Last fall, a friend who went to see The Martian in theaters reported back with the following anecdote. Seated nearby was a woman who, during the credits, leaned over and whispered to her companion, “You know, this movie is based on a true story.” It would be easy to feel superior to this misinformed viewer, who seems unaware that humans have yet to set foot on Mars. Yet the mistake seems a little more understandable when you consider how contemporary science fiction has drifted toward plausibility and familiarity. The Martian may be a Ridley Scott film, but unlike the director’s other space odysseys, Alien and Prometheus, or even Blade Runner—movies that all conjure up patently distant times and places—the strangest thing about The Martian may be the sangfroid with which the protagonist Mark Watney receives the news that he’s stuck on the Red Planet.
There are still plenty of films that continue the genre’s tradition of truly fantastical worlds: Mad Max: Fury Road, Snowpiercer, and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But recently, such exercises in strong futurism seem to have been outnumbered by more modest speculative efforts—narratives imagining a moment that seems to barely anticipate, if not intersect with, the present. Compared to many of the canonical works of science fiction past (Planet of the Apes, Dune, Alien, 2001, Ender’s Game, The Road Warrior), the visions of the future furbished in recent films like Ex Machina, Her, and Gravity, or series like Orphan Black or Black Mirror, feel positively cautious in their predictive scope. It’s as if the genre has been struck by some combination of ambition and restraint: a desire to prognosticate, but not overstep, to achieve maximum prescience with minimum risk. The result is a genre less invested in world creation, per se, than world acceleration.