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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introductory chapter establishes relationships between archaeology as a trope within SF film and television and as a cultural site from which to investigate the medium’s critical engagement with post 9/11 geopolitics. Arguing that the imagination of the future is indelibly overrun by the past, scholars like Fredric Jameson, Gary Wolfe and Carl Freeman contend that SF is a historicist genre that exposes its master fantasy of progress to the kinds of real and symbolic assaults on Western global power represented by 9/11. The introduction contends that SF film and television offer resistant readings of the ways mediatized weapons of retaliation on the West circulate within popular culture as potent images of threat and fear that have leant Western governments extraordinary powers of surveillance and control over its citizens and the world in the name of freedom and security. The introduction historicises the cinematic and televisual response to 9/11 and its aftermath by looking back to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film that speaks obliquely to the terrible events of the year it imagines, in which the cinematics of terror have been naturalized within the SF cinematic imagination.

Keywords:   science fiction film and television, archaeology, geopolitics, 9/11, progress, Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fredric Jameson, Gary Wolfe, Carl Freeman

The most characteristic SF does not seriously attempt to imagine the ‘real’ future of our social system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.

Fredric Jameson1

Casting a long shadow across the cinemagraphic landscape, the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is arguably the most recognizable artefact in science fiction film. Simultaneously ancient and futuristic, this enigmatic signifier of the origin and evolution of homo technologus is an apropos ‘site’ to introduce the central concern of this book: digging up the past buried in the future of contemporary American science fiction film and television.

Two archaeological events are particularly germane: the appearance of the monolith in the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence and the excavation of its lunar twin, Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One. Each discovery imparts tremendous momentum to human evolution. When the monolith inspires ‘Moon-Watcher’2 to wield a bone to hunt and then to defend territory and resources from competitors, we are confronted with an unflattering image of ourselves as agents of invention and progress. The famous match cut of the bone—which our progenitor euphorically hurls skyward after committing humanity’s first murder—with the space station orbiting the Earth propels the audience on a jarring yet sensible evolutionary trajectory that renders inevitable the discovery of the second monolith (p.2) on the moon, astronaut David Bowman’s discovery of the third monolith orbiting Jupiter, his psychedelic voyage ‘into the infinite and beyond’ and ultimate rebirth through the appearance of yet another monolith into the ‘Star Child,’ figured in the final sequence as the next phase of human development. Archaeology is a scientific touchstone and visual field for imagining humanity’s progression from savages clubbing each other over the heads to sophisticated beings compelled to conquer outer space.

In 2001, archaeological ‘discovery’ conveys both the sense of finding something lost or hidden and of advancing scientific knowledge. But for artefacts that have no sensible historical referent outside the film text, they are, as film scholar Garry Leonard observes, ‘unconcealed’ in the epistemological structures erected around them. As intelligences motivated by the monoliths’ evolutionary imperatives, Moon-Watcher and HAL describe a typology of consciousness that is decidedly violent and proprietary. The archaeological imagery offers a pointed critique of the film’s SF premise. ‘Buried, unburied, afloat in orbit, or in a dying man’s bedroom,’ relates Leonard, the monolith ‘persists as an ineradicable progenitor and remainder, the inscrutable presence of which defamiliarizes the myth of origin most science fiction takes for granted’ (45).

Itself an SF artefact, the film is also ‘unconcealed’ by the impenetrable figure of the monolith, which if laid on its side ‘would have the dimensions of a movie screen’ (49). As found object and source of technological wonder, the monolith is a metageneric image of SF film.3 In the Dawn of Man sequence, the monolith channels unmarked space into defined territory, fashioning the world in which Moon-Watcher becomes self-aware as a technological being into an environment he begins to measure and master. The cinematic mise-en-scene that recalls this originary moment unconceals the nature of progress latent in our own ritualistic ape-like gatherings before monolithic projection screens. The film’s special effects, relates Carl Freedman, ‘propose a continuity between the film itself, as a product of cinematic technology, and the characteristic technological content of the genre.’ The monolith is not simply a special effect of the film, but, in the film’s own mythology, the mother of special effects from which all other technological projections and their power to shape life are born and thematized as the ‘alien intelligence that lies behind the obelisks’ (2002, 101, 110).

The archaeological content also shapes the geopolitical subtext. Moon-Watcher’s discovery of the monolith is coeval with the dawn of (p.3) material culture, unconcealing a version of deep time that is ideologically consistent with the present and, by implication, the imagined futures shaped by the discovery of subsequent monoliths. The camera remaps the heretofore ‘free’ extreme long shots of open savanna into quasicolonial spaces in which the hominids assume central focus. The province of archaeological and anthropological investigation themselves, these prehistoric figures reflect and project the particular historical moment of the film’s making. At the conceptual core of a film released on the eve of the lunar landing—the extra-terrestrial stage for Cold War competition—Kubrick’s vision of space exploration raises important questions about the political and social ramifications of appropriating, like the ape-beings, the world for humanity’s ‘evolutionary imperative’ (Freedman, 2002, 110). While the global tensions between the superpowers are fairly well resolved in the film—the Cold War space race has warmed to tepid discussions about Soviet and American zones of political and archaeological influence on the moon—the geopolitical moment is displaced into the SF fabula of the battle against an intelligent machine, whose own manner of unconcealing the meaning of the monolith reiterates the human drive to master new frontiers at any cost.

While I have more to say below about archaeological imagery in 2001, the salient point is that the monolith’s visual, narrative and ideological properties cohere in a genre whose being resides, like archaeology itself, in speculations about change and technology. Gary Wolfe’s chapter ‘The Artifact as Icon in Science Fiction’ is useful for aligning archaeological praxis and theory with SF poetics. Classifying the roll call of robots, intelligent machines and spaceships as artefacts is symptomatic of the way archaeological materials furnish ‘evidence of some specific (usually remote) time and place, [that is] invested with some indeterminate value […] to those who receive or discover it in some other time or place’ (83–84). Like archaeological objects, the SF artefact accrues significance through acts of discovery and recovery; like the monolith, manufactured objects in SF assume their status as artefacts by virtue of being ‘unconcealed’ within the ‘shifting and often counterintuitive visions of base reality that science itself reflects’ (29). As material signifiers of time and difference, artefacts are thereby ‘analogous to the function of the narrative itself’ (96); as a source of objectified temporality in SF, archaeology is a critical tool for unearthing the contradictions and fissures of historical discourse displaced into imagined futures.

The performative characteristics of science fiction film and television (hereafter SFFTV) are particularly suited to engaging these tensions. Susan Sontag’s famous declaration about SF film that ‘[w]e are merely spectators; we watch’ (43) is an aesthetic distinction that also evokes (p.4) SF’s central occupation: the pleasures and politics of defamiliarization. In Science Fiction Film, Keith Johnston inverts Sontag’s statement into a question about what ‘audiences find spectacular’ (42). For him, the material conditions of SF are inherently and necessarily spectacular. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is exemplary, for its haunting archaeological mise-en-scene of ziggurats towering above twenty-first-century Los Angeles is a spectacular ideological marker of a capitalist empire indifferent to its own collapse. Freighted with historical significance, these futuristic temples share the skies with police hover cars and other simulated relics of the twentieth century. The ziggurats remain seats of power and human sacrifice; the cars, referents of a police state dedicated to enforcing naturalized expressions of power as spectacular manifestations culled from ‘ancient mytho-history’ (Johnson-Smith, 5). As evinced by 2001, SFFTV depends upon viewers’ extra-diegetic experience of archaeology, even if such experience is informed by SF spectacle. Wolfe’s artefact as icon thus opens SFFTV to the complex regimes of historical knowledge that archaeology also documents.

Fredric Jameson adroitly exploits the metafictive potential of SF archaeology in his monumental Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia. Like Foucault’s genealogical analysis in The Archaeology of Knowledge of radical disruptions in the ‘archive’ of cultural history, Jameson addresses the central paradox of SF historicism dramatized in 2001. He relates, ‘SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us “images” of the future—whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their “materialization”—but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present’ (286). Like archaeology, SF teaches us ‘that the present […] is inaccessible directly’ (287). A generative vehicle of material progress itself, SF registers what Jameson calls a ‘symptom of a mutation in our relationship to historical time,’ through ‘our own experience of the object-world of the present’ (284). The fantasies of the future, Jameson insists, are genetically dependent upon the fantasies of the past that we store and experience in places like museums and heritage sites and, moreover, in narrative histories circulating in popular culture. We can appreciate SF as a historicist genre because of its insistence on historicizing progress, of freighting the future with the past. In his chapter ‘Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?’ Jameson is sceptical that this ‘“concept” […] can somehow be tested for [its] objective or even scientific validity’ (282), and wonders what ‘if the “idea” of progress were not an idea at all but rather the symptom of something else? This is the perspective suggested, not merely by the interrogation of cultural texts, such as SF, but by the contemporary discovery of the (p.5) Symbolic in general’ (281). As a symbolic medium grounded in the material record of progress, SF teaches us that we are enveloped in a paradox that is the genre’s ‘deepest vocation,’ namely to ‘bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself’ (289).

The paradox of Jameson’s title is a touchstone for the present study: the manner in which archaeology exposes SFFTV to its political unconsciousness. This book investigates how contemporary SF televisual and cinematic representations of archaeology and their ‘scientific’ sense of the past and of cultural interaction contribute to socio-political investigation and understanding of geopolitics. The terrible events of September 11, 2001, have taught us that geopolitical crises are virtually indistinguishable from, and may even be anticipated by, media events. The apocalyptic vision of the Twin Towers vanishing from the New York skyline was impressed on the global imagination as if it were a cinematic event, like something ‘from a movie’ (King, 2005, 47; cf. Randell). On that fateful day, Slavoj Žižek relates, the ‘fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality.’ This is ‘what the compelling image of the collapse of the WTC was: an image, a semblance, an “effect,” which, at the same time, delivered “the thing itself”’ (16, 19). The obsessive, even fetishistic cycling of the attacks in the news and social media is itself an indictment of global power disseminating as a form of Hollywood spectacle. The cinematographic realm of SF not only framed the event for contemporary ‘audiences’ but transformed and rerouted it like the hijacked planes into a weapon of terror. The plethora of writing by film and media scholars on 9/11’s indelible stamp on the ways security, invasion, threats to homeland and fears of mass destruction have since been represented in popular culture demands that we consider that if the attacks are mediatized weapons of retaliation on the West, they have been revitalized as potent images of threat and fear that have leant Western governments extraordinary powers of surveillance and control over their citizens in the name of freedom and security.4 If, as Roger Luckhurst observes, SF ‘responds to the intensification and global extension of technological modernity not with new forms, but rather with ones lifted from the genre’s venerable past’ (221), then SFFTV is (p.6) well suited to entertaining and documenting the ideological concerns of our era, wherein ‘venerable’ generic forms such as alien invasion have renewed cultural currency in the global war against terrorists.

SF has proven to be a flexible medium for responding to recent crises. J.P. Telotte explains that although

science fiction has, to some extent, always provided a stage for acting out cultural anxieties—as the cinema’s tales of atomic holocaust and alien invasion at the height of the cold war attest—television’s increased emphasis in this direction should be seen less as a problem or symptom of ‘exhaustion’ than as evidence of its growing importance as a tool of cultural deliberation and ideological exploration. (4–5)

But perhaps because of its close physical, temporal and cultural proximity, 9/11 presents new challenges for SF mediations of insecurity as much as it reenergized, like other TV and film genres, SF narratives of invasion, (in)security, war and conspiracy. As Lincoln Geraghty observes in his cultural history American Science Fiction Film and Television, post-9/11 SFFTV struggles with issues of representing what for many North Americans is a singular and hence fundamentally unrepresentable event outside of the spectacle of media itself.5 SF film has adapted to this lacuna between the event and its representation by situating ‘9/11 and its fallout as narrative backdrop’ (2009, 103). SF invasion and disaster films like Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield (2008) and Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are fairly transparent allegories of New York City under spectacular threat, a filmic tradition dating back to Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933).

But SFFTV has also mined its own history for subtler alternative histories for 9/11. Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds (2005) is illuminating in this regard. Shifting H.G. Wells’s Martian invasion narrative to post-9/11 New York (a point made clear by the bright-eyed Rachael Ferrier [Dakota Fanning] asking her ash-covered father, Ray [Tom Cruise], ‘Is it the terrorists?’6), Spielberg displaces the novel’s political questions into spectacular matter. Politics are re-injected into the film not through characters’ reflections (they are for the most part concerned with survival), but through the imagery the film exploits as (p.7) a vehicle for terror. In Hollywood blockbuster fashion, the breakdown in American ideology is experienced as an external threat, in this case by conflating SF imagery with terrorist tactics: the ancient Martian war machines buried underground millions of years ago are artefacts hidden within the nation’s own soil, awaiting activation like terrorist cells. The Martian war machines operate like artefacts both in Wolfe’s sense of SF icons and as historical figures excavated from the substrata. The archaeological imagery offers an oblique means of reading global crises within the spectacular realm of SFFTV.

I have been arguing that archaeology is not simply an imaginative mine for SF’s other worlds, but is an important critical medium for teasing out the ideological subtextures of historical representation within the genre. Treating SF as a form of future history is, moreover, endemic of perspectives by a group of archaeological theorists committed to interrogating the ways they also ‘unconceal’ the material past. It is to these discussions that I now briefly turn.

Archaeology and the contemporary past

A past that is not yet known is a form of the future.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay7

In the popular imagination, archaeology is a form of science fiction.

Daniel Shoup8

Excavating the Future is informed by a school of archaeological theory known as ‘post-processual’ or ‘interpretive archaeology.’ Embracing diverse theoretical positions from feminist, Marxist, post-structuralist and postcolonial criticism, and foregrounding the subjective nature of archaeological practice, post-processual archaeologists endeavour to understand how artefactual remains articulate cognitive and symbolic spheres of human action by considering how ideology operated in the production of material culture in the past and, moreover, in the hermeneutics of archaeological discourse in the present. Abandoning the notion of an archaeological ‘record’ and its implication of a direct imprint of the past on objects, post-processualists study artefacts like (p.8) texts, wherein material signifiers ‘play’ in and between the present and the imagined past (Chilton; Hodder; Hodder and Hudson; Preucel; Tilley, 1990, 1991, 1999). United in a postmodern scepticism of totalizing theoretical schema, meta-narratives and scientific positivism, these archaeologists locate archaeological discourse within broader cultural productions of the past in and for the present. This paradigmatic shift of archaeology as a broadly material science into an array of creative and culturally relative material practices is a crucial cipher for decoding geopolitics in SFFTV archaeology.9

Three important implications emerge for the present study. First, as a mode of ‘unconcealment,’ archaeology is a representational medium whose rhetorical tropes are, in the words of classical archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis, ‘intricately implicated with processes of identity, politics, institutional power, disciplinary authority, and history.’ Archaeologists ‘do not just save and reconstruct,’ he argues, they ‘also ignore and destroy; they produce material realities, but they also tell stories; they too, like poets, are cultural producers working in the field of representation’ (2004, 56; cf. Shanks, 1991). In this vein, Rodney Harrison is particularly suspicious of the meta-tropes of ‘excavation and the depth metaphor for research and discovery.’ He proposes an alternative metaphor: surface archaeology, an approach to ‘assembling/reassembling’ information in order to reorient ‘archaeology away from the past and towards the present and future, which would see it forgo its search for origins to focus instead on the present and only subsequently on the circumstance in which the past intervenes within it’ (143–44, 144).10 For post-processualists, archaeology is a creative intervention that challenges its practitioners to acknowledge and explore the ideological dimensions of their ‘poetics.’

This raises a second point. Post-processualists are also interested in the relationship between amateur and professional interests in material remains. Stanford archaeologist, theorist, multimedia artist and blogger Michael Shanks contends ‘[w]e are all archaeologists today’ (2012, 21), echoing a sentiment shared by many archaeologists that the everyday and amateur concerns with the material past play an integral part (p.9) in the dialogic world of archaeological thinking. Practitioners like Shanks seriously consider the powerful influence popular media have in shaping conceptions about what archaeologists do as producers of historical knowledge and identities. In Archaeology Is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture, Swedish archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf invites scholars to take possession of the ways their profession has been ‘branded’ through its own topoi, like colonial adventure in exotic locations, detective work, treasure hunting/artefact rescue, scholarly expertise, and excavation as discovery. Holtorf’s central and controversial argument (cf. G. Fagan and Feder) is that archaeologists should participate directly in the popular culture arena where so much interest in the discipline is itself generated. The implication for the present study is that popular cultural representations of the discipline are more than simple entertainment. They are critical sites for unpacking and confronting the politics of archaeological practice circulating in SFFTV.

While gauging what people actually think about archaeology is a difficult task, media analysis can provide clues about the means by which popular culture documents the work of archaeologists and, hence, its social value. Particularly germane for film and television is, thirdly, the performative nature of archaeology. This objective is perhaps best summed up by what Michael Shanks and performance artist Mike Pearson term ‘theatre/archaeology,’ the title of their collaborative effort to promote dialogue between the historically discrete disciplines of archaeology and drama. Their central premise is that archaeological knowledge is always contingent, because it is fashioned out of inherently performative encounters between bodies, objects and sites. Theatre/archaeology looks for a composite authority through the living, tactile relationships we have with artefacts, investigating the ways contemporary interests in the past are articulated in popular culture and exert pressure on ‘legitimate’ forms of archaeological discussion. Shanks and Pearson challenge the assumption that ‘if you mix up old artefacts and spectacle, entertainment, interests of the present, then that old artefact is supposed to be of less use to proper archaeological concerns such as producing knowledge of the past.’ They consider, rather, ‘[w]hat use is an entertaining experience to archaeology?’ Understanding archaeology as a cultural production that has always existed within a ‘dramaturgical imagination,’ they promote a new form of archaeological documentation in which the two disciplines

coexist within a blurred genre or a science/fiction, a mixture of narration and scientific practices, an integrated approach (p.10) to recording, writing and illustrating the material past. Here archaeology and performance are jointly active in mobilizing the past, in making creative use of its various fragments in forging cultural memory out of varied interests and remains, in developing cultural ecologies (relating different fields of social and personal experience in the context of varied and contradictory interests) and in their joint address to particular sites and themes, a significant resource in constructing and energising contemporary identities, personal, communal and regional.

Ultimately, theatre/archaeology ‘documents social practices’ by sanctioning performance as knowledge within the archaeological project of ‘piecing together fragments’ (Pearson and Shanks, 114, 101, 131, 12).

While this short discussion does not presume to exhaust the breadth of issues being debated by post-processualists (and their detractors), its purpose is to offer their utopian dream of playful, democratic praxis and theory as an invitation to explore the material histories of our imagined futures in SFFTV. To illustrate how these archaeological ‘science/fictions’ are fertile territory for cultural study, I return briefly to 2001 to pose questions that are central to the present study. What kinds of futures can archaeology offer its audiences? How do archaeological practices shape cinematic storytelling? And, perhaps most importantly, how can archaeology expose SF futures to contemporary geopolitical discourse?

2001 redux

SF, then, is not a genre of literary entertainment only, but a mode of awareness, a complex hesitation about the relationship between imaginary conceptions and historical reality unfolding into the future.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay11

In 2001 four monoliths preside over humanity’s development. Produced by some unfathomable consciousness, these alien objects cached away in humanity’s past and future accrue a priori significance by virtue of the activities that take place around them. At the beginning of the Dawn of Man sequence, material culture per se does not yet exist. Time is static, a cinematic effect produced by lingering long distance takes of neutral terrain and tedious shots of outcrops, bushes and scattered (p.11) bones that gesture towards a natural state before human agency. Except for a few diurnal cues, time is uncomfortably absent, a mise-en-abyme out of which Kubrick creates proleptic relief through the intervention of the monolith (cf. Landy, 89–91). But its sudden appearance and the reassurance of history and narrative progression it heralds introduces the film’s central dilemma. The ‘dawn of man’ is not a historical event but a cinematic process by which the audience is confronted with discomforting images of Darwinian ascendancy over the environment of our progenitors, a ‘defamiliarization of our need to generate a Myth of Origin, and, having once done so, our inability ever again to see the world except in terms of the “before” and “after” demarcated by this myth’ (Leonard, 59).

The introduction of time and human agency presumed by this myth of origin are also products of ‘camera consciousness’ (Landy, 99), which after the appearance of the monolith focuses on the activities of our ancestors. In a genre where the ‘privileged figure of alterity tends to be the machine’ (Vint, 2009, 225), these hominids become mechanized through technological mastery of the natural world. ‘The image of the ape,’ Rebecca Bishop observes, ‘serves as a mode of revealing’ (243) tool-wielding humanity in contradistinction to the other animals. Ratiocination occurs for the first time when Moon-Watcher applies his experience of smashing skeletal remains with a femur to killing the animals with which he had lived in relative peace. The psychological poignancy of this moment is realized through the meta-filmic rendition of Moon-Watcher’s thoughts, his awakening consciousness visualized for the audience as a slow motion cut scene of a falling tapir. We bear witness, furthermore, to the dawn of politics in the horrible image of the solitary Moon-Watcher gorging himself on entrails at a safe distance from the group.

2001 thus conflates the birth of human culture with the birth of archaeology, the invention of material culture with the advent of ideology. Archaeology affords tangible figures of historical action and a powerful critical vocabulary for deconstructing familiar paradigms of historical processes. This point is perhaps best illustrated by the caesura of Moon-Watcher hurling his bone/tool/weapon aloft to the triumphant chorus of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, his artefactual gift to the future, incarnate in the match cut to the bone-like space station. The skyward toss visually translates prehistoric ape-thinking into post-human AI-thinking. For the spectator, these early moments are, as Marcia Landy puts it, ‘an invocation of the “dark dreams of the past” not as linear, immutable, and absolutely true but as exposing different presents and relations to the past, a past threatening ever to return’ (90). The politics of space exploration implied by the match cut to the (p.12)

space station (which we know from Clarke’s ancillary material is a nuclear weapons platform) recall the Cold War arms race and the war in Vietnam (Vint, 2009, 226), a chain of violence linking Moon-Watcher’s pleasure in the destructive force of technology and the horrific sterility of the new millennium, when murder becomes a matter of computerized calculation.

The end of Bowman’s voyage is likewise contained within the limitations of his own historical imagination, the ‘temporal reservoir of memory’ (Nelson, 130) spatialized in the eighteenth-century inspired hotel suite where he ekes out the remainder of his days. His last supper is a parodic reiteration of humanity’s first. The steak he eats with a knife and fork politely echoes Moon-Watcher’s first meal in the shadow of the monolith. The glass of wine that figuratively holds the measure of his life falls, inverting the evolutionary direction of Moon-Watcher’s skyward bone toss. As Thomas Nelson relates, ‘2001 brings the human race to the limits of its growth, where, like the bone, it is converted into an artifact that turns to crystal and shatters from the weight of evolutionary gravity’ (134). The monolith at the foot of the astronaut’s deathbed represents a critical node in the journey from ape to human and from AI to cyborg with the cryptic appearance of the ‘Star Child.’ The allegory of evolution ‘confronts the medium in which it is expressed’ (Landy, 100), leaving the audience staring dumbfounded like Bowman at the monolith’s shiny surface. Bowman apes Moon-Watcher. We ape them both.

This short analysis of 2001 suggests that Excavating the Future is not primarily concerned with the ways SFFTV employs ‘real’ archaeology (p.13) for its scenarios, but rather how archaeological representation is subject to the kinds of cultural analysis that post-processualist archaeologists are undertaking in their evaluations of their disciplinary practices and communications. Specifically, this study examines how archaeology bequeaths to SFFTV a critical vocabulary with which to speak about the past, theorize our relationships with material culture, and excavate the discursive strata between cognition and estrangement.

Excavating the Future

Here we are far from the living-room and close to science fiction.

Jean Baudrillard12

Excavating the Future is structured on three classes of SF archaeology, each corresponding with a distinct phase of the monolith’s ‘unconcealment’ in 2001: the relationship between material culture and war implied in the Dawn of Man sequence; the ancient astronaut topos represented by the excavation of the lunar monolith; and the post-human future imagined through Bowman’s transformation into the Star Child.

Part 1, ‘Battling Babylon: Military SFFTV and the War on Terror,’ investigates the interplay between archaeology and militarism in the Middle Eastern mise-en-scenes of Roland Emmerich’s feature film Stargate (1994), its television spin-off Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007), Tripp Reed’s SF horror telefilm Manticore (2005) and Michael Bay’s SF action film Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). Each text depicts Western political and military intervention in the Middle East through paradigms of archaeological stewardship over the region’s cultural and natural resources, representations of archaeology that are symptomatic of sociopolitical reconfigurations of the Middle East circulating in the era of the Gulf Wars. I locate these tensions in a particular image, ‘Babylon.’ For the Mesopotamian city’s complex mythical, historical and cultural associations—encompassing the biblical and imperial imagery of ancient Babylon, the embattled heritage site in contemporary Iraq, and the Rastafarian sense of global capitalism—is a deep-seated yet topical frame of reference to engage critically with our production and consumption of SF narratives of war and conflict set in the region.

The opening chapter examines an early popular cultural response to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: Tripp Reed’s telefilm Manticore. Predicated (p.14) on the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the first week of the invasion in April 2003, Manticore is a ‘Babylonian’ text that reverses the events and politics upon which its scenario is based—the destruction of antiquities in wartime—into a liberation story. In the film, U.S. marines save Iraq from a legendary beast unleashed from the archaeological past by a megalomaniacal terrorist claiming Babylonian ancestry. Wedding the (neo)imperialist rhetoric of archaeological stewardship in the ‘cradle of civilization’ with military adventure, Manticore exemplifies how SF frequently capitalizes on and exposes archaeology’s latent complicity with geopolitical activity. Yannis Hamilakis’s notion of the ‘Military-Archaeology Complex’ (2009)—the absorption of archaeologists into military structures—provides an important critical context for examining how values like heritage and stewardship promote Western interventions in the Middle East, activities that in turn provide diegetic materials for SF narratives.

Chapter 2 develops the central thesis of Chapter 1, that paramilitary archaeology is a means of invoking and containing dangerous pasts as an imaginative extension of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Whereas Stargate, which was released in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, is a fairly transparent liberation allegory, the shift to the televisual medium in which archaeological spectacle is normalized into a vehicle for episodic action (Vint, 2011, 72) is symptomatic of the deepening complexities of representing geopolitical activity in the Middle East after 9/11. Two Mesopotamian-themed episodes are particularly germane. Similar to the original film, ‘The Tomb,’ which was broadcast just three weeks before the 9/11 attacks (17 August 2001), offers confident displays of American sovereignty over the archaeological record of defeated enemies. In the episode ‘Babylon’ (9 September 2005), however, the mercurial figure of Babylon offers a counterpoint to the original film’s overlay of archaeology and militarism, and indeed to the rhetoric of stewardship at the heart of the military-archaeology complex in post-invasion Iraq. The shifting representation of Mesopotamian antiquity in SG-1’s ten-year run offers powerful cultural criticism of the show’s own premise: that Babylon as a figure from ancient imperial history exposes the latent ‘Babylon’ of Western modernity.

The final chapter of ‘Battling Babylon’ investigates the archaeological cinematics of Michael Bay’s Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, a film predicated on artefacts transforming explosively into action. Like the monolith in 2001, the shape-shifting aliens satisfy the dual condition of artefact and meta-filmic technology. Engendered by state-of-the-art CGI technology, they are the progeny of the kinds of action sequences and cultural transformations that make sense of military (p.15) activity for audiences. While trying to resolve or maintain within the Hollywood action blockbuster tradition the distinction between war and civilization, Bay’s film ultimately collapses these oppositions through its visual rhetoric. I argue specifically that the militaristic, archaeological and geopolitical motifs in Transformers 2 coalesce in the framing techniques employed in the concluding action sequences. By figuratively compressing time into literally compressed spaces (here principal photography at Petra, Giza and Luxor into a single location), the set/setting is a chronotopic threshold that transforms antiquity into a battleground for military technocratic modernity.

Part 2, ‘Of Artefacts and Ancient Aliens,’ considers the premise of ‘ancient astronaut’ speculation—that monuments from antiquity are of extra-terrestrial origin or design—as an important, though critically neglected, historical trope in SFFTV. The proposition that human evolution has been shaped by mysterious agents who have left behind material evidence of their existence is, moreover, the master story of archaeology. This section begins with an analysis of the History Channel’s popular (pseudo-)documentary series Ancient Aliens (2009–), a show that seeks legitimacy for its fantastic version of archaeological knowledge by exposing material culture study to its ‘science/fictions.’ Producing archaeological knowledge at the intersection of what archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf calls his discipline’s ‘D’ or ‘detective theme’ (2007, 75) with SF narratives of alien invasion, the series repeatedly articulates fringe archaeological claims in terms of insecurity discourses concurrently circulating in news, documentary and popular culture media. I argue that recurrent themes such as doomsday weapons, extra-terrestrial threats, government conspiracies, genetic tampering, the Mayan calendar, and the frequent focus on the Middle East as the origin of civilization and setting for the (generally imminent) apocalypse ground contemporary geopolitical anxieties in alternative archaeologies whose terms of reference are borrowed from the SF lexicon.

Chapter 5 examines Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Set in the post-war atomic era, the film follows the exploits of the middle-aged archaeologist in a race against the Red Army for possession of the eponymous Crystal Skull, an artefact left by an ancient race of inter-dimensional archaeologists seeking knowledge of primitive ‘Terran’ cultures (i.e. us). While the film’s playful references to the cinematic antecedent of 1950s B SF movies and their connection to Cold War politics are fairly obvious, the ancient astronaut topos invites closer inspection of the nature of the aliens. As archaeologists and collectors—they have a massive collection of artefacts from Earth’s early civilizations stowed aboard their spaceship/museum—they represent a (p.16) version of colonial archaeology that Jones and even the audience may take for granted. The aliens function within the film’s 1950s SF métier as symptomatic of communist anxiety, but they simultaneously sanction the civilizing activities of institutions like the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum that lend credibility to Jones’s adventures. The intrepid figure of colonial archaeology is resuscitated through the exotic adventures of technologically advanced beings from outer space. As in Manticore, Stargate and Transformers 2, archaeology is a device for manifesting threats that can be foiled by the conservative alliance of science and politics within the ostensibly depoliticized and entertaining medium of SF action and adventure cinema.

The final chapter of this section takes the ancient astronaut topos to the small screen with an examination of the teen drama Smallville (2001–11). That the pilot aired less than a month after 9/11 and broke all WB viewership records suggests that the world was ready for a new Superman; that Smallville lasted a staggering ten seasons affirms that the production team succeeded in adapting Superman’s image as defender of American idealism to new geopolitical paradigms for audiences growing up in an age perhaps uniquely defined by global terrorism. This chapter examines archaeology’s role in retooling Superman’s origin story for audiences of teen television melodrama. Two storylines are especially pertinent. The first is Clark’s exploration of a series of caves claimed by the fictional First Nations ‘Kawatche’ as the birthplace of their people. Ancient petroglyphs in the caves foretell of the return of a messianic ‘star being.’ Locating the Kryptonian’s origins at the intersection of ancient astronaut theory and the history of cultural violence attending indigenous land claims and cultural custodianship exposes the Superman mythos to distinctly colonial relationships with Native Americans. A lingering source of concern for Clark, these local tensions about the nature of his ancestry and mission on Earth intersect in storylines suggestive of contemporary anxieties about the legitimacy of the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Patriot Act. The Egyptologist Carter Hall (aka Hawkman) emerges in the final two seasons (2009–10, 2010–11) as an important mentor to Clark, who is undertaking his final trials on the way to becoming Superman. Played by Stargate SG-1 archaeologist Michael Shanks, the character is an important meta-fictional figure of the new archaeological tropes sustaining the Superman mythos and, moreover, the shared geopolitical themes in these television programmes. Deconstructing the myth of Superman at its source, the teen television format offers a new generation of Superman fans a sophisticated and subtle interrogation of American idealism in the post-9/11 world.

(p.17) The concluding section, ‘Cyborg Sites,’ examines what archaeologist Michael Shanks terms the archaeological cyborg, the ‘fusion of flesh and mechanism, person and artefact combined’ (Pearson and Shanks, 70). For Shanks, the uneasy merging of body, culture, history and technology advances Donna Haraway’s seminal claim that ‘the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism […]. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins’ (151). By collapsing the biological and material into the ideological conditions of SF, the archaeological cyborg disrupts stable and discrete chronometric typologies of past, present and future, and the political regimes myths of origins often validate. The section introduction explores these relationships in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), whose story about an android boy’s love for his ‘mother’ manifests for future alien archaeologists a vision of humanity centred on the nuclear family, an inference that completely counters the action of the film: the boy’s alienation from the family unit in a world of bio-mechanical simulation. In AI, the archaeological record is literally a cyborg record that preserves an ironic past for the future. Released in June 2001, the film is itself a historical record of these ironies. Images of the Twin Towers rising out of a flooded and uninhabitable Eastern Seaboard are dystopic analogues of cyborg struggles for actualization in the global capitalist state of the fictitious near future. This critique is performed by the bio-mechanical archaeologists of the distant future, whose embodied form of cinematographic communication replicates the familial logic programmed into, but withheld from, the artificial boy. AI shows us that the cyborg is a powerful figure for contemplating the dangers of humancentrism by encouraging us to think and act in equitable and symbiotic ways within local, global and even temporal ecologies.

Chapter 7 focuses on the figure of the archaeological cyborg in Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica (2004–09). I argue that the central story arc of finding Earth after the Cylon decimation of the Twelve Colonies is structured as an extended archaeological expedition. Museums, artefacts, ruins and substrata give the fleet its bearings and also serve as genius loci for the ethical and philosophical question that fuels the voyage: how to understand and define humanity’s purpose out of the ruins of the contemporary world? The show’s answer is that the cycle of violence will rage until Colonial humanity accepts the Cylons’ desire to transcend the status of historical objects and become historical agents. Finding a (co)habitable destination requires both sides to open the archaeological record to inclusive narratives of origin. I argue that Moore’s plan to ‘comment on things that are happening in today’s society, from the war (p.18) against terror to the question of what happens to people in the face of unimaginable catastrophe’ (qtd. in Bassom, 12) stretches the mimetic role of antiquity in the original series into a dynamic interrogation of the geopolitical realities that the BSG reboot documents.

The final chapter explores Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). As an ‘archaeological’ record of the Alien franchise, Prometheus provides ample material for cyborg criticism in the figure of its android protagonist, David. Modelling himself after the archaeologist, advocate of Arab nationalism and British spy T.E. Lawrence, David is a cultural artefact and agent of the starship Prometheus’s expedition to retrace the origins of human life, an enterprise that, like the myth of Arab independence infusing Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, ultimately promotes the interests of the industrial-military-archaeology complex that David serves (in Lawrence’s case, Britain’s Foreign and Colonial Office). Within the genealogical imagery of the film (David is the ‘son’ the corporate tycoon Peter Weyland never had), David’s cyborg being is also connected to the origin of humanity, the mythic ‘Engineers’ whom Weyland desperately seeks in the hope of extending his life. Ultimately, the archaeological dreams of discovering humanity’s point of origin are dismantled along with the conservative political agendas such myths serve. As an unpredictable signifier of the archaeological project of gathering artefacts into partial typologies of origins and progress, Scott’s cyborg archaeologist is a fitting coda to my investigation of the uneasy and ongoing alliance between archaeology and global politics circulating in the popular imaginary of SFFTV.

In sum, Excavating the Future demonstrates that the archaeological mise-en-scenes of these SF films and television programmes are constitutive of the dreams of progress sustaining globalist politics. Archaeology lends SF materials for recognizable futures, but it also injects challenging questions about the ideological motivations and assumptions such constructions hold for contemporary audiences. In a medium that, as J.P. Telotte claims for SF television, ‘has established itself as one of the key mirrors of the contemporary cultural climate’ (2008, 2), SFFTV documents historical experience and is itself a historical document of our era’s imaginative responses to technological development and global crises. The present work addresses the lacuna of archaeology in SF criticism by demonstrating how this subspecies of SF historicism is much more than a source of visual imagery for SF fabula: a critical reading of archaeology in SFFTV ‘unconceals’ the medium’s various ideological investments and interventions in future history.


(2) For the purposes of this argument, I will use Arthur C. Clarke’s nomenclature to refer to Kubrick’s unnamed characters: i.e. Moon-Watcher and the Star Child.

(3) Marcia Landy observes that Kubrick dramatizes human evolution through cinematographic effects, conflating the history of consciousness with the history of cinema (88).

(4) The literature on the cultural responses to the war on terror, 9/11 and the Iraq War in film, TV, news media and the arts is extensive. Quay and Damico’s September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide is an impressive and fairly comprehensive overview of the subject. Individual representative studies include Berenger; Birkenstein et al.; Bragard et al.; Debrix; Dixon, 2004; Holloway; Izard and Perkins; King, 2005; Monahan; Morgan; Nacos et al.; and Prince.

(5) Christine Cornea argues that the special effects of SF films like Independence Day have already manufactured a version of the events of 9/11 (264–65). Cf. ‘The Long Shadows of 9/11.’

(6) Friedman, 158; Holloway, 92; and Jackson all make this point.

(9) For a concise study of these schools, see Johnson.

(10) Thomas relates it ‘could be argued that this disciplinary orientation towards depth, concealment, mystery and revelation is quite obstructive, for it enhances the belief that the past is entirely separate from the present: it is “somewhere else” that needs to be accessed in a particular way. […] [It] is unhelpful to imagine that the past is a substance that is secreted away in dark places awaiting its recovery. The remains of the past are all around us, and we inhabit the past in important ways’ (170).