Yesterday was one of the most identifiable futures in movies thanks to the popular time travel movie Back to the Future II explicitly stating they visited October 21st, 2015. And now that’s in the past. As a comedy, it was never trying to make 100% accurate predictions about the future and the writer could really only make reasonable guesses based on what they knew in 1989 when the movie was made. Still, they got about as much right as they did flat out wrong. We also rocketed past 2001: A Space Odyssey and we’re really nowhere close to interstellar travel or jets to the moon. Let’s look at some other movie futures that we might reasonably reach and take a look at their predictions. From Blade Runner to Demolition Man, we’re taking a look at upcoming futures portrayed in famous sci-fi movies, from our nearest future to ones further off. I’m also skipping total apocalypse from disease or nuclear war and things like that because those movies are about survival, not the evolution of our technology and society.
The Running Man – 2017-2019
You’ve gotta be kidding me! Stuff like this or Death Race that supposes our interest in violence will evolve to the point where we want game shows that depict people actually being killed is an interesting story idea to make us all consider how far we as a society can sink. But I can’t believe enough people in the world would ever accept this. When there is genocide in other nations, there is (eventually) an intervention. And there’s just no need for death to make the a game show interesting. Survivor does plenty well with physical challenges and votes.
The lethal game show is The Running Man‘s biggest conceit for the future. The technology shown is pretty believable. The biggest leaps are a TV show being able to create some digital body doubles more or less on the fly, and some of the “stalkers” in the game show have weapons like an electric shock suit or buzzsaws. Relatively believable with enough money. Of course, we should mention that the entire reason such a show exists is the movie posits a worldwide economic collapse led to a very different government taking control in the U.S., a totalitarian state with state-controlled TV. Propoganda shows make sense but why does it have so much money if the world went through such a collapse? That part is a logic flaw but the idea of a worldwide economic collapse is fairly believable. With everything tied together globally, China’s economic troubles a couple months ago drastically impacted our own stock market. So maybe this is us in two years.
The Purge – 2018-2023
Similar to The Running Man, The Purge movies posit that the U.S. becomes a totalitarian state. Instead of a game show, it allows one day a year where anyone can commit a crime and face no penalty. It’s used as an artificial population control and an excuse for poor people to kill one another. It’s a completely preposterous idea as no other nation would allow us to go this crazy. And even poor people would probably just try to move to Canada or something and be given sanctuary. But the premise isn’t meant to make sense, it’s meant to address the massive divide between classes and that’s absolutely a problem facing us now that could conceivably grow worse over the next few years. The Purge does not feature any technology that we don’t currently have, but it does presume home security is a much more common utility. The Purge is more depressing than The Running Man because the latter was made in the 80s and presumed a dystopian future needed 30 some years to happen but The Purge posits that this could happen within a few years!
Akira – 2019
A lot of Akira is predicated on the idea that people exist who have extra-normal abilities like psychokinesis. We have zero evidence of that existing in the real world but we can still take a look at the technology and society of 2019 to see what makes sense. Tokyo has been rebuilt into Neo-Tokyo, full of massive skyscrapers and highways. Terrorism is so common that when a bomb explodes in a high rise, people barely bother to notice. Well that seems entirely possible since we go through mass shootings regularly and nothing really changes or gets discussed. There are biker gangs which feels more like an 80s thing when motorcycle clubs like Hell’s Angels ruled some of the highway. Still, the bikes aren’t so radically implausible. They’re not flying or anything. There are portable laser weapons. We’re close to having laser weapons on battleships but nothing portable. Not in four years’ time. There’s also a weapon in orbit that can fire a massive energy blast to the ground. That’s still a pretty sci-fi idea. I can’t imagine anything close to that existing in four years’ time. We have drones with missiles for small targets. Not always accurate, but a lot cheaper than a laser in space. Maybe we could have satellites that drop steel rods. That would achieve a similar effect.
Blade Runner – 2019
Blade Runner envisions a future with lifelike robots and flying cars. There’s a lot to unpack here. It was filmed in 1982 and based off of a 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick. That gives you an idea of how far into the future they were looking. Some of their ideas for this near future are very unlikely: cars that are able to lift off vertically, hover and fly through the air in a manner don’t exist and we wouldn’t even know how to make it safe for mass travel if we had such technology within four years. They also have replicants, genetically engineered workers with a pre-determined life span. Basically adult robots that are workers. But they look and feel human. So what’s the difference? We are still struggling to make a robot that can walk bipedally and can clone animals like sheep, but we can’t build an adult human. It’s not just beyond our technology, it’s hard to predict how far off such a thing could be. And even if we could, would our ethics allow it? Of course, that’s the question the movie asks. It could be laid over our current society and ask how we’re willing to treat the working class, so it’s relevant. Also, in the movie four replicants have escaped from another planet where they worked to come to Earth, possibly to extend their lifespans. We can realistically get to Mars and have sent probes and landers there, but have yet to build a working habitat. We certainly don’t have any way proven to move a spaceship as fast as light, let alone faster. We don’t have any way to terraform a planet to make it habitable. It would require a temporary habitat with limited breathable air and food. It’s currently theorized by NASA that we could have humans visit Mars by the 2030s.
On the stuff that they got right are massive urban environments, constant advertisements everywhere, and terrible weather. We’ve enacted that on ourselves and climate change is a fact that we have to currently address and contend with as a species. Also, we have to figure out ways to live as a population in increasingly crowded urban environments. So the settings seem very grounded.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – 2019, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – 2026
We can ignore Dawn of the Planet of the Apes because it’s a post-apocalypse society that we should be able to avoid over the next 11 years with luck. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set in the near future but if it was set today, it would be entirely plausible. No one uses any technology for communication or travel that does not already exist. Instead, it says that our biotechnology is much further along. A scientist is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s which is definitely something pharmaceutical companies are researching now. The “cure” ends up working but only for about five years. This would still be an insanely big success. The drug has the side effect of being able to grant any simians human-level intelligence. This is not only shown to be a permanent effect, but it is carried down genetically and future apes, chimpanzees, orangutans and more are gifted with greater intelligence, easily comparable to humans but retaining their biological appearance. Could a drug alter the brain faster than evolution of the body could keep up? It’s a pretty far-fetched premise that it could work so radically fast and be developed by basically one guy with very limited testing. Drugs that improve our quality of life and extend our lifespan are not sci-fi, though. Those are real. And I think Alzheimer’s is something that could realistically be treated in our lifetime. Maybe not cured, but certainly we may learn ways to prevent or pause it. Maybe even understand better what causes it and other forms of dementia.
There is also a passing reference to a manned mission to deep space whose signal is lost. This is setting up a potential story like the original Planet of the Apes, where astronauts from Earth land on a planet ruled by talking apes only to eventually learn they actually went through a wormhole into the future and landed back on Earth after humanity had destroyed itself (most likely with nuclear weapons) setting the planet up for a new species to evolve and control it.
Pacific Rim – 2020-2025
It’s very unlikely that an alien species will invade our planet through a wormhole and send massive monsters the size of skyscrapers to destroy us. But if such a thing happened, could we really build similarly-scaled robots to fight back? No, probably not. The biggest robot we currently have in existence is Vulcan Engineering’s MegaBot. It’s an electric articulated-arm production robot that has a reach of six meters and can pick up objects as heavy as 3,675 lbs. Beyond the fact that we can’t even make human-sized robots walk bipedally on a consistent basis, the robots in Pacific Rim are manned. A single step would be such a sudden movement for a person piloting the robot that they’d get a massive concussion. So okay, we make some assumptions here – all of the world contributes their resources, both physical and intellectual to building these things. So we get past the walking problem. Here are the other challenges we’d face: materials strong enough to support itself yet also light enough to be able to actually move. Energy. It would require a lot. Maybe some day we could beam energy like wifi. Let’s assume as a planet we can resolve both issues. I still don’t see why we wouldn’t pilot these as drones. If a pilot (and the movie says it requires two, neurally connected) were in that, they’d need a lot of buffer, like a capsule suspended in water.
Let’s look at the neural interface. We are on the cusp of building prosthetics that are controlled by the mind thanks to a bluetooth-like interface. While controlling all four limbs (we’ll just assume it can autobalance itself somehow) may be well beyond what we’re capable of now, I can sort of believe the entire world coming together could resolve such an issue within a few years. But would a new alien threat unite us? Could we as a society get past our religious, economic and geographical biases against one another? Sci-fi frequently posits that the only thing that would get us to unite is a completely alien threat. There’s really no way to know because we haven’t been faced with such a thing. What’s the closest to it that we have faced? Airborne viruses like swine or avian flu, or Ebola, I suppose. There is some uniting of international resources to do research and coordinate travel and quarantine measures. But it’s hardly universal. And even in our own country, we have dumb dumbs like Donald Trump getting on TV arguing we should just shut down all international travel until it’s resolved. A massive overreaction. Ultimately, I suppose our survival would be determined by how many cooperative leaders are in charge at a given time.
Soylent Green – 2022
Made in 1973, Soylent Green proposes several weird and fascinating ideas about a dystopian future. Some things sound eerily accurate. It’s constantly summer, which sounds very close to the climate issues we’re currently dealing with. New York is overcrowded. It says there are 40 million people in the city. That seems like way more than it could conceivably hold by 2022. We currently have 8.4 million over 300 square miles and the overcrowding is such that people vastly overpay for apartments in certain areas. There may not realistically be enough physical space for 40 million people. Mumbai, India is one of the most crowded cities in the world with 12.4 million people in 230 square miles. Supposedly half the people are unemployed. We currently have an unemployment rate of 5.5%. It’s hard to imagine everything falling apart that badly over seven years.
The overpopulation and underemployment leads to two additional issues. One is women are held as concubines (called furniture) by the wealthy elite. Fortunately, this is not anywhere close to the standard. Sure, there is prostitution and even a “kept” woman but it certainly isn’t a societal norm that everyone just accepts. It’s kind of misogynist, too, because are there no wealthy women? Sure, we have pay inequality issues but there are still many successful women in the business world. Wouldn’t some of them have male furniture?
Most infamously, cop Charlton Heston learns that everyone is being fed green protein wafers that are made of poor people, not sea plankton. It’s not hard to imagine a few people coming up with a desperate solution but it is very hard to believe in a conspiracy like this actually being implemented in a day and age where stuff like Wikileaks exists.
Metropolis – 2026
This 1927 German expressionistic silent film by Frtiz Lang remains incredibly influential. Metropolis features a wealthy upper class living high above the city at the top of skyscrapers while a working class toils below to keep the power going. Okay, that’s entirely plausible. The main story involves the wealthy young man Freder going into the lower-class area and learning to connect and care for his fellow man. But the other big sci-fi idea is that scientist Rotwang invents a robot called Maria that is indistinguishable, physically, from another person. Could we really reach such a point in 11 years? It seems unlikely. Let’s skip past the robot beneath since we’ve looked at similar ideas above and focus on the artificial flesh and the artificial intelligence. We’ve had some success learning to grow skin and organs. I don’t know if we could grow enough skin to cover an entire body and we definitely don’t have the ability to create a system of vessels to feed it blood to keep it alive if a mechanical body were underneath. Could we create ears and eyes? It would probably be easier to just create material like that of a “Real Doll” and slide that sheath over a mechanical body. So maybe that would be semi-convincing to look at from a distance or to the touch. The artificial intelligence is the biggest sci-fi leap. Creating an individual machine to make its own decisions and communicate like a person? We’ll probably need more time. We can program computers to play games like chess. We can task them with other functions like regulating certain machines. But if we ever created an artificial intelligence, it may be able to think in ways that we do not. Scientists call this even “the singularity” in which a machine gains enough intelligence to potentially build an even better machine at which point its intelligence would expand at an exponential rate that really can’t be calculated because it would think in ways we don’t. Machines don’t have the same needs we do so it’s hard to say what would happen if a machine ever became self-aware.
Demolition Man – 2032
This 1993 action movie starring Sylvester Stallone starts with a “gimme”. It says that the movie begins in 1996 and we can now cryogenically freeze criminals to serve their time while being rehabilitated mentally. We have neither technology and I can’t really think of anything comparable in development. We use cryogenics to harden metals, enable magnetic resonance imaging, and as a type of fuel. But the closest to using it on people is that some blood banks store rare blood types with cryogenics. We have not tackled how to preserve tissue or organs. Rehabbing people’s minds with computers? We still don’t know enough about the mind to do that yet. We can learn what parts of the brain are utilized for various tasks but we don’t know how to stimulate them in such a way as to change behavior. Instead, therapy with a counselor and drugs to control chemicals in the body are what we have some knowledge of.
They also have a new way to clean yourself up in the bathroom with the never-explained “three shells” instead of toilet paper. Hey, anything that helps the trees.
Anyway, Stallone and Wesley Snipes, the villain, wake up in 2032 and all crime has been eliminated thanks to this behavioral programming. We have nothing like this that I can think of. Meanwhile, there are unwanted members of society that literally live in the sewers and eat rats to survive. Their needs are completely ignored by society. Instead of having sex, people wear virtual reality helmets. I can half believe in that. We’re close to some good virtual reality in the coming year or so from the Oculus Rift or Morpheus and the porn industry is often an early adopter of new technologies. Cars have some level of auto-driving which companies like Tesla and Google are working on right now. They also have a foam that can instantly harden to help with crashes. Both ideas have some merit and could certainly exist in some form by 2032. Finally, there’s a quick joke that there were “Franchise Wars” and Taco Bell won them so now fine dining is enjoyed at Taco Bell. I can believe in fast food franchises competing and one being dominant in the future. I can even believe in such a winner expanding into fine dining. But as far as the brand goes, I think they’d invent something new. When McDonalds went into burritos, they created Chipotle. Taco Bell would likely not call a fine restaurant Taco Bell, for branding purposes alone.
I, Robot – 2035
The 2004 movie was based on the sci-fi stories by Isaac Asimov that were released beginning in 1950. In I, Robot, Asimov posited three rules to govern robotic behavior, called the Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The movie deals with a murder apparently perpetrated by a robot who can think for itself in a world where robots do the majority of labor for humanity but are not self-aware. In the film, an artificial intelligence that governs the robots invents a zeroth law ahead of the other three that says all of humanity is more valuable than an individual life, ordering a robot to kill a person that threatened humanity.
If we take the leap that in 20 years we could create robots to do our work and this helped society, it’s reasonable to think that Asimov’s laws or something very similar would govern their behavior. It’s also somewhat reasonable to envision an artificial intelligence managing this workforce, just like we have computers that manage our air conditioning. But would we create robots in our own image? It seems much more likely that we’d build robots like we do now – highly specialized to perform certain tasks. Arms to build cars. Drones to patrol the skies. Wheeled vehicles to explore or disarm bombs.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie – 2071
By the time we get old will we have terraforming technology to turn the other planets in our solar system into habitable environments? Will we have stable wormholes that allow us to travel between these worlds instantaneously? Those are the two big sci-fi ideas behind this show about some bounty hunters. But otherwise, this world is very recognizable as our own. People wear clothes similar to ours, eat in restaurants and watch TV like we do, hold down recognizable jobs like police officer, store clerk, office security, truck driver. If anything, this far-future movie really does represent the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same.