Back To The Future Part II: how many predictions came true?
We couldn't help but notice we still haven't got a hoverboard, but did Back To The Future Part II get anything right?
Originally published in June 2014.
If you grew up in the 1980s there's a good chance Michael J Fox was your hero. As Marty McFly, he made skateboarding to the sounds of Huey Lewis and the News look like the coolest thing in the world, and certain lines from the Back To The Future franchise have become part of the very fabric of our society. (Think, McFly, think!) Scarily, Marty's 30 year leap into the future is now almost upon us.
So apart from guessing correctly that we would end up obsessed with the 80s, how are all the other Back To The Future Part II predictions panning out?
While filming the Griff vs Marty chase scene, the actors actually "hovered" via harnesses and cables with their shoes attached to the boards, necessitating helpers to carry them around between takes. (Who'd work in showbusiness, eh?) In a Behind The Scenes Special in 1989, director Robert Zemeckis mischievously claimed that hoverboards were real and had only been held back from release because of over-protective parent groups. Result: lots of disappointed kids, and curses from the telephone-answering staff at Mattel.
But are real hoverboards on the horizon? We've had a few false alarms (such as the Christopher-Lloyd-endorsed hoax from Funny Or Die, which featured miraculous boards created by "HUVrTech"), but real inventors are giving it their best efforts. Artist Nils Guadagnin created a board which does indeed float; the bad news is that it requires magnets, and our roads are made of boring old tarmac. Researchers at Université Paris Diderot have successfully experimented with liquid nitrogen and magnetic tracks, but skateboarders aren't known for their love of pre-planned routes. And to paraphrase Doc Brown, I'm sure in the future liquid nitrogen will be available in every corner drugstore, but in 2014 it's a little hard to come by.
Sadly the best Mattel have come up with is their limited edition, non-hovering lookalike from 2012 – but what's a hoverboard without POW-AH?
Marty McFly is a crack shot at The Wild Gunman game, but fails to impress the kids (including a pint-sized Elijah Wood); apparently using your hands means it's "like a baby's toy". How games are actually played in 2015 remains delightfully mysterious.
We've already got a few options, such as body motion detection and voice commands. Playstation's EyeToy, Xbox's Kinect (and even Wii if we count remote control) have got it covered. But what next? A game which tracks your thoughts? Soon a BCI (Brain Computer Interface) could be used for more than just controlling artificial limbs: companies such as NueroSky and Emotiv are creating headsets which respond to the brain's electrical signals, and Samsung have announced that they're working on mind-controlled tablets and mobile phones for future release. Is anyone else excited and freaked out?
Marty's first view of the future is a skyway full of streamlined cars zooming along lanes illuminated by hovering lamps. (Luckily the DeLorean fits right in: as Doc says, "If you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?") But even the skyway gets jammed; whether this is a hint that "progress" is useless, or a prescient joke about future overpopulation, who can say?
Flying cars are a fairly recent addition to Hill Valley; there are still ordinary-looking vehicles alongside the super-sleek, and Goldie Wilson III helpfully pops up to advertise his business of converting cars into skyway flyers for $39,999.95. So when can we get our own flying cars? Actually, they do exist. Well, sort of; they're more "small aeroplanes with wheels" but it's a start, isn't it?
The Delorean features a barcode number plate – an idea already raised in the USA, although it's still very much at the "Neat idea, guys, but civil liberty laws will never allow it" stage. (And how would anyone without a scanner report a car crime?)
Marty also notices the Texaco garage now features robots; prototypes for robotic pit stops date back to 1998, but it's never really caught on. However, Google has debuted its driverless car, and not to be outdone, Volvo is working on a driverless system which will involve magnetised roads – which have also been touted as a way of charging up electric cars. (Maybe the hoverboard isn't such a distant dream after all.)
The most useful piece of technology has got to be "Mr Fusion", the "home energy reactor", which enables Doc to convert rubbish into power via nuclear fusion. (If nothing else, the film predicted our 21st century eagerness to recycle.) We're constantly discovering new ways to use stuff that would otherwise be wasted: cars can run on old chip fat, a group of African school girls designed a generator which runs on urine, wee has also been used to produce rocket fuel, and there is a way to run cars on compost. Fossil fuels are so over.
Incidentally, there's some debate about how the Delorean works. From the first movie:
Marty: "Does it run, like, on regular unleaded gasoline?"
Doc: "Unfortunately, no, it requires something with a little more kick. Plutonium."
Marty: "Ah, plutonium... Wait a minute... Are you telling me this sucker's nuclear?"
Doc: "This sucker's electrical, but I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need."
By Back to the Future Part III, the technicalities appear to have changed slightly; when they run out of fuel, Doc explains that "Mr Fusion powers the time circuits in the flux capacitor, but the internal combustion engine runs on ordinary gasoline and always has." Ooh, that fibber!
In a twist of fate, it was announced back in 2012 that Deloreans were to be re-launched as electric cars; this doesn’t seem to be the case but we can still hope, right?
The characters of 2015 mix the outrageous with the average, and combine 1980s flair (bright colours, ra-ra skirts and skintight spandex) with a healthy dose of "generic futuristic". Where Back To The Future Part II really, ahem, nails it, is with the manicure of the woman in the antiques shop. Intricate designs were once the territory of 12-year-old girls, but in the 21st century, everybody who's anybody has "nail art".
Griff's buddies go for the timeless appeal of leopard print; they also wear face paint, plenty of plastic and fierce metal, wacky headgear, detachable finger claws and the odd breastplate, with or without sound effects. (Gadgets which made chicken noises on command were found on keyrings back in the 1980s, so it wasn’t such a leap to expect they'd become part of our wardrobes. But for almost-adult teens, really?)
The 80s was a time of speedy convenience, hence the attraction of self-drying clothes which double as hairdryers. We haven't yet developed shrink-to-fit garments (not sure why it would be a good idea to start out with arms like elephant trunks) but Marty Jr's sleeves dangle out of shape, neatly combining his natural misfit style with the recurring theme that modern technology isn't all it's cracked up to be.
But most importantly, when are we getting self-lacing trainers? Given that Nike first hinted at this with limited edition lookalike trainers in 2008, and moved on to actual flashy lights in 2011, the prospects of self-tying shoes looks pretty good; Nike designer Tinker Hatfield has confirmed that we'll see power laces in 2015.
Nike filed a patent back in 2009 for button-controlled automatic lacing, although I think we were all far more excited by the Kickstarter project of fan Blake Bevin, who made a working pair of such trainers in 2010. (She pointed out that Nike's patent is different from the vision she has for a final, marketable version: she's aiming for the real, hands-free deal.
Doc tells Marty "all the kids in the future wear their pants inside out", but evidently he was just being tactful, because Marty Jr is the only nerd who actually does this. However, for a brief moment in the early 1990s, rap duo Kris Kross wore their jeans back to front, so perhaps this counts as life imitating art? (Incidentally, nobody could have predicted the early 90s trend for wearing plastic dummies. Shudder.)
Most of the male population of Hill Valley rock the double tie and / or double wristwatch look. Far from waiting around for Nike to get their act together, this is one prediction we can actually fulfil. Call yourself a BTTF fan? Let's make this happen!
What the weather service actually does is hotly debated among Back To The Future geeks.
The line is: "Too bad the post office isn't as efficient as the weather service" which suggests the climate is controlled, especially as the pouring rain stops so abruptly. Regulating the weather isn't a ridiculous proposition; scientists have been working to find an effective method for decades, trying out techniques such as shooting silver iodide into clouds or seeding them with salt particles to create raindrops.
But who knew that email would leave the postal service with so little to do except sending out online-shopping parcels? Even that may slip from their grasp; Amazon boss Jeff Bezos now has plans to make deliveries by flying drones and DHL have already tried it in Germany. (I'm getting the idea that most of our scientific progress is down to people who think it would be cool to make life one big sci-fi movie.)
The most surprising thing about Hill Valley is how little the town centre changes; in reality the cute 80s nostalgia café would have been bulldozed to make way for a high-rise apartment building, or at the very least, turned into a Starbucks.
With a nod to the café's past as a fitness centre, it features stationary bikes so you can eat and work out at the same time; these days we'd prefer to make our multi-tasking more ecologically useful with power-generating exercise equipment.
The 2015 café features talking heads (based on 1980s icons and the TV show "Max Headroom") and service is automatic; luckily they have fewer glitches than supermarket self-service checkouts. We haven’t come up with electronic wait staff yet, but giant vending machines are beginning to replace the traditional village shop. As machinery gets more sophisticated, it will inevitably replace even more of the human beings who require salaries.
Inflation isn't quite as bad as predicted; a Pepsi doesn't yet cost $50. However, for those of us who remember the days when a Curly Wurly cost 10p and a Crème Egg was the size of your fist, we're feeling the pinch. Back To The Future Part II successfully predicted food getting smaller – do they get points for that?