Arts & Culture News

What We Can Learn From Sci-Fi Movies as Schools Reopen

Old sci-fi movies tried to prepare us for situations like this. If only we would've listened.
It’s hard to look at “back to school” catalogues or Walmart displays without a good deal of apprehension. While Dallas ISD is planning to open schools on Tuesday, Sept. 8, with both in-person and remote opportunities, many of the details are up in the air. Gov. Greg Abbott has stressed that many of the decisions will be left to local school boards, but with dates pushed back constantly, it’s unclear what this semester will look like.

One thing that is for certain is that the future of education has been altered forever. As colleges prepare to go online and graduations are shifted to digital ceremonies, it feels more and more like we’re living in a science fiction film.

Sci-fi stories are often a predictor of where things are headed; classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Total Recall all predicted futuristic technology that is now part of reality. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused movie fans to look at films like Contagion and Outbreak as a means of understanding the situation. As the new normal in education begins, take a look at how science fiction movies imagined the future of schools.

Star Trek (2009)

The Star Trek franchise has a proud history of predicting the future, from the use of mobile phones to the optimistic look at a more inclusive environment. The films rarely spent time looking at the early days of the characters, but 2009’s prequel film Star Trek tracked the history of Captain James T. Kirk as he transformed from a Beastie Boys-loving prankster to the beloved Starfleet captain.

The Starfleet Academy doesn’t look too different from modern college campuses, as Kirk and friends engage in many of the same dorm room antics and boring study seminars that feel somewhat normal. Kirk’s right of passage comes in the form of the Kobayashi Maru seminar, which teaches prospective Starfleet captains the importance of sacrificing oneself for the crew. Kirk’s inability to grasp this concept is representative of how many students may feel as they near graduation — but then again most students aren’t then immediately shipped on a rescue mission into deep space — so the future of Star Trek is still a bit removed from reality.

Starship Troopers
Largely misunderstood upon release, Starship Troopers is now regarded as an eerily relevant look at how fascism and xenophobia become intertwined with militarization. The film explores a future in which humanity is caught in a seemingly endless war with an alien race referred to as “bugs.” Characters like Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) are taught from an early age that their government has only one way of preserving their freedom: the complete annihilation of anyone who opposes them.

Among the themes of Starship Troopers are the ways in which history is taught by the victors, and how a slanted version of history is often the one that is passed down between generations. As Americans confront their own history and reconsider how historical figures are framed in history classes, Starship Troopers is a disturbing reminder of what institutional injustice and dehumanization looks like.

High Life
The prospect of at-home learning is challenging for many students, but maybe learning at home wouldn’t be so bad if you lived in a spaceship and Robert Pattinson was your dad. Claire Denis’s 2018 high concept sci-fi thriller imagines a future in which convicted criminals are jettisoned into deep space and launched into a black hole. Pattinson’s Monte must teach an abandoned infant, Willow, whom he raises as his own.

The pandemic has reminded students everywhere of the necessity of learning practical skills, and Willow learns many of these lessons from Monte, who teaches her how to survive on their dangerous mission and how to prepare for their descent into the black hole. The learning environment becomes much more collaborative as the two realize they may be doomed, and they must make the most of their limited time.

Donnie Darko

Many students may have difficulties focusing on their classes given the state of the world, and this is an anxiety that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character shares in the sci-fi classic Donnie Darko. After his house is destroyed by a freak airplane accident, Donnie becomes aware that the world will end in 30 days, and it is up to him to face the impending apocalypse. Suffice to say, this doesn’t encourage Donnie to pay any more attention in English class or behave during school seminars.

Donnie feels as though no one understands him, and in the film he experiences both good and bad teachers who guide him in different directions. His overbearing gym teacher Kitty Farmer represents the worst aspects of an out-of-touch educator who strictly adheres to archaic principals about what constitutes freedom of expression, but Donnie finds a more inspirational figure in his English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), who encourages him to dig deeper into literature and consider the difference between vandalism and activism. Even if Donnie isn’t able to share his apocalyptic vision with Pomeroy, her guidance is able to help him wrestle with the chaos that surrounds him.

In the wake of the apocalypse, there’s few people we’d rather have guide us than Nicolas Cage. In Knowing, Cage stars as Jonathan Koestler, a widowed professor of astrophysics who examines a time capsule from his childhood elementary school. Koestler begins to suspect that latent messages within the capsule have predicted some of the most disastrous events in human history, and as the world moves closer to an apocalyptic spectacle, it’s up to him to follow the clues.

There’s rarely been a time where the message “listen to scientists” is more prevalent, and Knowing is an example of the old sci-fi movie trope in which the most qualified, most intelligent character is consistently ignored (a trope that often unfortunately seeps into reality). We all want a teacher like Nicolas Cage, who not only manages to engage his students in the dullest of material, but also uses his time off to do things like save the world.