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Under the surface of sci-fi

Film series explores xenophobia, sexism and other social issues through fantasy

July 10, 2018

By Olga Sago

What does it mean to be human? The ending scene of Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film “The Shape of Water” sums up the unconditional love that developed between a mute woman and a merman. Science fiction shows us that being human is more than meets the eye.

Filmmakers explore the very nature of humanity and address issues we might not realize exist by setting them in the future or fantasy worlds. It creates an escape from reality as well as a way to analyze it. When a collaboration among the Denver Film Society, MSU Denver and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science created a summer Sci-Fi Film Series, it quickly gained traction.

The goal of the program has been to “educate and entertain the public on the intersection of art and science through science-fiction cinema,” says Vincent Piturro, chair of MSU Denver’s Cinema Studies Program. He hosts a Q&A discussion after each film along with an expert scientist from the museum during which they discuss art and science, or lack of them, in each work.

“It is an intellectual experience, but also an enlightening experience for the audience as well,” he says. Piturro enjoys collaborating with scientists and learning from them.

He says this year’s biggest featured films in the series are “The Shape of Water” and “Annihilation,” which deal with contemporary issues. “’The Shape of Water’ speaks to xenophobia, racism and sexism, and I wanted to talk about this film because it talks about those issues so wonderfully and so beautifully. ‘Annihilation’ also speaks to issues of environmental destruction, feminism as well, along with some other issues,” he says.

Vincent Piturro, chair of the Cinema Studies Program at MSU Denver, speaks at last year
Vincent Piturro, chair of the Cinema Studies Program at MSU Denver, speaks at last year's Sci-Fi Film Series with an image from "2001: A Space Odyssey" behind him. Photo by Alyson McClaran.

There are a couple of sequels screening this year. Steve Lee, Ph.D., space scientist at the museum, will discuss the film “2010: The Year We Make Contact.” “2010” is the sequel to his all-time favorite, 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“It was like 25 years later and 2010 came out, so in that time period we actually had spacecrafts that went to Jupiter, which is where the movie takes place,” Lee says. “So we knew a whole lot more about what that was like. That’s the type of thing I can really comment on, how our knowledge has changed and therefore how the movie was portraying things very differently in the newer version versus the one that was made in 1968.”

The discussions that follow the films are what make the series such a big success.

“Dr. Piturro and the scientists are so good and the conversations that happen after the films are so fun,” says Brit Witney, artistic director at Denver Film Society. “… They’re so good at what they do, it makes the series extra special and people love it.”

The series has been doing extraordinarily well for the past two or three years, considering all the films have sold out, filling 400 seats at the Denver Science Museum Phipps IMAX theatre and all 175 seats at the Denver Film Society’s Sie FilmCenter. “This is one of the most successful series programs that I think we have done at the Denver Film Society in 30 years,” Witney says.

"Annihilation" deals with feminism and environmental destruction, Piturro says. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
"Annihilation" deals with feminism and environmental destruction, Piturro says. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

This film series is blazing its way to success, with possibilities of expansion on the horizon. “One of the things we want to do in the future is a screening with live musical accompaniment,” Piturro says, “so we’d like to do some additional screenings in different parts of the town. So, for example, next year we’re trying to put together a screening of the great silent film ‘Metropolis’ with live accompaniment by the MSU Denver Orchestra and perhaps do it here on campus in the King Center.”

Another thing Piturro and his team have in the works is a book: “Basically a book version of what we do, so 10 chapters,” he says. “Each chapter covering one film and each chapter will be co-written by me and one of the scientists, so we’ll have different scientists for each film just like we do for the series.”

So stay tuned for what else the Sci-Fi Film Series might offer in the future, but for now check out the films they have lined up this year:

For tickets, contact the Denver Film Society or the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Photo from "The Shape of Water" courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.