Human exploration is out Once upon a time in the movies, human exhaustion supports the idea of exploration and expansion.
Pop culture has become too skeptical and gloomy about the future of humanity to imagine bold steps into the unknown.
Instead our story devolves into dreary domestic concerns. And that brightness isn’t just limited to the screen. This contagion also spread to a visionary person like Elon Musk.
“Lightair” and “Strange World” — both hitting theaters in 2022 — are representative of this trend. In “Lightair”, an accident during a mission leaves the crew and colonists stranded on an alien planet.
Rather than attempt to continue their space-faring mission, the survivors choose to settle in this new world and make the best of a bad situation.
Everyone settles in except for Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), whose attempt to break the light barrier due to general relativity leaves him at the same age as all of his former colleagues are grown up and have families.
His desire to explore is presented as an extended adolescence, which culminates in the revelation that the film’s villain is ultimately Lightyear himself. (Or, at least, a version of him from the future.) His failure to accept failure and deal with mediocrity is what makes him the villain, the enemy of humanity.
Something similar is in the works in “Strange World”, in which the last descendant of a family of explorers has settled down as a farmer in the idyllic land of Avalonia.
They cultivated a miraculous energy-producing plant that brought comfort and luxury to their isolated, mountain-surrounded village. This plant was discovered during his father’s last trip to the strange world.
It is revealed that the miracle plant is actually killing their habitat, which we learn is a giant turtle swimming across the ocean planet.
Again, the text here is almost Luddite. Improving the fate of humanity is bad. It is good to reject the danger of exploration; It is ideal to settle for domestic peace and be happy with the little you have.
expansion is evil; Nesting should be encouraged. It is, essentially, an anti-human sentient being that treats human evolution as a literal cancer and destroys its host.
Both were telling how the response to the films has been received. Instead of wrestling with their thematic core, audiences turned them into fodder for the culture war.
A brief glimpse of a gay couple in “Lightyear” drew the ire of conservatives, prompting a reactionary progressive defense of a mediocre animated picture as something important.
Meanwhile, “Strange World” featured a gay teenager, further infuriating conservatives who followed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ruled that Disney was Public Enemy No. 1.
Liberals, on the other hand, were pleased with Avalonia’s humorously diverse setting, stressing the fact that the film’s disabled dog also represented inclusion.
This trend is not limited to flops. The biggest movie of the year, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” is clearly anti-human.
James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel portrays homo sapiens, or at least most of them, as a menace who wants nothing more than to destroy the planet Pandora for his own greedy ends.
A line at the beginning of the film suggests that Earth is dying, but it is unclear whether Pandora, with its intolerable climate and hostile natives, is a potential home for Earthlings or merely a resource to be exploited.
Once again, this is less a discussion of “Avatar” thematic biases than another silly identity politics, suggesting the craze about giant, furry, blue aliens messing with Native Americans. Huh. Huh. Huh.
Cameron himself has come under fire for quoting a 12-year-old article in which he suggested the Lakota would have fought harder against assimilation if they had known what the future held.
The quenching of the human appetite for exploration in cinema with dull and ultimately meaningless domestic concerns bears little resemblance to the real world.
Say what you will about Musk, but there’s something deeply disheartening about seeing a man shed his public identity as an innovator and an explorer who understands that you need electricity to save the world. Needed. Cars have to be made cool instead of a liability.
The man who made high-speed internet accessible through space, the man who wants to return humanity to heaven, is recognized only on Twitter as a bog-standard right-wing renegade.
This isn’t to say that Musk isn’t sincere in his concerns about free expression; Pushing Twitter back to serve as the free speech wing of the Free Speech Party is probably a good thing.
And it’s clear that he enjoyed seeing the main character on Twitter every day. But those easy endorphins and the responsive communities that cultivate them seem petty in comparison to Tesla’s risky world-changing efforts at cratering stock value.
Musk is still doing interesting things with Tesla, Starlink and SpaceX; It is expected that his decision to hand over the position of CEO of Twitter to someone else will reduce his desire to work as a customer service remote.
But our pervasive cultural exhaustion is real and worrying. As the characters in the James Cameron universe famously said, there is no destiny but what we make of ourselves.
If the stories we tell ourselves are a window into the future we hope to create, what does it say about humanity’s expectations that we are usually the villains of those stories?