Our Future, As Seen Throughout the History of Film

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Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco, 2151. Photo: MemoryAlpha

In a Paris Review interview published only two years before his death, author Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction pretends to look into the future, but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us.” My first foray into the genre was through Bradbury's own The Martian Chronicles. I still recall the mixture of fear and awe I felt, wondering if the interstellar travel he predicted would ever become a reality. No doubt, exploration and colonization of Mars wouldn't be part of my own life experience, but imagining that possibility, and considering how society might get there was compelling.

The vision of the future in science fiction - and speculative fiction in general - has never been constant; the reflection stretches and tilts like a fun house mirror, as time passes and new realities take hold. Simmering underneath fantastical settings and advanced technology are our very real, very human hopes and fears. What will happen to the cities we live in, to the food we eat? What jobs will we have? Will we even be here at all?

When it comes to movies in particular, we have seen many futures over the years: bleak and ravaged worlds; sleek, regulated utopias; and subtle near futures, echoing our current realities and the immediate possibilities ahead. Let's revisit some of those themes, shall we?


L-to-R: Metropolis, Blade Runner, Surrogates, Robot and Frank

The technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries served as inspiration for pioneers of science fiction like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. (And, interestingly, E.M. Forster, whose short story The Machine Stops is an early prediction of the internet, among other things.) They, and the many writers and filmmakers who followed in their stead, turned their eyes toward a future filled with incredible feats of science and engineering. But those stories also carried a sense of unease and a fear of technology taking over - perhaps even destroying - our lives.


That wariness is captured most perfectly when humanity is confronted with artificial intelligence. In many ways, it kicked off with Fritz Lang's Metropolis, in which a deceptive robotic woman plays a major role in escalating a clash between the wealthy elite and the working class of a glimmering, industrialist city. Although much of Hollywood's science fiction output of the 1950s was fueled by political paranoia and the nuclear menace, the Man vs. Machine stories carried on.

One of the biggest landmarks in the genre, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), gave us an iconic antagonist in HAL 9000, a sentient system that would kill out of self-preservation. With the '80s came The Terminator, successfully combining android warfare with another popular sci-fi element, time travel; the hilariously campy robo-hunter flick Runaway, starring Tom Selleck and his mustache; and the elegantly imagined Blade Runner, which made us ponder what it truly means to be a person.

But even as plot lines began to take on a more philosophical, compassionate angle, the undertone of Us versus Them remained. Take, for instance, the android starfleet officer, Lt. Commander Data. A beloved character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, people still often undermined and insulted him, or even questioned his rights as an autonomous individual.

With developments in cybernetic augmentation and robotics - humanoid or otherwise - making science fiction a reality, we are in a place to devote more time to contemplating the more subtle implications of humanity, not just coexisting with artificial life, but embracing it. While ultimately falling flat (and venturing too far for my liking into uncanny valley territory with a robotic Bruce Willis), the 2009 film Surrogates tried to imagine a world where people have chosen to live through cybernetic proxies. Although the surrogates themselves aren't independent machinery, controlled by their human counterparts remotely from the safety of their homes, that sort of augmented reality isn't entirely far fetched.

We don't have to look too far into the future to ruminate on lives becoming increasingly intertwined with artificial technology. Robot & Frank (2012) is an understated near-future science fiction, a meditation on aging and memory. The robot in the movie is presented as a caretaker to the elderly Frank (Frank Langella), and while the older man is at first resistant, not only does he develop a friendship with the robot, they even pull off a jewelry heist together. With a renewed zest for life, Frank reconnects with the man he once was, while the robot shows an artificial life's capacity to grow and adapt.

In Spike Jonze's Her, it's 2025 and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an operating system called Samantha. She may be only a voice, but she jokes, flirts and wonders about being a human being, and we are once again confronted with questions of identity and humanity, questions that have existed long before machines and will continue to exist as long as we do.


Scenes from The Book of Eli and The Hunger Games

When Gene Rodenberry developed Star Trek in the 1960s, his vision of the utopian, egalitarian humanity of the 24th century was shaped by a hopeful optimism for people's capacity to create and evolve, and to attain equality and respect between all citizens. (Well, to an extent.) Overall, the franchise has been sincere in trying to present a truly utopian future. Beyond that, the distinction between a utopia - an ideal, perfect society, as first named by Thomas Merton - and dystopia, its grim cousin, has been quite blurry and that gray area has been fertile ground for many stories.

Out of destruction can emerge primal chaos and basic need for survival, or orderly systems that reinforce centuries old social hierarchies. Or both. Those who live outside the protective domes and walled cities occupy a harsh reality (depicted in desaturated tones, naturally), while those fortunate enough to end up within some protective enclave might have more creature comforts and luxuries, but often at a cost to their liberty. Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Book of Eli and Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer are some of the more recent examples of movies contemplating a disastrous future, but speculative fiction has been fascinated with the nuances for a long while now.

The previously mentioned Metropolis comes to mind, and in 1936, H. G. Wells' Things to Come charted the potential course of humanity from a global war in 1940 to a technologically advanced but divided society in 2036. Most of us are undoubtedly familiar with George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four, set in a totalitarian world of few liberties and much government surveillance. (A novel which is probably due for an updated film version.)

We have seen it all: a hedonistic domed city where none shall live past age 30 (Logan's Run); a wasteland ruled by savage motorcycle gangs with wild hair (Mad Max movies); and sophisticated, slick cities where citizens' futures are regulated by their genetic makeup (Gattaca) or even actions that haven't taken place yet (Minority Report).

There is an ongoing obsession with the notion of the apocalypse, and it's not limited to teenagers devouring dystopian YA literature. Psychologically, we're wired to ponder the end times, whether it's a world turned upside down by wars or by nature's hand. While we might do a good job imagining all the worst case scenarios as to how it can all go down, sci-fi also helps extend our imaginations to what happens after, and to the notion that humanity might prevail.


L-to-R: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Fifth Element, Logan's Run, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Compelling world building is important to propel the plot, but the clothes people will wear in the future can say just as much as a perfectly designed architectural landscape. People have been fascinated with fashions of the future for a long while. It's a delicate balance, to create a futuristic film wardrobe: make it too subtle, and people won't pick up on your intent; make it wildly outlandish, and it may become dated (while still making for great Halloween or convention costumes); put a red mankini on Sean Connery and... well, that's exactly what you get.

One of my pet peeves is when everyone in the future dresses the same, however. In certain settings - hedonistic domed enclaves, totalitarian communities, militaristic structures - uniformity makes sense. But beyond that, it's nearsighted thinking. Considering the evolving history of fashion, the varieties of subcultures and street style that have existed, and our tendency to regurgitate trends of the past, the future should be a glorious mishmash of individual style, even if it is picking from scrapheaps of textiles left after a nuclear fall out.

From that mass of black suits and silver tunics, some gems have emerged: Blade Runner, with its blend of noir fashion and modern street style; Mad Max, which gave its desert warriors a look that was both cohesive and distinct for each of the characters; the overall aesthetic of films like Children of Men or Book of Eli, showing a world of scarcity and priorities higher than sartorial concerns, but also glimmers of individuality.

The fashion industry has had a long standing reciprocal relationship with science fiction films. Hunger Games costume designer Judianna Makovsky cites Alexander McQueen and Elsa Schiaparelli as indelible influences on the style of spectacle-obsessed citizens of Panem's Capitol. Couturiers' involvement in film hasn't be limited to serving as just inspiration, either. Hardy Amies, Saville Row based clothier for Queen Elizabeth II, was brought on board by Stanley Kubrick to create costumes for 2001: A Space Odyssey; Jean Paul Gaultier is responsible for dreaming up more than 900 of the over-the-top, colorful costumes for The Fifth Element; and even though his designs didn't make the cut, Gianni Versace came up with some pretty extravagant sketches for Judge Dredd.

And just as science fiction has had an obvious impact on our approach to product design, so has it had its influence - direct or subtle - on the world of fashion. From Thierry Mugler's sexy robot in the video for George Michael's Too Funky, to Gareth Pugh and Junya Watanabe's sculptural looks, the futuristic and fantastical has made its mark on the runway.

Things get even more exciting when we think of garments as serving functions beyond adornment. Dutch designer Annouk Wiprecht creates fashion armor that serves as an interactive link between the wearer and their environment: dresses release soft plumes of smoke or activate defensive mechanical spider legs attached to the shoulders, based on the proximity of nearby people, while another garment, Intimacy, turns transparent in response to the wearer's arousal and heartbeat. While slightly off-putting for anyone uncomfortable with needles, Israeli designer Naomi Kizhner has come up with a concept for a small collection of bioelectrical jewelry that would react to the body's energy. And when it comes to textiles, there are "smart" fabrics that can be sprayed on the body or be controlled by mobile devices, in general elevating the stakes when it comes to science fiction's ability to outstrip reality.


Over time, I've developed more of an appreciation for science fiction that echoes the immediate realities of our world - films like the previously mentioned Robot and Frank and Her. As author Richard Powers says, "All we have to do is explore the cascades of futures already set in motion."

One of my favorite recent bits of sci-fi, combining all the elements mentioned here, is the Canadian show Continuum. The hero is Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols), a "Protector" from 2077 transported back to our present day, when a group of anti-corporation terrorists, Liber8, use a time travel device to escape execution. In her time, Cameron is part of a privatized, cybernetically augmented police force in a world where the Corporate Congress of oligarchs reigns supreme and citizen surveillance is the routine. As she tries to navigate Vancouver in 2012, Cameron begins to question all that she believed in and finds an unlikely ally in a young man, Alec Sadler, who will in fact become the same corporate king that Liber8 blame for the erosion of civil liberties in the future. That is, if the future can't be altered in the present.


While still requiring some suspension of disbelief - time travel is one of those things that, no matter how technologically advanced we get, is still hard to fathom - the excitement of the series lies in the way it shows a realistic present with future possibilities branching out. But as much as I find exercises in speculation on our immediate future fascinating, I'm also more than a little bit excited about Christopher Nolan's upcoming film Interstellar, which promises to go back to what enthralled so many of us in science fiction in the first place - exploration of space. Whether looking a few years ahead, or some light years away, one thing is clear: for sci-fi storytellers, the future is wide open.