The future is scary. And exciting! But most importantly: it’s unpredictable. But we still like to try, which is why Conan O’Brien’s “In The Year 2000” sketch is still funny and relatable almost 20 years after it became redundant.
But if the role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020 taught me anything, it’s that isn’t the future supposed to feel different? Where’re our flying cars? Robot workers? Teleportation? And while Back to the Future Part II did get some things right like video phone’s, flat screens, and our continued love of never-ending sequels it doesn’t really feel like the future, right?
But that’s what we are in, relatively speaking. It’s just not the one we had imagined that movies had promised us. And in the last 15 years, coinciding with the lightning fast technological progress we’ve had in the Internet age, we’ve seen our science fiction attempting to reckon with that.
While the re-ignited interest in horror allows us to further explore age-old fears as they relate to modern-day anxieties, is science fiction now allowing us to tangibly reckon with the technological progress we’ve made? Or perhaps simply science fiction is becoming a more grounded genre as we see our real world begin to reflect these stories in ways that aren’t just merely theoretical anymore. These films take high concepts and place them just right outside the door of our perceivable reality. Sci-fi has always been about looking into our future, but these stories are about futures that look more like our present than ever before.
By looking at the last 15 years of science fiction films, we can see storytellers attempting to reckon with our rapidly futuristic society and what that means for the realities of our possible near-future.
To be that guy: Primer is the perfect primer for this new era of science fiction. Directed by genre wunderkind Shane Carruth it’s not the heady science behind the fiction at the heart of the film that drives my point, despite the science being conceivably accurate and impossible to follow, but rather stylistically in how he chose to tell this story. The film has a very lo-fi feel, being shot for $7,000 in and around the bland, corporate facade of the Dallas tech scene post the dot-com bubble burst. This mundanity is perfectly juxtaposed with the innumerable imaginative limits of time travel.
Using the stereotypical image of two engineers in their garage changing the world, paralleling Apple and Microsoft’s origin stories, Carruth casually makes the point that we may have already created inventions of the future, today. But because of lack of research, development, funding, or perhaps a future double of yourself trying to kill you, they get lost in suburbia.
District 9 (2009)
We may not have discovered the prototypical cinematic extraterrestrial, but there is enough evidence supported by space exploration to prove that something is out there. And what would they do if they finally found themselves on our front door, shockingly looking for help? More than likely the world powers would do to them what we’ve done to migrant families at the border of Mexico: put them behind chain-link fences.
The modern-day connotations of District 9 may be the most chilling of the past decade. And while it may not be humanity that’s in turmoil in District 9, it’s the fact that most likely today’s world leaders would greet alien life, not with empathy but violent fear. And that’s truly heartbreaking.
Everyone always says that as you grow older, it becomes harder and harder to make friends and keep them. We’re always searching for a lasting relationship that reminds us of how bright we burned when we were younger, and at the heart of Her is a man wanting the same. But as he loses the love of his life he gains another in the form of OS1, an operating system that takes on the name Samantha. She’s an intuitive AI that grows with every conversation she has with Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore.
While we may not have this level of AI, with the rise of personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, a world where Samantha exists is less a matter of if but rather now when. And I think the moral take away from Spike Jonze’s quasi-sci-fi-rom-com is that even with technology being more powerful and futuristic than ever before, we will still yearn for what possibly makes us the most human of all: our desire for emotional connection.
Pixar’s WALL-E is often disregarded in the sci-fi lexicon because it’s nestled compactly, like the titular robots recycling squares, in the family-friendly Pixar movie. But like any great Pixar film, the movie has far more depth to it than mere emotional intelligence. The film is about the loneliness of the future, the ennui of thinking of life after us, and again, like Her, that which makes us human is our desire for emotional connection. And while the film does predict the negative health impacts of screen addiction, just one year after the introduction of the first iPhone, the hopeful message of WALL-E is that no matter how many centuries in the future we are we won’t lose the indelible need to nurture and empathetically grow. Let’s just keep crossing our fingers for that Pizza Tree.
It’s safe to say that in the 21st century we’ve never seen the cult of personality so widespread. People don’t just look up to movie stars, athletes and politicians anymore. With YouTube celebrities and other social media sensations, fans have new ways to feel personally in touch with those they admire. They want to wear their same clothes, eat at the same restaurants, have the same technologies and, in the case of Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral, perhaps even have the same diseases.
Science Fiction always asks the question about what happens to a society when technology goes one step too far. But if we live in a world where people will get plastic surgery to look like everything from Justin Bieber to a Barbie Doll, who’s to say that we aren’t already living in a world that would want to have the sickness and diseases of the rich and famous?
With Upgrade Leigh Whannell has given us a perfect symmetry of predictive realism and high concept genre storytelling, leaving us with a film that feels, potentially, possible. Not the part where a high tech AI can control our motor functions and talk to us in our heads, but rather the part where a deep class divide exists between the have’s and have not’s, a world where we could have futuristic self-driving cars while also driving next to that shitty paint-chipped hatchback you got in college.
It just makes sense that the upper echelon 1% would have self-driving cars first, and be just as insufferable as anyone is with a Tesla today. Whannell shines a spotlight on this idea again when he juxtaposes Grey’s (Logan Marshall-Green) high tech wheelchair next to the old analog chair outside of the Old Bones Bar. In the future that was promised, everyone had access to technology. But in reality, corporate technology will possibly only divide us further.
Ex Machina (2014)
The tech that’s at the heart of Ex Machina, the intuitive AI that helps Ava learn, is closer to fact than fiction than ever before. But what makes Alex Garland’s film so chilling isn’t necessarily the fact that our AI’s could turn against their human creators and kill us all, Skynet style. It’s rather that with intuitive intelligence, a machine would learn that it is a captor or being abused by its human creator.
If we are imbuing them with the ability not only to learn what it’s like to be human but learn actually to be human, then we as a society must learn to treat them with humanity. And that means not gaslighting them into submission behind locked glass walls. And with the first sex doll brothel opening in Toronto, when we inevitably get closer to sexualized AI, we need to consider how we will police abuse of man-made sentient artificial intelligence.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, visionary director of Gattaca, Anon shows that Niccol has still got it when it comes to speculative science fiction that’s heavily influenced by the world around us. But rather than a murder mystery about the dystopian concept of advanced genetics, Anon feels even more universal.
In a futuristic New York City where privacy is a thing of the past, you can know everything about a person just by passing them on a sidewalk. From their age to their job, conversations they’re having, even the music they are listening to are all available instantly thanks to a HUD display the world is connected to. But even though we may not get it beamed directly into our eyes, with our digital footprint, with just a name or a Twitter handle, our present life is there for anyone to see. Our past and present are just one Google search away.
Beyond this, the film is notable for feeling very much like a sci-fi giallo. While it does lack some of the Italian genres more recognizable trademarks, it does have a surprising amount of random boobs and sex while also having a masterful giallo-esque gimmick: the murderer is a black-gloved gunman who hacks into their victim’s point of view so they can watch their own murder.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Even with the most cutting-edge and advanced technology, even if we are fighting a race of crazy insectoid creatures from another star system, even if we know that once we die, we’ll just reboot and get a second chance to take down the enemy: war is hell. And the fundamentals of war will never change. Like all war films, this is ultimately the emotional core of Live Die Repeat (or The Edge of Tomorrow depending on what producer you speak to), but disregarding the alien species and Tom Cruise Groundhog Day-ing all over the battlefield, it’s the cyber suits that are the most indicative of modern times. From helping paraplegics walk again, to lifting heavy machinery it’s just a matter of time before they are lightweight enough to be used tactically and, as if it wasn’t obvious, eventually weaponized.
Corporations being the worst and latently controlling us isn’t news. You just have to look online after any Apple Press event to realize this. The moment a new iPhone is announced, we socially salivate until we get what we desire. But what if we don’t desire this, but rather we are the products of that desire? That, ultimately, is the key question that 2012’s Branded raises.
We already know what happens when corporations have no oversight, it’s what led to highly publicized scandals like Enron, internet throttling in a post-Net Neutrality world, and pharmaceutical corporations mass marketing highly addictive drugs that kill. But what if these brands could fight each other, Pokemon-style? That’s where the fun of Branded comes in, despite the bait-and-switch advertising that we were going to be exposed to a 21st century They Live. The film is wildly hyperbolic and toes the edge of incomprehensible once too often, but that’s just part of its bizarre charm.