The Future Ain't What It Used To Be
As a SciFi fan, I've always been interested in near-future fiction because it's much more relatable to our experiences than far-future events like Star Trek. In the Star Trek Universe, society is far more humane, we travel to the stars in no time at all, and we no longer use money (except for Harry Mudd, who is always trying to get rich for some reason). This is all well and good, but give me some gritty near-future movies that show us as we might be in just a few years.
The problem with the near future is that it rapidly becomes now, and then near-past, and then history. No matter how hard they try, writers can't predict everything. Let’s explore a few of my favorite future histories that never came to be.
A good place to start would be the titles that actually name a date.
The famed dystopian novel by George Orwell, 1984 (published in 1948), has been made into a film twice, once in 1956 and then again, ironically enough, in 1984, when we already knew the future depicted didn't match…although Orwell's future may be closer to accurate now in 2020, in terms of the constant surveillance that’s now part of our everyday lives.
The 1975 series Space: 1999 predicted that we'd have a permanent moon base and that the moon would somehow be knocked out of orbit to fly off into distant space. I don’t always keep up with current events, but I think I would have remembered that happening.
2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, 2010, also posited moon bases, and artificial intelligence that far surpasses what we have in 2020, though ours is (currently) less murderous. I can't say whether any alien monoliths were discovered, because perhaps they kept it quiet.
Death Race 2000 showed the US economy collapsing in 1979, and of course the only thing to do was to create a televised cross-country race where the drivers get points for running down innocent bystanders. Sometimes traffic is pretty bad, but I don't think we're there yet.
2012: The Mayan calendar ends, so therefore the world does too? Nope.
Let's get into some of the others. It being 2020, we recently surpassed BladeRunner, which takes place in November 2019. Replicants, flying cars, space colonies, rainy Los Angeles... it missed the mark on most accounts.
On the other hand, Idiocracy, the 2006 film set in 2505, seems to have hit closer to home. Screenwriter Ethan Cohen once commented, "I'm no prophet, I was off by 490 years."
Running Man (1987) captured the feel of some game shows and “reality" TV pretty on target in their 2019 future, as well as their "Infonet." I guess a hat tip is due to Rollerball (1975) for their 2018 future too, with its killer sports and politics that inspired Running Man.
In the Terminator franchise ('84,'91,'03,'09,'15,'19), the AI that takes over the world, Skynet, goes online on August 4, 1997, causing a robot uprising some time in our future and sending robots (Terminators) back in time to destroy human resistance before it happens… the timeline gets confusing because there's a lot of time travel, so maybe by the time they finish the franchise, Skynet will have never gone online.
Speaking of time travel, we have to talk about the Back To The Future movies ('85, '89, '90) that mostly happen in their reality's past and really mess with cause and effect in their current year of 1985. However, there are some future scenes, and the furthest forward their time travel takes them is to a couple versions of October 2015. One of the futures is familiar except for flying cars, cheap fusion, clothes that self-altering for fit, and hoverboards (miss, miss, miss, and miss). The writers admit their misses here: “We don’t have Jaws 19, but we have Sharknado 3.”
The other October 2015 future has Biff Tannen in charge: an inexplicably rich, petty, completely loathsome, twice-divorced casino owner who treats women like trash. Hmm…sounds a little bit familiar. Luckily, Marty McFly is able to go back and fix that future. But let's get out of time travel now, because it's too confusing to figure out which future is which.
The 1981 flick Escape from New York is set in 1997, when New York City has been transformed into a maximum security prison due to a mega crime wave in 1988. Our hero, Snake Plissken, (looking fantastic in his zipper shouldered tank top and eyepatch BTW), has to rescue the President of the United States, after a plane crash landed him in the middle of NYC. Crime has been steadily decreasing in New York since the late 80s…so….close, but no cigar.
I Am Legend is a novel published in 1954, about the lonely only human survivor of a worldwide pandemic. It’s had a few different film incarnations and future dates: in 1964 it was released as the film The Last Man on Earth set in 1968, in 1971 as The Omega Man set in 1977, and in 2007 as I Am Legend set in 2009-12. I guess they'll keep trying until they get it right and the world is actually populated by vampires/zombies/revenants and one very lonely person.
On The Beach, originally published as a novel in 1957, predicted the nuclear destruction of the Northern Hemisphere in 1963. A film from 1959 set the nuclear destruction in 1964, and a 2000 film pushed the future forward again to 2007. In any case, Australia was the place to be.
As time moves on, we’ll move past more and more possible futures. Johnny Mnemonic, for one, takes place next year in 2021, but we already have keychain thumb drives that will hold more data than Keanu Reeve's entire skull, so I think it’s fair to say that we’ve passed that future too.
All I know is that I can't wait for 2062—the year when The Jetsons is set. I'm sure the reason their buildings are all in the sky and you never see the ground has nothing to do with sea levels rising. And I can't wait to get a robot housekeeper like Rosie: our Roomba never does the dishes.
Want to explore more possible futures past? There are hundreds more out there to enjoy. Wikipedia has a great list at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stories_set_in_a_future_now_past