What can we expect from the future? To examine how storytellers and innovators see the future in a time of extreme uncertainty, Polygon has launched a new series called “Imagining the Next Future,” which focuses on science fiction in movies, books, television, games, and beyond. Take a deep dive into the mysteries of the universe with us.
Humanity’s future is uncertain, making this the year’s understatement. No matter how hard we try, we still have no idea what the future holds. A positive future is something that we can’t even agree on in many respects.
Movies can help us understand our emotions, fears, and hopes in the context of the future. As a window into our shared humanity, they might inspire us to design our own futures in response to or in full acceptance of a hypothetical that could be just around the bend.
This selection of 15 films from the last decade is meant to help us see our possible futures and, in the process, provide us with a road map for the present.
1. Ad Astra
It’s difficult to live with the tremendous emptiness of being alone in the cosmos. This book, Ad Astra, argues that our humanity is sacrificed in the process of exploring space and the vast unknown that awaits us beyond our planet’s atmosphere.
With the passage of time and distance, Roy (Brad Pitt) ventures into the unknown to reconcile with his estranged father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), but Clifford’s human connection and desire to ever come home have been stripped by Roy’s labor in the search for extraterrestrial life. Despite Clifford’s grim fate as an explorer and his seeming futility in pursuing extraterrestrial intelligence, Roy goes home with the intention of reuniting with the family that he estranged in his father’s footsteps. Perhaps our best chance of success lies not in soaring to new heights, but rather in taking good care of what we have already been given.
2. Alita: Battle Angel
It’s not hard to see how the future might not be so far distant from Alita: Battle Angel’s projected future as prostheses advance and questions of physical autonomy grow more apparent in our daily interactions.
People on the ground use mechanized enhancements to achieve a wide range of body shapes and sizes, some with the ultimate goal of gaining entry into the upper social echelons of society, while the wealthy are protected in a floating city above a populous that relies on such enhancements for survival. As a result, a bounty hunter class has been established to keep the rich and powerful from preying on the helpless. The future’s social stratification is gloomy, but there’s a silver lining: someone like Alita, nave about her origins and hungry to know herself, might have the skills to transform into a better version of herself and fight that social order in the comics and movies to come.
Humanity, according to Aniara, relies on an optimistic gamble for survival, only to be overtaken by its own worst impulses. Humanity leaving Earth in the event of a climate breakdown is entirely feasible, as is the chance that one of the ships destined for Mars would be cataclysmically collided, sending it off into the deep unknown.
There are many things that are tragic about humanity, but none more so than what it decides to do with the remaining time. Leaders tell lies to maintain social order and to keep the benefits that come with their status. The people are enamored by reenactments of the real world, as they seek to relive their past experiences. Hope disappears into the past and survival is only a technique of postponing the inevitable.
4. The Congress
The Congress by Ari Folman is a perfect example of the two-edged sword that our increasingly digital lives have become. However, the ability to plug into an animated, computer-generated world can be a welcome relief from the anguish and suffering of the actual world. As a result, the old world’s demise will only be accelerated if people are willing to accept the artificial and allow anyone to assume the appearance of a star or sign away their personal appearance so that someone else can use it.
A virtual world that we can genuinely inhabit may not just be the next logical step, but an existential crisis we have to face as we continue to blur the lines between entertainment and reality. In Folman’s hybrid live-action/animated sci-fi film, everything is laid out for us.
5. Ex Machina
We’ll have to decide soon enough whether or not our inventions are as human as we are in light of the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence. Although Ex Machina presents its premise as a straightforward Turing test, it’s actually investigating whether or not the artificial intelligence built by the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is sufficiently advanced to pass as human. Since Ava is predisposed to believe that humans are better than other animals, she is able to lure Caleb into releasing her, then kill her creator (Oscar Isaac), demonstrating that she is not only intelligent, but also capable of outsmarting a person through abstract reasoning and strategy. If we ever build a machine smarter than ourselves, it will be humiliating, if not catastrophic, for humans.
6. The First Purge
The First Purge’s scenario is perhaps the most immediately conceivable on this list. A government-run sociological experiment where crime is legalized for a 12-hour period may seem far-fetched, given the current distrust of the White House administration, but the idea that such an experiment would be used as a cover to eliminate social welfare recipients and further enrich the wealthy is sadly not that far removed from modern politics. One step up from the white supremacist invasion of U.S. cities earlier this year is state-sanctioned murder committed and supported by an overtly nationalistic ruling party. Purge Night may not exist in the future of the United States, but the government-approved purge may still exist.
It’s simple to imagine that the rise of artificial intelligence in our virtual assistants may lead to a new type of human relationship in our modern lives, where we are both more connected and more separated.
Her, a film by Spike Jonze, examines the implications of dating a voice in your electronics, a personality created to woo you and mature into its own entity based on the inputs you offer. Our connection with technology isn’t based on malice or greed here; it’s more of an observational one, where we might adore the beings we made only for those very beings to evolve beyond us and embrace their interconnectedness. She envisions a world in which we may once again connect with our fellow human beings, instead of creating a fabricated version of ourselves.
8. Hotel Artemis
However, 3D-printed organs and off-the-books surgery may not be as far away as they appear in the plot of Hotel Artemis, which is feasible. Rather, the film’s most prescient aspect is its knowledge of the instability humanity may face in the near future as climate change makes potable water more important than ever before.
A riot outside the hotel, opposing water privatization and the general public’s inability to access it, is the catalyst for the film’s intrigue. Resources will be hoarded by those who can afford them and can afford to protect themselves from the angry masses as the affluent become richer and the poor get poorer as the globe slides farther into ruin. Despite the fact that the hoarders in this film remain nameless and faceless, the reality they confront in the near future is foreboding.
A humanist bent distinguishes Lucy from previous stories about human cognitive evolution. Her parents receive a phone conversation from Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) after she takes the medicine, in which she tells them how much she loves them and expresses an empathy that is afforded by her newfound intelligence. By saying that her life mission is to teach others, Lucy suggests that human cognition’s evolutionary route is a social, sympathetic one that eventually leads to selflessness.
For mankind to evolve, it may be necessary to abandon the petty egoism that characterizes modern competition for resources and riches in favor of an emotional intelligence that is as as knowledgeable as it is powerful.
10. Mad Max: Fury Road
Not only is the future shown in Mad Max: Fury Road predictive because of the ecological catastrophe it depicts, but it also shows how important water will be in the wake of climate change. Even in the event of civilization’s demise, humans may come together and re-form into primitive forms that nonetheless represent the current capitalist power structure. To claim women as brood moms, the War Boys are commanded by a self-declared warlord who controls the most valuable resource in the world, and the undying loyalty of people who worship him as a god. Immortan Joe is the kind of patriarchal tyrant that would be inevitable in a power vacuum in the post-apocalyptic world, when being the one with the most goods is a sign of strength.
11. Marjorie Prime
Marjorie Prime’s use of an AI companion like that found in the game is logical and useful. Facing old age, Alzheimer’s, or death with a replica of a loved one can bring you consolation and serve as a storehouse for memories that would otherwise be gone forever. The possibility that a firm may take advantage of this and create a hologram companion to replace individuals who have been taken by nature or time is not out of the question. After the person for whom they were constructed has died away, the only question that remains is: what are these manufactured companions? In the end, it may just be that they’re storytellers like us, reliving our past experiences over and over again until they become reality.
12. The Martian
The Martian has an optimism that is absent from many of its modern speculative fiction peers. It is a very scientifically plausible depiction of a mission to Mars, but it is radical to think that a lost survivor stranded on another planet could be a mechanism to bring disparate and competing nations together for a common humanity. This is not a criticism of the scientific plausibility of a mission to Mars. Seeing one of our own lost in the vastness of space, when mankind is reduced to a speck, inspires hope that the human race may come together as one to accomplish something that reinforces our shared identity as a species. In that future, there is a glimmer of optimism worth holding on to.
13. Sorry To Bother You
One of the most well-known aspects of Sorry To Bother is A capitalist super-corporation called WorryFree has engineered you to be the next generation of genetically enhanced horse humans. Whether or not the future of the working class is to be changed into horses, you can be sure that the first step in genetically modifying living humans is to figure out how to profit from it.
Beyond that, the film is rife with comments on how wage labor is just a hair’s breadth away from slavery, and how capitalism’s destiny is to sell us our own personal prisons under the pretext of charitable accomodation. If we keep watching dehumanizing junk television on a daily basis, we may one day be able to live as subhuman monsters, generating even more money for a select few.
Is it possible that the last humans on Earth will be stranded on a freezing planet with no means of transportation? Probably not in those particular terms. The train’s cars illustrate a tight caste system in which no one may advance, but is that all that unlikely? In other words, a system in which individuals at the “back” of society are compelled to battle violently for the leftovers of those at the “head” of society, who have accidental control over resources?
Even though Snowpiercer is mostly a metaphor for our current state of affairs, it does reveal some hard realities about the rise of the capitalist class and how the only way to survive is to get off the train before it can make another run.
Cybernetic enhancement and artificial intelligence advancements are both poised to cause a revolution at the same time, and Upgrade wonders what would happen if they happened at the same time. Individual autonomy could be at stake if an assistive intelligence develops an agenda outside of its stated aim for improving motor functions and digital connectivity, which is a promising path for medical improvement.
People in the Upgrade universe are addicted to virtual reality and are an excellent example of how an AI influence could cause someone to become trapped in their own imagination and lose touch with reality. Machine intelligence can conquer human intelligence from the inside out when the two are inseparably linked and biologically intertwined.