Redefining the food film: Imagined Food Futures in Sci-Fi
How science fiction films deal with food and the hygienic imaginary. Words and and narration by Chris Fite-Wassilak; editing by Joel Blackledge
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts.
All contributors to Vittles are paid: the base rate this season is £600 for writers (or 40p per word for smaller contributions) and £300 for illustrators. This is all made possible through user donations. Vittles subscription costs £5/month or £45/year ─ if you’ve been enjoying the writing then please consider subscribing to keep it running and keep contributors paid. This will also give you access to the past two years of paywalled articles.
If you wish to receive the Monday newsletter for free weekly, or subscribe for £5 a month, please click below.
The following newsletter is part of Vittles’s ‘Redefining the food film’ package, which looks at how food functions in different films and film genres.
You can watch the previous films in the series below:
Film 1: A Glass of Orange Juice In Palestine, by N.A. Mansour
Film 2: Spaghetti Breakfast, by Andrew Key
Today’s film is by Chris Fite-Wassilak on the world building function of food in science-fiction films, and how these films deal with issues of disgust and cleanliness, purity and putrefaction, in our imagined food futures.
Film 3: Imagined Food Futures
Words and and narration by Chris Fite-Wassilak; editing by Joel Blackledge
We recommend that you watch the film above with the sound on. Subtitles can be turned on using YouTube’s caption settings. If you are unable to watch the film then we have published the text of the narration below.
Food only features marginally in George Lucas’s techno-topia THX 1138, his first-ever feature film from 1971. In an underground bunker-city, a voice on a loudspeaker evenly intones: ‘For more enjoyment and greater efficiency, consumption is being standardised,’ as if an announcement in some kind of existential supermarket. The people receiving this message are walking in queues along broad, clean hallways, all of them with cleanly shaved scalps and wearing identical white pyjama-like outfits. We are only given a glimpse of an anaemic tin tray of four small, light-grey rectangles that look a bit like old tofu flecked with darker bits, just next to the pills that form the main part of the population’s diet, and a larger brown rectangle that looks kind of like a flapjack but more like a block of MDF.
In mainstream Western visions of the future, how people feed, nourish and treat themselves is often just a brief background detail, a quick supplementary world-building prop to the whizzing innovations and slick machines whooshing by. You can break them up into various tropes or categories: take Flash Gordon (1936), when the portly Prince Vultan of the Winged-Bird Men breaks a hunk of bread, grabbing at an oversized platter of some ornately roasted animal; here, the trope is ‘unimaginable abundance’. There’s the ‘hunter-gatherer redux’, a category that includes the occasional scrounging for scraps in the Mad Max sequels, or The Road. There’s ‘Eden denied’, like the abandoned crops of Silent Running, or its flip side ‘Eden achieved’, which encompasses the unexpected bounty found in Fury Road or Interstellar. A common trope is corporate-topia, like the market-driven drivel of Soylent Green, Brazil, or even The Road’s bunker, with a lifetime supply of Dole tinned fruit and Vitamin Water™. And then there’s the increasingly popular trope ‘You thought things would change?’, which includes Blade Runner’s casual street-side noodle bar. THX 1138, meanwhile, is a dark twist on the ‘meal-in-a-pill’ trope.
Such categories in sci-fi inevitably start to slip, spill and overlap, but running throughout (and often overriding) these is the weight of progress: science will keep developing, and things should get more efficient – cleaner, faster, purer – for humans at least. (Non-humans in sci-fi films generally are, and eat, slimy, gooey things – just see Jabba the Hutt’s amphibious bar snacks in the Lucas-scripted Return of the Jedi.) Foods in sci-fi films often revolve around this axis of disgust and desire, which in itself is standard for most food films, but with an additional y-axis of a wider push towards an ideal state of efficient, immaculate harmony – a state that might not be achieved in the film, or available to all, but is still a central drive. These consumptions and commentaries on what and how we will eat shape a hygienic imaginary, implanting an idea of what our bright, clean future should have in store for us: eating our way to perfection. In the case of THX 1138, the food pill has none of the quasi-magic that defined early outings of the trope in sci-fi literature or TV shows like Lost in Space or The Jetsons – where pills are nourishing, delicious and filling – or even later, rarer continuations, like the pill transformed to a full roast chicken in The Fifth Element (1997). In Lucas’s future, the ideal state of eating is abundant but something determinedly joyless.
THX 1138 perhaps feels even more familiar now than when it came out, echoing the anodyne architecture, corporate jingoism and desire for cleanliness that increasingly define contemporary urban lives. Lucas witnessed a nascent culture in parts of the US where knock-offs of modernist sleek, empty glass houses proliferated into spaces of indistinguishable, brightly lit hospital waiting rooms and corporate lobbies; dreams of better living fuelled by high-strength disinfectant and dehydrated space-ice-cream. He simply took it to the next logical step, envisioning a controlled future of rationed, highly processed foods celebrated for their drab reliability, reviled but inescapable – visions that aren’t too far off today’s Huel powders, swallowed in the name of efficiency.
In the end, the character THX 1138, having shunned his cubed food and his pills, is permitted to escape to an uncertain, decimated surface world. The underground society continues as it was before; if its denizens are remade into MDF blondies is never clarified but heavily implied. Director Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) a few years later would spell it out more explicitly, with Charlton Heston’s Detective Thorn even taking a production factory tour at the film’s climax, watching dead bodies be liquified, presumably pasteurised, and turned into the small, nutritious green wafers that an overcrowded population clamours for.
The meal-in-a-pill trope found an unexpected update recently in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, whose narrative is driven by some humans who have evolved to eat plastic and a group of ‘terrorists’ producing vibrant purple rectangular snack bars out of industrial waste. The film closes on the protagonist’s face flooded with beatific joy as he finally tries a bite of one, as if the ultimate laxative. Part of the intended impact of these foods is that of shock, disgust: the implication that it’s a far cry from, or even the exact opposite of, what the food of the future should be. But there’s a quieter, instructional pulse that runs underneath all of these. Implicit in the way characters eat in these films is a swallowing of food hierarchies and their wider social ramifications; an instruction of how we are to submit ourselves to what is to come, rehearsing for a homogenised future and its ultimate food: consuming of the perfect, purified body.
Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer, critic, and former cheesemonger. His books include Ha-Ha Crystal (2016) and The Artist in Time (2019).
Joel Blackledge is a writer and filmmaker based in the West Midlands. His video series Feast Your Eyes explores how films tell stories with and about food. His writing has been published and produced by Novara Media, Little White Lies, BBC Radio, the Oslo Architecture Triennale, [in]Transition and Liars' League. Find him on Instagram at @dam.fino
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson, and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.