Artworks, such as paintings, sculptures or architectural details, in science fiction movies, can add depth to the visionary worlds, and at the same time enhance the visual experience in an unobtrusive way.
With clever placement of paintings or sculptures in a scene, a filmmaker can easily get across a sense of power, wealth, education, and status.
However, the works of art can also be used as a symbol of freedom, rebellion, and free-thinking. What is more, the works of art can underline the difference between civilization and barbarism, or point to the importance of the preservation of human values.
It seems to us that the works of art which are featured in science fiction movies generally fall under three types: classical, alien, and futuristic artworks.
Classical artworks in science fiction movies
Here are some famous, and less famous, classical artworks and the scenes from the SF movies in which they are shown.
Movie Equilibrium depicts a post-apocalyptic dystopian society in which everything – especially fine art – that evokes emotions, is collected by government agents Tetragrammaton Clerics and destroyed. Not even famous paintings like “The Story Book” by Adolphe-William Bouguereau or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa can escape this fate.
Throughout the movie, clerics break into several hidden rooms where an anti-government underground movement keeps, among other things, paintings, postcards, music records, vases, and posters. The scenes taking place inside the rebels’ hideout provide rare, and brief, moments of respite in this otherwise relentlessly bleak and oppressive world.
Much as the rebels in Equilibrium, the masked freedom fighter who goes by V in the movie V for Vendetta has a special room he calls the Shadow Gallery where he collects various classical and modern artworks retrieved from “the vaults of the Ministry of Objectionable Materials”.
Among treasures exhibited in the gallery, besides a medieval body armor and jukebox with a collection of 872 songs, are John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott”, “Puberty” by Edvard Munch, “Bacchus and Ariadne” by Titian, “Elohim Creating Adam” by William Blake, “Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride” by Jan Van Eyck, St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, a Mildred Pierce poster, statues by Giacometti, The Vitra Lounge Chair by Eames and Valerio Bottin’s Bubble Lamp.
(List gathered from Wikipedia and IMDB)
When Evey, a young woman whom V rescues and brings to his home, accuses him of stealing, V promptly replies:
“Heavens, no. Stealing implies ownership. You can’t steal from the censor. I merely reclaimed them.”
In the post-apocalypse movie, I Am Legend, the last survivor of a deadly disease brought on by a mutated cancer-curing virus in New York is Dr. Nevil. Those who did not die mutated into mindless freaks who rule the city at night.
Dr. Nevil’s house is the last bastion of civilization so he gathers quite a collection of famous artworks from museums for safe-keeping. Some of them are Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Road with Cypress and Star, Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler, and Paul Cezanne’s Still Life with Peaches and Pears.
Director Francis Lawrence said about those paintings:
“They’re not prints. They’re actual paintings. Some of them already existed, and some we had done; there are artists that specialize in that.”
(Article Inside ‘I Am Legend’ by Gerri Miller)
28 Days Later features a disturbing vision of London and Great Britain, and in all likelihood, the rest of the world, infested with packs of vicious, raving men infected with the Rage virus. Three fugitives fight their way from London to Manchester following radio broadcast. Finally, they arrive at the last safe house this side of heaven and their host tells them, “You’re quite safe,”.
But what do you know, there’s this statue of Laocoon and suddenly you do not feel safe any more. As you probably know, Laocoon was a dude who warned the Trojans to refuse to admit the wooden horse into the city – and was punished for his foresight by gods. Troy feels to the Greek invaders, but is this going to be the fate of the besieged mansion in the movie? The statue of Laocoon – what happened to the sons? – works as a sort of a creepy visual pun.
The hero of Children of Men Theo Faron seeks help from his cousin, who happens to be a high-ranking government official. Theo is taken to his digs, which also serves as the Ministry of Arts, a sprawling edifice called Ark for the Art in the movie. Inside the compound protected by barb wire, sentries, and watchtowers the remaining art treasures of the civilized world are kept safe.
We see Michelangelo’s David, whose leg is missing, and Picasso’s Guernica. But what good, you might ask, is all the care if, as Theo bitterly puts it, “a hundred years from now there won’t be one sad f… left to remember any of this”?
The movie is Solyaris (Solaris) and in it, there is a space station which has a room full of reproductions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is a famous series of paintings of months starting with January and finishing with November. Especially the first in the series, also known as Hunters in the Snow, features prominently in the movie.
A closer look at the painting reveals a few clues relevant to the storyline. The three hunters shown in the painting trudge along through the deep snow, their shoulders are slumped, their dogs are lean and hungry, their catch consists of a single skinny fox. The lowering skies do not bode well for the puny human figures shown against a vast winter landscape.
Alien artworks in science fiction movies
Who says art is exclusively a human province? Aliens, too, it seems, boast the artistic vein. Quirky, or plain gross, (but hey, don’t they say beauty’s in the eye of the beholder?) though they may be, alien artworks remain a testimony to their creators’ peculiar genius. Here are some representative examples of alien art we found across the SF MovieVerse.
Designers sure have fun combining the old and new, familiar and alien. The storyline of the movie Alien vs. Predator is set in a pyramid that shows the influences of Cambodian, Egyptian and Aztec cultures.
Actually, it is a handiwork of reptilian humanoid aliens. Besides hieroglyphs, the walls of this unusual pyramid are covered with carvings that represent facehuggers or battles between aliens and predators.
Kneeling and standing statues of predators, some arrayed in full armor and weaponry, decorate the corridors and the chamber in which the chained alien queen is held. Although there are not many sarcophaguses it is unmistakably a burial place for predators, xenomorphs, and humans.
The movie Stargate features artworks and culture of another ancient alien. For friends, he is simply god Ra and he claims Egyptian culture for his species.
Necromongers from The Chronicles of Riddick have a knack for making monumental and frightening works of art especially designs representing anguish and suffering. They just love the “let there be pain” theme as most of their sculptures, made of some kind of metal, are grotesquely twisted into painful convulsions and seem to be holding back a silent scream. I’m sure if a person looks at it every day that “ouch” feeling may wear off a bit, but still I would not be too eager to have any of that stuff in my home.
Futuristic artworks in science fiction movies
Future societies in SF movies have their own set of moral and aesthetic values, which can differ to a lesser or greater degree from those typical of our civilization.
In Blade Runner Tyrell, the creator of the formidable replicants lives in a penthouse full of statues. Right next to his bed is a bronze statue of an eagle. Oddly enough, an eagle is also a symbol of the father god Zeus, or Jupiter, as well as a symbol of light, foresight, vision, power.
Or could the statue of eagle placed at such a conspicuous place in the movie be a clue which points to a different mythical figure, that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and was punished terribly for his hubris? Blade Runner is a movie steeped in ambiguity and the use of the statues, as well as other artifacts in the movie, is no exception.
Step into the dystopian world of Logan’s Run and you’ll find three distinct art styles. The City under the Dome is full of statues and panels, which decorate the corridors and plazas.
However, there are also more practical objects such as lamps, shelves, tables, made of glass and metal, which reflect light and repeat symbol of the crystal over and over again – central to the culture which inhabits the City and its preoccupation with the brevity of life.
Next, we see in the movie the unique style whose sole representative, and creator, is the cranky robot Box, whose morbid obsession with the past, and duty, has found artistic expression in haunting statues of birds, fish, and animals, which he carved from ice.
Lastly, the world of the forgotten past is represented with the moss-covered National Mall and Capitol building, and the artworks, such as presidential portraits, which adorn its rooms, all in a terrible state of decrepitude, yet still recognizable.
Looking at the far-far future of Dune and its artworks one-word springs to mind retro-fitted. There is this distinct feeling that what you see in the movie are cultures at once immensely ancient and highly technological. A case in point is the Emperor’s palace on Kaitan.
Ribbed vaults, lion statues, gold enamel, as well as intricate honeycomb molding, bear distant echoes of Art Nouveau and its eclectic taste. Yet at the same time porthole windows and sensor-operated sliding doors give it a uniquely futuristic touch.
Strangely enough, this is also a world stripped of all statues and paintings. However, artworks abound in pieces of inner decoration. If you but look at the City of Arrakeen, before long you come upon a plethora of bas-reliefs, columns, stairways, mosaics. And again you experience the contrast between the “retro” look, with traces of Art Deco (geometric patterns, zigzag and sunburst motifs, multifaceted designs in hues of turquoise, red and gold), and fancy gadgets which might be utilized by a hypothetical space-faring civilization.