You cannot live in today’s society and get off without having seen at least one movie about dystopian futures, superheroes, or aliens. To quote the Avengers baddie Thanos, “I am inevitable.” These movies have penetrated society so much so that there are three year olds running around calling themselves “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist[s]” and grown people with arms full of tattoos of superheroes and science fiction icons such as Darth Vader. The most common mistake that naysayers of the science fiction genre make is assuming that this is a new phenomenon. RKO was built on the success of science fiction. The longest running fictional television show is Doctor Who. We have seen not one, not two, but eight live action Supermen in film and television. The highest grossing movie of all time was James Cameron’s 2009 alien flick, Avatar, and Avengers: Endgame has posed a serious threat to that title.
So where does the appeal come from? People like universally relatable narratives that are often present in these films, of course, but the real draw is escapism. Superman: The Movie was a success because when you watch it, you give in to suspension of disbelief and allow yourself to think that Christopher Reeve could fly. Objectively, nothing put forth in The Rocky Horror Picture Show denotes any form of realism, yet it has the distinction of having played in theaters continuously worldwide since 1975. Back to the Future Part II is an outdated mess post-2015, but it is still a beloved classic. The success of a science fiction film is measured more in its ability to draw in a viewer than its critical acclaim or lack thereof.
Through suspension of disbelief, audiences are made to believe a great many things are possible, and as a result, they became possible. Science fiction may have made us believe in fantastical things like gamma radiation turning a man into a green rage monster, but the same genre introduced people to the concepts of smartwatches, self-driving cars, touch screens, and even power laces. What those technologies all have in common is that they are real, but they were not when they were first written about.
Taking a look at the Star Trek franchise as it stood in the 1960s and 70s, modern audiences may not see anything special. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise frequently uses communicators that resemble the flip phones of ten years ago in the television series, predicting both that cell phones would come to exist and that they would look a certain way. In an era where the closest thing they had were handheld radios, that was the epitome of forward thinking. In addition to Kirk’s flip phone, he had a wristwatch that he could use to communicate, similar to that of the Dick Tracy comics of the era, starting after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This concept has since been utilized in a myriad of movies and television shows, including the Disney Channel series Kim Possible. Kids growing up in 2019 might not react to seeing an early concept of a smartwatch, but those of us who remember the time before “smart” technology overtook our lives would be able to recognize the connection between a generation growing up wanting to be Starfleet captains and the same generation inventing similar methods of communication. While there is no confirming that the developers of the first flip phone or smartwatch were Trekkies, it is a safe assumption that the prevalence of those concepts in science fiction films could have been a key inspiration.
Star Trek isn’t the only space-themed phenomenon to predict real technologies. Realistic holograms including Vocaloid and the eerie Tupac Shakur recreation have their roots in comic books and films such as Superman: The Movie and Star Wars Episode IV. Technology of the less high concept variety such as tablets were seen as early as in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the time a revolutionary idea which most likely influenced technology companies towards its recreation. Perhaps the most innovative ideas put forth in film are sourced from the 2002 Tom Cruise vehicle, Minority Report. This film had a startlingly accurate prediction for the ways that technology would evolve, from motion-based UIs to the more common trope of retinal scanners to targeted advertising. More recent science fiction films tend toward the dystopian with its technologies not too far a stretch yet not nearly as attainable as in previous films. Presumably, the ability to create more complex visual effects has inspired more complex technologies within fictional worlds.
An interesting case study in the give and take of pop culture is Ready Player One. The original novel by Ernst Cline came out in 2011, and it concerned the idea of a dystopian society where most everyone devotes their time and money to a virtual game world called Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or the OASIS. In a world where the Xbox Kinect was the height of gaming technology, Cline opened up a new world of possibilities by suggesting the existence of Virtual Reality headsets in order to truly see the world as if you are in the OASIS as well as tactile gloves which provide real sensations when coming into contact with an object in the digital world. These technologies, conceived of as early as the 1990s, came into existence not long after the release of the novel, with the Oculus Rift gaining prominence after a crowdfunding effort in 2012. Ready Player One features headsets that are much more complex than actual VR headsets, as they are completely wireless and they have the ability to convey every facial expression of the wearer.
The standout technology of the novel, however, was the omnidirectional treadmill. The basic idea of the omnidirectional treadmill is that you can walk in any direction while in a VR simulation while not actually moving. While they have not taken off in sales, the omnidirectional treadmill was in fact invented as a result of Cline’s novel. Its real life equivalent looks quite different from its depiction in the novel, looking almost like a walker for adults without the belts possessed by normal treadmills. Interestingly, these treadmills, most notably the Virtuix Omni, were released to the public roughly around 2017, which meant that they existed by the time the Ready Player One film released in 2018. The model used for the effects of the film was more similar to that supposedly used in military training, which can only rotate at 90 degree angles in real life. The symbiotic relationship between the idea forming in the novel, being created in the tech world, and being used in the film is a great indicator of how pop culture and technology can push each other in new and interesting directions.
While we don’t yet have a TARDIS at our disposal, science fiction has pushed the boundaries of technology and reshaped society as a result. We can now video chat our friends on a handheld device that we control via touch that stores all of the data on our lives. These phones can be connected to other devices such as a tablet or a VR headset or even a television screen. There are people alive today who do not remember what it was like before these technologies were at our fingertips. Alternately, there are people alive today who created these technologies and moreover, those who inspired them. How many things today exist because of Steven Spielberg? Between the movies listed above, he was involved in the production of at least three and as one of the leading names in Sci-Fi, inspired countless others. So much of what we hold in our hands, we hold because a writer thought of it first.
Steven Spielberg in the 1980s.
Beyond that, the capabilities of science fiction have reached the extent they have because people have decided that it was possible. One of the most innovative minds in recent memory, Steve Jobs, put it best: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” Jobs never met an idea he couldn’t materialize. Even when it did not make sense to the others around him, Jobs always pushed for better, even back in his garage with Steve Wozniak. Years later, his absence is still felt in the tech world and in the entertainment industry. From a consumer perspective, I haven’t seen the leaps in technology that characterized the era I grew up in.
The early 2000s experienced a boom in technological innovation, much of which was sourced in science fiction and pioneered by the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. As a result, the appeal of films with technology became less and less of a draw—they were becoming more realistic, which made them less interesting. As a result, many films focused more on elements like the apocalypse, whether through alien or human means, or ways that technology can act as a supporting character to the real, human characters. The films have become less about the technology and its evolution, causing the science aspect that created the success of the genre to suffer. How many audiences want to see a movie about JARVIS when he can be heard in all three Iron Man films? Given Vision’s status as the guy who has an important forehead in the Avengers films and serves no other purpose, it is clear that the idea of putting a synthezoid in a film does not guarantee a legion of devoted fans in the way that it used to.
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in 2007.
In a post-Jobs world, people have almost any information in their fingertips. Such access makes it hard to imagine, and without someone leading the technological charge, it is hard to see the future of how technology can grow from here. Artificial intelligence could exist. Sure, people can try to go to Mars.Where is the excitement for the future that there used to be? Whereas our parents had The Jetsons to look forward to, the current generation has been given a handful of options: superheroes, bleak dystopian futures, or Black Mirror.
Undoubtedly the most original science fiction in recent memory, Black Mirror uses technology to tell theological stories, not in the biblical sense, however. This show features a wide array of technologies that serve various functions in society. For example, the episode “Be Right Back” features a woman using a software that can mimic her dead boyfriend’s personality through his social media presence to feel close to him. After discovering she is pregnant, she uploads his consciousness into an artificial body. This AI looks like her boyfriend, and he knows the right things to say, but he doesn’t have the same human quirks that her boyfriend did. The idea of artificial intelligence is far from new, and the idea of bringing people back from the dead is older than the Bible.
Fan art by Butcher Billy.
Black Mirror doubles down on the idea that its audience will be familiar with the concepts and subverts the idea of some emotionless being of our own creation by making their AI the opposite. While he is not her boyfriend, he is someone. Additionally, Black Mirror succeeds in that it evolves its views on technology to match what is currently available. While so many science fiction vehicles struggle to find their footing in a world where so many of its formerly unique ideas are real, Black Mirror uses current technology to anchor its stories such as “Be Right Back” instead of focusing on what new technology can be developed.
Pop culture is just as dependent on science as science is on pop culture. During the era where science fiction was at its height, arguably from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, optimism towards technology was at an all-time high as well. Since that time, we have developed computers that fit on your wrists, shoes that tie themselves, goggles that enable you to visualize new and different surroundings, and technology that recognizes not just what we are saying but who we are. All of these were applications put forth in science fiction movies, yet why are more recent films lacking in realistic possibilities in the realm of technology? Is it possible that we have progressed so far that there is no idealism left? Are we missing a mind like Jobs to guide technology in the right direction? Perhaps, history will repeat itself, and the technology of Black Mirror will soon be our new normal. The key thing to remember is: that phone in your back pocket is only there because someone believed it could be.