From its earliest days when Melies made his groundbreaking film A Trip To The Moon, cinema has been virtually obsessed with concocting visions of the future. Movie critics/historians often postulate that stories set in the future (or the past) inevitably reflect the perspectives of the present. Yet, once the optimism of the 1950’s ended, very few films have portrayed the future as anything but a bleak dystopia, some far more troubling than others. Even when things appear clean, shiny and happy, there are almost always dark forces lurking beneath the surface, ready to break out and wreak havoc. It is interesting that for at least the past three decades we universally celebrate technological progress (computers, space travel, automation, the internet, genetic science, AI), but in the movies, those same achievements often end up being humanity’s undoing. On the heels of the release of Ready Player One, we each selected three films to compare and contrast their dark visions of the future.
Hollywood truly loves to dabble in the future, and there are so many films to choose from it was hard to narrow it down to three. [BTW, I just saw Ready Player One this past weekend, with the thought of writing about it for this post, but it didn’t break new ground like I thought it might. Two friends of mine assure me the book is darker and much more effective in its vision.] You can break down the dark future visions of the movies into three main categories. There are the Near Future films, that mostly use our current society, with a few futuristic trappings, but feature one scientific advancement (robotics, AI, genetic tinkering, time travel, etc.) that fails or has unintended consequences, creating the central conflict. Second, there are the Post-Apocalyptic visions, where the human race has been devastated, usually by nuclear war, but also by climate change or widespread disease (and even sometimes no reason is given), and survival is the key conflict. Finally, there are the Totalitarian Regime films, where society has ceded control to a centralized governing force, i.e. safety over liberty, and typically a hero is forced to confront this power to survive/fight for freedom. Of course, some future-set films draw from all three categories for their story. I’ll look at one example from each.
Sure, you can enjoy Paul Verhoeven’s late 80’s classic as just a violent action film peppered with exceptional dark humor for the genre – “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”, but there’s a lot more going on here. The film opens with no future year provided, a surefire indication of a “near future” example, set in a Detroit that looks exactly the same as our current world but with cops that have slightly futurized cop cars and body armor. The city is held hostage by unchecked criminals with an outgunned police force unable to stop them. Interestingly, the solution to the crime problem is not a stronger government, but the private sector, in the form of mega-conglomerate OCP. The city government is shown to be completely ineffective and gives the contract for policing to OCP, largely out of desperation. This is where the film becomes a cautionary tale of what happens when we turn to corporations to solve society’s ills. The “greed is good” mantra of Gordon Gekko’s 1980s still defines the level of ethics most large corporations operate with, although Greed has since been rebranded as “responsibility to the stakeholders.” In the film, OCP’s drive to cash in on the new half-man/half-robot supercop pits two executives against each other, each racing to get their prototype on the street first, with nary a care for the ethics of profiting off of a deceased cop, any unintended consequences, or whether this is truly in the public’s interest. We still see this reckless approach, today more than ever, such as how we trusted in Big Pharma to solve our pain problems, and now endure the side-effect of a massive, deadly addiction epidemic.
DJ: Not to get too political but couldn’t you see President Trump thinking that Robocops would be a great idea to police the cities where we are losing the battle on crime and personally profiting from it? I don’t see it being that crazy. This must be an interesting enough premise as there were many sequels, a reboot and believe it or not a Saturday Morning cartoon.
MG: I used to consider Robocop 2 one of the worst films I had seen, but I watched it recently and it wasn’t that bad. It’s storyline of a new type of hyper-addictive drug was prescient of the current opioid crisis.
The Road Warrior (1982)
When the Road Warrior hit theaters in 1982, the memory of the oil crisis of the 1970’s still lingered, so it was no surprise to see a film get made about a post-apocalyptic world where gasoline is the most valued commodity. We never really know why society has broken down, although it appears to have gotten worse since the first film of the series, Mad Max, where at least an organized police force still operated. In The Road Warrior, all traces of government/law and order have vanished, returning this part of the world to something akin to the Wild West. Some might point to this as a positive, as it enables a “real man” to emerge as a true hero in the face of adversity (much like another former policeman, Rick Grimes, in the TV series The Walking Dead). However, the vision of this film and the entire series is quite grim, despite the hero worship. The worst of humanity is unleashed in the roving gangs of predatory humans, who seek only to steal and use-up resources for their own existence. Even the crude versions of civilizations that exist in the two sequels are parasitic and far from a viable hope for rebuilding society. Later films as varied as Waterworld, I Legend, and The Road would utilize a similar structure of focusing the storyline on the ability of a singular hero to survive, but yet these types of films largely avoid providing any roadmap to reversing the demise of the human race.
DJ: Yeah the Mad Max series is a grim future. When lights go out in cities or a major weather catastrophe happens we see the looters and lawlessness that result. These types of movies are not that far off showing the chaos that would reign if we truly became a scorched earth. The strong and evil would have an upper hand. You mention a few films, one under the radar is Patrick Swayze’s 1987 Steel Dawn, it’s worth an examanination.
Blade Runner (1982) & Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The granddaddy of dark future visions has to be 1982’s Blade Runner – a film whose influence on the genre was only appreciated years after its theatrical release. Philip K. Dick may have come up with the narrative of replicants that rebel against their human overlords, but director Ridley Scott laid down the template of how most subsequent science fiction films would view city life on future earth. It’s dark, grimy, polluted, advertising-saturated, and most importantly, despite the overcrowded conditions, remarkably isolating. Would these dystopian living conditions strip us of what it even means to be human, causing the “fake” humans, the replicants, to be “more human than human?”. I have to admit, I was skeptical that the planned sequel would be a worthy addition to what Scott started, despite his involvement as producer, but I was surprised at how well Blade Runner 2049 integrated into the world of the original and offered an updated take on its themes. Director Denis Villeneuve evokes Scott’s visual motif, without merely copying it or being cheaply referential. It is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve seen in years, and the Oscars for best special effects and especially Roger Deakin’s cinematography were well-earned. I would have liked to see the film also get nominated for Picture, Director, and Screenplay, as to-date it is the best film I’ve seen since 2017. The theme of what it means to be human is explored in more depth and context, as replicants and humans become even more interchangeable, and it is less clear who is “good” and “bad”. The story element of a virtual girlfriend, cleverly named Joi, that the protagonist clings to for comfort and emotional support is both unnerving and sad. Late in the film, we see an advertisement for “Joi”, and she is promised to be: “everything you want to see” and “everything you want to hear”. It is an eerie echo of today’s social media, avatars, and burgeoning virtual reality, which promise us comfort and companionship, but might actually be isolating us even further from one another.
DJ: All the films you picked I am lukewarm on as movies. I have not seen the new Blade Runner film yet. The original to me is good but it’s very murky to me and that may be the noirish feel to it. The concept of who is real and who is a replicant and how that would work in an overcrowded world is fascinating. In some ways it could be the result of the creations in Ex-Machina. Where some of these future films see an empty world Blade Runner chooses an overcrowded one which I find interesting.
Futuristic movies are barely ever hopeful. The great technological creation most often always goes wrong. The society is almost always run by crazed authoritarians. Half the time civilization has been wiped out and it’s bleak (see The Road). It really started in books – Brave New World, 1984, and the works of H.G.Wells and Jules Verne come to mind. A lot of these films come from these sources. There was certainly a lot of good choices, people are fascinated to ponder over what is coming for the world. There are serious thought pieces such as 2001 or one of the first ever the silent Metropolis to crazy over the top stuff like Freejack, the Book of Eli and Planet of the Apes. Some films like the Back to the Future series have predicted technology but, generally, films have predicted a quicker trip to the future than we have experienced. The Jetsons might have predicted Skype but I am still waiting for flying cars and cities in the clouds.
The Running Man (1987)
Coming up with my three I was amazed at how many futuristic films Arnold Schwarzenegger was part of – End of Days, Total Recall, the Terminator series, and The Running Man. The Running Man was a loose adaptation of a Stephen King story from 1982 that actually takes place in 2025. The film takes place between 2017 and 2019 which is perfect since that is basically our present. The future is bleak and hopeless. There is a financial collapse that turns the world into a dystopian future. The U.S. becomes a totalitarian state that censors the media. There are labor camps and the re-education of people. It’s dark and it certainly showcases what could happen in an economic collapse or even an electronic collapse that 1987 could not predict. The society is somewhat subdued by a game show that pits criminals against these celebrity gladiators where they try to win their freedom. The populace loves the show, eating up televised violence. It predicts reality TV and its effect on people. It shows a violent future. There is even “Fake News” in it when Richard Dawson’s villain Killian falsifies footage to fool the viewers into believing the narrative he wants them to see. The Hunger Games borrows from this film. The political landscape today makes me think what would happen if the world economy crapped out. In many ways, this film is more accurate about the future than others, at least in its themes of financial ruin and the opiate of reality television. Running Man is definitely over-the-top, with crazy characters, ridiculous dialogue and fun action sequences, but its look at the future was actually prescient. The government using the mass media to distract its people from reality is going on right now.
MG: I like your term “electronic collapse”, as we are so plugged-in now people would lose their minds even if Facebook just went out for a week. Running Man can be dismissed by some as a cheesy action film, which is it at times, but it is a great example of the Totalitarian Government solution, here cleverly in cahoots with a media conglomerate. When Killian barks “Get me the Justice Department!” on the phone, it’s similar to Robocop’s villain Dick Jones bragging about his company that “We practically ARE the military.”
Logan’s Run (1976)
Another film that came from a novel and was changed a bit, Logan’s Run takes place in 2274 in a decadent utopian society. What is left of human civilization live under domes, that resemble the malls of today, and is controlled by a large computer. The big caveat here is that to control the world’s resources and establish an equilibrium, life is exterminated when each person reaches thirty years of age. They have life clocks with a jewel embedded in the palm of their hand. There are Sandmen who are in charge of making sure no one runs away, called surprisingly “runners”, and to terminate those who run. Michael York’s character is a Sandman that based on a plot device (his life clock ends 4 years too early) decides to run. It’s a fascinating take because prior to turning thirty the society lives hedonistically with whatever the people desire. Imagine the world with only thirty-year-olds. There are robots, life clocks, and computers. Some of the special effects are dated and there is some silliness about this film but there is something deep here. What happens if the world was overpopulated? How did these people decide to control people this way and how do people acquiesce to allow themselves to be exterminated at thirty? This falls into the authoritarian view of the future where someone decides to set these rules and using technology can set out to put the plan into motion while getting buy-in from the populace. It’s theme revolves around young people use and mature people create, not sure if this was a stab at late 1960s youth culture. I do see this as a less realistic view than the Running Man unless of course there is something that wipes out civilization. It was a marvel at the time, winning a special Oscar for effects. This is a film that is ripe for a remake and has been talked about since the 1990’s. There was a limited TV Series made in 1977 which was canceled at the end of the first season.
MG: I’ve heard a lot about this film over the years, but never got around to seeing it. I can definitely see an HBO series out of this storyline, with the ability to go R-rating to effectively portray the hedonism. This would be a great way to avoid the albatross of Medicare costs. Even if we cut life off at fifty it would save hundreds of billions in medical costs.
Ex Machina (2014)
There was an immediate buzz when Ex-Machina stormed the independent film world in 2014. It had a Black Mirror vibe about it including starring Domhnall Gleeson who had appeared in both. The other fun fact is Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also appear together in the new Star Wars trilogy. This view of the future is very different from my other two selected films. The setting appears to be the very near future. Isaac is CEO/genius Nathan Bateman who’s company sponsors a lottery where the prize is a trip to Bateman’s secluded isolated place of work/laboratory. Gleeson is the winner and once there is told that Bateman has created a complete humanoid with Artificial Intelligence, Ava (Alicia Vikander, who wows in the role) and his task will be to communicate with “her” to see if she is able to think and achieve a certain level of consciousness. I won’t give away where this all goes but the ending does come to a shocking and thought-provoking conclusion. Like many films including the Terminator series, Steven Speilberg’s A.I. and 2001, Ex Machina asks what is our responsibility in creating this type of intelligence and where do we draw the line. In 2001 you see HAL take over the ship and make the decisions. In the real world, we now have self-driving cars, which in one case recently killed a pedestrian. Do we need to go further in this pursuit? Do I have to ask this question as I know we will regardless of consequence? This film may be the most unsettling and terrifying of my three because it’s the most capable of happening. Not just with the current technology but the film isn’t silly or over the top, it’s completely well-done in its realism. The perfect companion to this and maybe almost it’s prequel is HBO’s Westworld and it’s humanoid robots that start to become “aware”.
MG: On the subject of AI and it becoming “self aware”, I always think about the story of the Velveteen Rabbit, who pondered what it means to be real. I think the scariest part of AI is that it would exist without the immense flaws and weaknesses of human thinking. Human brains can rationalize anything – such as creating thousands of nuclear weapons that could destroy the earth many times over, under the reasoning of security. So while it seems like AI thinking would be an improvement, the scary part is if they determined we were inferior. I loved Ex Machina, by the way – a great script, excellent performances, and meticulous directing in creating the pacing and underlying feeling of dread. Also, if we empathize with the robots in Westworld, as I do, what does that say about us as viewers?