Essential Films for Technology and the Future 101: a syllabus
What are the best movies for thinking through the future and technology?
This topic came up on Twitter after I realized a disturbing number of my students had seen neither 2001: A Space Odyssey nor Soylent Green. After some expressions of proto-geriatric dismay people encouraged me into this wild declaration:
That’s what this post is about.
To explain my criteria: these are movies that give us much to think about when we consider technology and the future (at the time of production). Each should explore one of more themes along those lines. Some are cultural touchstones, at least for certain population. On top of that, each is at least good if not marvelous to watch.
I also tried to pick films from a range of times and places. The first example is from the 1920s, while the most recent ones are from the past few years. While Hollywood is overrepresented, Germany, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union each have movies here as well.
I have excluded certain films and videos for reasons of clarity. All that follow are works of fiction, as documentaries would constitute a different list. All are feature films, as they have the time to develop arguments at length and explore worlds; short films are great, but deserve their own category. I’ve also ruled out television, because that is a vast and distinct cosmos. I have also resisted the temptation to extract fine scenes from otherwise underwhelming films, like the apocalypse/old tech closing scenes of Terminator 3 (2003), the far future coda to A.I. (2001), or the interface scenes from Minority Report (2002) and the Iron Man movies (2008 et seq) — although it would be a fun project to assemble such a future tech scene anthology/highlight reel.
For each title I offer reasons why I think the movie is interesting for thinking about technology and the future. These are only a few reasons and notes, not histories of the films or reviews. In the overall list I tried not to repeat themes too often (i.e., not too many movies about AI, not too many dystopias, etc.), so each movie’s entry also has related films that are worth watching.
I’ve arranged them in chronological order because that’s how I roll. Think of this as a timeline of how film imagined future technology over nearly a century.
I’m not teaching such a class, but I’d like to someday. Maybe I should follow Jim Groom’s suggestion and set it up as an open class.
Essential Films for Technology and the Future 101
It’s astonishing how much the next century of technology movies depend on Metropolis (1927). Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou shotgunned the screen with trope after trope that viewers have recognized ever since. There’s an alluring/sinister robot. There’s videoconferencing. There’s the vast, all-encompassing, and fascinating future city, riffed on by many directors since like Ridley Scott and George Lucas.
And there’s class struggle fought with and through technology. It’s deep Wiemar, complete with Marxist gangs and a Hegelian finale, but the detailed depiction of social groups separated through machines echoed down the decades since.
Forbidden Planet (1956) is remarkable for what it turns upside down. Our protagonists arrive at their destination not in a rocketship, but in a flying saucer (recall that the term was only invented nine years earlier). There’s a huge and scary robot who turns out to be friendly and beloved by fans ever since. A mad scientist has built a giant computer, but is imprisoned by the literal realization of Freudian psychoanalysis. Did I mention it’s also a riff on The Tempest?
It’s also a movie that never really lets us escape technologies. Our protagonists live within a spaceship, and the mad scientist and his daughter live in a crazed modernist fantasy facility. The alien planet is desolate and we don’t spent much time out of doors. The planet might be forbidden, so we spent the rest of our time amidst gadgets.
Desk Set (1957) is a delightful Tracy-Hepburn comedy about automation and information technology. The plot is based on a business attempting to replace a human (all women) squad of reference specialists with a pair of giant computers, and the romances around it.
There’s an awful lot going on here, way ahead of the curve. We can see early signs of the library professional grappling with the digital world. There are cultural clashes between different occupational norms. Inevitable is the question of how, when, and why should computers replace humans. There’s the gender angle, of male-driven tech taking over for women in a feminized field. And we can see social class connected to it all, from the structuring of relationships to a pretty stark hierarchy of power.
And it’s a lot of fun from start to finish.
Seen one way, Planet of Storms (Планета Бурь, 1962) looks like a standard mid-century space adventure. Heroes take a rocketship to explore an alien planet. Things go wrong and adventures ensue.
Viewed another way, Планета Бурь offers a different take on that theme, because it’s a Soviet film. First off, while it draws on western film tropes to an extent, it simply looks different. All kinds of design elements offer alternative takes on what non-Soviet viewers would expect, from robots and spacesuits to clothing and landscapes.
For another, being a Soviet film, it advances an unsurprising ideology. Characters argue about the logic of history, human development, profit versus communism, and so on. The mission is a collective one, more important than any single character -again, not like usual Hollywood fare.
Worth viewing on its own, Planet of Storms offers an unusual take on technology and the future. And I’m convinced one of the Terminator films ripped off a character’s death scene.
Runner-up: the utterly insane Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello Spazio, 1965).
Alphaville (1965) gives us technological dystopia, but of a particular kind. Its world is glossy and stylish, utterly cool. It’s also film noir, complete with trench coats, fedoras, and arabesque smoking, decades before Blade Runner. A computer gone wrong runs Alphaville, but a bad place has never looked so good.
The low budget Goddard worked with gives us an unusual science fiction vision, bereft of massive special effects. We’re not really in a different world at all. Instead we get a world we might have wandered in to by visiting the wrong office park. Characters reference mid-20th-century history (Werner von Braun, Ford Galaxy cars, Gaudalcanal) — i.e., the contemporary world. It’s an intimate, accessible imagination of dark technology.
About the AI: Star Trek fans will be familiar with a hero talking a computer into submission. And that computer’s voice! Spoken by a war veteran who was shot through the throat, it’s impossible to forget and has never been surpassed. Only HAL has come close. And speaking of which…
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is for many people the ultimate vision of scary AI. HAL 9000 (his name Clarke’s cute code for “IBM”) begins as supremely competent and supportive, always available to help, like a prototypical Siri or Alexa. His turn — never explained in the film, but clearly outlined in the novel — gives us scenes of Kafkaesque frustration and nightmare.
2001 also gives us glorious visions of space travel, with plenty of vehicles soaring through the void. Kubrick famously shows lyrical flight, quotidian travel details, and realistic physics.
The film is crammed with technological innovation. Videoconferencing, tablet computing, image recognition, AI ethics, rotational gravity — there’s so much here.
Runner-up: Silent Running (1972).
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) plunges us right into the Cold War and never lets us escape for a moment. Nearly every scene immerses us into nuclear war’s vast and terrible machinery. Soldiers, functionaries, politicians, and scientists of war are our cast, while MAD facilities are our setting.
It’s an AI movie, famously, with a weapons-controlling program bootstrapping itself into global hegemony. This is a theme well established in print. My own favorite is Harlan Ellison’s searing “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967).
It’s also a posthuman movie. Colossus is clearly beyond humanity in most ways, and leaves us in the dust. We invent our successor, and live to service its triumph.
For all of our talk about overhyping tech’s positive possibilities, it’s clear movies have always loved technological dystopia. Soylent Green (1973) gives us one of the most famous such, this time based on contemporary fears of Malthusian overpopulation. The human race has overshot Earth’s carrying capacity, so we’ve jury-rigged all kinds of technological stopgaps: bicycling to power electrical lights, synthetic foods (no, wait), assisted suicide facilities, and (yeah) synthetic foods, Swift style.
Soylent Green is also profoundly about inequality. You can’t get much starker than the rich having poor slaves (called “furniture”), and the latter being eaten as food. It’s an updated vision of Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.
Note as well the role of oceans in the film. This is an environmental film.
It’s based on Harry Harrison’s better-titled novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966).
Like Alphaville Blade Runner (1982) is film noir, but a generation late. The main technology in view is robotics so good as to fool most humans. Every scene from start to (famously fraught) finish presses hard on the question: how should people treat the autonomous creations we invent? In that sense the movie’s real ancestor is Frankenstein.
Other technologies fill the screen, starting with an iconic update of Metropolis. Los Angeles is dark, crammed, transnational, impossible to encompass, striated by inequality. It is filled with an Ixian array of machines beyond robots: videoconferencing, humanity detectors, flying cars, nifty guns, street electron microscopes, synthetic life with trademarks stamped at the molecular level, voice interfaces, photo analysis software…
While a box office and critical failure when it appeared, Blade Runner has become one of the most influential sf films of all time. So imitated, in fact, that it’s hard for current audiences to grasp how fresh its vision was at the time.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ, 1984) takes place in a far future, when life on Earth has changed in deep ways. Human civilization has shrunk and new lifeforms populate the world. In this setting a clash over technologies and power erupts.
This is fascinating for our purposes on several levels. First, it’s deeply ecological, intertwining every human and technological question within natural, nonhuman systems. Second, the technology is very strange. Not only do we see a mix of high and low, new and old, but it all blends with biology. Third, it’s unusually gynocentric for most movies about tech, as it turns on a struggle between two women. Fourth, like Dune or Star Wars it builds up fantasy elements — mostly social and cultural — on top of science fictional devices.
It’s also beautiful and eerie.
Brazil (1985) gives us one of the best realized technology-enabled dystopias. Terry Gilliam exquisitely crafts a bureaucratic nightmare, elaborating on it with sadistic detail. At the same time Brazil is profoundly, obsessively, finally about the power and failure of imagination.
All of this is carried across by a rich technological vision. On the one hand we see advanced tech: cityscapes to rival Metropolis; maintenance suits close to Apollo’s; computer games; digital files; synthetic and advertised food. On the other we fall back on older tech, which litters Brazil‘s world: black and white tvs, literal paperwork, pneumatic tubes, typewriters (the movie kicks off with a typo, which is really a bug). It’s a realistic combination for a movie usually deemed fantastic, recognizing the dogged persistence of old tech amidst the new.
WarGames (1983) returns us to the Cold War, but from the point of viewer of innocent bystanders, rather than its directors. That conflict’s final brush with apocalypse forms the background and foreground alike for this film. Like its contemporaries The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984) WarGames takes us from home to HQ, rural cottages to military command. Its technologies are that of total annihilation — and playing games.
Yes, this strange movie is also a meditation on gaming and play. A military computer to simulate or game WWIII has gotten a bit out of control, which leads to eerie scenes of terrible innocence and logic, armageddon amidst a quiet game of chess. Game theory hangs over the entire plot.
This movie also emphasizes and helps introduce the character of the very young hacker. It’s a generation gap film, really a young adult story, and those demographic clashes create some of the plot’s energy.
Ghost in the Shell (1995) grounds technology in the world of future crime and law enforcement. It’s a kind of police procedural, as a special police unit hunts a powerful criminal hacker amidst a swirl of geopolitics.
The film is saturated with technology of all kinds, from its own version of cyberspace (with its own lingo) to Metropolis-like cityscapes, camo fields, sentient tanks, robots, new media, and more. Central to the plot are officers who are cyborged to various degrees of tissue replacement; their nature is meditated upon. Hacking is part of their basic cop m.o., and also part of their bodies.
The original film was visually fascinating and had a fine soundtrack.
Gattaca (1997) is possibly the most interesting movie about biology, technology, and innovation. The plot concerns a bio-social hack, as a genetically compromised man fights to trick his way into a biologically elite space program. Along the way we learn about a society deeply structured by inequalities driven by genetic science.
It is in many ways the most thoughtful and interesting film about the ways we could use and misuse genetics, and is widely taught, from what I can gather.
Note how the movie’s ultimate purpose is to send a person into space, and how only a few seconds are concerned with that actually happening. Gattaca is a sign of the decline of human spaceflight.
It’s a bit daunting to realize just how brilliant and ambitious The Matrix (1999) was. It may be the perfect cyberpunk film, deeply embracing that genre and taking it to fine extremes. It’s also a lyrical ode to virtual reality’s first wave, not only realizing it in detail but taking VR’s ontological heights to political levels. And it’s the best visualization of Plato’s Cave I’ve ever seen.
It may be the high point of cultural imaginings of the hacker. Neo becomes the savior of humanity and reality itself, having won the ability to reprogram the world’s basic stuff. Over the next two decades hackers have fallen, I think, down to techbros.
There are no sequels.
eXistenZ (1999) asks us to imagine a different world, one where we have virtual reality and gaming — just built not with silicon-based tech, but entirely through organic devices. Mad genius director David Cronenberg pursues this unusual vision with gusto, giving us a wide range of biological machines, from game controllers to implants to “factories.”
I think this defamiliarizes classic technology problems (what is reality? when is a device too intrusive? what do we lose when engaging with media?) and makes them sharper, more interesting. It also lets us rethink the disturbing and uncanny aspects of the digital world that we have grown accustomed to. And there’s the sheer disgusting joy in exploring this organic tech’s ecosystem in full squicky detail.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) asks us to consider how we might use the ability to edit our memories. Cleverly, this is not so pompous or grand as that question suggests, as the film focuses on a handful of people using memory deletion to attempt to feel better about their relationships. Ultimately, it’s a kind of tragic/romantic comedy.
Things don’t turn out well. The technology keeps having errors, especially thanks to operator misuse. Users overdo it and their sense of reality starts to fray.
Ultimately the tech and its uses lead the film to question the role of memory in human identity, with a big helping of wondering at predestination.
WALL-E (2008) is another ambitious film. It begins with a vision of a devastated Earth, literally trashed by tech-enabled human consumerism. It then adds a post-planetary humanity drenched in said consumerism as a tech-enabled mock-utopia. From these dark worlds it offers a slim hope of non- or even anti-technological promise.
WALL-E explores the theme of old tech’s persistence, especially when contrasted with the triumph of the new. It manages to invest us emotionally in crusty old tech, while teaching us to fear, then desire the new. Pixar has an incredible way with audience emotions.
Primer (2004) is in some ways a pure science fiction movie. It’s about two friends who invent a new thing and what happens next… and that’s about it. We don’t see the society around them. No political issues, no romances, no action scenes occur. It’s purely about technological invention.
It’s also not an easy movie to get into, because it proceeds quickly and without a lot of pedagogy. Our protagonists talk about their invention and how they engineer it quickly, to each other, without pausing for the audience to catch up. Much is done visually, without oral or textual explanation. It’s a good example of the “hard sf” subgenre.
Like Alphaville Primer had a laughably low budget, so it snuggles right up to our world without any transition. Key scenes take place in storage units and suburban house hallways. You can easily imagine these two young men bootstrapping time travel in the next county.
Runner-up: Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988).
Robot and Frank (2012) flips Wargames on its head, as the main tech user is very old, rather than very young. That’s the plot’s main point. Frank is retired and his adult children worry that he can’t take care of himself, so they buy him a companion robot. In a way it’s the ideal movie for our geriatric century, as populations age up: the anti-Soylent Green.
Rather than pondering the nature of intelligence, the film explores the relationship between user and machine. Frank is initially hostile, especially when the bot tries to teach him to change his diet, but comes around when encourage to teach the bot some of his skills. You see, Frank’s profession was that of burglar… so once again we return to technology and crime, but in a very genial manner.
Runner-up: Moon (2009).
Her (2013) revisits the conclusion of Alphaville by asking us about love and automation — specifically, to imagine a person falling in love with an AI. Our protagonist is a lonely and withdrawn man, but opens up to his phone’s “operating system.” The movie follows many classic romantic tropes: increasing intimacy, growing physicality, awkwardness when the beloved and friends connect, jealousy, all done by what is essentially a lone actor interacting with a voiceover.
At the same time it pushes hard on our imagining of AI, seeing it not as a cold enemy but a warm friend and lover. Indeed, at several points in the film humans come off as inferior to Samantha. That feeling builds until the concluding posthuman moment. (That’s set up by several quiet glimpses of lone people besotted with their mobile devices.)
*The hero is named Theodore Twombly. Besides being fun to say, I can’t help but be reminded of The Twonky (1953).
Runner-up: Ex Machina (2014).
Before Parasite there was Snowpiercer (2013), Bong Joon-ho’s first lacerating take on inequality. While Parasite touches on technology, Snowpiercer is drenched in tech from a wide range of time and domains. It all takes place on and around that signal nineteenth-century machine, a train, as it hurtles endlessly through a ruined landscape, powered by very new and very old resources. Some characters enjoy the benefits of a new type of food (a gelatinous nod to Soylent), while others relish living within an aquarium.
Again we explore that mix of old and new technologies, asking questions about what and how we choose to use. Again we see inequality starkly enforcing the smallest details of human lives.
The Martian (2015) is an optimistic movie, a can-do ode to DIY in space. Our titular stranded character has to follow Robinson Crusoe by building up enough of a mini-civilization to survive, before being rescued. That theme is important enough to add it to our list, given contemporary obsessions with dystopia.
The range of technologies are interesting. On the one hand this is a story about space travel, so we see advanced tech: a fine spacecraft, custom-created housing units for the Martian surface, cutting-edge computers. On the other, Watney begins with very little, and starts with agriculture (so this is a movie in part about biology). Step by step he adds other bits of kit: plastic sheeting, tarps, remnants of busted devices, repurposed machines. It’s like a maker space on Mars.
It’s also passionately optimistic about space travel, which isn’t something we’ve seen much of since 1990. For comparison, see Gravity (2013).
Some of the best visions of the future come from history. Hidden Figures (2016) rights a historical wrong by reintroducing key players at the start of American spaceflight: black women mathematicians. Their struggles to be taken seriously, as professionals and human beings, are the core of the movie’s drama.
At the same time it’s also a film about grappling with technology. Our “computers” crunch a vast amount of numbers with pen, pencil, and whiteboard, turning at times to then cutting-edge calculators. Then one becomes the programmer of what we now recognize as a computer, going on to manage a swarm of coders. Hidden Figures is about the birth of modern computing.
And it’s about spaceflight. We don’t follow Mercury capsules into orbit so much as see how they were set in motion. It’s fascinating and heartening to see space travel viewed so aspirationally today.
Films I haven’t seen that could be contenders:
- Ikarie XB-1 (1963). I’ve heard great things and I adore Lem, the source of the movie. I just haven’t had access to a good copy.
- The Imitation Game (2014). Over the past year I exceeded my Cumberpatch tolerance. Is this worth seeing?
- I haven’t seen any of the Neon Genesis Evangelion movies, although I’ve watched some of the series. Do they work for our purposes?
Likely movies I excluded for various reasons:
- Avatar (2009): far more interesting for its production tech than for, well, just about anything else.
- Elysium (2013): what a great idea, so badly executed.
- The Social Network (2010): not only is it bad history, but it’s really a horror film. Good example of hating hackers.
- Sunshine (2007): so many good scenes in a movie nearly entirely set within technological artifacts. But it was undone by that stupid final act.
What do you think of this list? Am I unfair to the runners-up? Would you like to add to the list, or use it for a class?
(thanks to multiple friends on Twitter and Facebook; cross-posted to my blog)