This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
Here's What The Future Has in Store... According to Sci-Fi Movies
With the ceaseless surprises and revelations of the Current News Cycle™, one could be forgiven for wondering: “If this is just the first half of 2017, what in God’s name do the next four years hold for us?” Since political polls, gut instinct, and common sense seem to be failing, why not turn to a medium that never gets it wrong in predicting the future: the movies?
Whether out of a desire for freedom of imagination, or just a fear of looking a bit silly when “2004” comes and goes without an apocalypse and/or flying cars, today’s filmmakers usually prefer to set their science fiction in a vague, undated version of The Future—one that allows for far more wiggle-room. Luckily, the hubristic action auteurs of the '80s, '90s, and early noughties clearly had no such qualms about firmly nailing their ideas to the proverbial church door, complete with conveniently firm calendar years. So, let’s see what the near future, as imagined by the sci-fi B-movies of yesteryear, apparently holds, shall we?
2017 as envisioned by... The Running Man (1987)
Tagline: Welcome to America in 2019, when the best men don't run for president... They run for their lives.
Those of us lucky enough to have experienced this bonkers exemplar of 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger excess know that the fact that its own poster disagrees with itself on which year it’s set (2019? 2017? Who cares!) is by far the least strange thing about it. Based on a short story by Stephen King, The Running Man predicted that in 2017, America would be a suffocating, culture-free police state where the top-rated TV game show consists entirely of people murdering each other live every night. As bizarre—and let’s be honest, premature—as it feels to congratulate ourselves for this, we haven’t got to that last bit quite yet.
A lot of commentators actually think this movie says a lot about the way we live now, and homicide aside, that's not so outlandish. Its loopy vision of the way reality TV and politics can become one really isn’t a foreign notion, with shiny spectacle being used by those in power as a distraction from totalitarian intent—by a U.S. President with a showbiz agent, no less. Neither is an appeal by those in power to the people’s baser impulses to acquire and retain that power.
There’s also something a little too familiar in the way the puppet-masters behind the show manipulate the truth to present an alternative reality for reality TV: one in which good guy Schwarzenegger, innocent of the crime he’s been imprisoned for, is parachuted into the show as prey and sold to the baying audience as a ruthless killer who deserves everything he gets. But before we get carried away lauding Arnie as the new Aldous Huxley, this movie also features a bunch of sweet jetpacks and a weird insistence on endless aerobic dance numbers (choreographed, incidentally, by Paula Abdul). And I don’t think we’re anywhere near as obsessed with aerobics right now as this movie thinks.
2017 Plausibility Rating: Thumbs up to reality TV and post-truth fake news, thumbs down for aerobics and jetpacks.
2017 as envisioned by... Barb Wire (1996)
Tagline: No Laws, No Limits, No Turning Back
Now, a little less believability for your futurescape! This version of 2017, based on the comic book series of the same name, posits that by now this country will have been utterly ravaged by the “Second American Civil War”—exactly the kind of lawless environment in which titular mercenary, bounty hunter, and nightclub owner Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson) can easily hold down three jobs.
The plot, which claims to be “loosely based” on the plot of Casablanca, finds Barb becoming embroiled in a plot to help a group of freedom-loving folks escape over the border to—where else?—Canada. You may laugh, but didn’t overwhelming interest in emigrating to the land of Trudeau and universal healthcare crash the Canadian Immigration and Citizenship website just after the 2016 U.S. election? And that was without a civil war to light the proverbial fire under you.
2017 Plausibility Rating: “Oui” to Canadian refuge, “Non” to outright civil war (yet—it’s only June, after all.)
2017 as envisioned by... Fortress (1992)
Tagline: A Prison of the Future. A High-Tech Hell. Built to Hold Anything... Except an Innocent Man.
Unencumbered by any pretense of a Scottish accent, Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame plays an ex-army officer living under a regime that’s instituted a punitive one-child policy for all Americans. He attempts to flee with his pregnant wife over the border to—wait for it—Canada. In this dystopia, dissenters are dispatched to the Fortress of the title: a private maximum security prison run by the Men-Tel Corporation (if that’s not too subtle for you?), where inmates are implanted with "Intestinators" that’ll explode inside anyone trying to escape, and where second babies are declared illegal, extracted, and and turned into cyborgs.
Early ‘90s action hokiness aside, the privatization of America’s justice system is far from a foreign notion, and the fertility plot admittedly offers some serious Handmaid’s Tale vibes for these troubling times. So if America stays its current course of viewing reproductive rights as an entirely optional thing, perhaps the most implausible thing about Fortress by the end of this year will just be that tagline, which seems to quaintly suggest that prisoner innocence is somehow an entirely alien concept within the U.S. justice system.
2017 Plausibility Rating: “Aye” for the Prison Industrial Complex, Canadian utopia (again), and reproductive nightmares. “Nay” for cyborg babies.
2018 as envisioned by... Terminator Salvation (2009)
Tagline: The End Begins
This movie, which is more usually known as “The Terminator sequel with Christian Bale in it,” and which might actually be the most joyless action movie of the last decade, was the only one I could find explicitly set in the year 2018.
So dull is its vision of a post-apocalyptic America in ruins, most people don’t actually recall seeing Terminator Salvation, even if they have—but in essence, this movie hypothesized that we’d have been at war with murderous cyborgs since 2003, who have also worked out how to genetically engineer human-cyborg hybrids. While 2003 wasn’t a great year for a lot of us, I don’t recall a robot apocalypse taking place, so to be honest we don’t even need to give this one a 2018 Plausibility Rating.
2019 as envisioned by... Blade Runner (1982)
Tagline: Man Has Met His Match.. Now It’s His Problem
Trust me, I’m as angry as you are about the fact that Blade Runner is appearing in the same round-up as Terminator Salvation and Barb Wire—but as concretely-timestamped imaginings of the hell that awaits us in the future, they don’t come finer. To get the (synthetic) elephant in the room out of the way: it’s highly unlikely that by 2019, humankind will have expanded into space so comprehensively as to have created the off-world colonies imagined in this movie. Or that we’ll have sentient, angsty replicants that look like Darryl Hannah, let alone an entire division of the LAPD dedicated to hunting them down. But because Blade Runner is a truly great movie from the mind of Philip K. Dick, it dares to make some interesting, considered thought-out predictions about what 2019 might look and feel like beyond just “there will be jumpsuits.”
Many futuristic movies insist on imbuing their settings with a blown-out shininess that’s meant to be a visual signifier of The Future, but Blade Runner at least nails how polluted and grimy any big American city will almost certainly look in two years’ time—gigantic, oppressive digital billboards and all. One of the more intriguing, plausible predictions is a change in spoken language—people in Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles speak a new patois that mixes European and East Asian languages, which is not far fetched at all. Also, space exploration in this world seems to be pretty privatized, which, if Richard Branson gets his way, is exactly how it’ll be.
2019 Plausibility Rating: Off-world colonies, replicants and (yes) flying cars—probably not. Pretty much everything else—seems legit.
2019 as envisioned by... The Island (2005)
Tagline: Plan Your Escape
Up against Blade Runner, all other visions of 2019 seem a tad redundant, which makes this utterly forgotten clunker from the strange days when “they” were trying to make Ewan McGregor an action hero even less worthy of your consideration. In this version of 2019, if you’re rich, you can afford your own handy identical clone, which will live its own life, until you’re in need of a new eye, or arm, or surrogate womb—at which point, your doppelgänger is ruthlessly harvested for its constituent parts. But your clone doesn’t know it’s a clone! What happens when the clones fight back?
Even though it’s sort of another imagining of a 2019 society that sees synthetic people as an acceptable moral compromise in the face of mortal frailty, The Island is a tad less concerned than Blade Runner with the devastating philosophical complexities of what it truly means to be human. In other words, it's basically Never Let Me Go for morons.
2019 Plausibility Rating: A probably-nope for clone harvesting (I mean, it is two whole years away) and a definitely-nope for Ewan McGregor as action hero—in 2019, or any other year.
2020 as envisioned by... Reign of Fire (2002)
Tagline: Fight Fire With Fire
Yes, if we haven’t been wiped out by the Second American Civil War or a robo-apocalypse by then, we will have to undergo another U.S. presidential election. But according to this movie, we might have bigger problems in 2020… because we’ll be at war with dragons.
Because Wikipedia synopses often say it best, this movie is set “twenty years after London tunneling project workers inadvertently awakened dragons from centuries of slumber and the creatures have subsequently replaced humans as the dominant species on Earth.” The War on Dragons, Reign of Fire supposes, will have knocked mankind back to a kind of Dark Ages, where flaming crossbows are our primary weapons, and all men must sport impressive beards. There’s very little else to say about this—admittedly very fun—film, other than that it boasts Matthew McConaughey at the very nascence of the career resurrection known as “The McConaissance,” and is a way better futuristic movie starring Christian Bale than Terminator Salvation.
2020 Plausibility Rating: Why am I even asking. 100%!
In summary, if low-grade sci-fi movies (and Blade Runner) offer us any wise predictions for the next four years, it’s that:
- Cloning and/or cyborg-human hybrids are just around the corner.
- That very technology will almost certain try to kill us.
- If it doesn’t manage it, privatization and the corporate interests of a shadowy business elite will instead.
- You should submit your asylum application to Canada right now to beat the rush.