Posts Tagged 'empathy'

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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We concluded the last Drozbot post talking about Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the theme of empathy within its pages. Talk of emphatic responses, coupled with Sci-Fi, and immediately images of Diana Troy from Star Trek: the Next Generation spring to mind. Other examples beyond her, though, are few and far between. There are plentiful examples within the realms of the comic super hero, and the mutants therein, but precious few in novels and film. OK, Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and… Anyone else as memorable? We think there’s a valid reason for this derth, however. Empaths are notoriously tough to write.

Imagine you’ve got a seemingly friendly antagonist who’s actually a serial killer in disguise. Once they bump into your onboard empath… What then? Or, you decide to set a scene where your characters visit the site of a recent atrocity, resulting in your empath being overwhelmed and becoming a mere, writhing plot device to show just how bad things were. But this is just the benevolent empaths. Corrupt the ability to sense and act upon the emotions of others, and you’ve got The Pusher from the X-Files, or Kilgrave from Jessica Jones. Evocative stuff!

President Obama famously highlighted an empathy deficit within America. Although an understandable appraisal, considering the rise of the narcissistic cult of social media, it should be seen as a call for a shift in attitude towards interpersonal technologies as opposed to limiting these technologies themselves. The rise of populist movements, the use of algorithmic predictive behaviour models in voting, the fact that lies can no longer stay hidden… It’s a true pluralistic, Dickian mess. But there are positive stories coming to the fore of people rejecting given forms of self-centered behavior – as with the rise of real world empaths giving readings for businesses and individuals.

Ultimately, there’s hope and change in the air and, if there is anything to be fearful about within a PKD future, it’s whether Blade Runner 2049 is actually going to be any good.

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