Thanks to the excellent Boing Boing for highlighting Jonathan McIntosh’s marvellous video essay on films that helped formulate his compassion as a child. For Drozbot, it’s interesting to note that he quotes the film critic Robert Ebert talking about movies being devices for generating empathy – which in turn resonates with the P.K. Dickian concept of the Voight-Kampff machine and empathy boxes of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

That aside, the notion of whether there are enough empathetic Sci-Fi movies was an interesting challenge to address. Unlike McIntosh, we cannot keep the focus tightly on the 1980s, but there are more than enough films out there to replicate the sentiment – thanks partially to his already covering E.T. (1982), Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Batteries Not Included (1987). One notable absence from the decade, however, is Enemy Mine (1985). Based upon Barry Longyear’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, the story definitely ticks the ‘empathy for the other’ that McIntosh references, while also promoting black and white lead characters – albeit with Louis Gossett Junior sweltering under layers of prosthetics.

While the Sci-Fi films of the 1950s focused on B-Movie sensationalism, there was one truly empathetic, stand-out movie in their ranks. We’ve mentioned time and time again here on Drozbot, but Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remains a heart-wrenching exploration of tragic loss and fateful acceptance, while also breaking swathes of fresh ground in special effects.

The mind-warping concepts, cautionary tales and downbeat endings of the genre throughout the 1970s make empathetic high water marks hard to find. Meanwhile, the cold war paranoia and all-out action of the 1980s leaves the empathy rich Blade Runner (1982) out on a limb. By the end of the Century it’s an odd piece of retro animation that finds a way into our hearts. Reflecting back on the monster movies of the 1950s, while never losing sight of the destructiveness of mankind, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) once again focuses on the marginalised, the dis-empowered and the ‘other’ rather than typical, heroic tropes of the era.

Admittedly, there isn’t a plethora of these kinds of films within the genre, but there is a marked increase in their frequency as the 2000s get into their stride. Both Takahito Akiyama’s Honioko (2005) and Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) use the tried-and-tested model of robots as the child-like observers and mimics of the best of human nature while they struggle against depictions of us at our very worst. After these, the flood gates of our emotional relationship with science fiction and technology open up with Brit Marling, Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman all manning the sluice gates. Seems that, despite all the doom, gloom and misgivings, our empathy generating devices are working overtime to pave the way to a much more sensitive and caring future.

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