A Brief History
On January 10, 1927, Austrian/German filmmaking legend Fritz Lang released his movie based on a story by Thea von Harbou called Metropolis, a dystopian view of the future in which enormous differences exist between social classes. Despite lukewarm initial critical reaction, the film has gone on to achieve status as one of the greatest silent era films of all time and is considered a groundbreaking film in the genre of Science Fiction. Today we use the occasion of the release of Metropolis to list our “10 Greatest Films About the Future,” a subjective list we admit, and not listed in any particular order. You are welcome to challenge any of our entries and to nominate your own favorites. (Note: The brevity of our list and the number of really, really great movies about the future, movies that were incredibly successful at the box office and that have enormous fan followings means we have omitted many great films. We acknowledge this!)
Questions for Students (and others): What is your favorite film about the future? Have you ever seen Metropolis? Have you ever watched a vintage silent movie? What movies about the future do you find to be prophetic, and which do you find to have been way off base?
1. Metropolis, 1927.
Although other science fiction films were made before Metropolis, it is the length and depth of this movie that really brought science fiction and the examination of the future of mankind to the forefront. When released, Metropolis was the most expensive film ever produced, costing 5.3 million Reichsmarks with a surprisingly disappointing return on investment shown by a box office of about 75,000 Reichsmarks. The test of time has vindicated Fritz Lang’s vision of his film and Metropolis is now a classic “must see” movie by any serious film buffs. In context with the times, Metropolis was made when the world had seen the upheaval of World War I and the Russian Revolution, as well as the devastation (economically) of Germany. Whether or not the industrialized world would turn to communism was a real possibility, and resentment against class inequality was a serious factor in German society. The film has had tremendous cultural impact, and has shown up in numerous cultural allusions, with clips from the movie regularly appearing in films and television and even in modern rock and roll songs. In 1984 rocker Pat Benatar produced a particularly good video of her music with the Metropolis film as the backdrop. Synthetic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder made his groundbreaking music/film mash-up using music by Benatar, Freddie Mercury and Loverboy, a really nifty use of an old film and worth checking out.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.
While the author never really got into this particular movie, the fact that 2001 was enormously important to the history of films about the future is undeniable. When the film was released, the United States was about to send people to the Moon and the future of our space program seemed unlimited, with the prospect of interstellar space travel seeming like a logical extrapolation of the pace of progress in the realm of space travel people had been making since 1961. If the graph of progress in space travel had continued on the steep rise of 1961 to 1968, we may well have had interstellar travel by now. Audiences of the time were captivated by the prospect of space travel and the possibility of unraveling the mysteries of the universe, as well as the burgeoning science of computers (HAL) that had seemingly unlimited potential, foretelling Artificial Intelligence. Although the author thought the movie was kind of slow and boring in parts, a majority of theater goers found the film to be a moving experience, thus well deserving of a place on our list. Unfortunately, when the year 2001 came, we were not that much further ahead in our space travel capabilities.
3. Avatar, 2009.
You may be shocked to find the author did not particularly like this movie, but the all-time record box office of almost $2.8 billion says the author is wrong! Obviously, an incredible number of people found this film to captivating beyond any futuristic film that has come before or since. The enormous budget of $237 million (official, though numbers as high as over $300 million are thrown around) are an indication of how serious the filmmakers were about producing a great, visually stunning film. The eye-candy aspect of the movie, especially when seen in one of the modern forms of 3D or on an IMAX screen are a breathtaking experience. Whatever you like or do not like about the story line, the visuals are amazing. Spending the enormous sum of $150 million on marketing did not hurt the box office take, either. Awaiting technology that could capture the vision of filmmaker James Cameron delayed production of the movie by an entire decade, and the wait was worth it! The film is stunning in a way that no other film can claim. Period. Sequels are planned for release in December of 2020 and December 2021.
4. Blade Runner, 1982.
Starring Harrison Ford, the guy that draws enormous audiences to his Indiana Jones and Star Wars films, it is not surprising that a film featuring this all-time money-making film star (the films, not the actor, who competes with Samuel L. Jackson as the biggest money maker for movie studios of all time) would have an enormous cultural impact. Using a familiar theme of lifelike androids interacting with humans on a frighteningly human scale, Blade Runner set the bar for films of this particular genre (including such classics as The Terminator, The Stepford Wives, AI, Bicentennial Man and the like) The movie is an adaptation of the story by Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Can androids become so human that they have rights? Are there serious moral and physical dangers in the development of androids and artificial intelligence, especially when teamed together? (As in Alien: Covenant, 2017) Should we fear being replaced by androids? People seem to be seriously committed to producing human-like robots (androids) today, so what does the future hold? Probably a third Blade Runner movie!
5. The Terminator, 1984.
Most of the movies set in the future do not paint a rosy picture of what lies in store for us! The Terminator is no exception. Featuring Arnold “The Austrian Oak” Schwarzenegger at the height of his hulking, menacing, movie best, once again we find ourselves the victims of artificial intelligence run amok, with AI seeking to displace humans entirely. Of course, nuclear holocaust is part of the equation. A rare combination of humor, terror, tension, and graphic action, the film was an immersion into gut wrenching movie watching experience. Showcasing the courageous and resourceful Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in a desperate battle against a relentless cyborg/android assassin sent from the future to prevent her from conceiving and bearing the future John Connor who is fated to fight the AI called Skynet. Like many other successful films, this one also spawned sequels.
6. Planet of the Apes, 1968.
Looking back at this movie today, the special effects seem pathetic and the acting stilted, but the movie really grabs the audience with its complete turnaround on the relationship between humans and apes. So popular was the film and so great its impact, even trading cards were produced as well as sequels, comics, books and reboots, even a television series! The scene at the end where Charlton Heston curses humankind for destroying civilization while despairing on a beach in front of a ruined Statue of Liberty has become an iconic part of Americana. The infamous line,’ Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” shows up time and again in cultural references, sometimes modified to fit the situation. At least this time it is living, breathing critters that take over the world that humans ruin instead of machines.
7. RoboCop, 1987.
If movies are to be believed, our future will be tormented by human efforts to create androids and cyborgs that will turn on us and dominate humans. This same sort of cautionary tale is at work in RoboCop, when the title character (cyborg) RoboCop is made from the remains of a mangled human police officer and modern technology to create a cyborg super cop. Coupled with robot technology to create an even more imposing robotic law enforcement machine seemingly more suited for military combat, the RoboCop with his core humanity must save mankind from the evil robot that has turned on its masters. The movie also depicts industrial tycoons as greedy creeps that put money ahead of humanity. Oh, that is true now! Of course, RoboCop also spawned sequels and 2 television series as well as video games, cartoons and other cultural media.
8. The Stepford Wives, 1975.
Based on a 1972 novel by Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives is yet another cautionary tale about creating lifelike androids that end up not working out so good for their presumed masters. While not a blockbuster at the time of its release, the film has grown in stature over the years to attract a huge fan base, enough so that a first line remake was made in 2004 (with more of a comedic angle). Set in an upscale Connecticut suburb, the yuppie men have grown tired of their wives’ flaws and seek high technology to bring them back to the marital bliss the men think they deserve. This goal is accomplished through the replacement of their wives with highly humanlike androids, physically perfect housewives dedicated to keeping everything clean and shiny and most of all keeping their husbands happy, with no demands of their own. The wives that are still human realize something is amiss and attempt to discover the root of the problem with the other, depressingly “perfect” wives, but in the end the main female “wife” character is strangled by her robotic replacement and replaced by the murderous android. The movie may well irritate women who resent traditional roles for women as subservient to men and devoted to the husband and children while neglecting their own desires. The sexist nature of the storyline is somewhat changed in the 2004 remake, with the wives rising up to defeat the cyborg wives and ultimately dominate their husbands. The term, “Stepford Wife” has come to mean a too perfect plasticky wife overly concerned about serving her husband. As great as that may sound to a man, the term is not complimentary!
9. Alien, 1979.
If movies about the future can be relied on to predict the future, humans will have somehow defeated the problems concerning interstellar space travel and will encounter alien life forms that will present a dire danger to mankind. While a familiar theme, few movies could depict the frightening scenario as well as Alien, and make its star, Sigourney Weaver, a movie icon as the beleaguered and yet courageous and resourceful Ellen Ripley. Not only sequels (3 of them) but also a pair of prequels owe their success to the original. Of course, the requisite novels, comics, video games and other cultural references have followed, making this familiar film into a major part of American movie lore, and on top of all this the movie spawned a crossover film Alien vs. Predator (often referred to as AVP), leaving audiences wondering over which deadly alien to root for! The AVP franchise also spawned its own set of media spin-offs. Alien is probably best remembered for having one of the most shocking and terrifying scenes in movie history when the alien bursts out of the chest of the character played by John Hurt. Ouch!
10. Total Recall, 1990.
Why is it that movies about the future seemingly always depict a bleak future instead of a happy utopia? Cool technology such as AI, robotic advancements, space travel, cloning, virtual reality and various telekinetic advances always seem to result in some sort of major problem for people. Total Recall is no different in this regard, depicting our buddy Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger during his most popular period (before his unfortunate personal foibles became public) as an “everyman” that takes advantage of future technology to take a virtual trip to Mars, where of course people have created a colony where mutants are discriminated against and corporate greed rules the roost. (Sound familiar?) Mixed in with serious eye candy and humor (Arnold is pretty funny, after all), Total Recall leaves you wondering if the action and adventure was all part of a bad VR experience, or if it all really took place. Even the main character, Arnold as Douglas Quaid, is left wondering if it is all real or not. The story got a reboot in 2012, and a television series in Canada. Noted for its stunning visual effects, the film was one of the most expensive movies ever made (by 1990) with a budget of around $65 million and an Academy Award recognizing its special effects.
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For more information, please see…
Brode, Douglas. Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents: The 100 Greatest Science-Fiction Films. University of Texas Press, 2015.
Dick, Phillip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: The inspiration for the films Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Ballantine Books, 2008.
Dick, Phillip K. Total Recall (Kindle Single). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Rinzler, JW. The Making of Planet of the Apes. Harper Design, 2018.
Von Harbou, Thea. Metropolis: New Revised Edition. Noir Nation, 2014.
The featured image in this article, an advertisement for the film Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang from “Metropolis” (1927 film) by Archives New Zealand from New Zealand, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. You are free:
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The record is part of Archives New Zealand’s Patent and Copyright Office collection. Copyright was applied for by Cinema Art Films Ltd, De Luxe Buildings, Courtenay Place, Wgtn, NZ in 1928.
Archives New Zealand Reference: PC4 2247/1928