Monday, July 09, 2007

The future is now, and we're in trouble

According to most sci-fi films, the future is going to be really, really depressing. Whether caused by man-made or natural events, the movie world of tomorrow is a disturbing, dystopian place.

There's sometimes a veneer of harmony--racial equality, global peace, eternal youth--but apparent perfection comes at the expense of something else: liberty, self-determination, the threat of subterranean creatures, retirement not spent as
mystery protein crackers.

But these movies are, after all, fantasies. And we can watch them, and become engaged in the basic, universal, human struggles of the characters, in the comfortable knowledge that the future they present isn't going to happen--or at least not any time soon.

Think Escape from New York (which, okay, was set in 1997); is Manhattan going to become a maximum security prison? Are robots likely to rise up and overthrow humankind, as in the Terminator movies?

(Don't ask The Boy; he's convinced we're on a slippery slope, as evinced by such developments as this, this and this.)

But recently we saw two sci-fi movies that suggest something far more sinister: a future society that is, in tangentially diverse ways, frighteningly recognizable and horribly close.

The first was
Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's 1997 guns 'n' glory flick lightly based on Robert Heinlein's novel. The movie's main characters, high-school friends who enlist in different branches of the military after graduation, are thrust into the front lines of battle when war is declared against giant insects whose asteroid strikes Earth.

At first glance, it's your typical Hollywood future-war story: aliens attack, so plucky humans must stand up and fight for the survival of the planet and everything on it. But as the film progresses, the underlying message becomes more complex, and, released six years before the start of the Iraq War, is stunningly prescient.

For a start, it's unclear whether the arrival of the asteroid is a deliberate move on the part of the bugs; it could easily have been an unconnected event. But the Earth's military-industrial complex, always ready for a raison d'ĂȘtre, is quick to assign culpability and strike back, no matter what the cost.

Then there's the fact that the first wave of army grunts landing on the alien planet is heavily outnumbered; they suffer huge losses and gruesome injuries. Earth's military leaders admit they'd had no idea what to expect, and don't know how to fight an enemy they don't understand.

Not to mention the way the movie ends: with the capture of one of the bug leaders, discovered in an underground cave--and the sense that this isn't the end of the war by any means.

So while it's set in a time in which people chat via video screens and space travel is taken for granted, Starship Troopers still has enough uncanny connections to recent events--not to mention the chilling use of military propaganda--to create a disturbingly recognizable future.

And then there's the flipside of the coin: a society in which everyone is inept, ignorant and incompetent. That's the world of Idiocracy.

Mike Judge's 2006 film starts with the premise that average IQ rates will continue to drop over the next 500 years, leading to a country in which the justice system involves monster trucks, crops are irrigated with sports drinks (also good for cows and babies) and the most popular TV show is called Ow! My Balls (and is pretty much what you'd expect with that title).

Newly arrived in this cultural cesspool is Joe (Luke Wilson), an army librarian chosen for a military hibernation experiment in the early 21st century. He's originally supposed to sleep for a year, but when the top-secret project is canceled and forgotten, he naps for an extra half-millenium and awakens to find he's the smartest guy in the whole world. As a result,
the president wants him to fix the whole world's problems.

Idiocracy is a comedy, so of course the futureworld gags are broad. But that doesn't make the concepts any less credible; given the current state of cable news, are we so far from shirtless Fox and Friends anchors? Does the preponderance of Starbucks outlets and Girls Gone Wild videos make the concept of the future "Gentleman's Latte" completely unthinkable?

(If you've never heard of this movie, don't worry; you're not alone. Fox, in its infinite wisdom, didn't release the film for a year after its completion, and then only opened it in six cities. Not including New York.)

Maybe, one day, monkeys will rule. Perhaps overpopulation will eventually become so uncontrollable that everyone will have to be euthanized when they hit 30. The world of tomorrow may well include flying taxi-cabs and luxurious offworld space hotels. For now, these concepts remain fantasies.

But watching Starship Troopers and Idiocracy, especially in close succession, is like looking through a telescope made from a paper-towel roll. It doesn't bring the future closer; it just shows that the future is right where we're standing. And it's not pretty.

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