Sci-fi visions of the
Even if you aren't the biggest sci-fi fan
the world, it really is fun to watch filmmakers' attempts to describe
future in this medium, and I think that is sometimes the only
to watch many of the efforts in this genre.
Typically, the setting (and, hence, the
production design) can be divided into three broad classes. This
article attempts to illustrate these classes by focusing on patterns in
their most salient features. Each category will be addressed with
some elaboration and a number of film titles that exemplify the
characteristics of the respective categories will be provided.
This vision of the future often
humanity as having achieved some higher level of advancement.
there are conflicts, but everyone works for a larger purpose than
works toward the common good rather than individual advancement.
Baser attitudes and emotions are so under control as to be shocking to
the rest of the cast when they are exhibited by another member.
like living in Miss Manners' subconscious under a cocktail of Prozac
is "redundant." Everything is stream-lined. Clothes are
like uniforms: no pockets, no collars, no neckties. Color
designates affiliation rather than fashion sense, kind of like the goth
and emo kids these days.
ever used. This is a civilized time. If required, lasers
employed, although gunfighter-style skill is rarely on display.
future isn't big enough for their kind.
other worlds, space itself (aboard starships, space stations, etc.), it
doesn't really matter... just look at how clean everything is!
grandiose, though never opulent. Everything is streamlined such
even doors lack any visible mechanism for their operation. If you
want to eject a disk, you're out of luck. Oh, wait. I'm
of a Macintosh.
but unobtrusive. A voice-based interface is typical. We
need no stinking keyboards.
This is the means to an end as far as plot development goes.
results in encounters with adversaries, although space battles are not
the norm here. Those just get in the way of the dry dialogue.
Electric. Silent. Comfy. They probably drive
No more road rage. There goes another hobby.
of. This is the Scientific Age, after all. Strange
happenings are more likely due to...
a given, their presence is fairly common, but is often not the focus in
and of itself. No, that would be the be tight-fitting uniforms on
the few female members of the crew.
on the budget, may be relatively commonplace. However, often they
are so close to human in their actions and appearance that they
may not be regarded as robots per se. As with Sam Donaldson.
The glass is now somehow half empty
what was apparently a more prosperous time. The apocalypse need
be of biblical proportions; it may instead be due to the gradual
of the economy, the environment, etc. Interestingly, a dichotomy
is established according to where this apocalypse occurred in
These will be explored separately under parts "A" and "B," because any
taxonomy can only serve to complicate things.
A. Pre-techno apocalypse
This subcategory epitomizes the
future that this genre conjures in most people's minds. Here, the
future paradoxically drives humanity backward into conditions
of a time prior to the viewer's present.
be favorably compared with Conan the Barbarian: Trying to find some
and make peace in a terrible world, typically by resorting to
combat when all else fails.
animal skins, leather, etc. Apparently everything synthetic has a
much shorter half-life than most environmentalists have come to believe.
objects and other artifacts from throughout history are utilized
for alternate purposes), as the means of manufacturing new goods are
lost. For example, baseball bats and sawed-off shotguns may
where laser guns once held sway. Ahhhh, L.A.!
a desert will be featured. Plan this eventuality into your
future drinking game.
adorned with make-shift building materials and some decoration.
re-appropriated "found" objects and structures are the norm. Sort
of like in the Ozarks.
nonexistent. A few components may still exist... only to be used
as furniture. Any operational computer will typically be treated
with reverence on par with Moses for the Burning Bush. Or me for
distant dream. Humanity has more pressing concerns at the moment
given the scarcity of resources. Which, curiously, sounds exactly
like this moment in history. Hmmmm....
from yesteryear, many now just barely recognizable. Further, some
may be in an especially advanced state of disrepair such that they are
now just horse-drawn chassis. Something like what I drove in
present. We have enough trouble what with the radiation and the
viruses and those damned dirty apes!
However, mutants may make an appearance as a temporary diversion.
Not that there is ever a shortage of other bad guys to battle.
to have survived unless they were military in nature. And
not built by NASA.
"Two steps forward, one step back"
be the best description of this subcategory. Here the future is
but it was clearly a more advanced time (or at least might have been)
things fell into disrepair.
These films project the styles of the
past into the future as though the future has little to draw from in
weakened state. Or, more likely, the producers just turn the
prop department into a buffet.
driven. The protagonist seeks merely to save himself, although
is often accomplished through the incidental fact that his deeds may
the oppressor. Write a really obvious political joke drawing a
to current events. Ha, ha!
is available. Highly utilitarian. These people cannot
a fashion runway. And only the richest of the rich seem to own a
weapons typically supersede the laser guns that populate other futurist
categories. Still trying to get that gun control legislation
on Earth, although trees are about as commonplace as bell
And it's almost always freakin' night, even if no one blacked out the
on this go round.
as though the denizens of the future were required to live in a
Technology is in abundance, but is solidly grounded in its
Oil leaks from machined fittings on dilapidated equipment.
have apparently been driven to extinction.
but the wireless future was severely (and inexplicably) thwarted by the
apocalypse, as evidenced by the rats' nests of cables everywhere.
on the setting in time, although this is rarely the focus of the story
and no one budgeted for this sideline.
of advancement varies according to the setting, but this is apparently
the only outcome that delivers those flying cars. Alternatively,
ground-based vehicles tend to be clunky, noisy, diesel powered, and
over-due for any regularly scheduled preventative maintenance.
may play a role. However, this usually has a basis in a
set of teachings rather than ectoplasm.
notable exception of the aptly named Alien series, are
not present. Apparently this time in history is simply too
for them to make an appearance.
present, but the "cracks" show; they exhibit some traits that hint at
that cannot be corrected in this imperfect future. Or at least
hasn't released that patch yet.
The "Out-There!" Future
This final category sidesteps
by setting itself outside of the timestream in many ways. The
category exists in a separate, parallel dimension that ignores prior
or logical sequences of events (e.g., the invention of robots and
the development of the internal combustion engine). Often there
no clear basis in existing or past styles, at least in ones that have
direct lineage. Anachronisms are almost a given. For
mythological costumes may present themselves while the action takes
in castles... with the aforementioned robots and laser guns among the
protagonist is caught up against his will as he finds he just fell
down a futuristic rabbit hole.
The wilder, the better. Generally, the costumes are a
creative outlet where the artists go wild. It's what would happen
if NASA hired Bob Mackie.
goes! It's one extreme or the other. Filmmakers ignore
and go instead for swords, ray guns, or some improbable combination.
Characters will usually traverse multiple exotic locales.
This genre tends to be focused on spectacle... often at the expense of
little things like the plot or characters.
goes as long as it's big and gaudy! This genre is to Frank Lloyd
Wright what Elton John is to fashion.
rare. Who needs them when we have these scrolls or this wizened
and immediate. Like walking through a door. Faster than
food, but with far less mystery about the whole process.
goes! Roll down the windows in your rocket ship and climb down
ladder to the space station... if you aren't going to use the wings on
your back, that is.
and demons may play out against more common sci-fi features.
The heroine can fire her laser blaster while mounted on her winged
and no one remarks at what a odd sight this is.
They make for great companions, enemies, pets, whatever.
There is no consistency here; it's just a question of the budget and
xenophobia of the filmmakers.
Of course, in
genre that is this wild by its very nature, there are certainly many
that blur these distinctions as well as many, many more that represent
a category of the near future. Those typically look just like
with a Robocop or some Stepford Wives thrown in, so I'm not even going
to address those here. Ha!
A final word... before
Note that I
to enter the Star Wars saga into this taxonomy as the entire
draws very effectively from a number of sources. Also, the scope
of that series is undeniably epic. Thus it lacks the constraints
of setting (both in space and, with the introduction of the prequels,
that would normally confine a film to a particular category.