Reel librarians and archivists in 16 sci-fi films

With the growing spread of the COVID-19 virus — please keep up-to-date via the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention page — it feels like we are living in a sci-fi, dystopian alternate reality right now, doesn’t it? (Stay safe out there, y’all, and let’s all keep washing our hands!) So it felt fitting to explore the role of reel librarians and archivists in 16 different science fiction films. Shall we?

Images, clockwise from top left: Jocasta Nu in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002); Wong in Doctor Strange (2016), The Books in Soylent Green (1973); Vox in The Time Machine (2002)

I put this list together after reviewing my Master List as well as the Reel Substance lists on this site. I then noted three major trends of the reel librarian roles in these sci-fi films; generally, they serve as Heroes, Helpers, or Hindrances. Within each of these sub-categories below, the films are arranged in descending chronological order (oldest to newest).

Heroes || Helpers || Hindrances

Let’s explore!


Heroes


Reel librarians in this sci-fi sub-category are lead roles. They serve as characters who lead the way for resistance, problem-solving, and saving the world.

The War of the Worlds (1953):

In this sci-fi classic and Class II film, Martians invade Earth! Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who teaches library science courses, teams up with the hero-scientist (Gene Barry) in order to defeat the aliens.

Related posts: War films and reel librarians

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990):

In this dystopian tale and Class II film, fertility becomes rare, and fertile young women, trained as Handmaids, are treated as slaves in the households they are assigned to. Natasha Richardson plays a Handmaid, and we learn in one scene that she used to be a librarian. She never stops using her intelligence, and she becomes involved with the growing resistance movement.

Related posts: The reel librarian in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Idiocracy (2006):

This science fiction comedy film stars Luke Wilson as Joe Bauers, a U.S. Army librarian, who takes part in a classified military human hibernation experiment and awakens 500 years later in a dystopian society. He ends up as the most intelligent person alive.

The Age of Stupid (2009):

This drama-documentary film stars Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist living alone in the devastated world of 2055. He watches archival videos to understand why we didn’t stop climate change when we had the chance.


Helpers


Reel librarians in this sci-fi sub-category serve in supporting roles. They help the lead characters and provide vital assistance, knowledge or help inspire solutions.

The Monster that Challenged the World (1957):

In this Class III film, an earthquake in the Salton Sea, California, unleashes radioactive mollusk monsters. Nearby Naval base officers work to stop the horde of monsters, and a museum archivist (Milton Parsons) helps find a vital map of underground rivers.

Related posts: Of ‘monsters’ and missing maps

Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth (1967)

The third film in the Quatermass series and Class III film starts off with a discovery of ape-like human skeletons at a subway excavation site. The armed forces are called in when scientists further dig up a missile-like metal shape. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) and an assistant scientist, Barbara (Barbara Shelley) do some digging of their own — in the research archives. This leads them to the Westminster Abbey archives and a short scene with the Abbey Librarian (Noel Howlett).

Related posts: ‘Quatermass’ and the librarian

Soylent Green (1973):

In this sci-fi classic and Class I film, food is scarce, and the world’s population relies on a food product called “soylent green.” A detective (Charlton Heston) investigates a murder of a Soylent official, and his “Police Book” personal researcher (Edward G. Robinson, in his final film role), visits a former public library, now known as the “Supreme Exchange.” The librarians in this dystopian future are known as “Books.”

Related posts: Reader poll of runner-ups, Fall 2016: ‘Soylent Green’ and the Books

The Avengers (1998):

In this silly sci-fi adaptation of the British TV series and Class IV film, British agents John Steed (Joseph Fiennes) and Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) unite against Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery), who attempts to control the world by a weather machine. Steed visits the Ministry Archives to get help from the archivist (Patrick Macnee).

The Time Machine (2002):

In this Class III remake of the 1960 sci-fi classic, disillusioned inventor (Guy Pearce) builds a time machine and travels 800,000 years into the future. He encounters Vox (Orlando Jones), a holographic librarian, who supplies him with information about time travel and the history and evolution of the planet and its population.

Related posts: Stylish male reel librarians

Doctor Strange (2016) ; Avengers: Infinity War (2018); and Avengers: Endgame (2019):

Benedict Wong plays Wong, a monastery librarian and Master of the Mystic Arts, in the Marvel’s Avengers movie series. In Doctor Strange (2016), Wong teaches Strange several important lessons throughout. In Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Wong defeats Cull Obsidian in battle and displays his librarian research skills to help set up the stakes — and the plot of the entire movie — to members of the Avengers. In Avengers: Endgame (2019), Wong survived the snap and plays a crucial role in the final battle scene.

Related posts: Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’ ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019) ; 3 reel librarians who have died in the line of duty

Blade Runner 2049 (2017):

In this sequel to 1982’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner and Class III film, Ryan Gosling stars as K, a police officer assigned to track down a rogue replicant. He begins by going to the Wallace Corporation’s Earth Headquarter archives to track down a suspect’s DNA and records; an archives clerk (Tómas Lemarquis) leads him to the files.

Related posts: Reel archivist in ‘Blade Runner 2049’


Hindrances


Reel librarians in this sub-category of sci-fi films serve as road blocks to the protagonists.

Rollerball (1975):

This sci-fi classic and Class III film is set in a future controlled by corporations, and Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the star of the ultra-violent sport Rollerball. The corporate executives want him to quit, but Jonathan defies them. In the first library scene (in this future, they are called “computer centers”), he goes to the local branch, where the Circulation clerk (Nancy Bleier) tells him his books are classified. Later, Jonathan travels to the central computer bank in Geneva, but the older librarian there (Ralph Richardson) is unable to get the information out from the main computer.

Related posts: Reel librarians in ‘Rollerball’ | Analyzing the 1975 original film and 2002 remake

Brainstorm (1983):

In this sci-fi thriller and Class IV film, researcher Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) has developed a system of recording and replaying actual experiences of people, complete with the “higher brain functions” of thoughts, emotions, senses of smell, etc. This technology gets corrupted by the military in order to torture and brainwash suspects. The finale of the film features the Tape Library and its technicians (Jimmy Casino, May Raymond Boss, and Clay Boss) who keep the tapes locked up.

Related posts: ‘Brainstorm’-ing

Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002):

In this second prequel in the Star Wars saga and Class III film, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) cannot find any information about a mysterious planet at the Jedi Archives. The Jedi librarian (Alethea McGrath as Jocasta Nu) insists that “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.

Related posts: The Jedi librarian ; May the archives be with you | Shining the spotlight on the Jedi librarian ; A funny thing happened on the way to the Jedi library…

Sources used

  • The Age of Stupid” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
  • The Avengers. Dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik. Perf. Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw. Warner Bros., 1998.
  • Avengers: Endgame. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin. Marvel Studios, 2019.
  • Avengers: Infinity War. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2018.
  • Blade Runner 2049. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Perf. Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto. Warner Bros., 2017.
  • Brainstorm. Dir. Douglas Trumbull. Perf. Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson. MGM/UA, 1983.
  • Brainstorm (1983 film)” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
  • Doctor Strange. Dir. Scott Derrickson. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2016.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale. Dir. Volker Schlindorff. Perf. Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern. Cinecom, 1990.
  • Idiocracy” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
  • The Monster that Challenged the World. Dir. Arnold Laven. Perf. Tim Holt, Audrey Dalton, Hans Conried. MGM, 1957.
  • Quatermass and the Pit. Dir. Roy Ward Baker. Perf. Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, James Donald, Julian Glover. Hammer Film Productions, 1967.
  • Rollerball. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck. MGM/UA Entertainment, 1975. 
  • Soylent Green. Dir. Richard Fleischer. Perf. Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Edward G. Robinson, Brock Peters, Joseph Cotten. MGM, 1973.
  • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson. 20th Century Fox, 2002.
  • The Time Machine. Dir. Simon Wells. Perf. Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Orlando Jones. Warner Bros., 2002.
  • The War of the Worlds. Dir. Bryon Haskin. Perf. Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite. Paramount, 1953.