Sci-fi is a catch-all term, really. Most folks might think of franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek when they hear it—imagining fantastical vistas with magic wizards and teleportation beams. And to be sure, the space opera is a prized staple in the genre’s cabinet of curiosities; but the more interesting science fiction, or at least the type that sticks around in the old noodle, is the more grounded “hard sci-fi.” With a greater emphasis on speculation and estimation derived from the scientific realities of their times, as opposed to the flights of fancy in their pulps, these are stories created by writers, directors, and artists with an eager eye on the horizon.
It is easy to walk out of a film and announce “that will never happen,” but there have been plenty of times where the sci-fi of today turned out to be the scientific reality of tomorrow. Here are a few of those examples.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
When it comes to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s not so much one thing the film got right than an entire litany of them. Beginning with how the film predicted what the view of the Earth would look like from the moon—one year before we actually landed on it—the film’s prescience remains startling, particularly when it comes to the lifestyle of the film’s astronauts.
To begin with, 2001 was released three years before an actual space station was successfully put into orbit, and in the 50 years since the Soviet Union’s Salyut, it seems as if the scientific community is still reaching for a design as elegant as the waltzing and rotating habitats in Kubrick’s film. But it’s how life exists on that space station and the shuttles traveling to it which proved the most predictive, from the astronauts’ use of flat screen technologies, including personal glass tablets on which they watch TV, to the fact that they, like everyone else in the 21st century, they rely on video conferencing software to stay in touch with loved ones and colleagues.
Several elements are still in the offing. But while commercial space travel remains a luxury for only the exorbitantly rich, the idea of in-flight-entertainment by way of a small screen attached to the back of each seat’s headrest has become ubiquitous among major airlines. Similarly, A.I. has not developed to the level where it can kill us (thank goodness), but the idea of voice-activated A.I. like HAL 9000 being in charge of turning on lights and, ahem, locking doors seems a lot more commonplace after Siri and Alexa. In all honesty, if you give the world enough time, it probably will be coming up Daisies. – David Crow
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
While the title entity—a vast, sentient supercomputer that is ostensibly supposed to run America’s defense systems and ends up controlling the world—is far from the first cinematic computer to misbehave, its reach ends up being so frighteningly pervasive that comparisons to the ways A.I. might be changing our world as we speak are undeniable. Sure, HAL 9000 made his onscreen debut only two years earlier in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but HAL had what amounted to a nervous breakdown and was feeling much better when he was switched back on in the sequel, 2010.
Colossus is more of a direct descendant of the Alpha 60 computer in Alphaville, with the same grand designs. Once he realizes that his job is to keep humanity safe from destroying itself, he calculates that he has to insert himself into every single aspect of our lives to accomplish that goal. Merging with his Russian counterpart to essentially take command of Earth, Colossus plans to make good on his programming by changing the way human beings exist. What that means is left deliberately ambiguous by the end of this brilliant, underrated film—just as we don’t quite know yet how quickly A.I. will advance and what it will mean for human life. We just know it’s got plans. – Don Kaye
Soylent Green (1973)
In Richard Fleischer’s bleak adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, it may already be too late for humankind: overpopulation has led to deforestation and climate change, which in turn has resulted in widespread food shortages and food insecurity. While the movie itself is 50 years old, it took place in what was at the time the far future, the year 2022.
Well, 2022 has come and gone, and terrifyingly, much of what Soylent Green has predicted has come into view. We have now surpassed eight billion souls on the planet, adding a record one billion in just the last decade alone. Scientists believe we may max out on space by the year 2100, if not sooner. More people means more carbon emissions, which means continued climate change, and unless you’ve lived in a cave for the last few years, we all know how that’s going. Finally, food insecurity is on the rise, with more than 200 million facing starvation as of 2022. In other words, if the government starts rationing out little green wafers in the next 20 years or so, we’d be very suspicious of what exactly is inside them. – DK
Logan’s Run (1976)
The 1970s was a time when sci-fi cinema was, until the advent of Star Wars, quite dystopian: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, overpopulation, totalitarian regimes, and other fun topics were all on the genre menu. Logan’s Run, based on the 1967 novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, touched on all those subjects with its tale of a post-apocalyptic society in which resources are strictly regulated by having everyone put to death at age 30 (21 in the book). But there’s an additional theme which has become perhaps the movie’s foremost prophecy: the rise of youth culture.
In a society where no one lives past 30, everyone is obsessed with their youth, and even though many humans are living longer than ever these days, the fixation with looking, being, and acting young is more omnipresent than ever.
In the film (as today), that comes with a decided lack of commitment and responsibility. Instead of developing meaningful relationships, people hook up via a teleportation network that’s sort of the far future version of Tinder or Grindr. You can also change your appearance on a whim (instant cosmetic surgery) at the “New You” shops sprinkled around the movie’s giant domed megalopolis, which resembles a shopping mall/retail destination on steroids. Ironically, the novel was written as a dig at the counterculture movement of the ‘60s; in the movie it’s morphed into something closer to the culture we live in now where nothing matters if it happened before 1995. – DK
Blade Runner (1982)
Like so many films we’ve already mentioned, Blade Runner is often quite on the mark in the prediction game: sentient artificial intelligences, oppressive police surveillance, pervasive advertising, and other aspects of either our current society or the one happening about five minutes from now are scattered throughout the picture. But there’s one other prediction that Blade Runner makes, almost in the background, which is eerily coming to pass right now: a Southern California where it’s always raining.
Well, okay, Albert Hammond’s classic 1972 pop hit, “It Never Rains in Southern California,” isn’t exactly out of date yet, but the 2019 Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s film is not too far off from what those of us who live out west have been experiencing lately.
Tropical Storm Hilary was the first such storm to hit the West Coast in 80 years, and earlier in 2023 we were deluged with more rain than had fallen in total in 2022. Not that we couldn’t use it; the southern U.S. had been in a persistent drought for years beforehand. But when you live in Southern California, you don’t expect it to turn into the Pacific Northwest, which seems to be what’s happening now. The constant downpour envisioned in Blade Runner may yet come to pass as the climate further warms, wreaking havoc on the weather. – DK
At first glance, the Terry Gilliam sci-fi fantasy/comedy Brazil offers a recognizable future world. Business functionary Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) lives in an apartment filled with machinery that makes his breakfast and helps him groom. Computers can be found at every desk at his job at the Ministry of Information, and employees enjoy instant conversation with one another, no matter where they are.
But where the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars feature sleek, or at least functional, future tech, everything in Brazil sucks. Instead of having his life enhanced by the inventions around him, Sam has to battle through gears and tubes to complete the simplest tasks, adding layers to the bureaucratic nightmare that Gilliam imagines. Anyone who has to reboot their phone to take a simple call or submit forms through an unresponsive website recognizes Sam’s permanent look of resignation. – Joe George
The Running Man (1987)
Back in the 2000s, the earliest glut of reality television must’ve looked awfully familiar to anyone who had seen The Running Man in the ‘80s or ‘90s. No, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie wasn’t right about prisoners’ state-approved executions becoming live-streamed entertainment (yet), but just about every other type of humiliation and form of suffering was offered up for your entertainment: trapped on a desert island and competing for supplies with strangers; forced to eat vomitous food or jump between speeding semi-trucks on the highway for a small bag of money; and folks even letting your kids essentially work as indentured child laborers (yes that happened).
To this day, one of the shows that built David Zaslav’s empire is titled Naked and Afraid, and provides exactly what the title suggests. At least Arnold got revenge on his work. – DC
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
No, cars still don’t fly, although today you can get one that drives itself (at your own risk). But Robert Zemeckis’ sequel to his hit ’80s time-traveling romp got its version of 2015 right in a few other ways. For example, when Marty, Doc Brown, and Jennifer jump 30 years into the future, they arrive in a Hill Valley not completely unlike their own. Sure, there are hoverboards, sneakers that tie their own laces, the American legal system has been completely upended, and the Pepsi bottles are really weird, but this version of 2015 is also really obsessed with ’80s pop culture and history. Sound familiar?
While Jaws 19 can’t actually hurt us, and Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson aren’t fighting over who’s going to take our order at retro cafes, the real 2010s were very nostalgic for the ’80s, especially when it came to our entertainment. It wasn’t Jaws that returned to theaters in 2015 but Star Wars and with all the characters we knew and loved from the Original Trilogy! Stranger Things brought back Amblin films, Dungeons & Dragons, the Satanic Panic, and malls. It was also the decade of The Expendables, which resurrected every ’80s action hero you knew and loved as a kid. Even Full House came back!
Obviously, Zemeckis was keenly aware of the “30-year rule” of nostalgia — after all, the first film brought back the ’50s for its own era — but he also got a few things right about the tech we take for granted today. Smart watches, video conferencing, VR headsets, and augmented reality (again, Jaws 19). He even predicted the Miami Marlins! That said, Back to the Future also assumed we’d all still be using fax machines, which is just hilarious. Who even sends faxes anymore? – John Saavedra
The Truman Show (1998)
When The Truman Show hit theaters in 1998, the idea of a 24/7 channel devoted to one average guy seemed absurd. In fact, director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Nicol present the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) as the brainchild of avant-garde artist Cristof (Ed Harris), who developed the series after a TV network adopted an orphan. We viewers of the film thrill to Truman’s desire to escape his nondescript wife (Laura Linney) and bland best pal (Noah Emmerich) to travel with his dream woman (Natascha McElhone). But the random people of The Truman Show watch Truman doing mundane tasks, getting the mail and brushing his teeth.
Not even three decades later, Truman fandom is the most believable part of the film. The years following the release of The Truman Show saw the rise of reality TV, which lowered celebrities like Ozzy Osbourne into relatable schlubs. But the truer Truman Show analogy came shortly after, with the creation of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks. Through these apps, we can publicize our most uninteresting moments, assuming that little old ladies, security guards, and bathers would be interested. Every once in a while, these fans decide to change the channel, but rarely with as much gusto as Truman’s former viewers. – JG
The Matrix (1999)
In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’ Neo learns that his whole life up until he meets Trinity and Morpheus has been a simulation programmed by Machines who have enslaved humanity and turned them into batteries. While Silicon Valley is definitely making some questionable choices with artificial intelligence at the moment, machines haven’t turned against us. Yet. But we are much more keen to enter virtual worlds than ever before.
Like the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar jacking into the Matrix, most of us jump into digital spaces as soon as we wake up in the morning, whether it’s for your morning doom scroll on Twitter or so that the TikTok algorithm can eat away at a few hours of your day. Like Tank watching the green digital rain on his monitors, most people are hopelessly hooked on one digital feed or another, whether it’s a news aggregator, social media, a comments section on a favorite website, or a forum. And that’s not even mentioning things like the Metaverse and VR headsets that let you step into your favorite game worlds to kill monsters, pilot mechs, or simply enjoy a second life away from the real world. – JS
Minority Report (2002)
A little over 20 years have passed since Steven Spielberg’s underrated sci-fi noir thriller, Minority Report, and we still thankfully are not governed by a triumvirate of drug-addled psychics with precognition, who from on high pass down judgment on our supposed future crimes. But using data to predict our future behavior, right down to the statistical odds of murder, seems just around the corner in the algorithm and data-mining-obsessed society we live in today.
Indeed, Minority Report proved acutely prescient by depicting a future where advertisers and marketers specifically target their wares to your presumed interests. In reality, this doesn’t happen in as overt a manner as billboards projecting individualized holograms who call your name; they don’t need to. Instead the internet has become infested with ads and commercials designed to appeal to your specific interests based on cookies you dropped at the websites you visited yesterday, or by the stores you walked into this week with your GPS phone in your pocket, or even based on the conversations you had with a loved one while Alexa was listening in. Your devices are even possibly scanning your eyes and faces as you read this (depending on the terms of service you agreed to while booting the new gizmo up), analyzing your interest right now like the technology that stalks Tom Cruise in this film.
Also, Minority Report was right about self-driving cars, though we’re still waiting for the highways that go up walls. – DC
In 2011, Steven Soderbergh imagined the chaos that would ensue as a result of a viral pandemic killing millions of people. Nine years later, much of that chaos became reality.
Contagion, which follows a pandemic from its origin all the way to its devastating peak and somber aftermath, gets a lot right about how the real world would eventually react to Covid-19. From quarantines and panic buying to the way the scientists in the movie scramble to contain the virus and develop a vaccine, Soderbergh is thorough in his exploration of global panic and government response, even down to the misinformation campaign led by a scumbag conspiracy theorist who claims the film’s equivalent of Ivermectin is a potential cure.
But what’s perhaps most frighteningly prescient about Contagion is its relentless pacing, a terrifying “what if” (at the time) that doesn’t let up, as once completely healthy people begin suddenly dying out of nowhere, with those who are immune left to make sense of the countless lives lost. When Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in 2020, Contagion quickly gained renewed interest on streaming services. Perhaps we watched in the hope that it would help explain what the real world was going through and what “normal” might look like after. – JS
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a lonely man who falls in love with an AI virtual assistant in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning 2013 film Her. A decade later, we’ve learned very little from Theodore Twombly’s scary dependence on artificial intelligence, even for intimacy. If anything, tech companies have only leaned into tying more facets of our every day lives to virtual assistants and chat bots that purport to offer “convenience” to users but that are actually quite dystopian in the way they’re changing the way we work, interact with each other, and consume information online. Think about the many algorithms that now decide for us what we want to watch and read and listen to, and that can quite easily upend entire online industries every time there’s an update to said algo.
Judging from the speed of recent advancements in AI technology, we’re likely no more than a few decades away from being able to hold “real” conversations with AI like Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha do in Her. But what happens when the AI decides it no longer wants to assist? Jonze devises a much less violent end to Samantha and the rest of her machine brethren becoming self-aware than James Cameron did, but in retrospect, it’s no less horrifying to watch Theodore mourn the loss of his beloved software. Like Theodore himself, humanity needs to do a bit of soul-searching before we ever reach that point in our relationship with AI.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne was only a major consultant on two science fiction films, which might be one reason Contact (1997) and Interstellar are among the best in the genre. And while it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of a film about first contact with an alien species, at least when it comes to predicting what a black hole would look like, Interstellar has already earned an A+.
By working strictly from mathematic equations and peer-reviewed scientific theories, Christopher Nolan created an approximation of what a black hole would look like in 2013. Instead of the popular black abyss, sucking inward in a swirling whirlpool, the black hole that proves vital to the plot of Interstellar is spherical, a round translucent monster that swallows so much light, what is left becomes refracted around its shape like a mighty ring. It was a jarring visualization a decade ago, but it turned out to be a superb guess after NASA telescopes made history in 2019 by photographing a black hole that looks awfully familiar…. – DC