The Barbican Has Turned Into Sci-Fi Heaven

Into the Unknown, Barbican ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 84 months ago

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Last Updated 03 June 2017

The Barbican Has Turned Into Sci-Fi Heaven Into the Unknown, Barbican 4
Will robots replace us? A scene from the brilliant Ex Machina. A new commission has been produced based on this film

The science fiction genre is so mainstream today, it's hard to imagine a time when it was considered niche.

Movies, books, video games, art — sci-fi has established itself in every cultural sphere. So it's a tough ask to capture that all in one exhibition. But the Barbican is giving it a go.

What 1968 cosmonauts thought the future would look like. Courtesy Moscow Design Museum

The main exhibition is densely packed into the Curve space, with movie clips from Total Recall to Jurassic Park; Ray Harryhausen's stop motion characters; and scores of sci-fi literature.

With sounds from clips pumping into the already busy space, it's almost overwhelming... but in a good way. Every which way we turn, we're slapped in the face with bits from iconic movies: Darth Vader's helmet. Sketches from Alien. Sonny from I, Robot. We've died and ascended to sci-fi heaven.

A dystopian world before us in this work by Larissa Sanour.

It's not all recognisable though. The show contains a unique installation by Soda Jerk crossing sci-fi with African American music. There's also an animation where buildings disintegrate, like leaves falling from a tree. So much of sci-fi, after all is art.

Don't miss Conrad Shawcross' robot arm two floors down in the Pit space; this work has been at other venues before now, but it's always a hypnotic treat to observe.

Darth Vader's helmet is on display. Courtesy the Roger Grant Archive.

Further exploration of the Barbican uncovers computers pre-loaded with video games from our youth. Space based strategy game Homeworld, shoot em up classic Half-life 2 and brutal underground sport Speedball 2 bring the memories flooding back. It's tempting to cancel all plans for the rest of the day.

But it's at this point that it dawns on us: there's something missing. While Into the Unknown does allude to the cerebral and philosophical side of science fiction, it's somewhat skirted over. We're assaulted by so much visual information, there's no pause to reflect on what science fiction has contributed to in terms of science fact, philosophy and technological advancements.

This is a great show and science fiction fans will love it, as we did. But nostalgic entertainment outweighs any reflective concepts, thus preventing it from being truly excellent.

Then again, did we mention it's got retro video games and Darth Vader's helmet?

Into the Unknown: A journey through Science Fiction is on at Barbican centre until 1 September. Tickets £14.50 for adults.