We tend to think about the future in terms of possibility. Assuming that we continue to advance as a species and don’t come down with a case of the apocalypse, the notion of “the future” is one where things that are not possible now become possible. Of course, in science fiction, this growth is usually far more drastic than it is in real life—we don’t drive flying cars, and all the cool tablets and phones we do have don’t necessarily work in the sexy ways that we imagined before their debut. Real progress is slow and boring, and big game changers like ereaders tend to coexist with whatever it was we assumed they would replace (like books). Given the way 2001: A Space Odyssey set expectations, 2001 must have been an extremely disappointing year.
Interstellar doesn’t really specify when it takes place, but it’s clearly meant to be far in the future. However, it’s a very understated future—their trucks still look like our trucks, their homes like the ones we live in—even their rockets and spacecraft look a lot like things we create today. Probably the most advanced bit of technology there—TARS, the shuttle’s robotic AI—is decidedly old school, designed to look like an ancient computer terminal, but with some impressive mobility.
It’s not all that often when a movie’s far future looks a lot like it does now—even though a more understated approach that doesn’t scream Blade Runner is probably more realistic in the end, it rarely happens. Here are five more well-done and interesting understated sci-fi futures:
Rian Johnson’s fantastic time-travel film is actually concerned with two time periods—Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2044, and Bruce Willis’ 2074—but it’s primarily set in the first. While advanced technology is present (I mean, time travel), there’s a pretty lo-fi approach to the world that gives it a grounded, familiar feel. Part of it is the film’s unusual setting of Kansas City, in conjunction with the deliberate choice to make a small movie that mostly takes place at a farm. The end result is a smart thriller that uses it’s sci-fi elements to enhance the overall experience, as opposed to weighing it down.
While her is set in the near future, it’s success lies in the fact that the world it presents is one that more or less already exists. It’s the world as it is now, if the world were designed by Apple—and worked the way it wanted to as well.
District 9 takes place in South Africa, nearly 30 years after aliens arrived, effectively marooned above Johannesburg. District 9’s tight focus means we don’t really see much of the rest of the world, but it’s not an especially cutting-edge one. On the other hand, the titular District is a slum for the aliens, and just about any other locale is probably a lot better off by default. Whatever high-tech stuff we do see (mostly alien weaponry) is considerably grungy and barely together—but very dangerous.
Fun fact you might have forgotten about the first X-Men film: it’s set in “the not too distant future.” This particular tidbit is interesting, mostly because of X-Men‘s place in superhero movie history. See, X-Men isn’t really a superhero movie—it’s a science fiction one. Think about it: the leather flightsuits, the super cool underground lair, the genetics lectures—it all reads as a way of making comic book characters palatable to people who would otherwise be scared away. That’s why the film’s “future” setting really only matters in relation to the titular heroes—the rest of the world is pretty much the same as the one we already live in.
Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film depicts a bleak future where we might have made great leaps forward, if we hadn’t succumbed to despair. As a dystopia-in-progress, Cuarón’s depiction of a world without hope is chilling, because the layer of sci-fi futurism present in similarly bleak settings like The Hunger Games‘ Panem is gone.