In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all
The thing about the future is that one day it becomes the present. Put a timestamp on your sci-fi and you are laying down a potential rake to step on when reality catches up. We have breezed past the dates of breakout shoot-’em-up Escape from New York (set in 1997), seedy VR nightmare Strange Days (1999) and hoverboard hellscape Back to the Future Part II (2015). Now all three films seem like quaint period pieces instead of predicted futures.
So what makes a prescient science fiction film? A cosmic fairytale such as Star Wars might not count, even if last December some fanboy bodgers knocked up a crackling lightsaber in the real world. But George Lucas’s first film, THX 1138, set in a soul-crushing totalitarian future when conformity is enforced by faceless android police, is still in with a shout, especially if things keep trending the way they are.
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The best science fiction doesn’t just imagine the next great leap, be that the rise of artificial intelligence (2001: A Space Odyssey), genetic engineering (Gattaca) or driverless cars (Total Recall). It also extrapolates how these paradigm shifts might affect us dumb meatbags. But could anyone have predicted how the internet would rewire our minds? The 1990s felt packed with cyber-thrillers clearly jazzed by this new era of interconnectivity. But most were hung up on visualising it via fancy goggles, such as Keanu Reeves in 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, stumbling through the mean streets of 2021 New Jersey with 320 gigabytes of hot data sloshing round his head.
Some sci-fi films are fortuitously prophetic – Akira predicted that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be cancelled back in 1988 – but others really work at it. In 1999, Steven Spielberg assembled a nerd herd of futurists and asked them to imagine what Washington DC would be like 50 years hence. The results were pumped into 2002’s Minority Report, which went big on yet more driverless cars, invasive advertising and gesture-controlled tech. Even if the precognitive crime prevention stuff was a bit woolly, Minority Report’s vision of 2054 still feels textured and lived-in.
But is there an even more prescient sci-fi film? Last year the likely nominee would have been the original Blade Runner. Replicants and flying cop cars may still be a way off, but teeming humanity scuttling around under bleak skies felt very current even before someone had the smart idea of splicing footage of California wildfires with the 1982 movie’s austere “Los Angeles November, 2019” title card. But looking at the flaming wreckage of 2020, the sci-fi film that truly predicted our blighted zeitgeist is 2006’s Children of Men, a zombie movie where the zombie is the UK, staggering haphazardly toward doom.
Alfonso Cuarón’s hardscrabble dystopia is set in a 2027 world knocked sideways by an infertility plague rather than a Covid pandemic, but everything else about it feels upsettingly now, from the demonisation of refugees to the scuffed video screens and militarised streets. Clive Owen’s reluctant hero Theo – an emotionally shattered semi-alcoholic in a grubby London 2020 fleece – has never felt more relatable. Still, among all the despair it features a killer “pull my finger” joke and ends on a note of the tiniest shred of optimism. Perhaps we’ll be OK after all.
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