What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
To make the understatement of the year: The future of humanity is uncertain. Despite our best efforts to build a better tomorrow, we still don’t know what tomorrow looks like. In many ways, we can’t even come to a common understanding of what a positive future even is.
It can be daunting to think of the future, but thankfully, movies help contextualize our anxieties, fears, and hopes. They’re a window into our collective humanity, and when grounded in plausible scenarios that could lie just around the corner, they can give us the inspiration to shape our future in reaction to or in full embrace of that hypothetical.
So we’ve put together a list of 15 films from the last decade that help us explore our possible futures, and in the process, maybe help to give us a roadmap for our present.
How does one deal with the profound emptiness of being alone in the universe? Ad Astra posits that the exploration of space, the distances that we must inevitably cross in order to expand outward into the great unknown, comes at the cost of our humanity.
Roy (Brad Pitt) travels into the depths of the unknown to reconnect with his estranged father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), but the time and distance of his work to discover extraterrestrial life has robbed Clifford of his sense of human connection and his desire to ever return to Earth. Though Clifford’s fate as an explorer is bleak, apparently meaningless in how fruitless his pursuit of extraterrestrial intelligence was, it has a converse effect on Roy, who returns home with the intent of reconnecting with the family that he estranged in his father’s footsteps. Perhaps our hope is not in reaching for the stars, but in caring for what we already have here on Earth.
Alita: Battle Angel
As prosthetics become more advanced, and issues of bodily autonomy become more prominent in our daily interactions, it’s not hard to imagine how the future might not be so far removed from that imagined in Alita: Battle Angel.
As the wealthy sit protected in floating city above a populous reliant on mechanized enhancements for survival, the citizens on the ground use those same enhancements to self-actualize into a number of different body shapes and sizes, some with the ultimate goal of being granted admittance to the higher social echelon. However, more often than not, when someone can afford the mechanical enhancement, they use it to prey upon the weak, necessitating a class of bounty hunters to keep them in check. The social stratification of this future is bleak, but the silver lining is that someone like Alita, naïve to her origins and eager to discover herself, might have the tools to transition into a better version of herself to challenge that social order.
Aniara imagines humanity reliant on a hopeful gambit for survival, only to find itself brought down by its own worst tendencies. It’s certainly plausible that humanity would migrate from Earth during a climate collapse, as is the possibility that one of those ships fated for Mars would suffer a cataclysmic collision that would set it off course into the vast unknown.
Yet the sad fate of humanity isn’t their eventual doom in the nothingness of space, but what it chooses to do with the time left to it. Leaders lie to keep a semblance of social order and to hold on to whatever perks their positions provide. Entertainment becomes the literal religion of the masses, as they nostalgically embrace simulations of earthly sensations. Ultimately, all hope fades into memories of lives past, and survival is merely a means to stave off the inevitable.
Ari Folman’s The Congress exemplifies the double-edged sword of our increasingly digital existences. On the one hand, the capability to plug into an artificial, animated world can be a welcome escape from a real world that might only offer pain and suffering. However, a willingness to do so can only accelerate the decline of the old world, and an embrace of the artificial leads to questions of individual identity when anyone can assume the appearance of a celebrity or sign away their personal appearance so that anyone else can use it.
The boundaries between escapist entertainment and real-world consequences is already an issue interwoven into our daily online interactions, so having that artifice broken down even further by making an artificial world we can actually experience might not just be the next logical step, but the next existential crisis we have to face. Folman’s hybrid live-action/animated sci-fi film sums it all up.
With the exponentially advancing development of artificial intelligence, we will inevitably have to answer the question of whether our creations are just as human as we are. Ex Machina frames its premise as a simple Turing test, but tester Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is not only testing whether or not the robot Ava’s (Alicia Vikander) created intelligence is sufficiently developed to appear human. Instead, the inherent assumption of human superiority allows Ava to seduce Caleb into setting her free and to break free of and murder her creator (Oscar Isaac), proving that not only is she on par with human intelligence, but has the capacity to outwit a person with abstract thought and strategy. Nothing will be some humbling — or perhaps as fatal — to humanity as the moment when it creates a machine smarter than itself.
The First Purge
Perhaps no entry on this list is as imminently plausible as the one presented in The First Purge. Though the specifics of a government-run sociological experiment where crime is legalized for a 12-hour period is perhaps a little farfetched, particularly with general distrust of the current administration in the White House, the idea that such an experiment would be used as cover to eliminate the beneficiaries of social welfare programs and further enrich the wealthy is sadly not that far removed from the sleight of hand perpetrated by modern politics. State-sanctioned murder perpetuated and justified by an openly nationalistic governing party is only a step or two beyond the white supremacist invasions of American cities we’ve seen this year. America’s future may not have a formalized Purge Night, but it might just have a government-approved Purge all the same.
In our modern lives where we are at once more interconnected than we have ever been and paradoxically more emotionally isolated, it’s easy to conceive that the evolution of artificial intelligence in our virtual assistants might give way to a new form of personal relationship.
Spike Jonze’s film Her explores the implication of dating a voice in your devices, a personality designed to endear itself to you and evolve into its own entity based on the stimuli you provide. This isn’t a malicious or capitalist conception of our relationship with technology, merely an observational one, where we might embrace the love of beings we created, only for those same beings to evolve beyond us and embrace their connectedness with one another. Ultimately, the future Her predicts is one that hopes we can reconnect with people, rather than the false humanity we create in our image.
Hotel Artemis is plausible not so much for the details of its plot, though the possible reality of 3D-printed organs and easily accessible off-the-books surgery might not be that far off either. Rather, the most prescient element of the film is its understanding of the chaos we may face in the near future as climate change makes potable water more valuable than ever.
The inciting incident that compels all the film’s intrigue is a riot outside the hotel, protesting the privatization of water and its inaccessibility by the general public. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the planet falls further into ruin, resources will be hoarded by those who can afford them and can afford to protect themselves from the angry masses. The hoarders are faceless and nameless in this film, but the reality taken as a given in this near future setting is prescient.
Lucy is distinct from other stories of human cognitive evolution in that it has a distinctly humanist bent. When the drug enters Lucy’s (Scarlett Johansson) system, she is not immediately stripped of her emotions and humanity, but rather she calls her parents to tell them how much she loves them, expressing a level of empathy allowed by her newfound intelligence. This trend only continues as Lucy expresses life’s purpose as passing on knowledge, suggesting that the path of human cognitive evolution is empathetic, communal, and ultimately selfless.
If a drug were to develop that would allow superhuman intelligence and abilities, this could very well be the way humanity would reinvent itself, leaving behind the petty selfishness that defines modern competition for resources and wealth in favor of an intelligence that is as emotional as it is knowledgeable.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The future of Mad Max: Fury Road is not just prescient for its ecological devastation or its understanding of water’s value in the wake of climate change. It has just as much understanding of how humanity might coalesce in the collapse of civilization, remolding into primitive forms that still reflect the capitalist power structure we see today. The War Boys are a tribal cult, led by a self-proclaimed warlord who lays claim to women as brood mothers through pure control of life’s most valuable resource and the unwavering loyalty of those who worship him as a god. In the post-apocalypse, being the one with the most stuff is a sign of strength worthy of developing institutions around, and Immortan Joe is the kind of patriarchal tyrant that might be inevitable in a power vacuum.
The practical application of an AI companion like that found in Marjorie Prime is sound. Having a facsimile of a family member to comfort you and to provide a repository for memories to be imminently lost to old age, Alzheimer’s, or death fulfills the very human desire to have something survive them. So it’s not inconceivable that a company might one day capitalize on this and provide a holographic companion to emulate those who have been taken by time and nature. The remaining quandary is only what those artificial companions are after the one they were created for has passed on. In the end, the answer might just be that they’re simply storytellers in the same way we are, destined to repeat our remembrances amongst themselves until those memories become fact.
There is an optimism to The Martian that is missing from many of its contemporary speculative fiction brethren. Setting aside how probable it is that a mission to Mars is in America’s near future – and it is a very scientifically plausible portrayal of a mission to Mars – there is something radical in the idea that a lost survivor stranded on another planet could be a mechanism to unite disparate and competing nations to come together for a common humanity. In the great emptiness of space that reduces humanity to a pinprick of significance, it’s compelling to think that seeing one of our own stranded so far away would motivate the human race to function as a singular whole, if only for a goal that reaffirms our unity as a species. There’s hope in that future that’s worth clinging to.
Is a perpetual motion train running around the circumference of a frozen Earth a likely outcome for the last denizens of humanity? In those specific terms, probably not. But is a strictly delineated caste system where no one is allowed advancement, as exemplified by the train’s cars, all that unlikely? Or an economic system where people at the “back” are forced to violently compete for the scraps of those who live at the front of society, in control of resources by an accident of birthright?
Snowpiercer is largely allegorical in its conception, but it exposes underlying truths about how capitalist stratification is part of our imminent future, if it isn’t already here, and the best chance we have for survival is to get off the train before it can make another pass.
Sorry To Bother You
The most infamously absurdist element of Sorry To Bother You are the genetically enhanced horse people created by capitalist super-corporation WorryFree. While the future of the working class might not be to literally be transformed into horses, you can guarantee that the moment someone figures out how to genetically modify living humans, the first thing they’ll do is figure out how to exploit those modifications for profit.
But even beyond that exaggeration of reality, the film is steeped in commentary about how wage-labor is a hair’s breadth away from slavery and how the future of capitalism is to sell us our own personal prisons under the guise of benevolent accommodations. All we have to do is keep consuming our daily dose of dehumanizing garbage television, and we too might get to live as subhuman monsters to create even more riches for the wealthy few.
The development of artificial intelligence and cybernetic enhancement are simultaneously at the cusp of tipping over into revolution, and Upgrade asks what happens if the two should happen simultaneously. The idea of an assistive intelligence to enhance motor functions and digital connectivity is a tempting path for medical advancement, but if that intelligence should develop an agenda independent of its intended purpose, the level of autonomy we have as individuals is at risk.
The world of Upgrade is already populated with junkies beholden to virtual reality, which serves as a perfect reflection of how a malicious AI influence could force someone to mentally break into a fantasy that locks them off from their own body. When human and machine become inextricably and biologically linked, it leaves a window into which machine intelligence can overtake our own from within.