April 7, 2008

Win a Date With Ted Hamilton: The Future Is Now

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Sup, broseph. Welcome to my column, where you’ll find endless pleasures of the intellectual and visceral varieties delivered conveniently through the medium of film criticism. And if you consider our little interaction here as a certain type of interpersonal event, then, yes, you can win a date with me — good thing, since I’m at least as charming as my silver screen doppelganger, Tad. So, on with the show.
First, an astute observation: People have always been bad at predicting the future. For example, Nostradamus gave the world until 1999 to survive and President Bush couldn’t wait for the “cakewalk” in Iraq. It’s not surprising then, that films that take place beyond the present day are rarely successful in their guesswork. Just think about 2001: A Space Odyssey — when’s the last time you went on a commercial flight to the moon, or, for that matter, wore a turtleneck?
Of course, a director’s foremost concern is not infallible accuracy in predicting the future. Films are designed to entertain, and visions of ever-expanding shopping malls and ever-increasing waist sizes are not likely to inspire. Still, though, it’s interesting to note what types of elements are typically included in portrayals of the future (notably, machines and misery), and to think about what these patterns mean for our present day.
The tone of cinematic futurism was set in 1927 by the silent masterpiece Metropolis. Written and directed by the Viennese cineaste Fritz Lang, this paranoid little picture envisions a world in 2026 divided along economic lines and defined by sleek, stylish skyscrapers. There’s a sexy robot that foments trouble and a working class rebellion (machines and misery), but the underlying message is this: Be glad you don’t live in 2026, because the future will suck.
This general outlook has been picked up by a number of films in decades since. One of the most outstanding is Blade Runner (directed by Ridley Scott), set in 2019 and presenting a world that’s dirty, overcrowded and at risk of attack by genetically-designed robots arriving from off-world colonies. As in Metropolis, the future here seems to be defined by vertically sprawling urbanism and a general sense of despair and inertia. Sure, there are cool gadgets, but any technological advancement is overshadowed by the human race’s inability to deal with basic issues like resource distribution.
Both Metropolis and Blade Runner are notable for their excellent sets and for creating a wonderful sense of atmosphere; even if we no longer have faith in their predictions (Planet colonies in 2019? Really?), we can still be affected by the disturbing mood with which Lang and Scott infuse their pictures. And at least one thing is clear: Society’s on the wrong track.
This pessimism, in fact, seems to be the calling card of futuristic film. In nearly every instance, the coming decades are viewed as a dystopia descending into ever greater depths of despair and depravity (although the ability to alliterate survives). The Matrix, a nearly-successful attempt to validate Keanu Reeves’ acting career, is perhaps the most extreme example of this hopelessness: The human race is enslaved, à la Descartes, in a false, computer-generated reality. But even if the future is not overrun by out-of-control technologies, things still seem fall apart: See Children of Men, in which, despite the absence of maniacal robots and devious computers, civilization is still going to crap.
What’s the lesson behind all this despair? In one respect, certainly, futuristic film works as a form of social commentary. By imagining the effects of our attitudes and actions today, filmmakers point a finger at what they see wrong in our world now. Metropolis envisioned a stratified society that is perhaps too much of a dark socialist’s nightmare to hold great power today; in 1927, though, worker’s rights were a salient concern. 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a computer controlling a deep-space mission develops a sinister mind of its own, presaged a rash of films criticizing our over-reliance on technology. And Blade Runner, picking this theme up, added its own unique portrayal of urban miasma to the mix.
So, no. Screenwriters and directors are not all that great at prophesying. In fact, I feel a little sting of embarrassment every time I watch a movie in which the present day was supposed to be way cooler, technologically speaking, than it actually is. Stanley Kubrick, who made 2001, gave us at least seven years’ too much credit for travelling to Jupiter (and it looks like it’ll be quite a bit more, unless NASA’s got something up its sleeve), and Ridley Scott has only eleven years before his predictions of flying cars and robot engineering prove false.
But this is missing the point — what’s really going on in these dystopic visions isn’t a guessing game, but a critique of modernity and its excesses — its overindulgence in material comforts, its hubris, its blithe disregard for the unfortunate. Sure, each generation has its unique concerns, but what’s most surprising about these futuristic films, spread out over eight decades, is their consistency as they return again and again to the same themes and present, with various adjustments, alarmingly similar portraits of what’s to come. Artistic paranoia? Maybe. But it’s never a bad idea to prepare for the worst.