“The problem with doing movies in the future is that you are always wrong,” director Robert Zemeckis said in Back to the Future: The Complete Visual History. “You underestimate it. You can’t be right. Even Stanley Kubrick has always mis-predicted the future in his movies.” Going on to add why he “hated films of the future”, the director said, “I just think they’re impossible, and somebody’s always keeping score.”
Zemeckis was proved right on October 21, 2015, or Back To The Future day, the date on which Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) land up in the future in their souped up DeLorean car. Hundreds of memes popped up on social media, comparing the vision depicted in the trilogy to the present. While the film came up short on the depiction of futuristic fashion, a lot of it matched up with today’s reality, such as the use of automation and biometrics.
As the world moves deeper into the 21st century, we inch closer to the years depicted in science fiction films. While a survey of 2017’s forthcoming science fiction titles reveals an obsession with outer space exploration, filmmakers in the 1980s and ’90s did not think humanity would make it that far, at least successfully. In addition, an inordinate number of them felt that humanity would have a particularly shoddy 2017.
What all filmmakers imagining the future agreed upon was that the freedom of upcoming generations would shrink, the welfare state would morph into a police state that kept its citizens under surveillance, and even dreams would not be off limits. “The only kind of future that the audience ever actually accepts is a Orwellian dark future,” Zemeckis predicted.
In the 2017 of the Pamela Anderson-starrer Barb Wire (1996), the United States of America is in the middle of its Second Civil War, and every city is under martial law. That might not be the worst thing about this version of the future, in which Anderson channels Humphrey Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca (1942) as a bar-owner-cum-bounty-hunter in the last free city in the US.
The under-seen gem Oblivion (2013), starring Tom Cruise, opens in 2077, but 2017 is when it all went wrong after aliens attacked and launched an all-out war. Earth is in ruins and humanity has relocated to one of Saturn’s moons. Despite numerous reported “close encounters” of the “first to seventh kinds”, no extraterrestrials have contacted humanity or landed on Earth. But the day might not be too far. A search for alien life is currently underway at the San Francisco State University and it is one amongst many.
One factor that completely bypassed most creators of science fiction was the internet. Another thing they left out? The arrival of waterproof technology.
Cherry 2000 (1987), starring Melanie Griffith and David Andrews, takes place in a fragmented United States, divided between developed areas and post-apocalyptic environs straight out of Mad Max. In director Steve De Jarnatt’s version of 2017, human relationships can only be negotiated with the help of complex legal documents, so men resort to the comfort of female androids or “gynoids”.
The opening scenes depicts an idyllic home setting. Andrews’s character Sam Treadwell rushes home to his perfect homemaker wife and they promptly begin to make love in the kitchen. Mid-coitus, an overflowing kettle causes the woman, the eponymous Cherry 2000 model, to malfunction. The rest of the film follows Treadwell as he attempts to track the last remaining model of his beloved wife.
While the film was overtly pessimistic about 2017, it came close to depicting humankind’s current fascination with technology and also its growing isolation. Not only do we queue up in large numbers in hot and humid conditions for the latest model of yet another smartphone, we have applications for all kinds of human contact: cuddling, dating, mating and friendship.
In Fortress (1992), 2017 is run by computers and androids. Only one child is allowed per couple. Any more and you will get arrested and sent to prison, which uses extreme forms of mind control and torture. While the film was most likely inspired by China’s one-child policy, the Asian country has relaxed their laws regarding procreation in the two decades since the film’s release.
The idea that machines and artificial intelligence will run everything is taken to its pessimistic extreme in the Terminator series. The fifth film in the franchise, Terminator Genisys (2015), depicts a 2017 in which humanity is primed for the switch to a global operating system that will eventually become the evil Skynet. “My phone will link to my tablet will link to my computer, everything in my life will be uploaded and online 24 into 7,” says one of the characters with glee. Not too far off from our reality then.
The seventh season of the television comedy Parks and Recreation is a tongue-in-cheek recreation of 2017. And yet it comes the closest, although, as predicted, Kevin James has not starred in a reboot of the Bourne franchise, Jack Sparrow has not yet appeared in Game of Thrones, and Shia LaBeouf has not launched his line of wedding dresses that “do not come cheap”. In the season-long arc, the government employee Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) battles Gryzzl, a Facebook-like corporation that mines data under the pretext of offering free wifi, for a huge tract of government land. Midway through the season, all is forgiven because the corporation donates the land to the city and continues to mine data in peace.
Forecasts for the remaining 11 months seem grim. If 2017 becomes too much to bear, look to Arnold Schwarzenegger for guidance. The bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor-turned-actor saves the world in not one but two films set in 2017. In The Running Man, in which the world has been taken over by reality television, Schwarzenegger ends the film by giving the audience exactly what they want: more violence and cheesy punchlines.
In Terminator: Genisys, Schwarzenegger makes a brief trip to 2017 to seemingly put an end to Genisys, only for a post-credits sequence to reveal that the tyrannical global operating system is down but not out. But don’t worry, if artificial intelligence takes over the world by the end 2017, Schwarzenegger will (hopefully) be back.