Futuristic tech in retro movies: Prescient, predictive or phony?

Good and bad robots, self-driving cars, video phone calls in space, and time travel comprised the future's potential in movies featuring cool technology.

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The Matrix Reloaded, from 2003, used futuristic tech.

Image: Warner Bros.

There's more to futuristic tech in Hollywood than just what is seen in Star Trek or Star Wars, although techies do love a good transponder or tractor beam. 

Virtual stimulation, mind manipulation and fantastical technology are frequently highlighted in films of the previous decades. The "good" movies involved more than a tired trope of a storyline; those movies were thought provoking, and standouts, at films' release. Were filmmakers offering up what they believed to be a likely view of tech's potential or making it up whole cloth? We take a look at movies that were either about, or featured technology of the time, whether when the movie is set, or the year it was actually made. With a contemporary eye, let's see how prescient, predictive or phony the films were, and if movie scientists did, indeed, create working prototypes. 

Two common themes featured in science-fiction fantasy films: the rational or irrational fear of robots' inevitable "taking over the world," and the creation of a robot with artificial intelligence (AI) that possesses sentient traits and lives in harmony (at least initially) with humans. Examples include robots from Chris Columbus' 1999 Bicentennial Man, which stars the late Robin Williams as an android who dreams of being more human, and Stephen Spielberg's 2001 A.I, in which a special robotic boy (portrayed by Haley Joel Osment) longs for love but eventually outlives his human families.

Metropolis
(1927)

How it challenges: it's in black and white, there's no sound, and its runtime is more than two hours. Why it's iconic: Visuals that are stunning, even today. Innovative and clever camera work; check out a long single camera shot that starts at one end of a speakeasy, and tracks to its goal. A major plot of Metropolis involves the proverbial mad scientist who builds what will be the motion picture industry's first depiction of robots. The scientist builds a humanoid robot, which, when skin is attached over the metal, becomes a doppelgänger for the film's Maria. Now, scientists have developed realistic robots. You're not going to mistake them (yet) for an actual person, but you may have to look twice. They can even offer emotional support and serve as personal assistants. 

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968)

A groundbreaking and iconic science-fiction film, directed by Stanley Kubrick. After a languid introduction to the films's mystery, a US spacecraft is transporting five scientists in suspended animation, on their way to Jupiter. The vessel is being run by a robot named Hal (short for a Hal9000 computer), who not only has a soothing human voice, but also a personality. Think Siri as a guy. The movie introduces a new way (for 1968) to communicate with friends and family, as astronaut Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester), casually speaks to his family through video calling. Today, and especially as people shelter from home, video calling is the norm, whether conducted on FaceTime, Zoom or Skype

The Terminator
(1984)

In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a sentient computer with AI and is about to set off Armageddon. Two men from the future are sent to this world of the past, one to protect the future mother of the man who saves humanity from the malicious machines, and the other to kill her before she can procreate. Thirty-six-years later, we still can't time travel, but we do have drones and military drones. AI, though, has made tremendous strides.

Back to the Future
(1985-1990)

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Fans of Back to the Future II are still waiting for their own Mattel hoverboard just like Marty McFly rode.

Image: Universal

Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels to the future (courtesy of his friend "Doc" Brown and a souped-up Delorean), as well as the past in the Back to the Future trilogy. The film was a huge success 45 years ago and Deloreans still exist, but as far as most of us know, they never did time travel. The world still doesn't have the flying cars and hoverboards that feature prominently in the movie, but not for lack of effort of trying to create them. The sequel features dogs walked by drones, citizens submitting news stories through photos, fingerprint recognition, flatscreen TVs, and augmented reality, all of which have come to fruition. Also in BTTF II, wearables are featured, with the McFly family of the future sitting at the table of their smart home, donning eyewear that is reminiscent of today's HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. What we haven't seen yet that was introduced in the movies are mass-market hoverboards, self-lacing shoes, and the self-drying jacket. 

Darkman
(1990)

Directed and co-written by Sam Raimi, based on one of his own short stories, it's a homage to 1930s' comic books, noir, and horror films. Brilliant scientist Peyton Westlake (played by Liam Neeson) has been horribly disfigured after a mobster attempts to burn him alive. Med tech plays a big role in this film, as Westlake develops synthetic skin to reconstruct his disfigured face. The film was predictive in the innovation of 3D printing and experts have announced that it will be possible for 3D printers to create skin as Westlake did. 

Total Recall
(1990)

The original Total Recall also stars Schwarzenegger, but this time, he plays Douglas Quaid, a good guy. In this film, the world is a mess and horribly overcrowded. To relieve the overpopulation, trips to Mars are promoted. An overworked laborer, Quaid, goes to Rekall, where subjects are put to sleep and  given memory implants. That's certainly high-tech, but curiously, Quaid leaves himself a video tape, when a computer chip, which existed when the movie was made, might have been more progressive. In this 2084 world, there are self-driving taxis, "Johnny Cabs," with the assistance of animatronics. Mutants play a significant role in this movie, which may be explained as a result of the toxicity of the air and water in this universe. 

The Matrix Trilogy 
(1999-2003)

Despite its view of grim, dystopian society, dual directors the Wachowskis managed to deliver a portrait of a hero (Neo, played by Keanu Reeves) and his band of not-so-merry men and women to draw emotions from an audience in the Matrix trilogy of movies. They're dealing with a world where machines have taken over the human population, and create challenging worlds for humans, through ports in their bodies. In other words, in this world, humans are literally plugging into this more intelligent than them tech. While virtual reality has made its splash since the final Matrix in 2003, there's nothing available in the real world as potentially violent or dangerous as in the film. 

Minority Report
(2002)

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In 2002's Minority Report, Tom Cruise uses hand gestures to control a 360-degree computer screen.

Image: 20th Century Fox

In the universe of Minority Report, crimes are stopped by the pre-crime division, which uses pre-cogs (people who are particularly cognitive and can "see" crimes before they happen). The result is a crime-free universe. The movie is notable for John Anderton's (played by Tom Cruise) swift, innovative, and fascinating gesture-based 3D computing. The immersive computing system with 360-degree screens used in the film has a real-life version used today, and it was developed by the same technical consultant who created the system for the film. The movie also includes facial recognition, so much so that when Anderton walks into a store, he's recognized and acknowledged by a kiosk that uses facial recognition, which is of course commonly used today.

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