Thursday, January 21, 2010

7 Futuristic Movies That Got It Right...for now

Science fiction has been trying to predict what the future will look like and how it will come to be, since the days of Jules Verne. We still aren't wearing silver jumpsuits or flying around on jetpacks like some movies have suggested, nevertheless, sci-fi can sometimes give us a glimpse of the world of tomorrow--and, occasionally, help to shape that world.
...For example:
Total Recall, an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle set in the year 2084, features an X-ray-style walk-through security scanner that displays the skeletons of the commuters who pass through it as well as the contents of their bags on a large screen. In reality, this type of whole-body scanning technology began to appear in airports in 2007. Modern body scanning can take the form of "backscatter" units, which use X-rays, and millimeter wave screening, which uses electromagnetic waves. However, both of these types of scanners show passengers not as skeletons but as nudes, leading to privacy objections from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union. As of December 2009 there were 19 US airports that used millimeter wave screening, and the Transportation Security Administration had purchased 150 backscatter units to be installed in 2010.

During pre-production for this neo-noir film, director Steven Spielberg and production designer Alex McDowell gathered together a group of prestigious intellectuals to come up with a plausible, coherent vision of what life might look like in the year 2054. One member of that team, computer scientist John Underkoffler, was tasked with designing a theoretical large-screen computer interface that could be controlled using hand gestures. In the movie, Tom Cruise memorably uses this interface to shuffle through video clips of psychic premonitions.
Today, existing multi-touch technology--such as that used in Microsoft's Surface or Perceptive Pixel's Media Wall--allows users to access data, transfer files and manipulate images and videos by intuitively moving one's fingertips along a screen. The Surface and the Media Wall are still fairly exclusive and uncommon, but Apple's iPhone has already made multi-touch available to the masses, albeit on a small scale. 

Though these three films differ in terms of genre and tone, they all provided prescient commentary on the reality television genre, which would explode into popularity in the early 2000s. Albert Brooks' satire Real Life follows a group of documentarians who film the everyday life of an American family and are frustrated by how dull the results are. Though this entry isn't futuristic per se, it pointed out TV's tendency to exaggerate drama long before any Real World shouting match. The Running Man, set in the year 2019, casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as a contestant on a popular TV game show in which convicted criminals are released into Los Angeles and hunted down by professional "stalkers." The human suffering put on display is more extreme than that found in a Survivor elimination or botched American Idol audition, but there's a kinship there nonetheless. Finally, The Truman Show imagines a program in which one man (Jim Carrey) has his day-to-day life broadcast nationally, à la The Real World or Big Brother.

They were only glimpsed briefly in the first Terminator film, but they were there: Robotic planes that rained fiery death onto a human resistance movement. The scene featuring these machines took place in the year 2029. In real life, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already an integral part of the US military's arsenal. The first combat-capable UAV, the MQ-1 Predator, was first used in 1995 during the Bosnian conflict, but is mainly designed for reconnaissance. It has since been joined by the MQ-9 Reaper, a drone designed especially for bombing runs. (And yes, it is actually referred to as a "hunter-killer" aircraft.) The American military has been using the Reaper in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2007.
It's a little surprising that this broad satire is out of print and nearly impossible to find, given that its cast includes such notable comedic actors as John Ritter, Fred Willard, George Carlin and Jay Leno. It takes place in 1998 and depicts an American government so financially insolvent that it has to stage a telethon in order to put the national coffers in the black. Besides skyrocketing US debt, the film also made several other accurate predictions, including the collapse of the USSR, China's turn towards capitalism and superpower status, adultery in the White House and the rise of Nike as a powerful corporation. There's even a jab at exploitative reality television when the telethon features a "mother-son boxing match." (Anyone remember Celebrity Boxing?) To be fair, though, Americathon also predicted that Jimmy Carter would be assassinated, that the White House would be relocated to California and that Arabs and Jews would join forces to create a United Hebrab Republic. Can't win 'em all.
No, we still haven't achieved the casual, routine style of space commuting depicted in Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi opus, but companies like Virgin Galactic are currently working to make sub-orbital and orbital travel available to private citizens. The film's depiction of spaceflight even included some advances that would only later be incorporated into conventional air transportation, including personal in-flight entertainment (which would appear in the ’80s) and flat-screen television displays. 2001 also featured voiceprint identification technology, which would actually be developed in the mid-’70s, and videophones, which have in fact existed since the ’20s but never came into widespread use until recently (in the form of video-capable cell phones and internet programs like Skype). It's true that people generally prefer not to use videophones for everyday purposes. However, people today do use videophones to communicate with faraway family members (i.e. Skype & Facetime), just as the character of Heywood Floyd uses the technology in 2001.

The Star Trek TV programs and films have prefigured or inspired so many of today's technological achievements that it would be nearly impossible to list every instance. One of the most obvious examples is the ubiquity of computers--which at the time of the show's inception were large, inefficient and uncommon--in the series' 22nd-24th-century setting. Less obviously, the design of real-life flip (or "clamshell") phones is directly based on that of Starfleet communicators. A company called Sakhr Software has created an Arabic-English speech translation app for the iPhone that functions similarly toTrek's universal translators. Also, NASA recently developed a device which can be plugged into an iPhone and used to detect the presence of deadly gases in its environment, much like the fictional tricorder.
This isn't to say that everything in the Star Trek universe has already come to pass. For example, we're obviously a long way from galactic scouting expeditions or contact with alien life forms. Nonetheless, a lot can happen in a century or two. In a way, it's comforting to know that some parts of "the future" may still be yet to come.

via mania

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