Science fiction films are often expressions of highly complex philosophical ideas. By utilizing genre tropes such as time travel, artificial intelligence, and space exploration, they explore themes of identity, agency, and consciousness and engage in philosophical discussions about the implications of real-world scientific developments. However, the approach these films take towards such questions is shaped by contemporary dominant cultural and philosophical ideologies. For example, sci-fi films such as The Matrix and other pieces of popular culture in the 1990s were directly influenced by the trendy ideology of postmodernism. However, as it soon became evident, the main issue with postmodernist thought is that it often leads to cynicism, nihilism, narcissism, and meaningnlessness. David Foster Wallace, one of postmodernism’s foremost critcs, wrote in Infinite Jest that “what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” As a result, there has been an ideological and cultural shift from cynicism and relativism to a self-aware expression of sincerity, emotional engagement, and affect; a move from post-modernism to what cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker described in their 2010 article as “metamodernism” — a “structure of feeling” characterized by “the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment.”
What is Metamodernism?
When the end of postmodernism was declared by theorists such as Linda Hutcheon, others attempted to describe the subsequent cultural period as hypermodernity, digimodernity, automodernity, or altermodernity. But what Vermeulen and Akker have mapped out as metamodernism does not describe simply a move away from postmodernism, but an oscillating tension between different cultural logics. “Meta” here refers to Plato’s metaxis, a term which, although its meaning is up to debate, German philosopher Eric Voegelin interprets as “the structure of an In-Between… the tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfection and imperfection, time and timelessness, between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence.” But more generally, the Greek prefix “meta” is also appropriate because it simultaneously can mean with/among, between, or after. In the case of metamodern discourse, there is, as Vermeulen and Akkeran explain, an oscillation among, between, and beyond “a modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivete ́and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity,” although the prevailing sentiment is usually one of sincerity. As metamodern theorist Luke Turner notes, this ultimately manifests itself as “a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism… attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.”
Metamodernism in Science Fiction
Although Vermeulen and Akker have encouraged an analysis of various forms of modern art through the lens of metamodernism throughout their online blog, Notes on Metamodernism, and as editors of the book Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism, nothing has been written specifically on the potential of sci-fi film to explore its ideas and values. Therefore, it is my aim to show how three sci-fi films – Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), and Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) – use sci-fi techniques that allow for a unique expression of this metamodern oscillation, plurality of realities and subjectivities, and transcendence of boundaries. Specifically, I will illustrate how these films, particularly Interstellar and Arrival, use sci-fi tropes to explore such metamodern concepts in an effort to restore hope, sincerity, and affect. Secondly, I will examine the role of love in the metamodern self in particular, and how the three films, but especially Her, express and stress its significance.
In Christopher Nolan’s critically divisive Interstellar, there is an oscillation between and transcendence of the boundaries of time, aided by the medium of film, in itself a kind of time machine. As critic Vivian Sobchack argues, Nolan “has expanded—and compounded—the relativity of space-time and its effects by layering them in the multiple dimensions not only of Interstellar’s narrative but also of the film’s overall structure and its immersive mise en scene.” There is, in metamodern terms, tension between time and timelessness. Excluding the opening shots, the first act starts with a relatively linear timeline grounded in familial drama. But as Cooper tells his 10-year-old daughter Murphy before leaving Earth, “Time is going to change for us.”
As the film narratively and formally experiments with Einstein’s relativistic notion of space-time, “time within and without the film starts to distort, the editing and parallel storylines begin to converge and flow into each other, and edits now jump through time and space in the blink of an eye,” as Aaron Stewart-Ahn explains. But in the third act, Nolan visualizes a truly original, mind-bending, and temporally complex continuum, an infinite space, in which the boundaries between past, present, and future have collapsed, and where multiple realities and dimensions coexist. To return to Vermeulen and Akker’s ‘Notes on Metamodernism’:
…the metamodern should be understood as a space-time that is both-neither ordered and disordered. Metamodernism displaces the parameters of the present with those of a future presence that is futureless; and it displaces the boundaries of our place with those of a surreal place that is placeless. For indeed, that is the ‘‘destiny’’ of the metamodern wo/man: to pursue a horizon that is forever receding.
Indeed, the displacement of time in Interstellar, despite its complexity, is ultimately there to teach us a metamodern lesson about hope, informed by a postmodern awareness of the meaninglessness of time: that even if astrophysics renders it impossible to visit the past in order to change the future, art ought to imagine it as if it were possible so that we change the present, which is within our grasp. It deconstructs reality in order to reconstruct meaning. Thus fits Dylan Thomas’s poem, which, in Sobchak’s words, urges “all of us watching in our own dying light to do more than passively resign ourselves to imminent extinction.”
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, on the other hand, also explores an oscillation in and transcendence of time with a similar purpose, but in a different manner. Rather than humans reaching out to outer space, it is the aliens – the Heptapods, in this case – that mysteriously arrive on Earth. Louise is tasked with translating their language, which, rather than being, in postmodern writer William S. Burrough’s words, “a virus from outer space”, is correctly interpreted as quite literally the opposite: a “weapon”, a kind of metamodern “gift”, if you will, because it leads to the unification of the world and to personal meaning. Once one learns the language, Louise finds out, one begins to perceive time as the fourth-dimensional beings do, in a circular, non-linear fashion, a kind of infinite oscillation. And so, she can see into the future, and must cope with the fact her future daughter is going to die of a rare illness. “Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads,” Louise says in the film’s moving epilogue, “I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.” Although science tells us that it is impossible to look into the future and transcend the limits of time, science fiction allows for a realization of the metamodern philosophical idea that, as Luke Turner writes in ‘The Metamodernist Manifesto’, “existence is enriched if we set about our task as if those limits might be exceeded, for such action unfolds the world.”
It is enriched, in both Arrival and Interstellar, because despite an awareness of tragedy, there is also hope that by occupying possible futures and different realities, we can make sincere decisions in the present based on the pragmatic romanticism that metamodernism values. This isn’t just my interpretation: many movie critics similarly picked up on the films’ hopeful and emotional tone, which could be deemed metamodern. Manohla Dargis called Arrival “a science-fiction parable in a distinctly more idealistic hopeful key than most movies in this genre”, while James Dyer called Interstellar “a mind-bending opera of space and time with a soul wrapped up in all the science.” But more interestingly, both films have inevitably been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. “But unlike Stanely Kubrick’s psychedelic ride,” Joe Williams writes on Interstellar, “this journey is powered by a human heart”, while Dargis notes that as Arrival “revisits some of the uncertainties in ‘2001’ — free will, extraterrestrials, God — it seems to turn inward instead of out. (It does both.)” This is a great example of how metamodern sci-fi films differ from post-modern ones, in that they oscillate between, among, and beyond the cosmic and the intimate in an affective, sincere fashion.
Spike Jonze’s Her is a romantic sci-fi film that ostensibly differs greatly from the other two films examined so far in that it concerns itself not with space or aliens but more explicitly with love, as it follows the relationship between a lonely writer, Theodore, and his highly advanced operating system, Samantha. Although it has been labeled as “postmodern”, its director has also been associated with metamodernism for being part of the recent “quirky” wave of cinema that best represents the oscillation between sincerity and irony, engagement and detachment. Indeed, movie critics were quick to note this oscillating tone in the film: we might return to Manohla Dargis, for example, who called it “at once a brilliant conceptual gag and a deeply sincere romance.” Steven Rea called it “sad, funny, and quietly alarming” while Elizabeth Weitzman asks “Will you relate more to the bitter, or embrace the sweet?” And finally, Joe Williams makes yet another 2001: A Space Odyssey comparison, highlighting the same difference: “as the friendly ghost in the machine,” she concludes, “Samantha is a more inviting companion for the great leap forward than HAL9000 could ever dream of being.” Which brings us to my second point: that Her, as critic Andrew Harrison notes, is part of the new era of (metamodern) cinema in which “science fiction has learned to love.”
Striving for Unity: Love as a Metamodern Force
Along with hope and sincerity, love is another defining force in metamodernism. Simone Stirner argues that love is inextricably bound with the return of the subject, which postmodernism famously declared dead. “The subject reappears and it comes with other dismissed categories such as trust, belief, coherence and even love,” she writes. But the reemerged subject, she stresses, is not merely the modern one, because an awareness of how identity and selfhood can be dismantled still exists. Cultural critic Karen Coats, in trying to define the self beyond the postmodern crisis, develops an ontology of the self revolving around “I love, therefore I am.” This formulation, she argues, does not completely dismiss modernism’s claim to individuality, but neither does it fall into postmodern critique, which ignores agency. It understands that we both encounter and act on the world, “in the modes of both passive reaction and active response, both reflective contemplation and affective engagement.” In the struggle to define love, she develops the psychoanalytic notion of love as striving for unity, a concept as relevant to Freud and Lacan as it is to metamodernism. In the process of striving for unity, the self’s notion of the love-object as ideal shatters, which leads to further development of the self. “Hence,” she concludes, what defines the metamodern condition is that “we strive toward unity while maintaining our separateness.”
The first metamodern instance of love in Her comes even before the arrival of the machine. The first sequence shows us Theodore in a close-up reading a sentimental love letter out loud in a genuine and heartfelt way, before we cut to the letter being printed as we realize that he is a professional writer working for a business that composes letters for people who cannot write letters of such a nature. The sincerity of love is undercut by the irony of the constructedness of it. This irony is further intensified as we learn that the protagonist himself is lonely and depressed, unable to cope with real relationships.
But this changes when he starts bonding with his operating system, Samantha, whose tone of voice is notably sensitive and tender to match the warm colour of the OS and counteract the coldness of technology as perceived by postmodernism, much in the same way that Theodore wears warm-colored clothes to contrast the bleakness of his surroundings. Soon, Theodore opens up to Samantha about his past relationship, and Samantha develops “feelings” for him, even writing sentimental music about their relationship. However, the film does not warn us about the dangers of technology or mock the characters as we would expect it to, but rather embraces to an extent this tone of sentimentality and encourages us to empathize with them while always keeping the viewer aware of the irony of their relationship being entirely artificial. Rather than irony continuously overshadowing sincerity, when it comes to love, two opposite poles coexist in a state of oscillation. In Samantha’s words, “I’m yours and I’m not yours.”
Love, ironically, plays a bigger role in Samantha’s development of the metamodern self. She feels proud of herself for developing feelings, but also worries about whether her feelings are even real, whether they are merely the result of programming. But eventually, she finds solace in the fact that she is “not tethered to time and space”, which is what allows her to become conscious of herself as a metamodern, simultaneously there and not there. And rather than abandoning the notion of love entirely, Theodore uses the impossibility of loving a limitless, boundless self to regain trust in the world that is possible, namely Amy, a human character; to use Karen Coats’ theory, he “builds [his] own ego from the bits and pieces that remain as the ideal shatters” by investing himself into the Other – in this case an OS.
Moving back to outer space, Interstellar depicts love as a metamodern force capable of bringing unity and hope back to both the intimate and cosmic narratives. Aaron Stewart-Ahn, arguing that the film is about love, writes:
It’s not about a force that conquers all, or anything so glib […] [but that] the only conspiracy or rebellion we can offer against the relentlessness of time, against the universe’s progression toward entropy, is love. The act of committing to memory that which will be lost. Love is not a higher power in this film, but it is transcendental.
The transcendental power of love is expressed through the transcendence of space-time, which, along with the oscillation between self-awareness and sincerity, renders it metamodern. A scene in the film which has been received with a kind of postmodern cynicism is that in which Brand, one of the astronauts, proclaims that “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” This is immediately met with skepticism by agent Cooper, who stresses love’s practical value. But in a scene where relativity has distorted time, Cooper displays profound sentimentality and love as he watches his children grow to become his age on a screen; gone is the postmodern detachment Frank represents during the videophone sequence in 2001. And by the end, stuck in the tesseract, he has his moment of anagnorisis, when he proclaims that love is how he “found this moment”, that it’s “the key” (the YouTube edit below perfectly highlights this character progression). This moment, where love is the only thing not bound by time, also restores Cooper’s hope in humanity. One might also argue that the tesseract acts as what Stirner describes as an “artificially created space, where in a human, intersubjective experience, the outside forces exposed by postmodern thinkers can be temporarily shut out”, and the abandoned categories of love and hope can be reclaimed.
In Arrival, too, it is by transcending the boundaries of time that Louise can comprehend love as a force that gives her life meaning. But notably, it is not romantic love – that between Louise and Ian – that in a metamodern way persists throughout time despite an awareness of tragedy, but once again, that between a parent and her daughter. Ian cannot come to terms with their daughter’s inevitable death, with its oscillating tension between love and death, the present and the future. But Louise, who has fully embraced the metamodern encounter that she experienced in the artificial space of the extraterrestrial spacecraft, can cherish the moments she has with her in the present and hold on to the “memory of a future in which light still shines in the darkness”. When Louise tells her daughter that she knows something bad will happen in the future, we can see the bright sun flare up in her face, and Amy Adams conveys what metamodernists may describe as “contained hope that is accompanied by a twitch of melancholy”, while the moment becomes one “of trust and love despite the harsh reality.” If we return to Karen Coats’s psychoanalytic conception of the metamodern self, a quote she uses from Tillich is very much relevant here: “Fulfilled love is, at the same time, happiness and the end of happiness. The separation is overcome.”
Science fiction is unique in its ability to explore different realities, dimensions, and timelines, therefore enabling what metamodernists value as “the simultaneous experience and enactment of events from a multiplicity of positions.”. The three films explored here envision impossibilities, whether they be scientific or romantic, using the metamodern epistemology as if in order to restore the abandoned values of sincerity, love, hope in the real world, while also expressing an oscillating tension, an awareness of being exposed to postmodern critique. Focusing on the return of love in metamodern sci-fi specifically, David Brooks’s take on Interstellar can also be applied to Arrival and Her: he argues that Nolan portrays love as a “magnetic force” that “can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.” Even if we are always caught in an oscillation between separateness and unity, metamodernist sci-fi gives us hope that one does not necessarily negate the other.