Toby Neilson

Research title

Ecological Futures: Contemporary Science-Fiction Cinema and The Anthropocene

Research summary

Science fiction (sf) films have traditionally been understood as, amongst other things, an extrapolative reflection of the cultural, social and technological milieu under which they are produced. Susan Sontag argues that sf films are concerned with the (re)presentation of ‘the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation’, positing that sf films are fundamentally about disaster, specifically that of the potential nuclear holocaust. While this line of logic is in some ways dated, as not all contemporary sf films are concerned with imagining disaster, it is instructive and valuable when thinking through sf cinema’s use as a tool for understanding and allaying contemporary cultural anxieties. In the context of the ecological disaster we currently face, which has recently been stratified as “The Anthropocene”, it is of fundamental importance to re-assess the genre’s imaginations of disaster as a means of analysing if and how contemporary sf films are working through this new ‘profound dilemma’.

One of the most interesting aspects of the anthropocene, as an (hyper)object, is its conflation of radically different time periods; deep geological time is now enmeshed with the almost incomprehensibly shorter history of human capital. This anthropocene induced folding of divergent temporal scales is of core pertinence to this project, as it invites us to reconsider our own relationship with time. Sf cinema openly invites temporal critique by virtue of the genre’s tendency to conflate past, present & future time signatures, as well as by virtue of the temporal significance of the medium that houses it. In spite of the clear hallmarks of temporality endemic to the genre, temporal critique/analysis of sf films is peculiarly absent in academic and popular writing. As such, it is of significance both to the field of anthropocene studies and film studies to investigate how sf cinema is imagining anthropocenic futures, and it is pertinent to consider time as a lens through which to do this. Through an analysis of films such as Interstellar, District 9, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes my project seeks to provide instructive new ways of re-reading sf cinema and, in turn, the current ecological crisis.


  • AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship 2016 - Present
  • AHRC MA Scholarship 2011 - 2012