Sci-fi films and their potential as a genre have always interested me for two basic reasons: their escapism into another universe entirely and, conversely, how they can tell us about our own reality through being in themselves stranger than fiction.
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A future of substance
However, what interests me most of all are the beautiful and bleak visions they have in predicting the future. Authors and directors who attempt this risky task stumble across various inevitable limitations. After all, they can only work with the sum of human knowledge up to their time. This article will focus therefore on some of the most interesting precognitions, what they predicted, and most importantly, why they felt the need to.
I don’t want to focus on the great catalogue of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic futures that cinema has well-covered over recent decades. There are countless films that predict a future of total destruction, regardless of the year, and those films do not interest me. After all, what is there to discuss in post-apocalyptic cinema, other than that the creators had little imagination or optimism about the future of the human race?
This article will instead focus on various futures that reality has already passed. Specifically, futures with some substance that give us a real insight into the reality of when they were made. With that in mind, we can compare what has happened with what these films predicted, and see if we can learn less about our own time, and more about theirs.
The future is Japan: Blade Runner (1982)
Let’s start off with an obvious one. Blade Runner is not an original film, but is based off of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968).
However, as I have read the book as well, I can safely state that the movie differs significantly enough from the source material that it should be discussed on its own.
What did Blade Runner see of the future? Firstly, to anyone who has not seen it, the film is atmospheric and experiential to say the least. It is slow, it is brooding, it is often depressing, and its depiction of the future is hardly positive.
Set over a few days in November 2019, and starring Harrison Ford as the anti-hero Rick Deckard, it depicts a Los Angeles covered in total darkness at all times. Pollution is everywhere and the city is endless. Technology has greatly improved – not only are there flying cars and robots with the ability to impersonate humans almost to perfection, but humanity has already moved onward to new worlds, leaving the underclass and disabled behind on Earth.
Dick and Scott both created their stories with a philosophical purpose: to ask what makes us human. Deckard hunts down and murders “replicants”, whose only desire is to outlive their programmed lifespan. They meet their maker, literally, and must undergo the greatest trial of facing their inevitable demise.
For this article, the author is far more interested in the visual and practical aesthetic of the future prediction. Above the incorrect predictions of technological fancy, there is an unmistakable façade of the 1980s in spite of the movie’s timelessness. Advertising is everywhere in everyone’s lives. Giant screens cover buildings showing Coca Cola and Atari logos. The latter company went bust the same year as the movie’s release, which immediately dates it, but it does form part of a greater and more interesting angle of the film’s future predictions.
The prediction is namely that of Japanese growth into the American culture. While that has happened in reality, it has not occurred to the scale of Blade Runner’s prediction. The implication is that Japanese companies rule the world, with Japanese products ruling the commercial airwaves, and Japanese models presenting them. On the street, a dialectal hybrid tongue has formed in the population, based on English with the occasional Japanese phrase or word put in place.
It is a fascinating insight into how the world was changing at the time the film was released. By 1982, Japanese companies had annihilated the American motorcycle industry and damaged their car manufacturing competition too. It is still true today that Japan, along with South Korea and most recently China, have continued to build up a technological hub that, while quieter and less culturally intrusive than predicted, still dominates Western culture. We may not have Atari, but we do have Nintendo and Playstation; Samsung and Huawei, and a great portion of anime in the Western subconscious.
Predicting the Weather Channel: Back to the Future Part II (1989)
While Blade Runner was a sleeper cult hit that developed into a cultural behemoth over the decades, Back to the Future Part II was a long-awaited sequel in its own series that was an immediate international hit. Because of this success, its predictions of the future are at this point iconic.
In fact, the movie was so iconic, that it perhaps became a self-fulfilling prophecy in what it predicts for the distant future of 2015.
As Marty McFly and Doc Brown go on another adventure 30 years into the future from 1985, they observe the same streets and shops of their hometown, totally changed. There is a lot of humour and light-heartedness to the series, so not all of it is to be taken seriously (the Jaws 19 3D advertisement being a perfect example of how the creators saw the endless churning out of franchise sequels, just as we still experience today).
However, what the film did portray seriously was how partnering with corporations in this project was itself a fruitful endeavour. It gave a variety of companies, such as Nike most famously, the chance to show off their own experimental designs for some light self-promotion. The cultural significance of this movie and its series made the products and predictions legendary in their own right.
As the movie wasn’t trying to make a grand philosophical point about where the future might take us as a society, it gave them a chance to poke fun at the hyper-development of technology, corporations, and the growing reliance on (useless) things. Of course, there are the self-tying shoes, the self-drying jackets, the legendary hoverboards, and the usual flying cars. However, there are also lots of moments the film takes a dig at a lazy American public.
Homemade family recipes have been replaced by food so simple it requires a few seconds in a “rehydrator” (which looks suspiciously like a microwave) to cook:
“Mom, you sure know how to rehydrate a pizza.”
There are an apparently infinite number of channels to watch one screen at the same time, while the lights come on and off by command – and in this world of limitless information, Marty Jr prefers to watch the Weather Channel. Faxes still exist, but communication is conducted on giant screens hardly dissimilar to the processes by which we talk to one another daily today.
The producers brilliantly caught onto a future nostalgia for the 1980s, which did indeed occur exactly around the era the film was trying to predict. The children of 2015 had no interest in the arcade games Marty dominated as a teenager:
“You have to use your hands? That’s like a baby’s toy.”
At the heart of the healthy cynicism is a cuttingly accurate prediction of Western society’s growing dependence on technology for stimulation, and – perhaps because the sequel was released a total of five years after the original – a laugh-out-loud mockery of the embarrassing decade that was the 1980s!
The hoverboard scene, however, remains timeless.
Future as a reflection for the present
There are many more of these films that predict a future already past, that in reality are far more interesting not for their predictions, but in their origins.
A perfect example of this are two films released in the early 2000s: The 6th Day (2000) and The Island (2005), which deal with the subject of cloning and genetics. Both films were released in a time when valuable ethical questions were being asked about these topics.
They predicted a future (2015 and 2019 respectively) where the then-breakthroughs in stem cell research were at a head in the public debate. Dolly the Sheep showed that it was possible to clone some animals precisely, bringing science fiction to science reality. Concerns came from many sides: religious, social and moral questions were raised as to the kind of future cloning and advanced genetics would bring us. While those questions are no longer as relevant in the current age, these films remain as testaments to the period of unease when they were made.
A side note: while it does not have an exact date of occurrence and so cannot be included in this article, Gattaca (1997) is maybe the highest quality film to pursue this topic.
The 6th Day shows us a world where cloning is highly illegal, but now possible. One person’s life is turned upside down when they come home to find themselves cloned, and someone else having taken over their life. The Island predicts such actions on an entirely different but much larger scale (being directed by Michael Bay, large-scale is inevitable).
While it is not obvious to the viewer at first, our principal characters are being raised in what they think is a post-apocalyptic society, when in reality they are being kept forever in a prison for organ-harvesting until they win the “lottery”. The lottery of course is that their doppelganger in the real world needs their tissue and organs, and the film raises the scenario that these dangerous outcomes of unfettered technological progress could make a very terrible society very quickly.
Scarlett Johansson leads a star-studded cast in The Island, a movie with a lot of unfulfilled potential in its breadth of scope. For an alternative story posing similar moral questions, I would recommend Never Let Me Go (2010). There are at least fewer explosions than Michael Bay’s version.
To go further back in history, On the Beach (1959) is a perfect example of future prediction indicating the psyche of its creators and the society that made it. While verging on the edge of the post-apocalyptic genre itself, I included it for its philosophising and moralising aspects. The film follows various characters in Australia, who have to come to terms with a world soon to end, and must decide how they live their dying days on planet Earth.
The film is a stark portrayal of just how prevalent the angst of nuclear destruction was worldwide. Its creators made it to warn against the folly of such fatalistic action, at a time when America and the Soviet Union were stockpiling nuclear weapons like there was no tomorrow. And there very nearly wasn’t a tomorrow, considering how close the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the eve of destruction.
To end on a more optimistic note, it is interesting to see just how many movies predicted a future, already past in the lifetime of our readers, when further missions to space would occur. Following the buzz of the 1969 Moon Landings, there have been many films that have predicted the move further afield, and not just in the realm of high fantasy sci-fi. Mission to Mars (2000), a film replete with flaws, is set in 2020-2021 and has at its heart a genuine optimism for the continuing exploratory push into space that the 20th Century allowed us to dream of. While we have no immediate plans in the West to colonise the Moon or Mars (a matter that saddens this sci-fi nut), creators and studios have attempted through the optimism of their time to show us these possibilities.
Products of their time
It is the possibility, therefore, of a different future within our own scope of time that makes exact future prediction so interesting. We can look back on the generations of the past and their predictions, not just to laugh at the inaccuracies and impossible beliefs – that is far too easy – but to treat them as reflections of the time they were released. They are the visions of their creators, and they often represent a cultural psyche truer than any science fiction.
A measure of great art is to show us truths within the deepest and most unimaginable fictions. There are very serious lessons to learn from films that make this bold step at predicting our futures.
At least I’m sure nobody is unhappy that Jaws 19 doesn’t exist…
Editor: Ben Kelly
Second Editor & Banner Artwork: Richard Williams
Images used within banner: Blade Runner (Ian Dick), Back To The Future/Delorean (Oto Godfrey and Justin Morton), Scarlett Johansson (Elen Nivrae)
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I have been writing and creating since I was a kid, and decided when I grew up to put some of those words onto paper. I speak a bunch of languages and enjoy doing most of the things I do when I'm not stuck in the house.