Future tense   Themes in new ‘Total Recall,’ other forward-looking films resonate in the present

Where are the flying cars? The robot butlers? Ah, well, at least we’re not making people into food (yet).

These are a few of the notions films have presented us with as visions of the future, and certainly it’s a good thing that last one, brought forth in 1973’s “Soylent Green,” hasn’t come to pass. (Spoiler alert? Eh — it’s been almost 40 years.) While these are just tidbits about what the world may one day look like, some films do offer bigger-picture versions of the future. Some are funny, many are bleak. Some are somewhat accurate, some aren’t, others … well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

A remake of “Total Recall,” which opens Friday, Aug. 3, brings the future to the fore and gives us a second look at the same story. Both Len Wiseman’s remake and Paul Verhoeven‘s original are based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” In both versions, people in the future take virtual vacations — memory implants that fake a trip for you. This leads to bigger problems involving fake identities, false realities and government secrets, all rolled into an action film.

The virtual-vacation part sounds inviting in theory. The rest? Not so much. But like all visions of the future, these are more than just guesses about what life might be like 20, 30, even 100 years down the road.

They are also statements about us.

“Depictions of the future in film … in some ways, like depictions of the past, have much more to say about the present than the time period represented,” said Susan Mackey-Kallis, a communications professor at Villanova University near Philadelphia. “Sci-fi films and literature in particular, … because of the admittedly speculative nature of their subject matter, are the perfect mediums for projecting a culture’s hopes and fears.”


Particularly our fears, it seems like. Mackey-Kallis notes that 1990, the year the first “Total Recall” came out, included the beginning of the first Gulf War; more unrest would soon follow in the years to come with the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the car-bombing of the World Trade Center.


“It was, in other words, an unusually violent and uncertain year where Americans, I would argue, were feeling a great loss of control over our domestic and international identity,” she said. “‘Total Recall,’ a film about 95 years into the supposed future, had much more to say about 1990 than 2084.”

There’s plenty to say about 2012, as well — political divisiveness, stubborn economic problems and a general unease about the future. It’s plenty of fodder for a new “Total Recall” — or any other forward-looking film — to sink its teeth into. The fear of loss of control still lingers.

A movie like “2001: A Space Odyssey” contains multitudes of themes, many still murky and debatable decades after its 1968 release. But one that is prevalent — and runs through so many films that depict a future world, including “Total Recall” — is the rise of technology and its eventual taking over. HAL 9000, the supercomputer whose nefarious actions turn deadly in “2001,” is probably the foremost example of a dual fascination with and fear of technology in films.

Which is why it still resonates. We increasingly rely on computers for nearly everything we do. And while, unlike HAL, computers don’t try to kill us in our sleep, a malfunction or sabotage can lead to all sorts of trouble. The recent outage of the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud knocked out such popular services as Netflix, Instagram, Pinterest and more, and raised questions about what could happen to more-crucial services that use cloud computing. Fears of hacked account numbers have been realized. But it’s still enough to give one pause, even as we move more and more of our lives online.

Thus, a new “Total Recall,” while set in the future, is timely, as it mines the use of technology for good and bad.

“Indeed, that’s what draws people into the theaters,” said Christopher Ames, a professor of English at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and author of “Movies About the Movies: Hollywood Reflected.”

“At the root of this is a powerful social ambivalence about living in the age of the computer — from HAL to Siri (the iPhone app that uses voice recognition to carry out commands) — that artificial intelligence blurs the line between human and machine, that as machines become more human, our lives become more controlled by machines. …

“While the details of ‘The Matrix’ or ‘2001’ or ‘Total Recall’ may not accurately predict the future, they have successfully dramatized what concerns us about living in an increasingly robotic world,” Ames said.

It wasn’t always this way. Although exceptions exist — Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic “Metropolis,” for instance, with a future divided along sharp class lines — a dystopian future is a relatively recent development in movies, which were often more concerned with the excitement of new things than with the dangers they present.

“Where previously film images of the future tended to be utopian and presume that technological advances led to a better lifestyle (‘A Trip to the Moon,’ ‘Things to Come’), sci-fi developed a strong dystopian strain after the 1950s, which saw the future in terms of a failed past — (like) ‘Blade Runner,'” said William Luhr, a film professor at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

Maybe it was the Cold War. (Probably it was the Cold War.) Or maybe it was a growing unease, a fear that perhaps we’re not getting this whole bright-future thing right. Whatever the reasons, Luhr is right — after the 1950s, the future in films started looking dicier.

Not everything in these films is so serious, of course. Nor is it necessarily accurate.

“One of the most obvious inaccurate predictions in a film comes from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ which suggests that by the beginning of the 21st century, an entire generation will have been living on the moon,” said Richard Hansen, an associate professor of speech and theater at Middle Tennessee State University.

Hansen is something of an expert when it comes to erroneous predictions.

“In ‘Frankenstein 1970’ (released in 1958), Boris Karloff‘s character could privately acquire an atomic reactor,” Hansen said. “And keep it at home!”

(The film is also notable, Hansen points out, for being the first movie to include the sound of a toilet flushing.)

There’s more.

“A humorous and (I hope) deliberate misread of the future is in the Sylvester Stallone film ‘Demolition Man,’ when all restaurants have been replaced by Taco Bell (with alternate release prints substituting Pizza Hut). This was Stallone’s second futuristic film, the first being ‘Death Race 2000,’ released in 1975, set against the destruction of the U.S. by the double whammy of a military coup and economic collapse (not to mention the competitive sport of killing pedestrians for points).

“Also thinking of sports, the original ‘Rollerball’ (1975) has corporations replacing countries by 2018. Only six more years to go!”

Something to look forward to. Or not.

Whatever the case, accuracy of the details isn’t as important as the accuracy of the themes — the themes prevalent in our lives now. In the new “Total Recall,” we’ll see another glimpse of what might be to come. And filmmakers will continue to cast an eye to the future, as they always have. If we look hard enough, we won’t just see the world as it may one day exist. We’ll also see aspects of the world we’re already living in.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic .com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: twitter.com/goodyk.


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