How Cinema Sees The Future

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From Blade Runner to The Fifth Element, from Total Recall to Dredd, cinema has often been called upon to give us a sneak peek into the future. What is in store for us? How will the planet look a few centuries or millennia from now? If the production designers of Hollywood are to be believed, it will look pretty darn cool and probably have floating things. Here are a few examples of future Earths – so no spaceships, no alien planets and nowhere that just looks a bit grotty...

Rain-soaked, neon-lit and multi-cultural, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is perhaps the second most influential futurescape of all time (Metropolis just pips it by influencing Blade Runner itself). “Visual futurist” Syd Mead was one of those responsible for the look, which he called “retro-deco” or “trash chic”. A world away from the sterile interiors of 2001 or Logan’s Run, this beaten-up noir look has shaped cinema ever since. Anyone else fancy some Chinese food?

Like Blade Runner or David Cameron, Metropolis envisioned a stratified future where the poor were confined to ground level (or below!) while the rich swan about high in the clear air in palatial towers. But Fritz Lang’s film goes further, portraying the gardens of the rich as a sort of Eden and the machines at which the workers toil as literally demonic forces. The place is a powder-keg; let’s hope no one introduces a saintly do-gooder girl or her evil robot doppelganger who could cause the whole thing to blow!

There are several distinct stages to A.I. and production designs to match, but each is strangely haunting. There’s the drowned New York, the neon-lit mecha-centre, the wilderness flesh fairs and the drowned – and then frozen – world where David searches for the Blue Fairy into the far future. Most of these are cold and harsh landscapes – like a Michael Mann film, blue is the predominant tone – but they’re all as insanely beautiful as you might expect of a Spielberg / Kubrick collaboration.

The future New York City of Luc Besson’s dementedly entertaining sci-fi romp was developed from the work of comic-book artists Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The drained seas allow the towers of Manhattan to dip lower and stretch higher than in real life, creating true canyon streets filled with dizzying detail and multiple layers of intersecting traffic for Bruce Willis to plough through in a broken taxi and Milla Jovovich to plunge down wearing only thermal bandages. People in this future are much better dressed than the present too, thanks to costumes designed Jean-Paul Gaultier.

A derelict future, almost entirely stripped of humanity and uniformly cloaked in the ash of civilisation, is the hallmark of this grim John Hillcoat adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. With colour almost entirely lacking, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe relies more on shape and the occasional flicker of firelight to give the landscape character and definition – or maybe that should be a flicker of hope that somehow something will survive and grow from the dust-choked apocalypse.

Steven Spielberg consulted a raft of “futurists” before building his vision of Philip K. Dick’s world, and they were so good at spotting trends that much of what they predicted is already coming to pass. Tom Cruise’s motion-based computers are, more or less, already in games consoles in homes, while those e-paper newspapers look less and less futuristic and more and more realistic. But it all combines seamlessly with Janusz Kamiński’s lens-flared, super-saturated cinematography to create a world that’s almost black-and-white and certainly an example of future noir.

Paul Verhoeven’s take on Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending tale of unreliable memories and identity issues is remembered for many design flourishes – but they’re mostly about the technology rather than the sets. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid lives in a largely concrete world, with Star Trek-like, rather sterile interiors, but around the edges are cabs driven by robots, bizarre masks that can turn into bombs and tracking devices the size of golf balls that are inserted through your nose.

From a hardscrabble mountain town in the Appalachians that would have looked much the same at any point in the last two hundred years, The Hunger Games takes our heroine to the Capitol, a monumental city that’s as visually oppressive as it is politically domineering. With lines and architecture based on designs from Nazi Berlin, Soviet Moscow and Communist China, it’s an imposing vision, set off nicely by the sinister masked “Peacekeepers” who protect it.

What does Demolition Man’s 2032 San Angeles look like? Well, much like San Diego in 1993 actually, since quite a bit of it was shot there (check out the San Diego Convention Centre, home of Comic-Con, in the background at one point). But it’s the weird little changes that stand out most in the memory; three mysterious seashells for personal hygiene when using the toilet, and some unspeakable touch-free version of sex. Not to mention the Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. This is one future that’s just too bizarre to contemplate.

Neon-bright, hyper-stylised and rainbow hued, there are few films to feature as much speed-blurring as this one. While the designers did use a few real-life concept cars as pedestrian vehicles in this futuristic racing epic, the majority of the film takes its inspiration from its cartoon, anime roots – hence it makes almost no sense but looks luminescently cool. It’s basically a live-action cartoon rather than a real future concept; we just threw it in here for the pretty colours.

Faithfully adapted from Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga masterpiece, the Neo-Tokyo of Akira is a cyberpunk paradise. There are occasional touches of Metropolis and Moebius in there, but this is very much Otomo’s creation brought to animated life, with the soaring skyscrapers of Neo-Tokyo rising over the ruins of the old city left by World War III. Biker gangs and rogue government agents roam the streets and strange mutations rise from the radiation in a future that still feels properly futuristic.

If Mad Max were made today, the roving gangs in a post-apocalyptic Australia would be roaming in search of water. But with the oil crisis still fresh in 1979 and green issues less centred on the radar, it made a little more sense for them to be travelling in pursuit of petrol to keep moving (although we still reckon they haven’t thought their fuel consumption issues through). Still, the combination of huge empty landscapes and fast cars somehow sticks in the mind despite the tiny budget and lack of obvious future touches. Well done, George Miller.

In contrast to the many rosy-tinted views of the future that see humanity continuing to develop and invent with only the small matter of apocalypses or totalitarian regimes to overcome, Mike Judge’s film foresees a world where everybody becomes really, really dumb. His future is therefore a redneck vision of 2505, where there are monster trucks rather than flying cars and fields watered with energy drinks. The sad thing is, it’s horribly plausible.

While it’s the winged fantasy segments of Terry Gilliam’s cult classic that linger in the mind, the bureaucratic dystopia of this future reality also has a distinctive look. Production designer Norman Garwood and Terry Gilliam started off with a ‘30s, Art Deco feel, but then ran “flex ducts” through every set and added other incongruous touches (a torture chamber in a cooling tower?) to bring his world to life. As befits a world full of clerks and unreliable machines, it’s grey-tinged and functional, but just off-kilter enough to signal that things are very different.


Another scarily realistic vision of the future is the one in Pixar’s trash-pocalypse masterpiece, where we fail to check our consumerist excesses and leave a planet buried by rubbish and peopled only by plucky little robots charged with tidying the whole thing up – a Sisyphean task that leaves all but one of them burnt out and adding to the litter. It would be an unthinkably bleak vision were it not for the immense charm of Wall-E himself, befriending a cockroach, watching Hello Dolly and trying to decide if a spork he finds belongs with his spoon collection or his fork collection.

Not to be confused with Nine, the Daniel Day-Lewis musical, this is a post-apocalyptic future where all that’s left of humanity are small sackcloth dolls, each containing a portion of a pioneering scientist’s soul and designed to survive the toxic gas that has killed all life on Earth. Matrix-like machines patrol for any sign that life endures, and a barren Earth surrounds them as machine and (sort of) man battles for survival. As you’d expect from a film produced by Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton, it’s gorgeous to look at but all a bit bizarre.

Continuing the theme of grim post-apocalyptic futures, Delicatessen is the tale of a Parisian lodging house where the residents have turned to cannibalism to survive. This was something of a stop-gap project for director Jean-Pierre Jeunet while he tried to get the money together to make City Of Lost Children, and the shoestring budget makes for some interesting decisions here. No sweeping shots of the devastated world, no great action chases – just a lonely house against a discoloured sky, full of reclaimed furniture and weird people.

Much of Terry Gilliam’s time-travel drama takes place in the present, but the few glimpses we get of the future where Bruce Willis lives, underground with other survivors of a global plague, linger in the memory. There are arresting shots of wild animals roaming the abandoned New York overhead – giraffes crossing bridges and big cats roaming the skyscrapers and streets – and underneath a maze of cages and bug-eyed surveillance screens and bizarre straitjacket-style contraptions.

We caught glimpses of the future in The Terminator (1984), with surviving humans huddled underground and venturing out only on sorties against the robot armies. But it was in the opening moments of T2 that we really saw how that future would look, with robot skeletons striding across the landscape under covering fire from hovering machines, red eyes gleaming. The crunch as one of them lands a shiny foot on a human skull and walks on unheeding is as chilling as anything the future has thrown at us elsewhere.

A long-time favourite of the Empire team and practically no-one else, Kurt Wimmer’s emotionally-bereft future owes much to the likes of 1984 and Logan’s Run, but manages to craft its own feel from the lot. Heavy on nods to fascist and church architecture, this mixes big concrete heaviness and endless propaganda streams with high arches and light streaming from windows. And apparently in this future, every single person will be really, really chiselled of jaw and cheekbone.

This one is less about building the future and more about drowning it – although we’re well on our way back here in reality. The Universal logo at the film’s opening sees water slowly cover the globe, and the film takes place on an entirely drowned world (the depiction here is meteorologically implausible, but just go with it). What’s left is a scavenged world, whether it’s the trimaran of Kevin Costner’s Mariner or the oil-guzzling semi-derelict Exxon Valdez, or the makeshift atoll created as a port, but one that’s been cleverly designed so that you almost forget to ask about the logical inconsistencies in how it all works…

A future so different, it made the list twice. You can make many criticisms of Len Wiseman’s re-do of Philip K. Dick’s story, but the production design is one of its best features. Buildings are cantilevered within an inch of their lives, seeming to hover unsupported over other structures below, but in the London-set scenes the old, familiar structures can sometimes be glimpsed underneath or around the edges. Some of it makes less than no sense (the Drop?!) but there’s plenty to entertain the eye while you’re trying not to think about the script.