The science fiction genre is both compelling and challenging for filmmakers. There are so many ways to depict scientific possibilities through the lens of a fictional story, but it's challenging because when you use science fiction to showcase a possible future for planet Earth, you're playing with fire. Think of how people will ding movies from 10 or 15 years ago for having dated pop-culture references, unnecessarily offensive remarks, and the like. What happens when a science fiction film from, say, the year 2000 winds up looking woefully laughable in its depiction of what the world of 2020 might look like?
This week, the Disney/Fox empire is releasing such a science fiction film, the Brad Pitt-starring drama Ad Astra. As an opening title card explains, the film is set in "the near future," which means it's full of details that speculate on what our world might look like ... eventually. So with this film in mind, there's no better time to look at a handful of the best and worst examples of movies that predicted future technology.
Some got it right, and some got it laughably, woefully wrong.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
Paying for items with your blood in Ad Astra (2019)
It's true: Not only is the new science fiction film Ad Astra the inspiration for this list, but it's on the good side of things. Granted, the film isn't terribly focused on immersing the audience in tons of flashy technology that might exist in the future. (And without the benefit of seeing into the future, we can only guess about how true this tech will end up being.)
Instead, this future-set film is about an ultra-calm astronaut (Brad Pitt) tasked with locating his thought-dead father (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary figure who went missing on a mission to find intelligent extraterrestrial life. This adventure leads Pitt's hero from the Moon to Mars to Neptune. But during one of his trips from planet to planet, he asks a lunar stewardess for a blanket and pays ($125!) in a very simple way: with a prick of his finger.
We're still in an era of using plastic and our phones to pay, but this brief, uncommented-upon glimpse of the future seems awfully prescient. What Apple Pay is today may just be another step toward the fusion of human and computer in the years to come.
Screen technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In a just world, most of the futuristic visions that Stanley Kubrick and his technological collaborators had when creating 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the greatest films of all time, would already have come true. Sadly, that's not the case, as we're close to two decades removed from the events of this 1968 classic and no closer to having a space station on the Moon, let alone interplanetary travel.
But one of the more subtle touches the film gets right is in how screens, both to interact with and watch, have become commonplace in the 21st century. From Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) using a touchscreen to call his young daughter back home (with what must be incredible service) to flight information being described on a viewscreen by a stewardess, Kubrick managed to accurately capture future technology seemingly by accident.
Interactive screens, Minority Report (2002)
2001 got the idea of screens down pretty solidly, but later sci-fi films went deeper than that.
Some of the technology in Steven Spielberg's propulsive sci-fi action/noir Minority Report has not yet come to fruition, and probably never will. (We still have 35 years or so to catch up with the events of the film, but predictive crime achieved by strapping people into primordial ooze doesn't seem like it's going to happen anytime soon.) That said, one of the key elements of the Washington, D.C., Precrime division, led by John Anderton (Tom Cruise), is simply a part of the culture now: interactive touchscreens.
It's not just that Anderton can touch a screen to interact with something — he can watch footage and rewind or fast-forward it simply with the touch of a couple of his fingers. At the time, this fluid tech seemed fascinating and a little too far off, but now it's just a commonality in parts of the developed world. And unlike in the film, the tech has already gotten smaller, as you can interact with your smartphone screen to zoom in and out when taking photos or videos.
Smartwatches, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
For all of the ways in which people mock or deride the 1979 film that first brought Starfleet to the big screen, there's at least one way in which The Motion Picture managed to predict a pretty big deal in the modern world of technology.
In this extremely, extremely long film, Captain Kirk and his cohorts on the Starship Enterprise get wearable versions of their communicators (so, not exactly a smartwatch like your Apple Watch). There's a lot of ways in which The Motion Picture was designed to be an upgrade from the small-screen adventures of Kirk and his crew, with this jump up from badges being an obvious boost. It's the kind of technology that, 40 years ago, might have seemed both fittingly futuristic and too impossible to imagine happening in the real world. And yet, in 2019, smartwatches are very much a thing. Too bad Starfleet isn't. (Yet.)
Self-driving cars, Total Recall (1990)
We are still a long way from getting our own version of a Johnny Cab, as seen in Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi/action film Total Recall. But the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, based loosely on a Philip K. Dick story, is all about an average construction worker living in the future (2084, to be exact) who discovers he might not be so average after all. (Or he's dreaming about being a secret agent. One or the other.)
At one point, as Douglas Quaid (or is it Carl Hauser?) tries to evade capture, he gets into a vehicle that doesn't need a person to drive it. Granted, Schwarzenegger's aiming to drive a bit faster than the weird Audio-Animatronic-style robot Johnny Cab is willing to allow, but the self-driving vehicle feels very apt to a world in which companies like Google and Uber are trying their hand at vehicles that might have a person at the front of the car without actually maneuvering it.
THE WORST OF THE WORST
Dehydrated pizza, Back to the Future Part II (1989)
There are arguably a lot of ways you could ding the 1989 sequel to Back to the Future for getting the future wrong. Yes, fine, the film, in which the raffish teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels to the year 2015 to save his future children, did manage to predict the Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series. (And there's even an intimation that 3D would come back in vogue at the movie theaters.) But it's also a film with hoverboards (actual hoverboards, mind you, not the wheeled devices that were in vogue recently) and this little gem from the McFly household.
Wouldn't it be nice to have pizza that you could cook in the span of 15 seconds or so? It sure would, but the vision of Pizza Hut's dehydrated pizza is truly nonsensical to imagine in today's health-conscious kitchens.
Dr. Know, Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
Let's emphasize something here: The placement of a film on the worst half of this list doesn't mean the film itself is bad. Getting future technology wrong is a pretty reasonable thing to see when you're dealing with science fiction. It happens. And it did happen in the chilly but incredible Steven Spielberg film Artificial Intelligence: AI in the summer of 2001.
Spielberg, working off an idea Stanley Kubrick had been pursuing before his death, wove a haunting tale of the future and end of humanity as filtered through the eyes of a robot child played by Haley Joel Osment. At one point, Osment's character David is desperate for answers about the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio and goes to what amounts to a very large search engine called Dr. Know. Voiced by Robin Williams, Dr. Know is a search engine that costs money and feels a lot like what would have happened if Ask Jeeves had been dominant in the world of the Internet instead of Google.
The idea of Dr. Know is interesting, but the execution is utterly perplexing. A search engine that costs money! Come on.
Flying cars, Blade Runner (1982)
Fair is fair: Lots of science fiction movies invoke the image of flying vehicles. Blade Runner wasn't the first, nor was it the last. But while the moody neo-noir captures a sense of the fraying emotional edge of people living in the far-off year of 2019 (remember when that date seemed impossibly far away?), some of the technology in the film that's meant to evoke the future just feels unintentionally old-fashioned now.
The flying cars in the film are a prime example of this, a touch that feels like it's best left to '50s-era pulp science fiction instead of a grim look at the realities of sentient androids. So much of Blade Runner feels apt and horrific even if it's not accurate to the current landscape, but flying cars just seems like an also-ran from The Jetsons.
Hand phones, Total Recall (2012)
The decision to remake Total Recall in 2012 was a real head-scratcher. The original film is well liked, of course, but making a futuristic movie decades after the original felt so offbeat and distinctive was just asking for trouble. The film as a whole is pretty weak — Colin Farrell can be an exciting and compelling actor, but not when he's doing the bland-hero bit like he is here — and one of the examples of futuristic technology is truly baffling.
That would be the hand phones, meaning phones where you can talk to someone through a device implanted into your hand and that you can access by sticking your hand on a display screen. It might seem novel, but who would want to be hemmed into talking to someone on a display screen as long as you stick your hand on a surface or wall? It's a weird choice in a film full of them.
The paper trails, Brazil (1985)
Brazil is, let's be clear, a wonderful film and the best non-Monty Python movie Terry Gilliam ever directed. The depiction of a dystopian culture hell-bent on making everyone conform is as Orwellian as you're going to get outside of straight-up adapting the author's iconic novel 1984.
But one of the key elements of the film feels like the kind of depiction of the future that would keep going away because of the shifting expansion of computer technology. There's a long, deliberately satirical depiction of paperwork causing more than a few headaches in the film for our hero Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce); while the mounting problems he deals with are darkly funny, we're in a world that's moved beyond paper in ways that make Brazil manage to be both prescient and antiquated, often in the same moment.