At The Movies, A String Of Futures Passed We're five years from the hover boards promised in Back to the Future. But wait, didn't The Terminator indicate that the apocalypse should have struck more than a decade ago? NPR's Bob Mondello looks back at some iconic visions of the future -- and notes that they say more about when they were written than about when they were set.
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At The Movies, A String Of Futures Passed

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At The Movies, A String Of Futures Passed

At The Movies, A String Of Futures Passed

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hollywood is forever dreaming up futures, from "Metropolis" back in the silent film era, to the "Terminator" movies, to a remake of "Soylent Green" that's now on the drawing boards. Bob Mondello was looking at the calendar, and he's noticed that a lot of those futures are nearing their expiration dates.

BOB MONDELLO: The future is past. Or at any rate, the future novelists and Hollywood screenwriters imagined for me in my youth is past.

(Soundbite of film "2001: A Space Odyssey")

Mr. DOUGLAS RAIN (Actor): (As HAL-9000) No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

MONDELLO: Growing up in the 1960s, my friends and I were as thrilled by the talking computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey" as we were terrified by "1984's" totalitarian Big Brother. George Orwell had told us 1984 would bring brainwashing; Arthur C. Clarke countered that in 2001, we'd have mind expansion.

Back when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I'd actually live through those years, but here we are. "Big Brother" is a TV show, and the year 2001's mind-expanding breakthrough was what, "Shrek"?

(Soundbite of film "Shrek")

Mr. MIKE MYERS (Actor): (As Shrek) Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. We both have layers.

MONDELLO: So much for '60s crystal-ball gazing. A generation later, '80s screenwriters gave us a whole new set of visions: machines run amok in "Blade Runner" and "Terminator," skateboards without wheels in the "Back to the Future" movies.

(Soundbite of film, "Back to the Future Part II")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor): (As Marty McFly) Hey little girl, stop. I need to borrow your - hoverboard.

MONDELLO: Those '80s futures, let's note, are now approaching their expiration dates. We're just nine years away from "Blade Runner's" replicants, five from Doc Brown's flying DeLorean. And "Terminator"? Well, the sequels have hedged a bit, but in the first two films, much of humanity was wiped out almost precisely 13 years ago.

(Soundbite of film, "Terminator")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LINDA HAMILTON (Actor): (As Sarah Conner) Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day.

MONDELLO: Some of these once-visionary visions now look pretty quaint. We're far enough along now to laugh at "2001: A Space Odyssey" when it shows a Pan Am moon shuttle with flight attendants serving zero-gravity meals, as if either Pan Am or in-flight snacks would still be around in the space age.

Then again, some of the vision came true. Kubrick basically invented Skype for "2001," and he did it, remember, in 1968, so that a scientist could see his daughter when he talked to her from the space station.

Mr. WILLIAM SYLVESTER (Actor): (as Dr. Floyd) Hello. How are ya, Squirt?

Unidentified Child: All right.

Mr. SYLVESTER: What are you doing?

Unidentified Child: Playing.

MONDELLO: No matter how accurate they may be, all fictional futures, especially alarmist ones, lose urgency as the concerns that fueled them fade.

The Cold War paranoia of "1984" and "2001" now feel distant, tech-boom fears in "Blade Runner" a bit more current. This decade, we're uptight about the environment, so we get "Wall-E." In the flower-power era, we were skeptical about social conformity, so we got "A Clockwork Orange."

(Soundbite of film "A Clockwork Orange")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MALCOLM MCDOWELL (Actor): (As Alex) Let's get her, boys.

MONDELLO: Remember what Stanley Kubrick did in "Clockwork" to the super-contemporary housing complex where most of the muggings and gang fights took place? It was the sort of elegant, clean-lined architecture that sociologists were claiming in 1971 would make abandoned inner cities livable again.

Kubrick showed what those clean lines would look like after a decade or so of neglect, mucked up with graffiti and broken windows, a neat visual shorthand for the limits of social engineering.

Kubrick is the same guy, remember, who had just made the future look so gorgeously pristine in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but as time catches up with fictional futures, the one thing you realize is that they're never as nuanced as real life.

They're all either light or dark, utopias or dystopias. "Logan's Run," for instance, posits a 23rd century where people have expiration dates: You live a rigidly structured, apparently mindless life for three decades, and then as your reward for hitting 30, you're disposed of, just human garbage.

(Soundbite of film "Logan's Run")

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) There's been a terrible error. I'm nowhere near 30. I'm 22. No.

(Soundbite of screaming)

MONDELLO: Undeniably downbeat, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandkids will never know the joys of a happy retirement. But all doom and gloom? Well, maybe for them. But if you're like me, you can still find a little cheer in even the direst of futures.

In this case, I take comfort from the clothes. Judging from what everybody wears in "Logan's Run," polyester is going to be very big in the 23rd century. So apparently we 21st century folks can stop worrying so much about running out of oil.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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