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The Lens: With science fiction movies, the future is now

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 29, 2010 - Let's look back at some of the key events of the last few decades:

1975: Most of the world is killed as the result of biological warfare between the U.S. and China. Charlton Heston survives.

1980: The first Annual Transcontinental Road Race, later known as the "Death Race."

1983: A virus kills all dogs and cats. Humans begin keeping apes as pets. Bad idea.

Oceania and Eastasia are at war with Eurasia.

1984: Oceania and Eurasia are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

1991: Ape rebellion begins, led by Caesar.

1992: The HAL 9000 computer is activated in Urbana, IL.

1999: A large black monolith is discovered on a US moon base.

2000: Party over, oops. Out of time.

2001: Discovery One, a spacecraft headed for Jupiter, disappears. Small child gets very upset.

As should be obvious, science fiction is strong on innovative ideas, but notoriously bad at prophecy. But unless you're reading this on your wrist-TV, fresh from flying into work with your jet-pack and waiting for your personal robot to bring you your coffee, you already know this. Science fiction -- like every other kind of fiction -- tends to tell us a lot more about the thoughts and aspirations of the time in which it was written. That's why George Orwell wanted to call his 1949 novel "1948," not "1984."

Nonetheless, I am frequently reminded of at least two cases where science fiction got it right, largely because they looked to the small details rather than the big utopian (or dystopian) picture): In Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (based on Walter Tevis' 1963 novel), alien Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) doesn't make the mistake of previous visitors like Klaatu. He doesn't want to see our leaders; he heads straight for a good patent lawyer and correctly guesses some of the most significant innovations of the next two decades. He has, we are told, a handful of basic designs that will revolutionize technology, including a form of instant photography (hello, digital; goodbye, Polaroid), an audio system based not on analog discs but on a shiny metal ball (OK, compact discs turned out to be a lot flatter, but the premise stands). Add in Newton's plan to finance a private space program (has Richard Branson seen this?), and Roeg's film seems especially prescient. Forget the United Nations or the White House: Go for the media.

Even more prophetic is "Fahrenheit 451," Francois Truffaut's 1966 film based on Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel. Imagine a world where no one reads... (Pause for ironic effect.) Unfortunately, the uberlords at Universal have removed samples of the film from YouTube (You can watch the trailer here, but it's worth getting your hands on a copy just for the scene where Julie Christie's bored/sedated housewife gets to interact with her "family", i.e., her favorite reality show. It's a great throw-away moment, creepy, banal, sad -- and probably a preview of 75 percent of next year's cable programming.

This blog is provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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