Film Critic Cameron Bowles discusses the prominence of science fiction in today’s cinematic landscape, assessing it as a form of reflection on the modern world

Written by camerondlb
2nd year English and Film student.

Science fiction has seemingly never been more in fashion. When looking across the breadth of recent film and television output, it’s clear that the genre has seen an increase in popularity – from big-budget TV productions like Severance (2022) and Foundation (2021), to the recently released Dune: Part Two (2024). The second part in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel, Part: Two received rave reviews from critics and fans alike, commending the film as both an invigorating piece of spectacle and a proper representation of the source material. It is the highest grossing film of the year so far. That being said, some have critiqued the film for its more difficult elements, such as the wider lore of Dune’s source material and its weighty exposition. Ultimately, it begs the question as to whether science fiction remains a mostly inaccessible genre.

[Dune’s] concepts here are admittedly weird […] but the brunt of the series’ narrative points towards more impactful and relevant themes

When set against the slower, open-ended first instalment, Part Two is comparatively more entertaining. The film is conventionally enjoyable in spite of its length, complete with a handful of exciting action sequences, moments of unexpected levity, and impressive visual awe. Regardless, some of the film’s detractors have pointed towards its heavy reliance on pre-existing material; if you’re familiar with at least the first book in the series, Part Two’s key narrative turns will be undoubtedly easier to follow.

When talking with friends who hadn’t read the source material versus those who had, it was clear that those who had engaged with the books were more enthusiastic about the film. Even so, some unfamiliar viewers still displayed a curiosity towards Dune’s wider world, signalling an interest to involve themselves deeper in literary science fiction. The concepts here are admittedly weird – ranging from precognitive witches to human-worm hybrids – but the brunt of the series’ narrative points towards more impactful and relevant themes. Technocracy, artificial intelligence, and geo-political conflicts over resources all feature in Dune, and in the 2020s are progressively becoming more prominent in our own reality. Perhaps these stories may provide some reflection of our present society.

In an increasingly technological world, science fiction has the potential to offer answers to significant contemporary questions through speculation. Forward-facing and contemplative, the genre often invokes matters of philosophy, politics, and the evolving nature of what a human constitutes. Indeed, such aspects as these may leave the average viewer feeling a little lost and could encourage them to view sci-fi as inaccessible. Insofar as the genre consistently deals with complex, multi-faceted concepts and often uses difficult jargon, it could be difficult for most to pierce the surface. The insistence of Villeuneve’s Dune films to be perceived as ‘prestige’ and ‘high-end entertainment’ somewhat admits to this. There is a necessity to have stars like Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya in leading roles to bolster the films, bringing in a mainstream audience alongside dedicated fans.

Science fiction has the potential to offer answers to significant contemporary questions through speculation

On the other hand, popular science fiction has long been regarded as mainstream material that is largely accessible to the general public. A brief scan of the highest grossing films of all time will confirm this, with Avatar (2009) taking the top spot and Avengers: Endgame (2019) close behind. Who could deny the pop culture impact of sci-fi franchises like Star Wars with characters and concepts that have been household names since the 1970s. While aspects of science fiction may seem obscure, especially in its literary form, the modern landscape of popular cinema is primarily made up of sci-fi blockbusters. People go to these films for a certain kind of escapism, something that can display impressive spectacle and an imaginative, otherworldly vision.

Yes, Dune as a franchise may seem rather intimidating to the average cinemagoer but that is not to say that science fiction as a whole is inaccessible. On the contrary, I believe it to be a fascinating and varied form of fiction – one that predicts the future, entertains the masses, and most importantly speaks to our present problems.

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