“All science fiction is about the year that it’s written.” —Christopher Frayling
“We are all interested in the future, for that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives!” —Criswell
When most of us talk about the world of “the future,” we’re usually referring to (or mentally picturing) a vintage notion of what science-fiction movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books suggested those nebulous to-be-determined days ahead would be like: flying cars with Chrysler tail-fins; Mr. Roboto-like servants and/or besties, perhaps named Robbie or Rosie; jet-packs, specifically the ones we were promised. Dystopias, the reigning de rigueur crystal-ball trend, may have replaced the Eisenhower era’s utopian optimism as the default science-fiction setting circa 2014, but essentially, every non-worse-case-scenario look at the future still forms something akin to Jetsons kitsch in our mind’s eye. When we think about tomorrow, we still think about Tomorrowland.
However, the movies’ preoccupation with possible futures predates the Atomic Age and extends long past the first Sputnik launch and space-race stirrings. More importantly, the brave new worlds projected onto screens throughout the decades have served as funhouse mirrors for the occasionally grave contemporary worlds outside of the theater. If gangster movies are vehicles for viewers to grapple with the concepts of family, capitalism, and the extremities of the American Dream, and Westerns allow us to view our country’s imperialistic past and “savage”-to-“civil” social transitions with a sense of distance, then this subset of science fiction offers a safe space for processing here-and-now anxieties. We’ve seen the future—and it looks a hell of a lot like today.
Blessed with 20/20 hindsight, we’re now able to look back on a given era’s “future” and glean some of what was percolating through the collective unconscious. Here are six films featuring past futures that cast light on their then-presents—former what-if predictors of the shape of things to come that double as time capsules. No jet-packs necessary.
The future: In a teeming urban landscape filled with skyscrapers and zig-zagging mass-transit lines, rich fat cats enjoy their own private zoos while workers slave away in underground factories. A proletariat rebellion is brewing; luckily for the State, its resident mad inventor has the technology to construct a female robot spy to sow dissent among angry mobs.
The present: Fritz Lang’s origin story about coming up with Metropolis after seeing the New York City skyline from the deck of a ship in 1924 is a great print-the-legend tale, though both he and his wife, screenwriter-actress Thea von Harbou, had already been hashing out the general outline for close to a year. Regardless, the film’s set design and its conception of a vertical cityscape were undeniably influenced by the look of Manhattan, a concrete-and-steel embodiment of Modernism running amok. Speaking of the modern, the flowering of Germany’s “modern woman” during the Weimar era may have represented a break from traditional female roles for some, but others saw such free fräuleins as a threat—hence the Robot Maria, a lady built (really!) to stop working-class progress. Critic Peter Wollen put it best: The movie “revolves around the displacement of the fear of technology-out-of-control on that of [female] sexuality-out-of-control.”
The real hand-wringing comes in the conception of the factory scenes, where people march forward like automatons and seem to have fused with the giant machines they operate. Anxiety over industrialization was a global phenomenon by the mid- to late 1920s, with everything from work to warfare becoming supermechanized; Germany wasn’t immune to the former and, after WWI, was certainly no stranger to the latter. And the movie’s literalization of upper and lower classes mirrors the similarly divisive sense of social unrest going on in the mid-1920s, even if the hyperinflation and massive striking of 1923 had given way to a Golden Age by the time Metropolis was in production. The author of the BFI monograph on the film, Thomas Elsaesser, declared Lang’s future-shock scenario to be “a psychogram or fever chart of the late 1920s [regarding] technology run riot and industrial regimentation… it records all manners of forces welling up from the deep.” It’s a portrait of a 20th-century European society on the brink of implosion, fueled by frustrations that a failed artist with a Chaplin mustache would soon exploit to his own ends.
The future: 1940, the world teetering toward a catastrophic war; 1966, a decades-long siege between nations ends as the Man Of The Future shows up, complete with elongated helmet and state-of-the art aircraft; 2036, a utopia characterized by a demented art deco design, people movers, and “space guns” that could launch the populace into interstellar overdrive.
The present: You didn’t need to be a futurist like H.G. Wells to sense that war was on the horizon for Europe in 1936, and his notion that a conflict between Germany and Poland would soon break out was eerily prophetic. (Claiming it would be on Christmas Day 1940, however, he missed the mark by roughly 16 months.) In certain aspects, the movie acts as wish-fulfillment for a populace still reeling from one world war and about to be thrown headfirst into another: Don’t worry, just hang in there and after years of suffering, humankind will eventually be saved by scientists who cure us with “peace gas.” Then, voila, an era of peace, prosperity, big TV screens, and awesome robes!
Most of all, however, this is the fantasy scenario of one man, an intellectual who looked at the society around him and tried to declare that progress, science, and aspects of Socialism were our only way out. Like many imaginative thinkers, Wells was wary of how class in Britain had caused huge social rifts; of the tides of fascism of Italy and Germany (to be followed by Spain and, in certain respects, Wells’ beloved Soviet Union after the 1936 Stalin Constitution); and of how technology was viewed as something oppressive rather than liberating. Things To Come was his attempt to present How Things Could Be, rather than the usual It’s All Downhill From Here notions of science fiction. Some thought such utopian notions were proto-liberal pipe dreams. (Critic Otis Ferguson declared the movie’s rocket-fetish version of 2036 was a view of “the world as a pure-food restaurant.”) But Wells thought he’d come up with a design for living. Instructing his production team on how to construct this perfect future, he told them to think of a place ruled by a “ higher phase of civilization than the present… greater wealth, higher efficiency… more dignity.” It’s not a reflection of the age so much as a reaction—in and of itself a statement about the world around him.
The future: Love and free thought have been outlawed. A supercomputer named “Alpha 60” runs the city (though not the area known as “the outlands”). Anyone showing emotions is executed. Other than that, it’s just like any other mid-1960s European city….
The present: …which was part of director Jean-Luc Godard’s point: Why construct an elaborate look for your dystopian future when you’re already living in it? (“Science fiction without special effects” is how Andrew Sarris described the film’s no-frills future-shock.) The business offices, hotels, modern roadways, and computer-research centers of Paris and its outskirts serve as a stand-in for a nightmarishly technocratic tomorrow already in progress. And as Godard biographer Richard Brody has pointed out, the filmmaker took everyday objects—a jukebox, an alarm clock—and, by turning them into a state-surveillance apparatus or phone, made them seem like exotic devices once removed. It was all designed to underline the alienation factor of the world outside the theater, suggesting an Orwellian police state had happened without anyone noticing it.
Technophobia runs rampant in many science-fiction films, and it was certainly in the air in 1965, both in France and abroad. But in Alphaville, Godard lumps in such uneasiness with a specific distrust of the republic and its figurehead. He was no fan of Charles De Gaulle’s move toward hyper-modernization, and felt that the country under his rule was devaluing humanity and the arts in favor of centralized power and military muscle-flexing. (De Gaulle was still testing nuclear weapons in the former colony of Algeria in the mid-1960s). It’s not a leap to think that Alpha 60 is not just a symbol of our deification of computerized machinery literally overtaking us, but also a stand-in for the president himself, soullessly dictating orders to lackeys until Godard finds an Achilles’ heel in techno-totalitarianism: poetry.
The future: Do the evolution! Having developed their own intelligence and deservedly become sick of playing second fiddle to humans, apes and their ilk become the dominant species. They establish their own society. Men and women are now enslaved to do their bidding. Also, remember all their nuclear weapons that countries had stored up way back when? Well….
The present: It’s incredibly tempting to imagine that Pierre Boulle’s novel was adapted to the screen solely because the card-carrying members of the Love generation sincerely worried between dorm-room puffs that, like, what if we are the apes, man? But those looking for a grand, if giddily fantastic, metaphor for racial conflict and disharmony in late-1960s America won’t find anything grander than Planet Of The Apes. 1968 was the flashpoint year for the Civil Rights Movement, in which Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated, riots rocked inner cities, and the landmark Civil Rights Act would be passed. The film’s how-would-you-like-it-if-this-was-you? scenario borrows not just slavery iconography (the Apes on horses like plantation overseers), but also imagery taken from then-current news reports: Audiences would have undoubtedly recognized Charlton Heston being sprayed with a water hose as a reference to the footage of police brutality in Birmingham in 1963.
While it’s tough to tell at times whether Apes’ plot is trying to tap into mainstream society’s paranoia over Black Power or damning a legacy of subjugation via satirical jabs, it’s easy enough to read the film’s take on the 20th century’s flirtations with self-destruction. As we know from the now-iconic climax, the story takes place not on some distant bizarro-world planet, but our own, some 2,000 years on—and during George Taylor’s orbital travels, the Cold War appears to have heated up. Though America was preoccupied with its internal conflicts during the tumultuous year of the movie’s release, the specter of total nuclear annihilation still loomed large in the collective unconscious. Just because kids weren’t ducking-and-covering under the desks on a daily basis doesn’t mean there still wasn’t a fear that those maniacs would blow it up… damn them, damn them all to hell!
The future: Welcome to Los Angeles, 2019: More-humid-than-humid clogged streets, omnipresent billboards, polyglot street culture, flying police cars, rogue replicants. Time to die.
The present: Blade Runner is possibly the single most important production-design achievement of the past 50 years, certainly one of the most influential science-fiction movies of all time, and most definitely the film that made “retro-deco” a thing. In Paul M. Sammon’s invaluable making-of book Future Noir, director Ridley Scott admits that part of his inspiration came from flying via helicopter from JFK airport to the top of the Pan-American building; he imagined that urban air traffic would become rampant sooner as opposed to later. The police would be a “paramilitary unit—they’re already paramilitary in Los Angeles.” (This was the Daryl Gates era of the LAPD, one characterized by surveillance and aggressiveness.) “Visual futurist” Syd Mead, a key player in the film’s city-of-rot look, also said in an article that he’d taken a look at contemporary New York and, from that, imagined for the film a Third-World “megalopolis… with tall buildings, [and] the street level would be a service alley to those towering megastructures.”
What’s most striking about Blade Runner today, however, is not how cramped everything is (the population of L.A. was over 3 million people in 1982), or even the prescient prevalence of advertising. (Scott was formerly a director of commercials, so he might have guessed how visual imagery would take over urban spaces like kudzu.) It’s how class plays such a huge role in the storyline. The rich live in pyramid-like structures that the Pharaohs would have approved of, and can purchase humanoids built off-world for service and pleasure. Made in an era of Reaganomics and set in a West Coast city where income disparity was hidden in plain sight, Blade Runner turns a filthy, warped mirror on the class struggle. The only thing that trickles down in the City Of Angels is acid rain and the tears of those who dream of electric sheep.
The future: By 2054, the murder rate in Washington, D.C., has been reduced to virtually nothing. (Yay!) It’s all thanks to the district’s PreCrime Division, who burst into people’s homes and arrest them before they’ve actually done anything, based on the visions of psychics who can see homicides before they’re perpetrated. (Um, yay?) Also, 3-D touchscreens are the norm and cops wear jet-packs. We’re back to jet-packs again.
The present: Production on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story ended in July of 2001. In September of that year, the United States suffered a devastating terrorist attack; in October, George W. Bush signed the PATRIOT Act into effect. Spielberg would go on to make his 9/11 movie (War Of The Worlds), but seen today, Minority Report feels like his ultimate statement on the moment— Spielberg’s War On Terror film, somehow made before the War On Terror had even been declared. It’s clear how a population still reeling from that catastrophe might buy into the fantasy of an agency that could predict something horrific and stop it before thousands of lives are lost. What wasn’t apparent was how an entire argument regarding national security versus civil liberties would be played out on slick, techno-savvy blockbuster scale and end up being even more pertinent today.
Spielberg consulted tech-company R&D departments and assembled a crack team of “futurists” to help him determine what a plausible 2054 might look like, the key word being plausible; per production designer Alex McDowell, the director wanted to make a “future reality” film rather than a science-fiction parable. The result managed to be very much a movie of its time regarding the paranoia, unease, and shifting moral parameters that characterized the immediate post-9/11 era, and a film about the future—albeit one 40 years prior to the story’s timeline. Watching the film in 2014 is like watching a film only a few layers removed from the present: the physically interactive interfaces of software Tom Cruise’s character uses; the retinal scanning and customized, personalized advertising; the omnipresence of surveillance; the virtual-reality arcade that screams “Oculus Rift”; those mechanical spiders that now carry echoes of drone warfare. The Snowden Affair only confirmed that data has now become the shiny coin of the realm for intelligence agencies and marketing firms alike. In 2002, the movie spoke to the fear of what might lay right around the corner. Now, Minority Report makes it feel like we’re just a pneumatic highway away from rounding that corner.