Human exploration is out. Human exhaustion is in.
Films once championed the idea of discovery and expansion. But pop culture has become too skeptical and depressed about the future of humanity to envision bold moves into the unknown. Instead, our storytelling has retreated into prosaic domestic concerns. And that glumness isn’t just confined to the screen. The contagion spread even to would-be visionaries such as Elon Musk.
“Lightyear” and “Strange World” — both of which bombed in theaters in 2022 — are representative of this tendency. In “Lightyear,” a mishap during a mission leads to crew and colonists being marooned on an alien planet. Rather than endeavor to continue their space-faring mission, the survivors choose to settle down on this new world and make the best of a bad situation.
All settle down except Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), whose efforts to break the light barrier leave him the same age thanks to general relativity while all his former colleagues grow older and form families. His desire to explore is presented as a sort of extended adolescence, one that culminates in the revelation that the film’s villain is, ultimately, Lightyear himself. (Or, at least, a version of him from the future.) A failure to accept failure and make do with mediocrity brands him villainous, an enemy of humanity.
Something similar is at work in “Strange World,” in which the last scion of a family of explorers has settled down as a farmer in the idyllic land of Avalonia. He cultivated a miraculous energy-producing plant that brought comfort and luxury to his isolated, mountain-encircled village. The plant was discovered during his father’s last voyage into the titular strange world. It turns out that the miracle plant is in fact killing their habitat, which we learn is a giant turtle swimming across an ocean planet.
Again, the lesson here is nearly Luddite. Improving humanity’s lot is bad. Rejecting the danger of exploration is good; settling for domestic tranquility and being happy with the little you have is ideal. Expansion is evil; nesting should be encouraged. It is, fundamentally, an anti-human sentiment, one that treats human growth as a literal cancer despoiling and destroying its host.
The response to both movies was telling. Rather than wrestling with their thematic core, onlookers turned them into fodder for the culture war. A brief glimpse of a lesbian couple in “Lightyear” incurred the wrath of conservatives, which in turn inspired a reactionary progressive defense of the mediocre animated picture as something important.
“Strange World,” meanwhile, featured a gay teenager, which further inflamed conservatives who, following the lead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, decided Disney is public enemy No. 1. Liberals, on the other hand, were happily struck by the comically diverse setting of Avalonia, gushing over the fact that even the film’s handicapped dog represented inclusion.
This tendency isn’t limited to flops. The biggest movie of the year, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” is explicitly anti-human in an off-handed sort of way. James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel portrays Homo sapiens — or at least, most of them — as a menace who want nothing more than to ravage the planet of Pandora for their own greedy ends. A line early in the film explains that Earth is dying, but it’s unclear whether Pandora itself — with its unbreathable atmosphere and hostile natives — is a potential home for Earth’s masses or merely a resource to be exploited.
Once again, there’s less discussion of “Avatar’s” thematic preoccupations than another foolish identity politics kerfuffle, with detractors suggesting the picture about giant, furry, blue aliens unwisely dabbles in tropes about Native Americans. Cameron himself has come under fire for quotes in this 12-year-old article in which he somewhat laughably suggested the Lakota would have fought harder against assimilation if they knew what the future held.
The extinguishing of the human appetite for exploration dovetailing with prosaic and ultimately meaningless domestic concerns in cinema coincides with something similar in the real world. Say what you will about Musk, but there’s something deeply depressing about watching a guy trade his public identity as an innovator and an explorer — the guy who understood that to save the world you’d have to make electric cars seem cool rather than an obligation, the guy making high-speed internet accessible via space, the guy who wants to return humanity to the heavens — for an identity as a bog-standard right-wing rabble-rouser on Twitter.
This isn’t to say that Musk isn’t earnest in his concerns about free expression; shoving Twitter back toward serving as the free speech wing of the free speech party is probably a good thing. And it’s clear he took some enjoyment in being seen as the main character on Twitter every day. But those easy endorphins and the community of reply-guy sycophants he has cultivated seem petty compared with the world-changing efforts put at risk by Tesla’s cratering stock price.
Musk is still doing interesting things with Tesla, Starlink and SpaceX; hopefully his decision to cede the position of Twitter CEO to someone else will tamp down his desire to serve as customer service for the far right.
But our broader cultural exhaustion is real, and worrisome. As the characters in one James Cameron universe famously put it, “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” If the stories we tell ourselves are a window into the future we hope to make, what does it say about humanity’s hopes that we are usually the villains of those stories?
Opinion | From 'Avatar' to Elon Musk, exploration is out and culture war is in – The Washington Post