Things Sci-Fi Movies Always Get Wrong About The Future
As a genre, science fiction presents fictional futures and fictional worlds in order to illustrate truths about our own world. But sometimes, multiple sci-fi movies keep making the same prediction as if to say, this is the way things in our society are inevitably heading. And while we obviously never know what the future will literally hold, many of these assertions fly in the face of everything we currently know about the way society is heading. Or they're just futuristic-looking stuff that makes no sense when you give it some thought.
Here are some examples of common sci-fi themes that don't hold up to scrutiny.
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We'll All Be Using Flying CarsPhoto: Blade Runner / Warner Bros.
We've dreamed of flying cars for almost as long as cars themselves have existed. In 1926, Henry Ford introduced the "Ford Flyvver," the prototype for what was supposed to be the first flying car for the masses. He abandoned the project two years later when his test pilot died in a crash. Nevertheless, in the decades since, entrepreneurs have tried repeatedly to get a flying car off the ground. At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Uber announced a plan to debut flying taxis by 2023. In science fiction, it's long been assumed that flying cars are an inevitability. Airborne cars have been shorthand for "advanced society" in everything from Bladerunner to Total Recall to The Fifth Element to The Jetsons.
But there are several reasons why we probably won't be seeing flying cars anytime soon, no matter what Uber says: they're impractical, expensive, and dangerous. A flying vehicle is orders of magnitude more difficult to operate than a car or a truck because a pilot has to operate several more mechanical systems as well as maintain situational awareness in a 3D space. Anyone who would want to operate a flying car would need years of training and practice. Creating a professional class of flying car operators would also be difficult because there's already a shortage of airline pilots. And since we still haven't perfected driverless cars, a fully automated flying car is an even longer way off.
Cities themselves would also need to change fundamentally before flying cars could be possible. They would have to add infrastructure to allow for spaces for flying cars to take off and land - and we already let our existing infrastructure, like roads, deteriorate. Cities would also have to devise entirely new systems to regulate vehicle safety and driver competence. Air traffic control systems would need to be completely reimagined.
Society would have to be completely overhauled to allow thousands of tons of machinery to take to the skies. While it might be technically possible for a flying car to exist one day, they won't be replacing your Hyundai.
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Everyone Will Wear Spandex, At All TimesPhoto: Star Trek: The Next Generation / CBS Television Distribution
If science fiction is to be believed, the future is going to be a terrifying place. As if murderous androids and aliens weren't enough, we're also going to have to get used to skin-tight bodysuits. This trope was particularly popular in the 1970s and '80s, showing up in everything from Tron to the Flash Gordon remake to Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Like any art, science fiction is informed by the time and place in which it was created. And in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, fabrics like spandex and lycra were still relatively new. Jane Fonda's costume in Barbarella was made from metallic and plastic fabrics specifically because it would have looked futuristic to moviegoers in 1969. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wanted the Next Generation costume department to use spandex because he thought that would be the future of clothing.
There once was a time when a spandex bodysuit would have seemed cutting-edge. But now, a spandex bodysuit just makes science fiction feel dated.
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Prisoners Will Be Kept In Cryo-PrisonsPhoto: Demolition Man / Warner Bros.
In 1993, Demolition Man popularized the idea of freezing convicts for lengthy periods of time as a form of punishment, and the trope has shown up in movies like Minority Report and Star Trek: Into Darkness, video games like Mass Effect 2 and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and lots more. But even if it were possible to place convicts in suspended animation, it doesn't make much sense as a form of punishment.
First, the question of possibility. Certain animals like reptiles and amphibians can be revived after being frozen, but freezing damages human tissue. Some scientific research is being conducted to determine whether it's possible to freeze and revive individual organs, but cryo-preserving an entire human is a long way off, if it's ever possible at all. The biggest obstacle would be reviving a frozen human brain, and figuring this out is even more difficult because research into reviving frozen animal brains hasn't been conducted since the 1970s. In order to successfully repair frozen brain tissue, it's likely we would need other major technological breakthroughs first, like nanotechnology.
Then, there's the issue of whether cryo-freezing would be an effective form of punishment. A person in cryo-freeze wouldn't experience the passage of time. Their real hardship would begin after they were thawed and released into society. Freezing anyone, criminal or not, for decades or longer and then releasing them into a completely unfamiliar society would be traumatic. Everyone they knew previously would be gone and they would have no skills to cope in an unfamiliar society.
Prison overcrowding is a worldwide problem, and many prisons around the United States are underfunded. Adding prohibitively expensive technology that hasn't been proven to work and invites human rights abuses to an already taxed prison system might be possible in a science fiction world. But based on what we know about our world, this can't happen for several lifetimes, at least.
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Sports Are Hyper-Violent Fights To The DeathPhoto: The Hunger Games / Lionsgate
According to science fiction, futuristic sports will become so violent that participants lose their lives. Sometimes, these sports have evolved to become so dangerous that death is a normal and accepted outcome, like in Rollerball. But with other sci-fi competitions, it's the entire point, like in The Running Man or The Hunger Games.
Often, these sporting events are meant to make a point about our innate love of carnage. And they do have a bit of a point. Plenty of research has shown that humans are hard-wired to enjoy watching violence. History is full of vicious and deadly spectator sports, from Roman gladiator bouts to medieval jousting tournaments to bare-knuckle boxing. Those sports have mostly gone extinct, but many scholars have argued that modern spectator sports, like MMA or American football, still satisfy those same bloody urges.
But in reality, our bloodlust has limits. Within the last 10 years, as medical science has developed a better understanding of the long-term effects of sports injuries, the public has lost some of its appetite for mayhem. The NFL has instituted stricter concussion protocols in response to public outcry. In the NHL, hockey players seldom fight any more due to the increasing awarness of the danger of head injuries. Boxing, which is inherently violent, has declined in popularity since the 1970s. With other dangerous sports, fans are finding reasons to tune in besides the danger itself. Traditionally, NASCAR fans have tuned in to see crashes. But a University of Iowa study found that, lately, the biggest ratings draw has been the Race to the Cup, the playoff system NASCAR introduced in 2004.
To be sure, sports like American football are still plenty dangerous. But unlike their sci-fi counterparts, modern sports fans don't want to see someone get hurt - at least not all of them.
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We Clone Full Humans And Make Them ExpendablePhoto: The Island / Dreamworks Pictures
The concept of duplicating a human being on a genetic level has always brought up moral questions, like whether a clone has the same rights as a human being, and science fiction authors have been exploring it for decades. The idea of a government creating a genetically engineered army of clone soldiers shows up at least as early as 1953, in Poul Anderson's short story "Un-Man." Human cloning became an even more popular subject in science fiction following the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, which made actual human cloning seem possible.
After the creation of Dolly, sci-fi movies like the 2005 Michael Bay thriller The Island and 2010's Never Let Me Go have explored the ethics of cloning from the clone's perspective, and a new trope emerged: the idea that clones will one day be bred solely for the purpose of being unwilling organ donors. The trope is based on the real-world problem of organ shortages - 18 people die per day around the world while waiting for an organ transplant, and this has led to a robust black market in organ trading.
Creating clones might seem like a viable if ghoulish solution to the organ shortage problem, but it's unlikely to happen simply because it's unnecessary. Human cloning has been theoretically possible since 2013, when the first human stem cells were created via cloning. While this technique could theoretically be used to clone an entire human, it can also be used to regrow or clone the organs themselves. If doctors could simply grow a new heart or a kidney for a patient, there would be no need to need to create a being and harvest their organs, and the result would be a lot less dystopian than the current-day organ shortage.
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Humans Will Be Able To Communicate With Extraterrestrial Life Through SpeechPhoto: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial / Universal Pictures
According to science fiction, not only is it a given that extraterrestrial life exists in the universe, it's presumed that humans will be able to speak with it without much trouble. We're all familiar with the idea of an alien landing on Earth for the first time and somehow being able to say "Take me to your leader" in perfect English. (This specific trope originates from a 1953 New Yorker cartoon). But science fiction is full of humans and aliens who can learn each other's languages without much more trouble than two humans who speak different languages. In E.T. the Extraterrestrial, E.T. begins learning English after watching Sesame Street and imitating Gertie - which implies that his species possesses many of the same characteristics that allow humans to speak, like vocal cords. In Independence Day, for the alien species that comes to Earth, communicating with humans is as simple as using telepathy to turn Dr. Okun into a puppet. In the Mass Effect series, humans, Asari, Turians, Salarians, and every other species can easily speak the same language just a few generations after first contact.
But if aliens do exist, communication with them probably won't be so easy. Although linguists still disagree on the specifics, we do know that the ability to use language is a universal human characteristic. And the fact that humans can't communicate with any other species on Earth would suggest that we won't be able to communicate with an alien species from another planet either. There's no guarantee a hypothetical alien species would even understand concepts like words or grammar. They might communicate through a different medium entirely, like swirls of colors.
According to linguists, a movie like 2016's Arrival, in which a human scientist has to spend months deciphering an alien species' written language before any understanding is remotely possible, is probably a much more accurate portrayal of what first contact would look like.