The presidents set of favourite science-fiction films and TV shows highlights a relentless optimism and fascination with other worlds
Nobody knows quite what Barack Obama will do next when he walks out of the Oval Office for the final time as commander-in-chief on 20 January 2017. But we do know that hes already looking to the future, at least in a pop culture sense. Obama has provided a list of his favourite film and TV science fiction to Wired magazine, which he recently guest-edited, taking in everything from Blade Runner to Star Wars and Star Trek. So what do his choices tell us about the president as he readies himself to step boldly into retirement from public office?
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Obama describes the dizzying sci-fi epic, a collaboration between Kubrick and renowned author and thinker Arthur C Clarke, as a film that captures the grandeur and scale of the unknown. 2001 gave us a complex vision of aliens as interfering cosmic puppetmasters, teasing worlds and civilisations into existence with their jet black, Delphic monoliths. Also inscrutable, and just as terrifying, is the devious ships computer, HAL 9000, which disobeys its orders to protect human life when it fears it might be switched off forever.
Does Obama fear the machine hegemony? Might 2001s inclusion hint at the presidents secret regret at failing to introduce a ban on so-called killer robots during his period in office? Or is he just a big fan of Johann Strausss The Blue Danube?
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Might Obama see parallels with his own passion for equality and civil rights in this Vangelis-washed tale of bioengineered artificial lifeforms? It asks what it means to be human, he tells Wired. Would Scotts replicants have been treated more kindly if theyd turned up in Los Angeles during the presidents eight years in office, rather than being hunted like animals in the devastated cityscapes of Philip K Dicks cruel and eternally dusky dystopian future?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
Spielbergs early foray into science fiction symbolises the post Apollo-era positivity of both the film-maker himself and America as a whole. Obama told Wired he made the pick because the film is fundamentally optimistic, and perhaps we should expect nothing less from the author of The Audacity of Hope.
On the other hand, Close Encounters has aged far more painfully than some of Spielbergs other 70s and 80s movies. Its vision of alien life as shiny little big-eyed celestial stick-men is so cliched as to be almost unwatchable in 2016, and it is a deeply impersonal fantasy of first contact. Obama might have picked ET just as heart-warming but far more timeless (as the success of Netflixs Stranger Things proved recently) instead. Spielbergs later film would be far less likely to bore his family into an early snooze on a Saturday evening, while waiting for the darned alien mothership to stop clanging out the incessant five-note sequences and show us what its occupants look like already.
Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Lucass late 70s blockbuster is a controversial inclusion because it is really pulp-inspired space fantasy, rather than science fiction. Obama chose this one because it was fun and revolutionized special effects but might there also be parallels between the movies hero, Luke Skywalker, and the president himself? Both rose from humble beginnings in provincial backwaters (though Tatooine does not look a whole lot like Hawaii) to become the great hope of their respective organisations. Both also built up a habit of winning, though despite what certain rightwing syndicated radio hosts might privately believe, only one is capable of sinister mind control.
Star Trek The Original Series (1966-69)
Another fruit of Apollo-era optimism, Gene Roddenberrys space saga was chosen by Obama because it wasnt actually about technology. It was about values and relationships. The Original Series looks pretty dated these days, but its difficult to imagine how groundbreaking it must have been at the time the multiracial, multicultural crew of the Enterprise representing a vision of the future in which narrow-minded patriotism has been completely blown away. William Shatners famous embrace with Nichelle Nichols was also one of the first instances of a white man kissing an African American woman on US TV, a moment we can imagine registering with a president who has broken down a few barriers himself.
The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
Chosen because it shows humans as problem solvers, according to the president. As a keen reader of Emersons 1841 essay Self Reliance, Obama will surely have appreciated the story of an ingeniously practical astronaut who survives for years on the red planet by growing potatoes lovingly incubated in his own faeces. And after several periods during his eight years in office when the presidents political ambitions were stymied by the glacial pace of government machinery, he will no doubt have found himself nodding approvingly at the stolid heroism of a man who (despite being left for dead millions of miles from the nearest human being) simply knuckled down and got on with the job.
The Matrix (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999)
A topical one, this, with the concept that we might all be living in an incredibly complex simulation finding genuine traction in some corners of the scientific community. Obama chose the Wachowskis cerebellum-twisting techno-fantasy because it asks basic questions about our reality and looks very cool. The sequels may have underwhelmed, but props to the president for picking a movie that currently looks like it will stand the test of time surprisingly well.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)
Picked by Obama because it fed my lifelong fascination with space, the iconic PBS documentary was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television for a decade. Presenter Carl Sagan discusses everything from the possibility of faster-than-light travel to the very future of human existence. His repudiation of intelligent design in favour of the theory of evolution through natural selection will presumably have found favour with a president who has argued that creationism should have no place in the science classroom.