February 24, 2013

Sci-fi movies as the epitome of their moment

As I mentioned earlier, although it may take a number of years to notice, nothing looks more like the present than movies set in the future. 

For example, is there any movie more redolent of America during the George W. Bush Era than Idiocracy?

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

Strong economic growth is usually dysgenic. The less fit have plenty of resources, and wisely take the opportunity to rapidly grow in population. The very fit are so secure they ignore reproduction and focus on relative status competition: who can buy the choicest little Manhattan box for $2 million (no good public schools included, also $2000/mo in common building charges).

The same thing happened to the Romans, whose elite cared so little about reproduction that Caeser Augustus had to pass a bachelor tax to get elite men to settle. Roman elite men didn't have the status to marry a high class woman until they were in their mid-30s at least. And then there was the cost of education: wise Greek slaves as tutors when the kids were young were expensive to buy and were treated far better than average plebs. Then you might need to send them to Athens for a few years to finish their education. During this time a very large number of patrician families became extinct. Caeser took over most of the known world with a single smallish army and was one of the greatest Latin writers in in the 1000 years it was the universal language, but had no surviving offspring. He married older rich women late in life for political advantage.

Anonymous said...

That's cuz the movies about the 'future' are really about today.
'Future' is a convenient cover.

It's like 1984 was a play on 1948. Orwell was as much writing about current Stalinism as the future of totalitarianism.

But there are other 'covers' too. ALL IN THE FAMILY for example. On the one hand, yes, Archie Bunker is a right-wing working class bigot. But the reason why he's such a funny and sympathetic character--and not always wrong--is because liberals wanted to use him as a cover to convey their own anxieties about the boomer generation, race problems, and etc.

They couldn't spout those worries as 'good Jewish liberals', so they made those concerns come out of the mouth of Bunker the white bigot--often for laughs and at the expense of the freaks. As often as not, Bunker makes good sense about many of the silly conceits of 60s radicalism.

Archie's attitude in jail wasn't much different from how older liberals felt about 60s freaks.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUsC7Zt2TmU

In a way, Archie was a useful 'front' of older liberal disenchantment with the 60s.

Anonymous said...

Right.

http://media.wwd.com/images/processed/wwd/2009/07/20/moon/landing/landscape/01-large/2001_space_odessey.jpg

Tim said...

The most dated part of science fiction films is often the computer interfaces: it's the year 2099, and the characters are essentially flying a spaceship with an Apple IIe. Something equivalent to this today is, I think, 'futuristic' news broadcasts. Movies are projecting that there will be something exactly like MSNBC circa 2016 in 2066.

Soooeeee said...

I'd say the Obama era is a better fit, though it was Idiocracy lite in the Bush era.

Tim said...

One of the most striking things about 2001 was how utterly oblivious Clarke and Kubrick were to the coming upheaval in gender relations. In the early 60s worldview, behind every great man there was not necessarily a woman but at least a couple of "girl-assistants."

guest007 said...

Tim,

Have you forgotten the Russian astro-physicist. And most flight attendents are still female while most pilots are still male in 2013.

And astronauts are still generally male.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

I finally saw Blade Runner recently, and I fully concur. According to the movie, in the near future we're going to have flying cars, the colonization of outer space, vast ziggurat-like corporate buildings, and almost-human androids... but we'll still have newspapers and pay phones (but _video_ pay phones!). We'll have vast lit-up billboards - with animation about as graceful as your average neon sign.

International Jew said...

You're right about sci-fi movies looking dated. I understand it differently, though. It's a reflection of the bush-league literary sense, impoverished imaginations and arrested emotional development of the writers and their readers.

JI said...

You nailed it, Steve!

So what about now? Idiocracy still plays very well, IMO.

Anonymous said...

"I finally saw Blade Runner recently, and I fully concur. According to the movie, in the near future we're going to have flying cars, the colonization of outer space, vast ziggurat-like corporate buildings, and almost-human androids... but we'll still have newspapers and pay phones (but _video_ pay phones!). We'll have vast lit-up billboards - with animation about as graceful as your average neon sign."

But it was not meant to be any kind of accurate prediction of the future.
It's visionary mythology with sci-fi trappings.
With all the 20s-40s motifs, it could even pass for a sci-fi made at a much earlier time.

Anonymous said...

IDIOCY isn't even sci-fi but a satirical farce like SLEEPER.

Anonymous said...

How many sci-fi movies tried to be serious visions of the future?

I can't think of many.
In fact, we don't want sci-fi to be accurate. We just wanna see something cool, and that means exaggeration.

Anonymous said...

BLADE RUNNER beat the problem of 'dating' because it dated the future with retro-look.

Anonymous said...

What stuff today is sci-fi by the standards of what you expected in the 80s?

I must say I didn't expect anything like the internet to explode on the scene in the 80s. If someone told me such thing was possible, I would have called it sci-fi and maybe possible 50-70s yrs from now. But it happened in the 90s.
I never had any interest in computers and even in college typed all my papers. But the internet was a wow moment.

And I never expected cell phones would be so cheap and plentiful.

The funniest thing about WALL STREET MONEY NEVER SLEEPS is when Gekko comes out of jail and picks up his old clunky portable phone.
By golly, how fast things changed.

And self-driving cars and 3D printers. That stuff is almost scaring me.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it a near requisite of science fiction to present technology as a fount of amazing machines and methods? Idiocracy does the exact opposite, right? It depicts technology retrogressing along with human intelligence. That would make it anti-sci fi. Then again all I've seen the trailer.

Roach said...

The dystopias don't seem to dated but rather prescient, particularly Clockwork Orange or, heaven forbid, Mad Max! Anyway, back to prepping.

Louis Western said...

I've been re-watching the British science fiction show show "Blakes 7" from the early 80's. It certainly seems a bit dated in the fashions, but perhaps not the sets as it was not set on earth. The themes of the show still have resonance though.

papabear said...

Will Smith's After Earth?

From ID4 to After Earth...

Auntie Analogue said...


Whenever the topic of sci-fi dating itself arises, I still resort to William Cameron Menzies's 1936 epic 'Things To Come,' in which 1960 is all massive Art Deco and Streamlining, and multi-prop-engine bombers dropping glass spheres of gas bombs to pacify harmlessly and humanely the recalcitrant throwback peoples on the ground (don't you wish we had such bombs for schmucks like Hamid Karzai!).

The time of Obama is more like the 1961 'Twilight Zone' episode "It's A Good Life" in which the juvenile tyrant (Billy Mumy) terrorizes the grownups into insincere praise-gushing obeisance - à la today's speech codes - with his absolute telekinetic power over them.

wren said...

I don't know. I'm feeling 1984 describes the Obama era better than any sci-fi I have seen recently.

Marc B said...

After living through the entire 1980's, nothing seems futuristic to me.

jody said...

completely unserious total recall seems hilariously more accurate and realistic than completely serious blade runner. mutants and aliens aside.

blade runner in 2019: flying cars, human clones, spacecraft far out of the solar system. no mexicans in LA, japanese have taken over half the city.

total recall in 2084: self driving cars, memory implants, humans have only gotten to mars. lots of scenes shot on location literally in mexico city. neocon type guys are mining mars for resources for use in perpetual war back on earth.

Marlowe said...

I had a similar feeling while re-watching the somewhat dull & flatly acted Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron. Set in a future where the scientific cure of a world wide plague had the side effect of inducing mass sterility, requiring the use of cloning to perpetuate the human species and in a post-modernist designed city (filmed at sites around modern day Berlin & Potsdam according to IMDB) that resembles a gated whitopia, I realised that it really expresses the current concerns of upper middle class graduate professionals (who populate the city scenes as extras, neatly dressed and toting briefcases alongside a few well behaved and dressed blacks and orientals). The world doesn't face a fertility crisis (far from it, when sub-Saharan African women have on average 6 babies each) but white (& Japanese) professionals living in advanced societies who have delayed reproduction until their late 30s do. I imagine persons of this class spend quite a lot of time discussing IVF and fertility doctors and their varied attempts to conceive before it's too late. And the movie reflects these anxieties and concerns, projecting them into the future. It also rather neatly blames science & doctors for the situation rather than the decision of feminist career women to delay having children until after the limit set by biology.

The film's use of late-modernist architecture from Germany bears comparison with the already discussed showcasing of early modernist work in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It's funny how the sort of design sponsored and commissioned by upper middle class white professionals ends up as the sets of dystopias produced by them.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say the best example of getting the future wonderfully wrong has to be the short-lived British show called "UFO". It's a blend of "Barbarella" and a Dewar's whisky ad from the late '60s. A hidden gem I only found out about thanks to this remarkable late 20th century Earth invention called the web.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

How many sci-fi movies tried to be serious visions of the future?

I can't think of many.
In fact, we don't want sci-fi to be accurate. We just wanna see something cool, and that means exaggeration.


George Lucas' "THX 1138" was supposed to feel to the audience not like "a movie about the future but a movie from the future". I hear his "Star Wars" film did much better with audiences, so you may have a point.

Luke Lea said...

How many sci-fi movies tried to be serious visions of the future?

H.G. Wells's The Time Machine comes to mind. He projected a technological future in which survival was no longer an issue. Consequently the majority of the population had devolved to a kind of juvenile stage of domestication, completely unable to care for themselves (or each other for that matter). The downside was that a small underground cohort of proles who kept the machinery running had evolved in an entirely different direction: they ate the above grounders for food. Still a very good movie and surprisingly sophisticated on the issue of natural selection. At least I thought so.

On a more ridiculous note I caught a 1940's movie (spoof?) about a manned rocketship to the moon. It had a very spacious cabin, complete with wine cellar.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say the best example of getting the future wonderfully wrong has to be the short-lived British show called "UFO". It's a blend of "Barbarella" and a Dewar's whisky ad from the late '60s. A hidden gem I only found out about thanks to this remarkable late 20th century Earth invention called the web.

I too wondered about UFO, a series from 1970 set in the wonderful world of 1980 that bears no resemblence to how 1980 turned out. No suits, no ties, no overt regimentation, no yuppies, no Jesus, no Allah, no luddites, no fuel shortages, no hint of any opposition to space exploration (and militarization). No reactionaries like Reagan and Brezhnev; the Russkies liberalize on their own without an economic collapse. It seems like paradise until you realize that SHADO, and by extension its UN masters, run an effective world dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

Surely "Idiocracy" is even more applicable now than when Bush was president. After all, we're following policies just as bad or even dumber.

Oh yes, and the president is black (sort of...)

I always wondered how Mike Judge got away with that one.

Anonymous said...

In terms of inadvertently prescient sci-fi classics, 1975's ROLLERBALL deserves a mention. Without high-budget special effects, Jewison found simple but effective methods to portray the future. Instead of trying to speculate about what pop music would sound like in the early 21st c., the film has a classical music soundtrack. Even the costumes and make-up wouldn't mean much to viewers who don't remember the 70s, as they made the clever choice of showing only upper-class executives (who dressed more or less the same in 1975 as they will in 2018) and top athletes (who are mostly in sports gear).

Matthew said...

Idiocracy fits with the Obama Era better than the Bush Era. Things were messed up during the Bush Era, but TPTB, the LSM, etc., were actually bitching about it, if from the wrong angle.

Obama has three times the budget deficit and three time the stupidity, but everyone acts as though nothing's askew, like the latest realization that Obamacare will keep millions of workers in part-time jobs so their employers can skirt the health insurance mandate.

"Archie's attitude in jail wasn't much different from how older liberals felt about 60s freaks."

And yet Archie's "creator," Norman Lear (didn't he actually borrow the concept from a British show?) is one of those freaks, as the co-founder of People for the American Way. Speaking of PAW, where the hell did those guys run off to? I haven't heard from them in years. Did Lear run out of money?

"I always wondered how Mike Judge got away with that one."

How did Tom Wolfe get away with a book-cum-movie, Bonfire of the Vanities, where nearly all the good guys are WASPs (McCoy, the cleric, the do-good philantropic Episcopal layman, etc.) and the members of the other ethnic groups are all bad guys who bitch about how oppressed they are even as they tear the WASPs limb-from-limb like hyenas? In BotV the blacks and Chicanos are parasites, and everyone with any real power and/or wealth is Jewish (the judge, the DA, the assistant DA, the mayor, Sherman's boss, Peter Fallow's boss, the rich husband of Sherman's mistress, etc.) but the "powerless" Jews and blacks only have it in for the WASPs, who are inert, harmless, well-meaning, and/or all but invisible; almost like dragons, seldom seen or heard from but often feared.

Eric said...

I finally saw Blade Runner recently, and I fully concur. According to the movie, in the near future we're going to have flying cars, the colonization of outer space, vast ziggurat-like corporate buildings, and almost-human androids... but we'll still have newspapers and pay phones (but _video_ pay phones!). We'll have vast lit-up billboards - with animation about as graceful as your average neon sign.

wEll, to be fair, since Blade Runner is supposed to take place in six years, we still have plenty of time. And the video billboards in Tokyo really do look a lot like the ones from the movie.

Does anyone remember Space:1999? The only thing we have from that show is bell bottoms.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

In terms of inadvertently prescient sci-fi classics, 1975's ROLLERBALL deserves a mention."

Indeed. A very good movie. James Caan did a good job as a simpleton who is still able to figure out that something is not quite right about the society in which he lives.

Another good sci-fi movie (from the late 60s) is "The Forbin Project". It is also dated in it's look, but that really isn't a drawback, as the 60s often looked better than the present day. The underlying idea of the movie is fascinating, and still relevant. James Cameron obviously ripped off a good deal of it for the backstory of "Terminator". And there is a scene in it that is more scarier and more unsettling than just about anything in any other sci-fi movie I've seen.

Also, it's got a Martini recipe. And the voice of Paul Frees as the computer!

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the line "He who marries the spirit of the age will find himself a widower in the next". Science fiction, with its extrapolations of current trends into the future, tends to pick up on things that are less long-term trends than they are short-term fads, since it can be very hard to tell the two apart with only a couple years' data. Out of every group of the 10 Next Big Things, 9 of them usually turn out to be short-lived flashes in the pan. Unfortunately, those duds tend to find there way into science-fiction movies.

What they miss is the large degree of cultural continuity over long periods- e.g., if you dress today like Hugh Beaumont's Ward Cleaver did on Leave it to Beaver, nobody will think there is anything odd about your appearance, though you might get a compliment or two for going to the trouble of putting on a jacket and tie. Heck, a man in his '20s today could wear his great-grandfather's suit from 1925, and while he might come off a little formal or slightly eccentric, people would still generally agree that he was very well-dressed, because there just hasn't been much fundamental change to the formal-level sartorial standard for men in the past 90 years. The tuxedo has been standard since at least the 1890s, and is still popular at the 2013 Oscars. Women's fashions have changed a lot more, of course, because women are more fashion-conscious, and also because feminism launched a war against anything too redolent of traditional femininity.


Incidentally, I watched "Star Wars" many times as a child, but it was only as an adult that I realized how much it positively reeked of the Disco Epoch in which it was born. The shaggy haircuts, the open collars, the Billy Dee Williams... not to mention the aura of decaying rustiness that George Lucas insisted on having his prop crews create. In envisioning this "used future", were they echoing Carter-era malaise, when you couldn't buy gas for your shoddily-made car? In contrast, the Prequels are bright and clean... and nothing but completely fake computer trickery, much like the easy prosperity of the Clinton-Bush II years. Anyway, I probably shouldn't speculate more than that, since I have a rule that states that "Nobody over the age of 12 is allowed to take Star Wars seriously".

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately, those duds tend to find there way into science-fiction movies."

THis should have been "their way". I usually catch those- I must be slipping.

Reg Cæsar said...

I'm impressed that somebody used the word "epitome" in the correct sense. Most idiocrats seem to think it means "acme".

guest007 said...

I have always thought that one thing Science Fiction always misses is how expensive technology is. Heinlein had people building their own spaceships. William Gibson had people doing gene splicing in their basement or apartments. Yet, the modern area most countries cannot afford a space program. Genetic work is massively expensive and most technology would not exist without government subsidies. Even Star Trek and Star Wars franchises fails to ever mention how things are paid for.

jody said...

"That's cuz the movies about the 'future' are really about today."

sometimes yeah. that's how you take the real world crime explosion from 1970 to 1990, and turn it into escape from new york and robocop.

it was thought that if the violent crime rate in new york city continued to escalate beyond 2400 murders a year all the way up to, well, who knows exactly, but perhaps if the murder rate climbed all the way up to 3000 murders a year and stayed there for years in a row, which seemed like a real possiblity at the time, new york city would become uninhabitable. it was a scary proposition.

well, they got the idea right, but the city wrong. this is what happened in detroit, not new york city. detroit has become uninhabitable.

"How many sci-fi movies tried to be serious visions of the future"

2001 was a serious attempt. of course kubrick missed the rise of the internet.

alien seemed kind of serious. outer space mining. for another somewhat realistic outer space mining movie check out outland from 1981.

"The most dated part of science fiction films is often the computer interfaces"

yes. in particular, CRTs. but of course the computers themselves.

my personal opinion is that the current state of computer graphics effects will become the trademark thing which dates movies from the years, oh, 2000 up until 2020 or so...?

the TOTALLY FAKE looking creatures and monsters and effects which most studios now employ, i assume mainly by buying off the shelf software, or outsourcing the effects to independent companies which just do the same thing, use off the shelf, existing software.

they only want to make money on a movie, they don't want to re-invent the wheel. so they're not going to invest much in groundbreaking effects for most of these flicks. but now most of our sci fi is rife with obviously fake, suspension of disbelief breaking effects.

jody said...

"I have always thought that one thing Science Fiction always misses is how expensive technology is."

total recall gets this exactly right, once again. the ronny cox neocons justify everything they do by how incredibly expensive their operations are. they even use the mars laborers like mexicans. pay them as little as possible then take all the profits for themselves.

but yes, the real world is entering a phase of higher costs for everything. which makes the US government's regularly expressed idea about "2% inflation", the real science fiction of our time. metals cost 300% more today than they did in 2000. at least most of them can be recycled, unlike oil, which is up 300% as well but only usable once.

it now costs billions of dollars to design and manufacture new jet aircraft when only 30 years ago it was millions. soon we'll be stuck with whatever the last jet was, because it will cost too much to design a new one. and what about getting people into outer space? the US had a perfectly good space craft with sunk costs which they could have kept using for decades. now it relies on russian space craft which is even older. how much would it cost to design and build a new launch vehicle. untold billions.

every new step down the nanonmeter scale in integrated circuit manufacturing now makes the cost of the equipment jump several billion. eventually only 1 or 2 companies will even be able to afford to get all the way down below 10 nanometer size objects.

the US cancelled the superconducting supercollider because it was "too expensive", then the EU simply went ahead and built the large hadron collider for twice as much. the next collider will cost double that.

let's not even get started on building nuclear fission reactors and how much that has changed. the US built 100 of them in the past, and is now paralyzed, unable to build any. although, the dramatic increase in cost is mainly due to lawyers. in places where lawyers have no control, like china, fission reactors are still relatively easy, fast, and cheap to build. fusion on the other hand is a whole other ballgame. and to build interstellar spacecraft, a fusion reactor onboard is what it's going to take, like the fission reactors onboard submarines and aircraft carriers.

jody said...

"Another good sci-fi movie (from the late 60s) is "The Forbin Project""

forbin project was good. they did a good job of making it actually scary.

there are some technical problems with the script which would hurt the movie from an expert's perspective. like, the soviets had no computers during this time period, so the US computer would not have been talking to anybody.

during the space race, the soviets had no IC manufacturing, so they had no computers, so all their space technology was based on pure math. they definitely did not have a supercomputer. they didn't even have anything like an apple 2.

and ICBMs launch from their silos at very low velocities during lift off and can be shot down by cannon fire or even heavy machinegun fire if you're just standing there right outside the launch tube, so colossus could have been stopped that way.

that takes the fear right out of it and blows up suspension of disbelief. but most viewers won't think about or even know about those things, so the movie works pretty well.

another movie from the same time period, the andromeda strain, is more like "hard" science fiction and has thought out issues like that. still fiction of course but an attempt is made at realism.

Eric said...

I have always thought that one thing Science Fiction always misses is how expensive technology is.

That doesn't bother me very much. Timepieces used to be the sort of thing monarchs gave to each other, because you had to be a king to afford one. Now if you wanted to buy something that kept accurate time without worrying about its fashion value, it probably has about the same value as a few minutes of your time at work. Five hundred years ago a wristwatch is advanced military technology worth tons of gold.

A lot of today's consumer technologies would have been incredibly expensive just a few decades ago. Remember when "car phones" were something only governments and big corporations bought and only for executive officers?

As far as gene splicing goes, NPR just had a piece the other day about how recent steep price drops is "democratizing" (God, I hate that word) the technology. Just what we need - some sexually frustrated grad student deciding he's going to end it all and take the rest of us with him using a killer flu.

Unknown said...

Idiocracy as emblem of the Bush years?

For those who remember it, the Bush years are looking like a golden age compared to what we're in for now.

Mr. Anon said...

"jody said...

there are some technical problems with the script which would hurt the movie from an expert's perspective. like, the soviets had no computers during this time period, so the US computer would not have been talking to anybody.

during the space race, the soviets had no IC manufacturing, so they had no computers, so all their space technology was based on pure math. they definitely did not have a supercomputer. they didn't even have anything like an apple 2."

The Soviets did indeed have computers. Computers existed before ICs. It's not feasible to calculate spacecraft trajectories without some kind of calculating machine.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ural_(computer)

"and ICBMs launch from their silos at very low velocities during lift off and can be shot down by cannon fire or even heavy machinegun fire if you're just standing there right outside the launch tube, so colossus could have been stopped that way."

In which case Collossus would have detonated the warhead, as it did in the movie (and vaporized the CIA director) when people attempted to disable one of the ICBMs.

The movie did a good job showing how a sentient computer might be able to control people using the threat of nuclear blackmail.