Theatrical Poster courtesy of IMP Awards.

Past, Present – The Power of Sci-Fi in Predicting the Future

One of the greatest things about the genre of science fiction is that it gives us room to speculate on the future. Sometimes it takes us eons ahead, to a world where robots run amok, machines (or maybe aliens!) rule absolutely and humanity cowers in the shadows. Other times we’re flung just a short distance forward, to a place that doesn’t look all too different from our own time period. Science “fiction” stories are still rooted in reality, and this enables a sense of retrospection as well as prophesy. So while we may not be driving hover cars or commuting from the moon quite yet, sci-fi is still one of the best places to
look for hints about what the future holds. Here are four older works of science fiction that foresaw both the peril and potential of the present day.

Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury, the 1966 film Fahrenheit 451 starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie imagines a world where firemen start fires instead of stopping them, and where society has reached a point of constant media absorption with little free or intellectual thought. People spend their days popping pills, drinking alcoholic beverages and watching the mindless programming which airs constantly on their flat panel televisions. Those that are caught with books and other forms of banned media are arrested and their collections burned. While books may not necessarily be considered contraband in contemporary America, their presence certainly isn’t encouraged. Flat panel TVs, however, with uninterrupted hours of programming across hundreds of channels (and of course prescription and nonprescription drugs) are everywhere. We might not be burning books, but we aren’t reading them either.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and released in 1973, charts an even dimmer course for the future. Instead of a hedonistic society only interested in mindless pleasure such as that found in Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green finds its people suffering from lack of food, lack of money, lack of space, and lack of a clean environment. Much of the story revolves around a murder case, but the solution of the case leads to a much more horrifying truth when the main character finds out that one of the sources of processed food eaten by everyone is human in nature. There are quite a few elements of Soylent Green that directly correlate to the world of today. Overpopulation, heavy pollution, and even poverty are problems currently suffered by society that this film alluded to over forty years ago. Alberta Energy reports that 87 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come directly from human activity – but even though we now have the biotechnology to use algae to help reverse the effects of climate change, there is still a long way to go before it is not a problem our world is suffering from any longer.

On a somewhat lighter note, John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) takes a much more satirical than dramatic look at the possible future. In this film, a drifter (played by Roddy Piper) finds out that the world has been taken over by aliens, posing as rich people and using subliminal messages embedded in media to control the human population. Because media is so pervasive in the society that appears in They Live, it is relatively simple for the aliens to keep them constantly buying and consuming resources. This is another obvious tie between the real world and the sci-fi world presented in the film. In our real world media is everywhere, and advertising in both subtle and not so subtle ways keeps us constantly buying and consuming resources, even if it isn’t for the nefarious purposes of alien invaders.

Starring Tom Cruise and based on a story by Philip K Dick, Minority Report centers around the not-so-distant future where physics predict crime before it happens and the police make arrests based on those predictions. It may not seem as obvious how a film about ‘pre-crime’ could be related to the real world where crimes usually have to happen before anything can be done about them. But the use of pervasive media in Miniority Report is very similar to the way of the world today, just as it is in Fahrenheit 451 and They Live. Coming from newscasts, television programs, and video clips taken on personal devices, it is almost impossible to escape the media’s reach in Minority Report, and in the world we live in today.

Science fiction films can be a great source of hope for what the future holds, but they can also be a warning. If we aren’t careful with our resources, our environment, and even our free thought, we run the risk of losing the very things that define our humanity.

Subscribe to the Retroist Newsletter

* indicates required