Back to a Better Future?

This was supposed to be fun wasn’t it?

2015 – when we were supposed to have hoverboards, self tying trainers, another Jaws movie. But it’s not like that, is it? Sadly, it’s very well summed up by modern day Doc Brown and Marty paying another visit to this year in this CollegeHumour video:

That’s probably taking the disappointment of 2015 a bit too far, but while it’s all true, it raises another question about science fiction films set in the future – when did it stop being fun?

Back To The Future II, with all its 80’s angst, never lost sight of the fact that things were supposed to be better in the future, not worse. When Marty McFly ends up looking at his life in 2015, the bad parts are what he’s made of it. He’s still a loser, but the world around him is bright, colourful and typical of that ridiculous element of the time: optimism.

But watch any modern day movie that looks into the coming years, and you’ll see plenty of grim, dark, dystopias. It’s as if mankind suddenly went all Christopher Nolan and decided that the colour palette had to have an added dash of black.

Image via Village Roadshow Pictures

Image via Village Roadshow Pictures

So what happened? Why did we go from being excited about the future to fearing it? Yes, the original Mad Max and the Terminator franchise have depicted the mid 21st century (and in some cases beyond) as not very nice places to live, but whatever happened to the Star Treks, The Back To The Futures, The Space Odysseys? Whatever happened to something to hope for?

Writer Walt Hickey did a detailed analysis of whether movies showing the future are getting obsessed with the phrase “dystopia” – and his findings are interesting – you can take a look at them here.

While there are far more movies showing us how depressing the future will be, far more movies are being released than ever before, which is probably driving up the numbers. Proportionately though, it seems that the likes of Mad Max used to be in the minority, but that all changed with the advent of things like Robocop, The Terminator, and Aliens.

So what changed, did we become more cynical? Did we start to doubt how good the future can be? Or did we just buy into that whole “don’t trust technology” ideal?

“My initial thought is simply that dystopia sells,” the writer MG Siegler wrote in a blog for

“It’s the same reason why the mainstream media covering technology tends to harp on the downsides of new tech, sometimes to the point of fear mongering. They are tracking you! They want to know your location! They want to record you going to the bathroom!

“Most people are predisposed to fear what they do not understand. Hollywood’s futuristic films are simply playing to this fear in the same way that horror films are packed with moments meant to startle you.”

So is it all about fear? Is Hollywood making us frightened of what’s to come, because we want to understand the future, and that intrigue leads to a bigger box office? It didn’t used to be like that – in 1982, Blade Runner attracted $33m at the box office, compared to a huge $97m for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Image via 20th Century Fox

Now though, there’s barely a comparison to be made – big budget blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past ($748m) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay ($755m), revel in their grim futures, whether it be indestructible robots responsible for the genocide of human and mutant-kind, or a world where Jennifer Lawrence is forced to spear unsuspecting opponents with Jeremy Renner/Stephen Amell’s second hand goods. There aren’t many, if any, films that beckon towards a bright, joyful, even half enjoyable future – only Disneytastic Big Hero 6 has come close in recent years, and that wouldn’t have garnered half the exposure it did if not for a Personal Healthcare Companion. Even ones like the excellent Ex Machina which start off as an examination of the advances of humankind, soon become a stark examination of the rights and wrongs of embracing technology and the question of what it means to be “human”.

All that said, it’s also conceivable that these films don’t go far enough in depicting what a violent, depressing time we don’t have to look forward to.

Imran Siddique, in a piece written in 2014 (which you can read here), highlights how, while trying to be very clever and contemporary, the likes of The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner miss a crucial part of what would be involved in a post apocalyptic world:

Image via Lionsgate

Image via Lionsgate

“If the United States were to truly transform into a totalitarian state, or suffer an environmental catastrophe, it’s safe to say society’s deepest divisions wouldn’t magically disappear overnight.

“These dystopian adaptations ask their young audiences to imagine that race and gender issues have been partially overcome in the future, while general human suffering has somehow increased. The results feel false, and undercut the films’ attempts to comment on the present day.”

A salient point, and one which undermines the message which I feel is far too important in books and film adaptations like these: That it’s more important to be gorgeous and courageous to care for your fellow human being.

But we’re going off at a tangent. Why does Hollywood obsess over dark grim and gritty? Well, in my opinion, it’s twofold: One is the money as we’ve already discussed, but secondly, the likes of Back to The Future had the benefit of characters you could care about. The story of Marty McFly, his family and the crazy pseudo uncle that was actually the only guy who knew what was going on, is one that the whole family can watch – it takes a lot of vision, work , and chemistry to achieve that.

These days, CGI rules – if you’re making a movie about the future, all those dollars need to be onscreen to tell people it’s the future. Do a Hill Valley in 2031 scenario now, no one would care, but depict San Francisco in ruins (Dawn/Rise of the Planet of the Apes), or Los Angeles obliterated (Battle: Los Angeles), and people get the awe factor from seeing landmarks either blown up or their smoking remains.

It’s far easier to do that these days than spend time on a script, motivate a cast, and crucially, it keeps movie executives happy. We’ll more than likely never see a movie like Back to the Future II when it comes to showing us how good the future can be, because sadly, if Hollywood has its way, everything will have been destroyed. Even the roads.


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