release of the movie.

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If you haven’t seen this, I heartily recommend this refreshing view from an earlier time in the development of science fiction.

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Science Fiction and the Soul

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It’s no great secret that science fiction often reflects cultural beliefs at a given time. A good example of this is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.; directed by Don Siegel) based on a book of the same title by Jack Finney. I prefer the book to the movie, but I like both. The 1978 version (MGM; directed by Philip Kaufman) with Donald Sutherland put more of an emphasis on the horror aspect, and this covered up the theme I am emphasizing in this post.

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Without giving much away, the plot is centered around alien pods which have the remarkable ability to copy any life form that holds still long enough for them to reproduce its molecular structure. For a human, this means that he or she has to be asleep near one of the pods. The original disintegrates and is replaced by the copy. The “pod people” aggressively try to place pods next to other unreplicated human beings. It has been claimed that this movie is a veiled reference to the Red Scare of the 1950s, but that isn’t what I want to discuss, either.

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The theme that most intrigued when I read the book as a teenager is the one that resonates with me now as an older adult: the existence of a nonmaterial soul. While the book and subsequent movies are in no way religious, the theme is still there. It is chillingly emphasized in the book in various ways. The one that stands out most in my memory is a scene in which the narrator overhears a conversation between some neighbors/pod people. Their exchange is mechanically sterile with some degree of intellect present but almost no emotion. It is apparent that something human, something which is not physical, is missing.

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The most heart-grabbing example in the 1956 movie occurs when the girlfriend (played by Dana Wynter) of the town doctor (played by Kevin McCarthy) falls asleep while they are hiding in a cave.

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The scene where he realizes he is kissing a mere shell when he tries to rouse her is perhaps the emotional peak of the movie.

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Alright, I gave it away, but it’s old. Watch it, anyway. It’s worth the time. The point I’m making is that there was a more widespread belief in a nonmaterial, human soul in the 1950s than there is at present.

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Contrast this with the approach taken in Oblivion (2013 Universal Pictures; directed by Joseph Kosinski). In this, clones that have had different experiences are capable of sharing the memories of the original human after which they are patterned. This reflects the more current opinion that mind is body, a pattern of electrochemical activity moving through evolved neural circuitry.

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Is the brain the source of what we call the soul, or is it a transmitter? The materialist explanation is simpler, but does that make it true? If one smashes a phone, does that mean that nobody was on the other end? It strikes me that evidence against the existence of a nonmaterial soul is based on examining the smashed phone. I leave with this quote from What’s Wrong With the World by G. K. Chesterton.

No man could say how his animal dread of the end was mixed up with mystical traditions touching morals and religion. It is exactly because these things are animal, but not quite animal, that the dance of all the difficulties begins. The materialists analyze the easy part, deny the hard part and go home to their tea.