What does the future look like to Hollywood?

Story highlights

  • Many movies have tried to predict the future -- and some of their futures are within our lifetimes
  • Often, movie futures picture dystopias based on current problems

(CNN)"Back to the Future" Day is gone, now part of the past. But over the years, Hollywood has provided plenty of other glimpses of days to come.

Some of those too have already receded. "2001" is gone, and so are Pan Am and the USSR, both of which played a role in the 1968 film. "Futureworld's" 1985 didn't look much like our 1985. The maximum-security 1997 Manhattan of "Escape from New York" was, in reality, only a jail if you were stuck paying $3,000 a month for a dim basement studio apartment.
    There's a good reason for that: Movies set in the future usually are examinations of the present. "Soylent Green," for example, came out at a time when overpopulation -- expressed in books such as Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" -- was a bigger concern than it is now.
    "2001" is a rare exception; co-scriptwriter Arthur C. Clarke was a scientist and futurist who paid close attention to innovations and developments.
    Aside from "Back to the Future Part II," there are a number of movies set within our possible lifetimes, barring a cataclysmic event that wipes out life on Earth, anyway. (Hollywood has that covered, too.) The futures they suggest may be nothing like reality -- or maybe their reality is already here:
    Movie: "Rollerball" (1975)
    Year portrayed: 2018
    What does the world look like? Very corporate -- literally. The world has been taken over by corporations, which have eliminated war and established a sleek utopia. Books have been put into computer banks. (In fact, there's a master "Computer Zero" that's the "world's brain.") Humanity's violent impulses are channeled into rollerball, a violent sport that's part roller derby, part gladitorial combat.
    Will it happen? Not likely. Sure, multinationals are already both expansive and influential, and we do worry about violence in sports. We have a "world's brain" called the Internet, and we have easier access to it than James Caan's Jonathan E. did.
    However, there is no real-life rollerball, the world is still full of nation-states roiled by war, and Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in A minor" is no more ubiquitous than it ever was. Also, about the only place you'll find "Rollerball's" distinctive computeresque font is in "Rollerball."
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    Movie: "Blade Runner" (1982)
    Year portrayed: 2019
    What does the world look like? Wet. Cramped. Asian-inflected, full of flying cars and building-sized video advertisements. And it appears that four Replicants -- powerful androids almost indistinguishable from humans in many respects -- have returned to Earth from "off-world." It's the job of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to "retire" them.
    Will it happen? Doubtful. Today's Los Angeles is much more appealing than its dank portrayal in the movie. (Of course, "Blade Runner" is, essentially, a film noir set in the future, right down to the 1940s-looking fashions. Film noir loves the dark.) We have the giant ads, but we don't have Replicants, flying cars or off-world colonies -- though the first two may be closer than we think.
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    Movie: "Soylent Green" (1973)
    Year portrayed: 2022
    What does the world look like? Well, there are 40 million people in New York, for one, so pretty crowded. All the problems of population growth have come home to roost: Unemployment is high, shelter is poor, and food is hard to come by. Also, it's hot, and the air is polluted. If you're rich, of course, it's not so bad.
    Will it happen? Not that quickly. New York isn't going to gain 30 million people in the next seven years, and barring a horrific event, 2022 will probably look a lot like 2015.
    On the other hand, the movie's divide between rich and poor is a major issue of today (New York is no exception), infrastructure is wanting, and even if global climate change doesn't make every day like an August scorcher, it will certainly have an impact.
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    Movie: "Demolition Man" (1993)
    Year portrayed: 2032
    What does the world look like? Sleek and crimeless -- until Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) escapes from his cryogenic prison. The major cities of Southern California have merged, prompted by a giant earthquake, and Taco Bell is the only restaurant left, a survivor of the "franchise wars."
    Will it happen? You never know about earthquakes, but "San Angeles"? Probably not. And Taco Bell got nice product placement, but fast-food chains aren't going anywhere. However, advances continue to be made in cryogenics.
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    Movie: "Minority Report" (2002)
    Year portrayed: 2054
    What does the world look like? Crime is almost nonexistent, thanks to "pre-cogs," humans with mutant extrasensory abilities who can predict the future. Driverless cars glide on highways and buildings right up to people's apartments; retina scanners confirm identifications. And everywhere there are ads, ads, ads, many personalized to passing individuals.
    Will it happen? To a great extent, yes. Steven Spielberg hired actual futurists to predict the world of the mid-21st century, and his production designer, Alex McDowell, maintained a "2054 bible" based on their thoughts.
    Many of the predictions are on the verge of coming true, if they haven't yet. The Internet already bombards us with personal ads based on our browsing habits; it's a short step from that to being bombarded within a shopping mall, as in the movie. Electronic paper continues to evolve. Robotic insects exist. Even predictive crime-fighting -- using statistics, not clairvoyants -- is progressing.
    We still have to wait for sick sticks, though. Which is better than eating soylent green.