Science fiction films used to be works of pure, speculative fantasy. Writers and filmmakers recreated their vision of a future they believed could one day come true. Whether they thought it really would, who can say. But the clock has kept ticking and time has begun to catch up with these works of fiction. The science fiction films of our past are becoming the present.
With the re-release of Johnny Mnemonic (1995) this week, itself set in 2021, we take a look back at what about cinema got right, and wrong, in their vision of the future. Has science fiction become science fact?
Film: 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). Time of events: 2001
One could argue that Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal slice of science fiction successfully predicted many aspects of our future. It’s equally possible that scientists were inspired by Kubrick’s film and used elements of it as inspiration for their inventions. Add to that the benefit of having a 43-year head start to deliver on the cinematic promises, and the odds are in your favour.
2001 features mobile computer devices comparable to iPads, and video calling technology akin to Zoom, Skype, and Facetime. Yet these pale in comparison to the biggest technological breakthrough in the film – the HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence system supposed to help the crew on their space mission. Considering the film demonstrates that having an AI in control of your technology – and arguably, your life – probably isn’t the best idea, it does seem strange that we would still embrace Siri and Alexa with open arms!
Film: Back To The Future Part II (2015). Time of events: 2015
Aside from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Back To The Future Part II was one of the first seminal science fiction film to have a specified date in which it’s set. In many ways, this portrayal of our present is the most disappointing: it’s 2021 and we are still awaiting the hoverboards we were promised.
Here is a vision of the future that featured flying cars, self-tying shoe laces and the release of Jaws 19. To be fair, they got the short-lived resurgence of 3D cinema correct. They were a year out with the Chicago Cubs however. The team finally won the World Series in 2016… much to the chagrin of fans who had pegged their hopes (and money) on a 2015 victory.
Film: Akira (1988). Time of events: 2019
Not content with being a landmark animated films, a pivotal entry in the cyberpunk genre, or even one of the most acclaimed science fiction cinematic offerings of all time, Akira also correctly forecast that Tokyo would be selected as the host city for the 2020 Olympic games – all the way back in 1988. What it didn’t foresee however, was COVID-19 delaying the games until 2021. Still halfway right!
Film: Blade Runner (1982). Time of events: 2019
No science fiction film has arguably had a greater influence on the aesthetic of the genre than Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. Despite being one of the most visually stunning depictions of the future, it is surprisingly light in terms of accurate technological predictions. Once again, no flying cars. No synthetic humanoids… as far as we are aware, that is. One thing is did get right was that computers would be able to greatly enhance images. Albeit, ours are arguably a lot easier to work than Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) machine.
In truth, the film’s success lies in its visuals. The fusion of Eastern and Western cultures in terms of style, language, culture, and architecture are well on their way to being replica(n)ted today, particularly in cultural melting pots like Los Angeles. Plus, who can forget the incredible fashion choices? Blade Runner fashion continues to inspire designers and runway shows, decades after the film’s release. We can only hope that someday soon, we will all be dressing like this.
Film: The Running Man (1987). Time of events: 2017-2019
To be honest, who could have anticipated that the film to most accurately depict our future would be one based on a Stephen King novel and directed by Starsky from Starsky and Hutch. However, The Running Man proves to have been surprisingly prescient.
Following an economic collapse, America is run by a totalitarian government (Check, 2016-2021). To distract its citizens from questioning their place in society or challenging the status quo, they are pacified by an obsession with reality television (Check). The most powerful man in America was a reality TV host (Ouch).
Television companies happily edited news and other stories to fit their own narratives, the truth discarded if it didn’t align with one’s agenda. They even made liberal use of “deepfake” technology. On a less dystopic note though, it also predicted voice-activated household appliances. Thanks, Alexa.
Film: Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Time of events: 2021
In this world, the human race is facing a pandemic (correct), as a degenerative disease called Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS) sweeps through swathes of the population, brought on by prolonged exposure to the radiation emitted by technologies and the internet.
While our 2021 pandemic is caused by a different kind of viral disease, one can also frame Johnny Mnemonic as a prediction that overexposure to the internet (and social media) would have an unanticipated and detrimental impact on our collective mental health.
The main thing this film got wrong was that uploading data into the brain of a human courier was the best way to transfer large amounts of information. Breathe a sigh of relief, reader from 1995, we can store hundreds of Gigabytes on a USB stick small enough to serve as a keychain. Your brain is safe.
In terms of the world we are currently living in, an easy and obvious parallel is drawn to the frighteningly prophetic Contagion (2011). But as we move out of the pandemic, what else might we have to look forward to?
Well… the cinematic futurescape is admittedly pretty bleak. For instance, next year sees the start of The Purge. Also, a corporation called Soylent Industries will be given a contract to tackle food shortages through the production of nutrition bars called Soylent Green… made from *redacted*. Or we’ll face an alien invasion. Anyway, lots of fun stuff to look forward to.