The future is so much more interesting in the past," mumbles Peter Stormare's black-market eye doctor in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi Minority Report. True enough.
Ever since Georges Méliès launched a rocket in his 1902 silent film A Trip To the Moon, filmmakers have tried to guess what's in store for future generations. From tech gadgets to artificial intelligence, machines ruling the planet, prediction and prophecy is all part of the game.
"All you can do is take your best guess," says Spielberg, who produced two of the more revered science fiction films – A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002) – and is currently completing work on a third, virtual-reality tale Ready Player One, out next month.
"We're lucky that we were right a lot of the time on Minority Report," he adds, "and only time will tell if we were right or not on Ready Player One."
Indeed, the Tom Cruise-led Minority Report might just be the most telling of Hollywood's recent sci-fi films. It is set in 2054 at a time when "precogs" – a trio of people with power to see into the future – are used to predict murders before they happen.
While that plot element was a Philip Dick-inspired fantasy, it’s the world built around it that was uncanny. While some things seem outmoded – like the clear-plastic discs used to store data – many of the innovations feel of-the-moment when watching it today.
The result of a three-day "think tank" that Spielberg held with 15 experts, Cruise's cop character John Anderton lives in a home controlled by voice-activation, and when he walks around the city, he's bothered by brand name adverts tailored specifically to him (we're not quite there yet, but both tech giants NEC and IBM are developing personalised billboards that use radio-frequency identification [RFID] technology). He also lives in a world of automated cars – another innovation that's being tested by manufacturers and will likely soon be part of our everyday lives.
Even the “swipe” methods he uses to scroll through his computer have seemingly arrived with the advent of tablets and smart-phones.
"I'm amazed that some of the things came around," Spielberg tells me. "I just wish when I thought up these ideas I had patented them so I could've made a gazillion dollars in the exploitation of the technology that we dreamed up that is now in all of our lives. I should've gotten patents first!"
Yet, not all the tech in future-set movies has aged as well. Take Ridley Scott's seminal Blade Runner (1982), another Dick adaptation that showed Los Angeles in 2019.
"There's not much in Blade Runner where you think that's come to pass," argues Richard Edwards, editor of SFX, Britain's leading science fiction/fantasy magazine. "Blade Runner is perhaps more influential to cinema than it is [to] real life, in predicting what we have."
While the film’s flying cars and the “Replicants”, or synthetic humanoids, are a long way off, there are other aspects we’ve left way behind, like the computer hardware on display. Yes, Harrison Ford’s detective uses voice-activated devices to hone in on an image he’s investigating, but the clunky VDUs with green text on the screen look ancient.
"They look so dated now," Edwards says. Filmmakers "underestimated how good our computers would be, [that] you could fit all this computing power in your pocket," he adds.
As mundane as this looks now, there can be no doubt about Blade Runner's influence – notably on building design.
"I got a call from a very big architect who said 'Would you come to the office on a Friday night because I always run Blade Runner for the chaps?'" says Scott, referring the British firm Rogers Stirk Harbour, led by Richard Rogers, whose work includes the Lloyd's Building in London, with its radical design featuring ducts and lifts on the building exterior. "You put the guts on the outside. And the guts can be beautiful."
Likewise, the costumes in the film became appropriated by fashion designers. "Charlie Knode, who did all my wardrobe [on the film]…Dolce & Gabbana were influenced at the start of their line by Charles' work," notes Scott, who also employed designer and artist Syd Mead, who later consulted on films such as James Cameron's Aliens and Tron.
Dubbed “the artist who illustrates the future”, the Minnesota-born Mead once said “I’ve called science fiction ‘reality ahead of schedule’”.
Yet sometimes that reality comes quicker than expected. In Lana and Lilly Wachowskis' ground-breaking The Matrix (1999), the future-set concept had humans enslaved by machines under the computer-generated illusion that they're living inside of in 1999. Meant to be the cutting-edge of civilisation in the film, this digital construct has quickly aged – from the box of mini-discs Keanu Reeves' hacker Neo rifles through to the Nokia 8110 phones used by the characters to communicate when they're inside the Matrix computer programme. What looked very futuristic and sexy at the time now seems a museum piece.
"Sci-fi dates probably quicker than any other piece than any other genre," says Danny Boyle, the British director who took on the future in Sunshine (2007), the story is set in the distant future and is about a team sent into space in the hope of reviving the dying sun. To prepare, he spent time re-watching Scott's Alien (1979), Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) – arguably the three greatest sci-fi films ever made – to learn from them. "That's how you create this sense of realism."
'I, Robot '
Ageing badly is definitely a hazard when it comes to making science fiction. Alex Proyas' I, Robot (2004) – which borrowed ideas and its title from the work of the great writer Isaac Asimov – set itself in 2035 in a world where robots walked amongst us, performing everyday tasks, from housekeeping to collecting trash. Again, like The Matrix, The Terminator and so many others, its central premise examines our innate fear of technology: that the creator can be usurped by the created.
I, Robot does contain some lovely moments – like the holographic police tape projected around the crime scene that Will Smith's detective character simply walks through. But the idea of domesticated machines is moving ever closer; at the recent CES tech show in Las Vegas, the arrival of the Aeolus robot – a machine that will mop floors, put away dishes and rearrange furniture – means that Proyas' movie no longer feels so exotic.
Of course, it's easy to forgive those sci-fi films that look obsolete years after their release. "The truth is, it's tough to make science fiction," notes Denis Villeneuve, the director of alien-landing tale Arrival (2016) and the long-awaited sequel to Scott's film, Blade Runner 2049.
"It's exhausting! I thought it would be like a game and it's a bit of a nightmare to create worlds. When you're making a movie about reality, you have something solid to put your feet on. But when you create everything, it's not easy!" Those that work well often take just a simple central idea that's not so far removed from the present-day. "A lot of the more-believable science fiction pushes the technology a little bit further and explores where it can go next," says Edwards.
One example would be Alex Garland's Ex_Machina (2014), the story of a Steve Jobs-like tech billionaire and his experiments with artificial intelligence (AI), resulting in the remarkably lifelike Ava (Alicia Vikander). Garland's story is largely set in our world, but has taken our fascination with AI to the logical extreme.
Likewise, Spike Jonze's Her (2013) is a near-future tale of a lonely writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for his computer's new female-voiced operating system, Samantha.
Again, it's a film of subtleties: like the video game Theodore plays. Projected into thin air and controlled with your hands, it was inspired by the current consoles, the Wii and the Xbox Kinect.
“I thought those were both pretty radical ideas when I saw them,” says Jonze, “and I think it’s only the tip of the surface in terms of where they’re going to go with video games.”
Spielberg's upcoming Ready Player One looks to further delve into the world of gaming. Partially set in a virtual reality world called Oasis, Spielberg is convinced VR is the next big thing.
“It may not happen as quickly as some of the companies are hoping [it] will happen, for commercial reasons, but I think virtual reality is going to be an art and I think it’s also going to be a science.
“You’ll see surgeons performing real-time surgery using virtual reality technology… I think there’s multiple applications for VR.” Let’s hope he’s patented the technology this time.