While star Matt Damon and writer/director Neill Blomkamp have been repeatedly stating that there is no inherent social message to their new futuristic thriller “Elysium” (review here), it’s something of a dubious claim. There are a number of real-life social and political parallels that you can draw between burnt out future of “Elysium” and the slightly less charred world we live in today (everything from the Occupy movement to Blackwater’s involvement in American military actions in the Middle East). And if it isn’t a social commentary (as the filmmakers claim), at the very least, it is a work of extraordinarily vivid speculative science fiction, one in which Los Angeles looks like an unruly Mexico City (where they shot the film) and robots hassle you on your way to work. It’s enough for us to start wondering which of the concepts trotted out in “Elysium” (and there were a bunch) have the possibility of actually coming true. If “Elysium” isn’t a social movie now, it might be a crystal ball instead.
Science fiction has always been a genre to deal in the tantalizing possibilities of what if…? And along with more obvious, whimsical flights of fancy (there’s probably not going to be a device that instantly zaps you to Mars, at least anytime soon), there are genuine attempts at capturing what life will be like in the not-too-distant future. Sometimes these events come about as a fortuitous combination of luck and happenstance, but sometimes the filmmakers use their collective imagination to really take a stab at where we could be headed. We’ve collected ten instances of futuristic sci-fi concepts featured in sci-fi films that could actually come true, with real world evidence to back these claims up. After all, weren’t 3D printers and cell phones, both originally used in “Star Trek,” as examples of far out speculation?
Viable Element: A sustained orbital space station that is like the Hamptons in space.
Why? In the future world of “Elysium,”Eearth has become a ruinous wasteland, full of overpopulation, crime, poverty, pollution and unhelpful droids that look nothing like Daft Punk. The establishment (the 1%-ers of the year 2154) has built Elysium, a wreath-shaped space station that houses the cultural, political, and social elite. (The economics of Elysium are never broken down, but there is constant reference to the price of a ticket. There are undoubtedly more costs once you reach the station.) Everything is clean on Elysium and seemingly important decisions about the burnt out planet it orbits are made on this station, since it seems like the president and all other important political officers are located here. It’s filled with nifty gizmos like a medical pod that eliminates cancer cells and can regrow damaged organs, bones, and facial hair. Plus, everything that doesn’t look like the Hamptons in space has a cool Death Star-as-designed-by-Ikea vibe.
Chances Of Actually Happening: While a clear divide between rich and poor seems like something more metaphorically rich than hypothetically possible, physicist Stephen Hawking, who is probably the smartest man on the planet, said recently that sustainable space station life could be the key to mankind’s survival. (Glad to know everyone thinks we’re fucked.) Hawking said, somewhat ominously, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” And with several space stations already in orbit, it’s not inconceivable that that an ambitious sort will attempt to tackle something much more sustainable and long term.
“The Matrix” (1999), “TRON” (1982)
Viable Element: Living in a computer program.
Why? In the case of “The Matrix,” the robots have won, and encased humanity in electricity-generating pods for their own survival. If humans knew they were pod-locked, however, they would freak out and die, so the robots have created The Matrix, a wholly immersive computer-generated reality that encourages the wearing of lots of patent leather and oversized sunglasses. (A handful of freedom fighters have found out the truth and become Luddite terrorists, violently rebelling against the system.) With “TRON,” the creator of a popular videogame has gone one step further and made an entire world, one that humans can seemingly enter. Instead of cool kung fu influences and anime references, the “TRON”-scape feels a lot more like it was made by dudes who played a whole lot of Dungeons & Dragons. (There have been countless, lesser movies based around a similar concepts and concerns, but few have had the cultural relevance or immersive power that these two have demonstrated.)
Chances Of Actually Happening: Depending on who you talk to, it’s already here. Immersive videogames are a thing of the present, with entire worlds and personalities formed online. And we’re not just talking about things like the increasingly sophisticated worlds of “World of Warcraft” or the equally addictive (but far cuddlier) “Animal Crossing” games that take up whole days of your life and force you to ignore basic tenets of personal hygiene. Isn’t the entire social media sphere also something of a virtual reality existence? (“TRON” showed prescience but its conceit is more outwardly “magical” than “The Matrix.”) In the original “Matrix,” there’s a reference that the black leather dusters and sunglasses are “the mental projection of your digital self,” which is more or less what we do every time we select an avatar, Facebook photo or Instagram pic that we want to represent us to the world, which is quickly blurring into The Matrix, but by our own bidding, not the machines’. We just need the sunglasses to go with it.
Viable Element: The corporatization of an entire city.
Why? While “RoboCop” is most well known for its depiction of a half-human/half-robot crime fighter, the corporate takeover of an entire U.S. city is the one that seems most oddly prescient. A futuristic Detroit, on the brink of economic and societal ruin (thanks to drugs, guns, and gangs), is seemingly “saved” by Omni Consumer Productions. They operate the entire city, including installing a privatized police force that gives birth to the RoboCop program, less a cutting edge program than a synergistic combination of the research and development and public relations departments. In the new Detroit, dubbed Delta City by OCP, crime will be a thing of the past and you will be able to sustain your citizenship by purchasing corporate stock options. Or, according to OCP exec Dick Jones (a wonderfully slimey Ronny Cox): “Good business is where you find it.
Chances Of Actually Happening: One of the more shocking aspects about “RoboCop” is how it pinpointed the exact city that would fall into the kind of disrepair that would attract some evil multinational: very recently Detroit declared that it was officially bankrupt, which is kind of a horrifying thought for a number of reasons. And while a corporation has yet to totally consume an entire city, they have tried (sort of). Let’s not forget Celebration, Florida, the “planned community” that, for a while at least, was mostly owned and operated by the Walt Disney Corporation. In fact, Celebration was a small scale attempt at bringing one of Walt Disney‘s grandest, kookiest ideas to life: EPCOT, which in his mind wasn’t a scientifically-slanted theme park but an entire city, with an airport and residences, housed underneath a large glassy dome that could be weather controlled. According to Neal Gabler‘s definitive biography, as Walt laid dying in his hospital room, he would look at the tiles on the ceiling and map out his futuristic city. Maybe one day his dream will come to life, with a corporation behind it that’s not so sunny.
“Back to the Future, Part II” (1989)
Viable element: Flying cars.
Why? Flying cars (or car-like vehicles) have been a staple of science fiction for as long as the genre has existed. More recent, cinematic incarnations of the flying car include the “spinners” from “Blade Runner,” Bruce Willis’ levitating taxi in “The Fifth Element,” and whatever was going on with those motorcycle things in “Judge Dredd” (the remake thankfully kept both wheels on the ground). “Back to the Future, Part II,” dramatizing the then far-off world of 2015, probably utilized flying cars because they seemed like the most classically futuristic thing they could think of. (It also meant that the iconic Delorean time machine could be given a snazzy new look, a design teased at the end of the first movie.) While “Back to the Future, Part II” wasn’t a “hard” science fiction movie that really tried to predict where things were headed (the “Jaws” franchise gets to number 19) it got quite a number of things right just the same.
Chances Of Actually Happening: While a flying car in every driveway might be a little way off, the flying car does actually exist, just not as a similarly-priced alternative to a regular car yet. But if that hasn’t necessarily, um, taken off, it looks like the hovery future of mass transit at least is arriving—in the form of “maglev” or magnetic levitation technology. Just last week it was announced that Tel Aviv would be the first city in the world to install a maglev system and last year Japan announced plans for an extensive and powerful magnetic high-speed train system, but one that won’t be fully online until the year 2027. Considering how poor the rail system is in America, anything the Japanese have cooked up will look impressively futuristic to us. And considering the track record of stuff from “Back to the Future, Part II” coming true (like Vietnamese vacations and even those self-lacing Nikes), we would vote on flying, hovering or otherwise non-roadbound transportation happening soon just because of its association with the movie.
“The Terminator” (1984)
Viable element: Sentient machines with self-awareness.
Why? Again, thinking robots are a touchstone of science fiction, dating back to Fritz Lang‘s sexy automaton in “Metropolis” and notably including C-3PO and R2-D2 from “Star Wars,” “WALL-E,” and much of the cast of the three “Transformers” movies. In the first “Terminator,” the robot was sent by other robots back in time to alter history, something that suits the single-minded focus of machine rather than a man (although a man was sent back too, complicating the Connor family tree forever). But the Terminator was a product of a machine world that had rebelled against its creators/oppressor—humankind. And so the film taps into a fear that many movies involving artificial intelligence prey on: what happens when the things we create understand that we have created them? Sometimes, like in the case of “The Terminator” (and HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey“), they aren’t too happy with the people who fashioned them and see them as a threat to their continued existence—a far more common theme than the more happy-go-lucky droids of “Star Wars” and “WALL-E” and eighties sci-fi comedy “Short Circuit.”
Chances Of Actually Happening: While we’re probably a long way off from a fully functioning killer robot assassin that can travel back in time (time travel being one of the sci-fi tropes we’re not expecting to arrive any time soon, damn you, disappointing Higgs Boson) intelligent robots are much closer. Look no further than Big Dog, created by Boston Dynamics, which can hop around and avoid obstacles. And think about the way that wars are fought now, with drones that fly high above enemy targets and drop laser-guided weapons on them. But the big question is when these machines might develop autonomous consciousness. That depends on how we define consciousness, of course, and that’s a matter that much smarter folk than we have had long, interminable debates about. However, one school of thought is that when an artificial intelligence reaches a certain tipping point in terms of processing power, it will simply be so “smart” that self-awareness must result. And one boffin has run a calculation to suggest that the year that tipping point is reached will be 2029, the exact year predicted in “The Terminator,” which is neat in a terrifying kind of way.
“Minority Report” (2002)
Viable element: Technology that identifies crime before it happens.
Why? Far removed from the hopeful optimism of Steven Spielberg‘s “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Minority Report” exists in a perpetually bleached-out, rain-soaked futureworld where crime is foreseen by three psychic beings (mutants in the “X-Men” mold but confined to a fish tank, barely aware of their surroundings), with cops (like Tom Cruise) assigned to “pre-crime:” the apprehensions of murderers who haven’t actually murdered anyone yet. It’s a morally and philosophically thorny issue and one that is dealt with in surprising detail by the Spielberg film, though its provocative power could have been amplified further had he used the original title card that ended the movie that said something about the number of murders in the District of Columbia following the cancellation of the pre-crime governmental initiatives. This would have left some lingering doubt in the audience as to just how evil the whole experiment was, and questioned whether the end justified the means. But Spielberg, feeling that the ending was too downbeat, deleted the card and instead what we got was the gooey happy ending that has been the source of much consternation and debate.
Chances Of Actually Happening: Well, with pre-crime, it kind of already is. While the use of psychics is way more fantastical than the real world, you can look no further than your local newspaper and the recently uncovered evidence of widespread NSA spying, the data from which could easily be strung together to try and stop things that are about to happen. And if theres one thing that “Homeland” and “24” have taught us, it’s that governmental agencies monitor “chatter” as a way to predict where an attack might occur, so it’s not such a big leap to apply that to regular crimes too (which is exactly the premise of “Person of Interest” btw). And judging by the generally apathetic response Edward Snowden‘s leak has gotten, no one’s even going to mind that much.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Viable element: Space tourism.
Why? In Stanley Kubrick‘s boldly imagined classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” outer space is just a brief commercial ride away (on the Orion III space plane, for those playing at home). This idea of breezy space travel is something that it shares, along with a circular orbital space station, with “Elysium,” and countless other science fiction tales. But there was something about the way that Kubrick brought it to life: it’s very mundaneness made it seem real and alive in ways that, had it been fancy and tricked-out, would have seemed phony. In fact, it seemed a lot more placid than the typical commute into New York City but like much of the rest of the movie, its power lies in its simplicity. What is kind of funny is that, despite the number of things that Kubrick’s film ultimately got eerily right about what life in the future would be like, he got the provider of space tourism wrong: Kubrick chose PanAm as the company that would last well into the future, when in fact, the company shut down on December 4th, 1991. Still, he’s in good company: “Blade Runner” also features references to PanAm, among other companies that fell victim to the “‘Blade Runner’ curse.”
Chances Of Actually Happening: Space tourism is happening, very soon in fact. With nationally funded space programs all but defunct, private companies are moving into the cosmos (as pointed out by a recent, totally brilliant New York Magazine cover story), on a global level. The furthest along and by far the flashiest is Virgin Galactic, the new outing by Virgin founder Richard Branson, whose program will offer orbital human spaceflights. Branson’s plan rests on that thin, blurry line between the insane and the visionary.
“The Island” (2005)
Viable element: Organ harvesting from clones.
Why? Because rich people get old and die, and in “The Island,” they just order a spare part from one of their perfectly duplicated clones, who are stored away in a secret facility in the desert. This isn’t a terribly original idea (“Logan’s Run” and last year’s “Cloud Atlas” cover similar thematic ground and a 1979 movie called “Parts: The Clonus Horror,” was so similar that its creators sued the producers), but it is a singularly powerful one: the quest for immortality is a staple of science fiction, as is the cautionary notion that, with scientific advancement, comes morally thorny repercussions. In “The Island,” Michael Bay populates a world full of clones that are unaware that they’re meat for the grist, but once they become aware, they stage a revolution (of sorts). The material would probably have been better suited for a director who could navigate the subtle emotional intricacies of the issue, and often times it feels like a tug of war between the director who is striving for something more and the one who is perfectly happy to stage a massive, futuristic car chase. But still: the idea of organ harvesting from clones resonates.
Chances Of Actually Happening: While breeding fully formed clones for the specific purpose of organ harvesting seems a bit out of the question (one thing that “The Island” never answers is, if these clones are being grown as exact doubles for their sick real world counterparts, wouldn’t the clones have the same genetic deficiencies?), specifically growing test-tube versions of certain organs (like that rat that had the human ear on its back) or synthesizing blood that the body won’t reject, is real world science being developed right now. Six days ago, it was reported that American scientists had grown a human ear in a lab. This isn’t science fiction anymore; it’s science fact.
Nearly every science fiction movie ever
Viable element: Laser cannons
Why? Here’s a hot tip: if you want your movie or short story to seem hopelessly futuristic, just add some laser cannons. Apparently in the future, ballistic, projectile-based firearms are obsolete. Instead, everyone is using lasers. Because lasers are really future-y. Two franchises that have proven endlessly influential in the science fiction genre, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” heavily feature laser cannons, as do countless other movies, both good and bad. (For future reference of the laser cannon influence, look no further than the popular series of “Laser Cats” digital shorts that originally appeared on “Saturday Night Live.”) Keep your lousy bullets and cannon balls, we’ve got lasers!
Chances Of Actually Happening: Disappointingly, the most commonplace thing lasers are used for today is the handy removal of unwanted body hair (gross). But that’s all about to change… for the awesome. Earlier this month it was revealed that laser cannons are very much on the horizon, and being worked on right now… although so far the only thing they’ve been able to do is pop balloons really well. Hey, scientific progress sometimes inches along, it doesn’t burst forth with galvanic intensity and when the planet comes under attack from a balloon-shaped alien intelligence, we’ve nothing to worry about.
“Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” (2004)
Viable element: Memory erasing.
Why? Because, at its heart, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a romantic comedy, one that just so happens to be wrapped inside a thick blanket of science fiction, it has to have a gimmick that appeals to the heart as much as the head. It’s in keeping with this that our schlubby hero (Jim Carrey) goes to a low rent experimental doctor’s office that specializes in erasing unwanted memories. Specifically, Carrey wants to get rid of the memories of an ex-girlfriend, played by Kate Winslet. In doing so, however, he goes down the rabbit hole of his own brain and the movie tantalizingly offers the question: what would you do if you found out that your ex already had the procedure done? Or what if you figured out you had it done once before? The script, by Charlie Kaufman, is one of the most “special” special effects in the history of science fiction, without a single laser fired or robot sent back through time. It’s a movie about memory and technology and love. And no matter how wild the technology gets, we can still relate.
Chances Of Actually Happening: It could be happening very soon. As far back as 2009, brain researchers seemed to be on the cusp of technology and practices that would allow you to erase unwanted or traumatic memories. The real-world implications would probably be more military-based than just wanting to zap away memories of an ex-girlfriend, most likely to help with the healing in post-traumatic stress situations. There’s also EMDR therapy, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is kind of like a lo-fi version of what they do in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
So what other science fiction-y technology did we leave off that you think could be just around the corner? Pods that magically teleport you from one location to the next (“The Fly“)? Giant robots built expressly for the purpose of battling equally giant robots (“Pacific Rim“)? What about the colonization of the moon (“Moon“) or Mars (“Total Recall“)? Maybe you think time travel isn’t just possible, it’s probable? When it comes to speculative science fiction, what seems totally far out now could happen sooner than we could ever imagine.