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Why Hollywood Loves Dystopian Science Fiction

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Neal Stephenson has a really good point:

Neal Stephenson knows a thing or two about science fiction. The author of thick, best-selling novels that cross genres but slant toward sci-fi, Stephenson also writes about technology and has worked part time on a private space company.

He is also tired of dystopian science fiction movies and video games. “A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching Oblivion and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground,” he tells Morgan Warstler in an interview

proponent of the thesis that we have “lost our faith in technology to bring progress” and “lost our ability to get important things done” on an Apollo mission scale, Stephenson sees the ubiquity of dystopian visions as a cultural expression. Whereas it was once “refreshing, and extremely hip, to see depictions of futures that were not as clean and simple as Star Trek,” we now experience “a strange state of affairs in which people are eager to vote with their dollars, pounds and Euros for the latest tech [like iPhones], but they flock to movies depicting a relentlessly depressing view of the future, and resist any tech deployed on a large scale, in a centralized way.” 

Just after expressing his literary take on the preponderance of films like District 9, Oblivion, and Children of Men, however, Neal Stephenson also offers an extremely Priceonomicsexplanation for why sci-fi movies keep depicting the future as a rundown San Francisco or Manhattan rather than a dizzying alien world: it’s cheaper. He tells Warstler:

“I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively [easier] to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch.”

The problem with a sci-fi blockbuster that brings to life a singular vision of a new world (à laAvatar) is that it’s expensive and not reproducible. In contrast, “putting dirt on the Empire State Building” is a cheap and safe decision (it’s worked before) that appeals to executives as a way “to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.”

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