As one commentator put it: “The future is now.”
Even though the movie probably got more wrong than right when it was released in 1982, it portrayed a vision of the future that seemed plausible back then and resonated with audiences.
It still does today.
OK, maybe we are nowhere near having robots that are indistinguishable from humans — and there is no way people could smoke as freely and constantly in the real Los Angeles of 2019 as they do in Ridley Scott’s film — but there still appears to be something eerily prescient and familiar about the neon universe he created.
Now that we are living in a post-Blade-Runner era, it’s worth noting that the coming decade was singled out as a pivotal period by various science-fiction writers and futurologists.
As we get the 2020s under way, here’s a quick dive into what some forward-looking thinkers in the past thought the coming decade would look like.
Children Of Men
Alfonso Cuaron’s hard-hitting 2006 adaptation of P.D. James’ 1992 novel was an instant hit with critics, and it is still regularly included on lists of the best movies made this century. Left-wing Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has even gone so far as to suggest it perfectly captures “the ideological despair of late capitalism”:
Set in 2027, Children Of Men creates a near future in which years of infertility have left society on the verge of collapse. Notwithstanding the current crisis in male fertility rates, this central premise seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but the turbulent world it portrayed was perturbingly plausible.
Nowadays, Children Of Men actually seems frighteningly familiar and its depictions of factory farming, terrorist attacks as a routine fact of life, and grim migrant camps with terrible conditions don’t look that different to what we see on our TV screens every day.
Another future-based work that aptly captures the anxieties of the present is the hit BBC/HBO series Years And Years, which follows the travails of a British family from 2019 to 2029. If this show is anything to go by, the next 10 years won’t be pretty.
Many Britons might already feel queasily acquainted with a world in which a populist, sound-bite-happy prime minister reigns supreme, crises cripple the finance industry, climate-change disasters wreak havoc with people’s lives, and hordes of migrants huddle around open fires in camps, but Years And Years is particularly chilling in that it portrays things getting gradually worse while ordinary life grinds inexorably on.
It seems the world will end, not with a bang, but with a slow and relentless descent into social chaos.
Like Children Of Men, a harsh light is also cast on “late capitalism” in Years And Years, and it clearly warns audiences that things are going to go a bit pear-shaped very soon if we don’t change course.
In particular, this disquieting speech by the family matriarch (played by Anne Reid) garnered a huge response and was widely shared on social media earlier this year:
MIT: The End of the World
It’s not just in the world of science fiction where life on Earth tends to go rapidly downhill in the 2020s. As far back as 1973, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed one of the first computer programs to model global sustainability and concluded that human civilization as we know it would all come crashing down around 2040.
As this contemporary report shows, the same computer model predicted that 2020 would mark the beginning of the end, as the quality of life started to decline dramatically. Despite the charmingly clunky 1970s graphics, the doom-laden data that is being crunched here now seems even more harrowing nearly five decades later:
The MIT’s dire future predictions in 1973 that rising populations and dwindling natural resources would have potentially catastrophic consequences were eerily echoed in the film Soylent Green, which was released the same year.
Based on a Harry Harrison novel (which is actually set in 1999), the movie is part police procedural, part sci-fi, with Charlton Heston playing a detective in 2022 investigating the murder of a rich businessman whose shadowy corporation controls almost half of the world’s scarce food supplies.
The drastic dystopia that Heston’s character inhabits shocked many nearly 50 years ago and was slammed by The New Yorker as barely believable and “pompously prophetic.”
Nowadays, however, this grim depiction of 2022, showing a world struggling with the effects of global warming, depleted resources, and pollution, doesn’t seem too far-fetched at all.
Admittedly, things are not quite as dire as Soylent Green predicted, and its infamous denouement still seems fanciful, but many of the issues it grappled with have become increasingly urgent in the ensuing decades.
Some of the film’s backdrop elements, such as corrupt corporations wielding massive influence over government, casual police brutality, ever-widening social inequality, and even euthanasia clinics are nowhere near as unlikely today as they seemed in the early 1970s.
The Running Man
Stephen King’s 1982 novel, set in 2025, and the subsequent film adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger also correctly envisaged a widening gap between rich and poor, with its subsequent fracturing of society. Indeed, it’s contrasting cityscapes of homeless destitution and sleek skyscrapers for the wealthy bear more than a passing resemblance to many contemporary metropolises.
Although, it was dismissed as being a bit silly when it was released in 1987, the movie version’s portrayal of the year 2017 (fast-forwarding exactly 30 years) somewhat spookily presaged the rise of reality TV — showing a future where a subdued populace escapes from the bleak reality of their world by avidly consuming gladiatorial game shows in which ordinary people risk their lives for a shot at fame and fortune.
According to the film’s screenwriter, Steven de Souza, one of the producers of American Gladiator actually pitched the popular reality show to a network by showing executives clips from The Running Man, telling them, “We’re doing exactly this, except the murdering part.”
The Running Man also uncannily predicted a future society where cameras are everywhere, and people are inundated with media content that blurs the lines between news and entertainment.
As Running Man director Paul Michael Glaser put it, his movie “mirrors people’s perception of the entertainment industry, their perception of the news.”
“It captures the feeling that we’re all being manipulated and lied to. Those are huge things that people live with every day,” he told The New York Post earlier this year.
There Will Come Soft Rains
Ray Bradbury’s acclaimed short story, written in 1950, perfectly captured the atomic anxiety of that era.
Set in Los Angeles after a nuclear strike in 2026, it chillingly describes an automated house steadfastly repeating its daily routines even though its inhabitants have been reduced to ashes.
Bradbury’s terrifying and poignant portrayal of a nuclear apocalypse resonated with audiences everywhere during the Cold War. So much so that even the Soviets adapted it into a film.
With the recent unraveling of nuclear arms control agreements and increased tensions between Russia and the West , which have revived fears of a thermonuclear war, There Will Come Soft Rains still seems as frighteningly believable today as it did 70 years ago.
If anything, the house computer’s resemblance to modern-day virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri actually makes Bradbury’s story appear less fantastical now than it would have seemed to earlier audiences.
Although it was panned by many critics upon its release in 1927 (H.G. Wells even called it “the silliest film”), Metropolis has since established itself as a sci-fi masterpiece, which has had a huge influence on the genre.
Although the film’s plot is laughably improbable and convoluted, Fritz Lang’s dystopian future in which downtrodden workers struggle to survive in a world dominated by billionaire industrialists still strikes a chord nearly a century later and has been explored further in other futuristic films, including Blade Runner and Soylent Green.
The film’s visual design has also informed countless other sci-fi movies, and even Star Wars creator George Lucas’s much-loved C-3PO character was obviously inspired by Lang’s Maschinenmensch.
Amazingly, for such a seminal film, the director’s original cut of the movie has been lost and there are numerous versions in existence.
Here’s the 1984 restoration by composer Giorgio Moroder, which places events in the year 2026:
One of the surprising things about looking at past attempts to predict the future is how so many old portrayals of the 21st century were a lot better at envisioning the way in which human societies would develop than they were at foreseeing specific technological advancements.
Many of the works mentioned depict social conditions, economic systems, and political milieus that would seem familiar to audiences today, but we still aren’t driving around in airborne cars.
What is particularly striking is that, with a few honorable exceptions, such as William Gibson, many 20th-century future watchers failed to envisage the digital revolution, completely missing the huge impact that the Internet and social media would have on our lives. Even the futuristic world depicted in the much-lauded Blade Runner is decidedly analog in appearance, and there is not a smartphone in sight.
Nonetheless, although many of the world’s leading science-fiction writers and futurologists didn’t see it coming, this 1930 drawing from a collectors’ album of futuristic illustrations came up with something that looks very much like a camera phone, albeit not quite as sleek as today’s handheld devices:
This image was part of a series commissioned for a now-defunct German margarine company that went viral a couple of years ago. As you can see from this gallery of the pictures in question, these artists’ technological predictions were typically hit-and-miss, not to mention a tad optimistic.
Finally, in the same vein, here’s an old RFE/RL photo gallery of magazine covers from the Soviet popular-engineering publication Technika Molodezhi, which shows that artists and designers in the U.S.S.R. were also quite ebullient about the future: