Why Can’t America Make Innovative Movies about the Future Anymore?

A failure of imagination, explained

You don’t have to watch more than the first 15 minutes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to feel like you’ve seen this before. Viewers are treated to a parched planet, a lonely farming family, and a Death Star. There is an Arabesque market with lots of people dressed like they live in 19th century Cairo, though some of them are aliens. How is this different than the planet Tatooine in the 1977 incarnation of Star Wars? It’s not, except the director has upped the Middle Eastern flavor of the original, such that the desert moon Jedha reminds one of the Syrian Civil War, with rebels shooting at the regime troops patrolling the streets.

Reviewers liked Rogue One; it has an 85 percent “fresh” rating on the review-aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes. Alien: Covenant has also garnered decent reviews. It, too, is basically a fancy remake of its progenitor, the 1979 classic Alien. The public may like these recent futuristic blockbusters for entertainment value, and for anyone raised on either franchise, they are hard not to go watch. But though they are perfectly well made, their protagonists are hollow, dry, and colorless. That is because at the end of the day they both rehash ideas that were much fresher 40 years ago. Thus, what they tell us is something deeper about ourselves, Hollywood, America, and the world: We can’t make movies about the future anymore.

The science-fiction genre dates from the early 20th century, but it seriously got going in the post-war period, with shows such as The Twilight Zone(1959–1964). The best Hollywood science fiction was produced in the period from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 to the mid 1980s, when Terminator, Alien, Robocop, and Blade Runner appeared. Back then, Hollywood made movies about the future — not always a bright one, but at least an innovative one.

We now live in that future. 2001 has come and gone. Back to the Future II was set in 2015. Yet we don’t have flying cars, and our space stations remain small and depressing. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hollywood has given up making movies about the future in favor of reliving past successes, as evidenced by the reboot of Planet of the Apes and numerous other recent remakes. This isn’t just about nostalgia, and it isn’t just about a lack of cinematic originality. In a broader sense, it is about our inability to imagine the future. Even when we do imagine it, in films such as Interstellar (2014) or The Martian (2015), the vehicles made by men for spaceflight barely function. In Martian the astronaut gets stuck on Mars.

The recent work of Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner and the first Alien, is a tacit admission that we are going back in time. His last two films in the Alien franchise are prequels set in 2093 and 2104, respectively, decades before the firstfilm took place. Rogue One ends some time before Star Wars.

In other words, it took us 40 years to go back in time. Is this because Americans are pessimistic about the future? Polls don’t provide a definitive answer. A 2011 USA Today/Gallup poll found that only 44 percent of Americans thought today’s youths would “have a better life” than their parents. But 57 percent of those aged 18–29 — the youths in question — disagreed. A recent Hart Research Associates survey of college students found that 54 percent thought they had a good chance of getting a job after graduation. Jeffrey Jones, who has analyzed Gallup polls going back to the 1980s, says that optimism, although it is low, is higher than it was four decades ago. So we are less pessimistic now than we were in the 1970s, when we could imagine a fascinating future.

In our subconscious we know that the future won’t include spaceships and Mars colonies.

The problem, then, defies easy explanation. In our subconscious we know that the future won’t include spaceships and Mars colonies. When we see daily terror attacks in the UK, Egypt, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Kenya, Afghanistan, and many other countries, we know that the future looks more like Syria than like Star Trek. We are living through an unprecedented crisis of confidence in our civilization and its values. The futurist concepts of the 20th century, which underpinned the construction of entire cities such as Brasilia, promised new, utopian patterns of life. Where the 20th century produced practical dreamers, including those monsters who subjected the world to the barbarities of Nazism and Communism, the 21st century doesn’t seem to produce much of anything. It feels stagnant.

We can’t make movies about something we can’t imagine. At least in previous eras some imagined that a dystopian future would resemble 1984 or Brave New World, with massive social-engineering experiments oppressing society. Some saw a post-apocalyptic world because they imagined a nuclear war would destroy the world we had. What do we imagine today? Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly recently said people “wouldn’t leave their house” if they knew about the numerous threats we face.

That’s a depressing future, and America’s vaunted entertainment industry seems a long way off from pointing the way to a more hopeful one.


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