What Can We Learn From Bad Futurism?

Lately I’ve been on a nostalgia deep dive, specifically hunting down the sources in film and television of half-remembered imagery from my childhood. I was raised on Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein et. al. so my interests were narrow in scope, 90% of the media I consumed was science fiction.

The most interesting thing about science fiction films, to me, wasn’t the space travel or other fantastical elements. It was the background details from scenes set on Earth. Visual worldbuilding found in advertisements, news broadcasts and other delivery vectors for dropping hints with tantalizing implications.

Images from Back to the Future 2, Amblin Entertainment

Hill Valley is a good example of well done visual world building, with basically every detail in every scene making some sort of implicit prediction about what the year 2015 would hold. Yet at the same time it’s terrible futurism: Nothing fundamentally changes, the buildings aren’t replaced, just covered in tacked-on quasi futuristic greebling.

Arguably this was necessary because they didn’t want to have to build two completely different Hill Valley sets for the present and future, but perhaps because of its influence on other depictions of the future in fiction, I’ve seen a great many more fictional futures in films from that era which don’t have that excuse.

Besides the architecture, the fashion is basically just what was already popular in the 1980s, but turned up to 11. This is another error of cinematic futurism, wherein the future is just an exaggerated caricature of the present. The “What we have now but more of it” future. I’d compare this to how Jules Verne’s idea of an aircraft was just a boat with a gas bag and propellers.

Images from Total Recall, TriStar Pictures

Total Recall does a considerably better job simply by doing less. The future here is understated, as it is in reality: Major infrastructure is too expensive to replace frequently without good reasons to do so. Consequently buildings, highways, bridges and so on look modern but mundane, while the interiors are where the futurism can be seen.

Fashion is different, interior decor is different, vehicles are different (though a misguided prediction that the ultra boxy automotive design of the 80s would make a comeback, Cybertruck notwithstanding) and computers can be seen in public, having permeated every facet of day to day life.

This is a surprisingly sober vision of the future with some grounding in the economic reality that cities are generally not rebuilt every ten years just to aesthetically modernize. However, people buy new cars and gadgets all the time; the cheaper things are to replace, the faster they modernize.

Images from Earth Star Voyager, Disney

Earth Star Voyager is one of those half-remembered visions of tomorrow I glimpsed as a wee nerdling, unsure as I aged whether it was from any actual film or just a fever dream. It’s sort of half way between Back to the Future 2’s Hill Valley and Total Recall: Much is recognizable, but it resembles a theme park more than a functional city (because it is: This scene was shot in Disney World, hence the monorail).

Even so, some of the implications were spot on. An alarm sounds at one point warning everyone outside to put on raincoats, on account of imminent acid raid. Poor O2 levels due to destroyed rainforests mean elderly pedestrians must at times seek refuge at a public oxygen station. Not exactly the problems we face today, but a mostly correct portent of looming environmental catastrophe.

Of particular note is a scene in a restaurant wherein ordering is done on a computerized kiosk, today a reality in many fast food franchises. Food is also delivered robotically to your table via concealed conveyors of some sort. A restaurant with a system like this factually does exist today in Shenzhen, but nowhere in the US to my knowledge.

Images from Blade Runner, Warner Brothers

You’d think Blade Runner would earn high marks, as it doesn’t commit the “no old buildings” sin. Indeed there’s a mixture of the old and the new, which also doubles as a visible indication of wealth inequality, often conspicuously absent in “everybody is upper middle class” futures. However, it goes all the way in the opposite direction from Total Recall’s minimalistic futurism.

Everything here is an overblown extrapolation from the economic and social conditions of the 1980s. Japan was in the middle of an economic miracle at that time, buying up a lot of US property. It was imagined then that the future of the United States would be much more prominently Japanese than it wound up being.

The trend towards taller skyscrapers was taken to an absurd extreme without any sort of economic rationale behind it, once again because this is a “more and bigger” future but of the dystopian variety. Still more recognizable when compared to our present than, say, Hill Valley. Having said that, flying cars fill the sky, yet nobody has a cell phone?

Images from Logan’s Run, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer

Likewise you’d think Logan’s Run would score poorly. Every building looks new. Every building shares the same unified design aesthetic. There is no visible wealth inequality, and fashion is just an extrapolation of what was popular in the 1970s, when the film was made.

However Logan’s Run narrowly escapes absurdity by building a completely proprietary civilization in a dome, rather than trying to depict what cities would organically turn into over time. The Logan’s Run domed city is essentially an experimental human habitat designed to sustain a human population within, at a forever fixed population cap.

Perfect sustainability in a domed environment? Certainly a product of the same decade which gave us the ill fated Bio Dome experiments. But because it’s so far abstracted from anything recognizable, and nothing is contrasted against anything topical or mundane, it still looks futuristic today.

This seems to suggest that you can avoid running afoul of the tropes I’ve listed by doubling down on all of them at once, as hard as possible: If your future city looks nothing like a city, and everything in it is bespoke, who can say it’s wrong?

Then again, futurism has a causal relationship with real world fashion and architectural trends. Idealized visions of tomorrow often read to designers like a public wishlist of what we’d like to see the world become.

Consequently many technologies first seen in science fiction are now realities (sometimes even matching the predicted form factor, like flip phones and Star Trek TOS communicators) while there art parts of Dubai and China that don’t look too far off from the city in Logan’s Run, or LA in Blade Runner, respectively:

Images of Dubai and Shenzhen

I would like to believe studying what these visions of tomorrow got wrong has cured me of the naivete responsible for their many errors. But probably the directors of these films thought the same thing. What is futurism but commentary on the present, through a lens of exaggeration and extrapolation?

Much of what distinguishes our present most noticeably from the past was impossible to predict, as evidenced by the absence of cell phones in Blade Runner. None of these futures have anything like social media (at least not that we see, though Logan’s Run has an implied Tinder equivalent) because it’s the big, flashy differences the writers were focused on rather than the finer details of how life might change for average people.

The best futurism, then, takes a “less is more” approach to the broad strokes of what population centers look like, what transportation looks like and so on, while focusing instead on the minutae of every day life and the social ramifications of new technologies, rather than technological and architectural pornography with people being little more than props to sell the scenery.

How would you rate the futurism of Altered Carbon in light of all this? Black Mirror? Westworld? Have I changed how you think about architectural futurism? Futurist fashion? Social futurism? For all the technical details that 2001: A Space Odyssey nailed, men were still suit wearing breadwinners and women were seen mainly in servile roles, like the spaceliner stewardess.

Much in the same way that municipal planners don’t typically modernize every building at once, futurist methodology in film and television is improving, but not evenly. Even today many obsolete, cringeworthy tropes continue to be seen in prominent high budget projects. At the same time, even indie filmmakers working with a shoestring budget have shown a capacity to avoid these pitfalls in short films from their portfolios I’ve seen on Youtube.

With the visual effects tools available to home users today, budgetary concerns are no longer the principle barrier, especially when the most well conceived futures don’t visibly differ all that much from the present. The barriers are conceptual, problems of imagination. Too much in some areas, too little in others, a problem best remedied by talking about it until the squeaky wheel has at last been properly greased.

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