All posts by A Futurist at the Movies

A Futurist at the Movies is written by Josh Calder, a futurist living in Washington, DC. For more about Josh, see "Who am I?" or contact him here.

Review: The Fifth Wave

IMG_6727trimRelease date: 2015
Setting: 2010s

  • Futurism — 5. Potential future issues — the aliens and their motivation, and how people respond to the disaster — are touched on only lightly.
  • Plausibility — 4. Aliens might come up with an invasion scheme as intricate as this, but some logic would presumably underlie it.
  • Storytelling — 6. More than most scifi movies of young-adult origin, this gets mired in its YA origins.

Alien invasion
Aliens invade the earth in five steps, using electromagnetic pulse, induced tsunamis, and a pandemic. They must have their own reasons for this methodical but inefficient campaign, and the motivations of aliens could indeed by inscrutable to us.

The probability of such an event is impossible to estimate with any precision.
The possibility of alien invasion might be very high, if aliens are monitoring us actively, or it might be zero, if no aliens exist, or if they exist but can’t reach Earth.

Estimations of likelihood benefit from a little data: as far as we can tell, we have not been invaded by aliens for thousands of years, if ever. (We can’t be sure that we were never visited. If aliens invaded two billion years ago and stayed for millions of years, signs of their presence would be sparse or nonexistent in many scenarios. Or if they landed 65 million years ago, hunted dinosaurs to extinction, and then left, we would have no idea, if they didn’t build lasting structures.)

Even if very low, likelihood is increasing over time, as we draw attention to ourselves with broadcasts, send spacecraft further out, and might be viewed as a rising threat.

The movie notes the wishful thinking that advanced aliens will be morally upright by human standards. “What did we do to deserve this?” asks a human. “Nothing — other than occupy a space we need,” the alien replies. The outraged human asserts that people would not “wipe out species.” “Of course you would,” the alien retorts — “You’ve been doing it for centuries.”

Mockingjay 1 and 2

Release dates: 2014 and 2015
Setting: 2100s+

  • Futurism — 7. The series gives some thought to the nature of social control and political power.
  • Plausibility — 7. The situations depicted are shown fairly plausibly; despite its origins in young-adult science fiction material, this series takes war more seriously than a lot of war movies.
  • Storytelling — 7-8. Relative realism keeps the story worth watching.

The United States as we know it is gone, transformed politically and culturally. It is unclear whether this was the result of a gradual evolution or some cataclysm, though the drastic results suggest the latter. The country is still suffering the effects of a civil war about 75 years before.

The background conditions for the “Hunger Games” series are disturbingly plausible:

Nuclear weapons will likely be joined by new menaces such as bioengineering, and nanotechnology could become a threat. International relations are more peaceful than they have been in the past, but great-power war is still possible, or the U.S. could be devastated by civil war.

As for authoritarianism, it is always a plausible outcome for destabilized, large-scale societies.

Weaponized biotech animals
Animals and insects engineered for combat — “muttations” — are some of the more creative elements of this series. They are increasingly possible, as our bioengineering capabilities rise, but somewhat unlikely, as they would tend to be difficult to use.
FatM-bioengineered insects

Note that the most dangerous animal in the world is currently the mosquito, which infects millions with disease, and mosquitoes are the most plausible insect target for weaponization. While mosquitoes could be made worse, plans are moving ahead to use biotech to de-weaponize the creatures.

In these movies, the Capitol deploys other muttations based on mammals and reptiles. Possibility and likelihood are somewhat similar to those for insects, at least for combat animals. For other purposes, genetic engineering of mammals is likely.

Science Fictional Inequality

Hunger-Games-CapitolI sometimes doubt the realism of science fictional inequality. Why — and how — would the Capitol in “The Hunger Games” live in fabulous, high-tech luxury while the districts struggle in squalor? Wouldn’t the entire system work much better with at least a little more equality? Why would poverty persist in the world of “Minority Report,” when per capita income is said to be $400,000 a year?

Equatorial Guinea, a small country on west coast of Africa, snaps me back to reality. With about 800,000 people and billions of dollars of oil and gas sales, the country had a healthy per capita income of $33,000 in 2015 — similar to European countries such as Spain or Italy. The ruling Obiang family could easily make citizens’ lives much better while still keeping huge wealth for themselves. That isn’t what has happened. As The Economist puts it,

While most of his citizens live on less than $2 a day, the older Mr Obiang once shelled out $55 million for a Boeing 737 with gold-plated lavatory fittings. His son had at one point amassed $300 million in assets, including 32 sports cars, a Malibu mansion and nearly $2 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia…. [The country’s] GDP expanded by an average of almost 40% per year between 1996 and 2006. But little wealth trickled down to the population. Though its GDP per head is the highest in Africa, over three-quarters of its population lives below the World Bank’s poverty line. Government spending on education and health lags far behind the sub-Saharan African average…. [Hospital] patients must bring their own sheets and share their rooms with rats.

Super-villainous societies are, alas, all too realistic.

Best Futurist Movies of 2015

Last year was a good year for futurist movies. Now that a film festival has allowed me to see “No Men Beyond This Point,” I’ve seen all 16 of the futurist movies I’ve detected.

This is what I thought of them, in inscrutable graphic form:

Briefly, these ratings capture:

  • Futurism (blue) — how carefully was the future on screen constructed?
  • Plausibility (green) — how plausible is that version of the future events it depicts?
  • Storytelling (red) — how entertaining is it?

I judge these four the best:

  • Advantageous — This film ponders how far we might go in transforming ourselves, in this case using neurological technologies. In the background is a future that is all the more alarming by seeming ordinary.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road — A thoughtful vision of how a human society might evolve underlies this two-hour vehicle smash-em-up.
  • Ex Machina — This movie is an extended rumination on what a real Turing test might look like.
  • No Men Beyond This Point — Technically, this is an alternate present, but it amusingly and elaborately explores a post-male world.

Longer reviews of these movies’ futures are to come.

Back to the Future Day

Today is “Back to the Future Day,” the day Marty McFly travels forward to in the 1989 movie, the second in the series.

Like all futurist movies, “Back to the Future” wasn’t meant to be a forecast. Many of its future elements — the flying cars, the garbage-powered fusion — were meant more as jokes on futurist tropes.

The movie succeeds in some of its forecasts by simply envisioning what might be useful — a legitimate futures technique, when married with a sense of plausible timeframes. Thus, we see a news drone filming live shots. The movie also foresaw ubiquitous connectivity, but based it on the exciting new technology of … fax machines. In fact, these would spread, peak, and then recede between the movie’s release and today.

Curiously, an item thrown in as pure fantasy, the hoverboard, has so appealed to people that a minor industry now churns out faux versions such as the self-balancing skateboard and the mini-helicopter hover contraption. Though the real thing still defies our command of physics, this is a great example of science fiction inspiring actual innovation.

And see this video for a bit of futurist wisdom from the movie’s designer, John Bell. In the 11th item, it cites his “15/85 rule,” that items in the future scenes should be 15% unrecognizable and 85% recognizable, to provide a comprehensible future.

This raises the question: how long a time period can the 15/85 rule realistically remain true in a sphere of study? It might be 10 years for electronics but 100 for geopolitics.