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Cinema Updated: 02 Nov 2018

Dictators, androids and natural disasters: the world of today, as seen in futuristic films

The Italian director Ettore Scola once said that movies are a painted mirror. Dramas, comedies and adventures of all kinds have been presented on the big screen for decades. But the imagination of film directors when creating science fiction has taken them even further, to a once-distant future that we’ve finally reached. Many screenplays were written about the present we now live in, but how accurate were their predictions?

A large part of the technologies that filmmakers imagined are already a reality. However, they are still light years away from the collective imagination of the cinema. As cosmologist Martin Rees says, “We should be open to transformative advances that today may seem like science fiction.” In the book, The Next Step: Exponential Life, which can be downloaded for free at the website of the BBVA OpenMind Project, numerous authors have addressed topics such as artificial intelligence, interstellar travel or climate change, all of which are a part of the stock-in-trade of futuristic films.

Many directors and screenwriters predicted our present as a future without freedom.  Wars and domestic tensions around the world would give rise to totalitarian governments disposed to dictate everything, including what people could see and read. Such is the case of Fahrenheit 451. In 1966, Francois Trauffaut directed this film based on the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name. According to the story, in the early 21st Century, society would be ruled by authorities so concerned about protecting peoples’ happiness that they kept the populace ignorant by burning books.

Culture as a form of control is part of the police state depicted in The Running Man (1987). In this film, political leaders in the years 2017-2019 make use of a sadistic reality show to keep the population entertained and distracted. Paul Michael Glaser directed this vision of a dystopian society on The Fugitive, a science fiction novel by Stephen King that envisions a world in crisis and dominated by violence.

As far back as 1927, Fritz Lang envisioned a 21st Century in which the divide between the classes grew ever wider. In his film Metropolis, the rule that “the ones below work for the ones above,” is taken to extremes. The earth’s surface is occupied by the wealthy, while the workers live below the ground, producing to maintain the lifestyle of the privileged class.

It´s tough to live in fear, isn´t it? That’s what it means to be a slave" (Blade Runner)

Some elements are common to all futuristic films: flying cars, robots walking the streets and omnispresent technology. Nor is there much optimism about technological development; technophobia is typical of futuristic cinema, and the fear that machines will dethrone humans as the masters of the earth has been projected constantly on the big screen. In Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott shows us a 2019 in which androids are persecuted and banished after mounting a rebellion against the human race. On the other hand, in Matrix (1999) directed by the Wachowski brothers, artifical intelligence has won the day, subduing humans in order to use them as an energy source.

Technology as an ally

However, technology shows itself to be a valuable ally against other threats, such as occurs in Pacific Rim (2013). Apparently director Stephen DeKnight believed that by 2020, there would be a three-dimensional gate through which some colossal monsters would reach the Earth.  In this film, machine and man fight side-by-side to save the world.

cartel metropolis BBVA

'Metrópolis' (1927) directed by Fritz Lang.

Global warming and its effects have been the cause of major catastrophes in recent years. The planet has weathered powerful earthquakes such as those that shook Italy and Mexico, devastating floods in Asia and intense hurricanes throughout the American continent.

These continual wake-up calls from nature augur a discouraging future.  Fortunately,  they are still not as bad as the one envisioned by Michael Bay in The Isand (2005). The fiilmmaker places the viewer in a present where, due to an ecological disaster, the Earth is uninhabitable. The survivors live in concentration camps, protected from pollution, but under constant surveilance, and dream about reaching “the island,” a utopia where nature survives unscathed.

But not all evils stem from climate change. In the movies, technological progress brings with it new illnesses. Johnny Mnemonic (1995) takes the viewer to the year 2021, when electronic information is transferred via a device installed in the brain. The overload of data produces an infection known as “Black Tremor syndrome.” This man-machine symbiosis is not yet a reality, but visionaries such as Elon Musk consider it essential so that man can maintain his relevance in the face of the rollout of artificial intelligence.

 I just want to live. How doesn´t matter” (The Island)

As for space travel, the cinema has always been more optimistic than science itself. Several experts, among them Stephen Hawkings, propose returning to the moon in less than three years and landing on Mars in 2025. Brian de Palma was five years ahead of these predictions in his film Mission to Mars (2000). The filmmaker predicted that 2020 will be the year in which the first manned spaceship reaches the red planet, although with catastrophic results.

Timo Vuorensola goes a step further in Iron Sky (2012). With a humoristic approach, it shows how at the end of World War II, the Nazis developed the technology necessary to flee the Earth and hide on the dark side of the moon. And in 2016, they decide to return to Earth to seek vengeance.

Fortunately, the present envisioned by these filmmakers bears little resemblance to the one we live in. At least for now, cars, don´t fly and we’re not slaves of the androids. Mars has yet to see human footprints and humans themselves are the only threat to the stability of the planet. The future, as seen in these films, remains at the cinema: the prediction is still just fiction.