The dire future warnings of recent sci-fi films

Feature Ryan Lambie 7 May 2014 - 06:53

What do the future warnings of films such as Elysium, Transcendence and RoboCop tell us about present fears? Ryan takes a closer look...

NB: The following contains mild spoilers for Transcendence.

Shiny silver suits. Jet-packs. Atomic-powered cars. That cosy old idea of a technological utopia, crystalised so unforgettably in shows like Lost In Space and The Jetsons, was abruptly and firmly displaced by the bleak and cynical dystopias of the 1970s and 80s. Soylent Green presented us with a horrifying future city, over-crowded and duped into eating hideous processed food. The Terminator imagined a 21st century where humanity had been all but wiped out by intelligent machines, and where even humans in the past weren’t safe from their cold grasp.

Grim visions of the future are far from new in science fiction, and their ideas often contrast starkly with reality. The year 1997‘s been and gone, and Manhattan is far from the prison island presented in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Then again, science fiction’s futures are seldom meant to be Nostradamus-like predictions - they’re extrapolations of where we are in the present, and where our current position might lead us in the coming years.

The science fiction films of the past 18-or-so months have introduced their own versions of the future. So what are they warning us about, and how do they tie into the thoughts and fears of contemporary scientists and journalists? Let’s start by taking a look back at a sci-fi action flick from last summer.

Elysium, The Purge and The Hunger Games

Neill Blomkamp's Elysium presented a future world where the divide between rich and poor has stretched out into a chasm. Los Angeles has devolved into a polluted, poverty-stricken dustbowl by the year 2154, while the wealthy have long since migrated to an orbiting space station - the Elysium of the title. Here, the world's one percent live in gilded luxury, surrounded by marble, acres of greenery and glittering architecture. Robot lackeys tend to their every whim, while unfeasibly expensive medical pods cure their ailments. Back on Earth, blue-collar factory worker Max (Matt Damon) resolves to break into the heavily-guarded Elysium, his goal: to heal his stricken body in one of those med-pods.

The dire warning: Blomkamp has said in interviews that his orbiting billionaires' playground is meant satirically - a pointed exaggeration of the present. "The entire film is an allegory. I tend to think a lot about wealth discrepancy,” the director told The Telegraph. “People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.”

Blomkamp has also argued that Elysium isn't a 'message' film (it's an "observation", he told us last year), but it isn't difficult to see parallels between Elysium's wealth gap and the concerns raised in recent articles and books.

"London has become a citadel, sealed off from the rest of Britain," wrote The Guardian's John Harris this month. Harris argues that the rising property prices in the UK's capital is gradually sealing it off from the rest of the country and transforming it into a playground for the wealthy few. Taken this way, Harris' cautionary view of London could see it become a kind of grounded Elysium in years to come - a billionaires' paradise without the science fiction overtones.

The situation isn't confined to London, either. In a similar vein, economist Thomas Pikkety, in his recent book Capital In The Twenty-First Century, warns that the growing gap between the ordinary and the wealthy is not only widening, Elysium-style, but also endangers the very fabric of our monetary system.

"Although I am not a politician," Pikkety told The Observer, "it is obvious that this movement, which is speeding up, will have political implications – we will all be poorer in the future in every way and that creates crisis. I have proved that under the present circumstances capitalism simply cannot work."

Elysium isn't the only recent sci-fi film to explore this topic. The Purge imagined a near-future America where the population is controlled by an annual, 12-hour event where any crime can be committed without fear of conviction. The most affluent citizens close the gates on their fortified mansions, leaving the rest of the country to unleash its fury on itself. The future offered up by the Hunger Games books and films is similarly dystopian: an unfeasibly wealthy, decadent Capitol wields absolute power over the rest of Panem - a post-apocalyptic North America split up into districts of varying prosperity.

The stories and audiences are very different, but the underlying thinking in Elysium, The Purge and The Hunger Games is strikingly similar: allow the gap between the rich and poor to grow too wide, and the results could be grim for all but the wealthiest.


As the age of artificially intelligent computers draws near, a resistance movement called R.I.F.T. aims to disrupt scientific progress with a string of terror attacks. Computer genius Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is caught up in one of these attacks, and has his consciousness uploaded to cyberspace by his grieving wife and scientific partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). The perfect interface between human and machine appears to have been achieved, but is the result a benefit or a danger?

The dire warning: At a conference last June, scientist and Google engineering director Ray Kurtzweil predicted that, by 2045, computer technology would have exceeded the power of the human mind. "Based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain," Kurtzweil said, "we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold." 

Kurtzweil further suggested that forthcoming technology would allow us to achieve a kind of immortality, with our minds uploaded to computers like Johnny Depp in Transcendence.

"We're going to become increasingly non-biological to the point where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important anymore," Kurtzweil continued.

Many of these concepts are explored in Transcendence, but the film's unusual in that it doesn't necessarily depict these scientific breakthroughs as inherently negative (we're treading carefully here to avoid spoiling things). The warning in Transcendence, perhaps, is not so much that scientific progress will destroy us, but that our own fear of technological progress will have its own potentially devastating impact.


Director Jose Padilha's RoboCop remake imagined its future law enforcer as a cybernetic puppet made by a corporation eager to foist drone technology on a distrustful American public. As OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) plans a nationwide PR stunt that will lend a human face to his future of law enforcement, the wounded cop inside RoboCop (played by Joel Kinnaman) attempts to overcome the confines of his programming.

The dire warning: Anxiety over the use of unmanned drones has become quite prevalent in the media in recent years, and the University of Sheffield's Professor Noel Sharkey has been a particularly insistent voice of concern.

"Over 4,000 robots are serving in Iraq at present, others in Afghanistan," he wrote back in 2007. "And now they are armed."

Padilha's RoboCop presents its own version of what a drone-led future occupation of the Middle East might look like, complete with colossal ED-209s stomping down dusty streets growling "peace be upon you" as the local populace cowers in terror. Padilha depicts a future where the government, corporations (as embodied by OmniCorp) and the media all conspire to wield power for its own sake.

"There is a political debate that’s going to happen around the use of drones and the use of robots in war," Padilha told us earlier this year. "It’s a serious issue. You can think about it like, if America pulled out of Vietnam because soldiers were dying, if robots were there instead, what would have happened? It’s true that the automation of violence opens the door to fascism. And it’s a real, serious issue. I think in 10, 20 or 30 years, countries are going to start talking about legislation, where they’re going to have to decide whether they should allow robots to kill people, or allow law enforcement to become automated."

RoboCop's concerns about drones, privacy and free-will aren't necessarily incompatible with Transcendence's less dystopian view of scientific progress. Technology can and has done wonderful things for society, but like all concentrations of power, it's when that technology is used as a tool of oppression that it can become dangerous.

We won't necessarily see an orbiting space station for billionaires built in the next century, or scientist upload his consciousness to a computer, or robot law enforcers take to the streets of Detroit. But what these science fiction films and others do is crystalise the concerns of the present in a way that no other genre can.

Social division, far-reaching technological change, and the dangers of power wielded for its own sake - by casting their imaginations out into a possible future, filmmakers can lend a voice to the concerns and realities we all face in the present.

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Brilliant article! Even bad science fiction is always an allegory to actual events and trends in general. It could be a warning. Or just entertainment. But the underlying themes are worth thinking about. One of my favourite genres just because of that. You could make a series of that, starting with the SciFi films of the 70s and the parallels to real-life society. Would love that.

I am a father of a year old boy and I get extremely upset when I read about global warming. It seems that it is inevitable. There are some terrifying theories that by 2040 climate will get really harsh for humans. At that time my son will be younger than I am now. I really don't want him to live in some sort of apocalyptic hell like we see in the movies now.

The problem however is, that while Hollywood provides the distraction of entertainment, a real disparity between the rich and poor is happening in reality.
And, pretty soon we won't need sci-fi or Hollywood to show us a dystopian future -- we'll be living in it -- and it won't be that entertaining.

"London has become a citadel, sealed off from the rest of Britain," wrote The Guardian's John Harris
Nothing surprising about a Guardian writer oversimplifying things to make an stupid and hopelessly inaccurate statement that is anti-something-or-other.

I enjoyed the article on the whole but the films you mentioned show only the fears of those writing. Some may agree with them, but there will be plenty of others who disagree. And if you think about, and will know already, this kind of thing is not limited to science fiction.

I'm more afraid of Islam than global warming.

Hollywood, ever raising awareness, ever the hypocrite.

That made me lol for real. "Hey M. Night Shaman-lamb, I'm gonna remake the Happening and call it What's Actually Happening, starring- THIS COMMENT HAS BEEN TARGETED AS HATE SPEECH, NOW BACK TO THE COMMENT- mushroom cloud, the end."

I think the advent of Quantum Computing is where the advances are going to be unfathomably world changing. NASA and Google went halfsies on one of the first commercially made QC's and I believe the NSA or other US agencies are on board too. As one of the implications of QC's is that any encryption that would take longer than the life of the universe to crack for normal computers would take mere seconds with a QC. It's therefore possible we'll live in a future where there is simply no such thing as effective encryption. Imagine that. It should also be pointed out that the NASA/Google QC will be tasked with working on AI, and then consider the kind of power and timeframe that will involve, given it's computational powers.

I'm more afraid of right-wing propaganda actually and the enormous amount of people who make no effort to inform themselves.. Oh, and the agencies and governments that don't seem to understand that you don't make people friendly towards you by supplying them with weapons to fight the Russians and then giving them no help to re-establish their infrastructure, thus leading to bad feeling and the upset of the Mujahadin, the ability for the Taliban to seize power, and the formation of the dubious 'organization' of Al Qaeda (which means 'The List' a name applied by the CIA). Oh and that whole issue with un-homing Palestinians was a bit evil.

Oh yah and the proven links between the Bush family and the Bin Laden family, with those nice profitable oil economics... Oh yeah, and let's ignore that whilst Europeans were propelled into the dark ages by a violent Christianity, including those reprehensible 'crusades', the Islamic world was preserving the scientific and philosophical writing of ancient Greece and also sustaining scientific progress through that time. But you know, baseless hate and a telling lack of personal research, proven documented facts, or understanding of the dynamics is just so easy isn't it?

Yeah the guardian is a terrible source of information with a knee jerk hateful bias and a bad reputation for ignoring documented and provable facts. Oh wait, No, that's the Daily Mail.

I was waiting for the crusades to come up in your ramble and sure enough there it was. I don't think bush started the crazy Muslims on their war path. Don't forget jimmy carter, funny how Libs always forget to bring him up when talking about American and Muslim relations. Carter had a hand in what has become of Iran. Iran used to be a great place of learning and freedoms but now Islamic rule has taken its evil grip over the country. I do agree that the CIA did have a hand in making bin laden and the Taliban become what they are. I also want America out of all Islamic countries. I would never want another American killed in the name of their crazy barbaric religion.

They are both as bad as each other.

Racist much?

Terrorists are to Islam as, oh, The Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity.

I was waiting for you to pounce on one single aspect of my post and erect a whole straw man argument about it as if that somehow makes the rest irrelevant. Do try again.

I get it: you're a 'follower', you want the big boss man to protect you and tel;l you what is right and wrong, and you LOVE it when someone get's killed for 'your protection', I understand. You love the military, and can never see their usage as immoral or inhumane. I get that too. But it's wrong and quite quite evil.

Oh and I'm not a 'liberal' and nor do I read the Guardian or ANY newspapers, because I don't infect my concept of facts and truths with singular political viewpoints. That's just a kind of mental masturbation and self fulfilling ego nonsense. OOOHH LOOK I'M RIGHT BECAUSE I ONLY READ STUFF THAT CONFIRMS MY OWN BIAS. Hhahahahahahha. Never ever will I allow myself not to be self informed, taking in a variety of viewpoints and ultimately basing opinion on pragmatics and provable fact. You should try it, you might end up living in a more intelligent world where you don't have to feel scared and therefore follow the big scary boss men.

Exactly. bravo Sir. I should warn you though that this chap will be so entrenched in his nasty spiteful & insular world of fear that your logic and total sense will make narry a chip in his souless and inhumane hide. Watch as his counter arguments twist and turn as his brain vainly tries to resolve the inherent cognitive dissonance of his odd little belief system, which deep down he know's is based on fear and not facts, wrapping his ego up in a protective shield of TOTAL BULLSH*T.

Not really, I'd rather live in a humane world, which is far more likely under a Guardian type perspective.

Only until the money ran out.

Funny that because it seems to me the inhumane parody of democracy we live under has led to pointless wars of economics and austerity measures. Your investment in this mythical political duality is clouding your sense.

This isn't the right time to treat opinions like supporting ones favourite football team.

Islam isn't a race you idiot.

Everything you said was from a liberal playbook, so tell me where do you get your so called facts? If you had read what I wrote, I said I want the military out of Islamic countries. I don't want wars with these people.

no you actually said "I would never want another American killed in the name of their crazy barbaric religion" because you are an ill-informed total racist who is shot through with fear. I bet you're a 'Christian' as well, you know, the type of christian that ignores the teachings of Jesus, Christians who kill....or 'Anti-Christians' as I like to call them. yeah I'm a stickler for semantic correctness.

He's just too kind to call you an asshole.

oh lawdy you're crazy. Get off your high horse dude. Not religious by any means.

And yet here you are doing exactly what you're suggesting I don't but in the opposite corner.

Okay okay, I apologise for misrepresenting you: just a right-wing sadist with psychopathic political belief systems then.

No because I am not a liberal. Duh. I don't do 'either/or' belief, I deal only with pragmatics and systemic thinking with a healthy dose of humanity. All I know is that the right is on the psychopathic spectrum where the fundamental thing is 'Everyone for themselves, there are winners and losers, and the winners lick the arseholes of the top dogs for scraps from their table' whereas I prefer 'lets all help each other and build an effective humanistic society where everyone can become the best they can be' i'e: I'm not an asshole.

That's just what you think is the view of those on the right.

That's just like your opinion, maaaaan.

What a ridiculous response. You have absolutely no concept of what I do and do not know about how political parties operate, the systems they put in place, the impacts risks and long term results of those systems.

"duped into eating hideous processed food"
Isn't that what's happening already? And Elysium is simply a different interpretation of the city segmentations of previous centuries - average citizens living in hovels & slums, while the rich lived it up in sprawling palaces with vast hunting grounds

neither are Christians... whats your point dickhead?


also nicely dogged the question... would you consider your self as a christian, racist or just white?....

frankly Americans are a dime a dozen on the internet.... cant wait till china pwn' s you all

Being white is now crime in your world. Would you consider yourself an asshole or just a loser?

no Scott. i'm an ARESEHOLE! learn to speak english!

oh and i consider my self an, ARSEhole... learn to speak english...

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