According to the late film critic Roger Ebert, cinema is one of the most effective venues for bringing people from different backgrounds together. “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” he once said:
If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
Ebert described himself as a humanist, and his idea of film as an “empathy machine” fits perfectly with some of the best works of science fiction. Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction is connected with humanism, which we can define as an ethical stance that emphasizes the rights, responsibilities, and ultimate value of people within a naturalistic framework—that is, a framework that does not rely on supernatural beliefs. Thus, a humanist film, if one could call it that, would depict people helping each other, or forging their own destiny, mainly through reason and compassion. Humanist stories also emphasize the preciousness of sentient life, on the assumption that it is the only one we have—though some films, as we’ll see, have depicted a satirical or otherwise secularized version of the afterlife.