The Fifth Element: Sci-fi and Anthropology
For some reason last night I had a strong desire to watch the 1997 sci-fi film ‘The Fifth Element’ again. I first watched the movie at my friend Jono’s place when I was still in primary school. I distinctly remember stretching my imagination to incorporate flying cars, machines that rejuvenated life, perfect beings and alien species. And, like a lot of people, my other memory of The Fifth Element was immediately falling in love with Milla Jovovich. That last bit probably had a lot to do with catching glimpses of Milla’s bare chest in a few scenes, and who could forget that orange hair and white tape costume. But I also feel like the strong feelings she evoked had more to do with the innocence and fragility of Jovovich’s character, Leeloo, who suddenly found herself in the world with no context for her own existence or where she was and no understanding of the world around her; a feeling that probably resonates with most of us.
Unlike Leeloo however, we have the luxury of being slowly incorporated into a society from birth where we learn the rules and social norms, so by the time we are older we tend to be able to go about our day without taking on the huge task of questioning absolutely everything all of the time. Even so-called 'feral children,' raised by wolves or primates receive a socialisation of sorts into their respective pack or band. But imagine what it would be like to suddenly materialise into the world as a fully-formed adult, dropped straight into an alien society. No doubt we would begin to learn about the world immediately, but we would be starting as a blank slate and relying on our fundamental biological being to survive. I guess it's the nature versus nurture argument with a sci-fi twist. As we see with Leeloo in The Fifth Element, life is confusing and scary when we are thrown in the deep end without any preparation, but, life still goes on. To an extent, our biological being doesn’t care whether we are socialised or not, just like it is impartial to whether we have money in our savings account, or food in the fridge. We simply keep breathing, keep circulating blood and keep working for as long as possible regardless of any of those things.
After watching movies that engage my imagination, I often find myself continuing to suspend belief just to see what it would be like living there for a bit longer. It would be cool if something as epic as Leeloo plunging through the roof of my car in a desperate attempt to escape would happen to me. Leeloo's interesting mix of strength and fragility made me think about how much society protects us from having to face our own humanity on a fundamental, irreducible sort of level. How many times in modern life do we really have to count on someone to protect our very life? Most of the time life feels watered down in comparison, and we rarely experience those raw, instinctive moments where we might do whatever it takes to survive. It's as if culture takes the edge off the blunt nature of our existence. The unexpected is largely controlled for by the existence of culture, because in a way, culture is a collection of all we have learnt collectively from experiencing the unexpected, until it became expected and indeed, controlled by us.
There’s something about science fiction in general that speaks deeply to questions we have about what it means to be human. It’s as if by creating alternate worlds, suspending belief and letting our imaginations take us there, we are freed from the ethnocentrism that tends to dominate the experience of our own existence here on Earth. Anthropologists are familiar with this sort of move to temporarily shift perspective. Anthropology purposefully seeks to make the strange familiar, and the familiar, strange. All in the name of attempting to come to a greater understanding of what it actually means to be human. I see science fiction serving a similar purpose, but unlike Anthropology, which focusses on similarities and differences amongst humans down here on ground level, science fiction invites us to imagine a universe in which humanity itself isn’t necessarily the central focus. Science fiction puts our experiences in perspective against the larger universe, of which we can only imagine the possibilities of what lies beyond what our instruments can currently tell us.
Thinking about the universe as a whole, and our place in it, on this pale blue dot, humbles us, and while it might just replace ethnocentrism for a bigger version that we might call solarcentrism or galaxy-centrism, it's an interesting idea to entertain. Like a lot of sci-fi, The Fifth Element stands on the edge of what we think we know about ourselves and gingerly tests the space beyond for solid ground on which to stand.