As you already know, 2015 is the year that Doc and Marty traveled to in Back to the Future Part II. You know this because it’s a great movie, you love rehydrated pizza, and because the internet will not let you forget it.
The constant renewal, not just of the movie, but of the technology from its version of the future is understandable. Retro-futurism is fun, and it plays to a harmless brand of narcissism. It’s us they’re talking about. We get to marvel at how wrong they were, how goofy their predictions.
As a comedy, BTTFII fits that bill completely. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale weren’t doing serious prognostication – they were trying to make an audience in 1989 laugh, which is why most of their vision for 2015 is of 1989 on growth hormones. The color-burst clothing, the 19th incarnation of Jaws, Marty getting fired by, not one, but by every fax machine in the house.
There’s a sense of familiarity there in the far-flung future (fax machines! What is this, Japan?!). It’s a type of future meant to comment on the present – in this case, the 1980s – so you get cosmetic changes like power laces, big ideas applied to commercial uses like the hoverboard, and the rare element like wearable tech that hits the mark. Still, the ultimate gag here is that BTTFII’s 2015 looks like a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Not every past vision for 2015 is the same. There aren’t a lot of movies set in our year, but the few that do offer a range of different underlying philosophies when dealing with the future we’re now living through.
In The 6th Day, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Adam Gibson, a man who appreciates the old-fashioned way of life. He likes his bananas banana-flavored, his Cadillacs from the 1950s and his pets not cloned copies of previously living pets. The film is a clunky action piece from 2000 by way of 1991. If you saw it, you’d instantly think it was the product of the director who made Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Tomorrow Never Dies working together. Then you’d discover that those are the same director and nothing would ever surprise you again.
It was the last big picture from Roger Spottiswoode, and it goes skin deep on the question of human cloning by telling the story of a family man being cloned against his will teaming up with that clone to bring down the industrialist who did the cloning. It’s appropriately stupid, but while it features a clumsy amount of moronic “advancements” like nacho-flavored bananas and the XFL being the country’s most popular sport (with a quarterback who makes $300m a year), it also takes tech seriously enough to include self-driving cars and a refrigerator that orders milk for you.
Even with the benefit of being 11 years closer to the target than BTTFII, it still had an awful lot of video phones, which used to be a dependable retro-futurism laughing stock until Skype and FaceTime really hit big. (I still miss rotary dials with screens on them.)
The core question of the plot exists solely for Schwarzenegger to blow things up, but cloning was a serious topic of conversation in 2000, only 3 years after Dolly the sheep was cloned and almost a half century since the first animal was duplicated, and it continues in important circles today in anticipation of a future where it would be a serious possibility.
The crowds protesting both for and against human cloning (which has been explicitly outlawed in the film) are set dressing, but the bad guy of the movie also gets a few jabs in when he rhetorically asks why we have to tell some parents that their child can be saved and tell others that their child will die. For the most part, The 6th Day’s vision of 2015 is nearly identical to 2000 except for the existence of human cloning and some wacky side details to fill out the universe. Why a quarterback would need a heads up display in his helmet to tell him when a blitz coming, I’ll never know.
Ultimately, The 6th Day was a case of taking a present concern and using sci-fi to address a possible world where that concern comes to pass.
Moving on to a darker future, 2006’s V For Vendetta also has something brief but vital to say about 2015. The bulk of the movie’s state-controlled dystopia exists in a vague future where no television news broadcast includes the year in the date on its chyron, but 2015 is the year that Valerie – a cell mate with V at a special, experimental prison camp – starred in her first movie, The Salt Flats. It’s her story, written on toilet paper, that drives V’s need for revenge and his need to decorate a shrine with Scarlet Carson roses.
Seemingly arbitrary, and different from the comics, it’s still a detail that reveals the 2006 movie actually envisioned a totalitarian destruction of freedom whose seeds were only planted a decade after its release. We’re in 2006, everything is sunshine and roses for Valerie in 2015, and only a few years later, we’re watching 1984.
The only foundation for the rise of the state in Britain is that “America’s war” (presumably the real-world Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) had worsened and the effects had hit Britain hard. We’re left with indefinite images of terrorism and religious extremism and otherness and curfews and black bags. Again, this is the case of a genuine fear finding its way into fiction.
A tiny detail shoved into an important chapter of the movie, the 2015 release date for The Salt Flats sends a message that extremism in government can manifest itself within a shockingly short amount of time. Thus, the most affecting and startling thing about the horrifying future in V For Vendetta is that it looks almost exactly like the present. It doesn’t portray a sci-fi wonderland; it shows us our own time with a different date stamped on it.
On the smaller side, there’s freedom-loving Firebird 2015AD from 1981 which sees a 2015 where vehicles have been outlawed by the government to save precious fossil fuels. Fortunately, delightful renegades refuse to stop bravely driving around.
The appropriately forgotten 1995 action film Memory Run toys with a world somewhere in between V and The 6th Day. It’s an Escape From New York wannabe that presents Karen Duffy fighting against Big Brother and a soft sci-fi invention that keeps the lucky in a dreamlike Heaven and the unfortunates in an impoverished Hell by way of, you know, science. Even as terrible as it is, it used the “20 years from now” principle which comes with a baked-in message: if you think this potential future is far off, check your calendar.
Although it’s not a movie, Neon Genesis Evangelion also came out in 1995 (or 2139 in Japanese years) and presents a 2015 where humanity has to deal with giant monsters. The major tech advancement is a suit that can be piloted to battle them (after the first episode shows us that conventional weapons that look a lot like nukes don’t even make a dent), but otherwise the world looks wonderfully familiar. Again, 20 years seems to be a strong metric for the ordinary and the extraordinary living together believably.
Obviously the proliferation of the vision for 2015 in BTTFII versus these other films is partially due to it being a significantly more popular and enduring film. Its tiny pizza-ed future was aimed at an audience in 1989 that made those fixtures into icons. However, it’s still interesting to see what other movies have predicted for us, specifically because it often reveals what we used to be afraid of and what we still fear. Many of these movies (and the one TV show) feature a future where one major technological development colors the age – that’s a storytelling necessity. Science seems to deliver a lot of trivial, nacho-flavored nonsense alongside a massive, life-altering machine that drives a plot that explores what we imagine we’ll need to face a changing world. Something to consider while we’re wearing two neckties and wearing the Nikes of the future.