The future isn’t what it used to be. More than most decades, the 2010s have proven to be quite unlike the films that posited what they would be like. 2010 was supposed to be The Year We Make Contact. 2012 didn’t pan out like a Roland Emmerich movie after all. And as for 2015, countless words have already been written comparing reality to the vision of Back To The Future Part II. They had flying cars; we had that dress that was either white and gold or black and blue.
We’re over all that now, but as we approach the 2020s, how does 2019 measure up? For one reason or another, a lot of major genre movies of the last 40 years or so have picked this specific year for all kinds of speculative sci-fi chaos. We’ve had no shortage of chaos in real life over the last 12 months, but has reality reflected the movies in any way?
This isn’t intended as a nit-picking rundown of films set in a future-now-past. Taking in both our interests and our fears about the future, science fiction remains relevant after any speculative dating, which is just one of these reasons why we’re still talking about 1984.
Instead, think of this more as a movie geek’s yearbook for the 2019s that never were and maybe you’ll appreciate just how normal this year has been by comparison…
Blade Runner (1982)
Let’s start with a film that’s only recently reached its expiration date, to borrow a phrase. Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi noir Blade Runner is specifically set in Los Angeles in November 2019. The opening shot is famously inspired by the industrial skyline of Teesside, where Scott lived in his youth. Later shots of LA similarly project the development of skyscrapers and outdoor marketing onto a dystopian future in which Harrison Ford’s Deckard hunts android Replicants among the population of humans who haven’t already left Earth.
While you can argue about how and where the setting might ring true or how commercial space-flight is about the rich wanting to make a fresh start off-world, the portrayal of Replicants can be read as an evergreen metaphor for workers being mistreated by unfeeling corporate masters. Working from Phillip K. Dick’s source material, Blade Runner is no killer robot movie, and its relevance in 2019 (as well as that of Denis Villeneuve’s impressive sequel) is about more than whether Scott’s vision bore out in real-time.
Were we even close? Experts are currently predicting that various jobs will be completely automated by 2030 and we’ll just have to burn that bridge when we get to it. Even though a Russian startup is now offering prototypical Replicants “for your home or office”, appointing people as blade runners doesn’t seem a probable solution to the anticipated labour crisis.
2019, After The Fall Of New York (1983)
Unlikely to be mistaken for a sequel to either 2001 or 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Sergio Martino’s sci-fi mashup does place itself pretty firmly in a version of this year from the title down. Ripping off Escape From New York but setting the action some 22 years later, the film finds American road warrior Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw) on a mission to rescue the last fertile woman on Earth from a Big Apple that’s overrun with criminals.
Mixing in elements of Star Wars, Mad Max and Planet Of The Apes for good measure, Martino’s film is a prime example of the kind of grand exploitation rip-off that came out of this period. The action takes place in the aftermath of a thermonuclear war, and if you’re into this sort of thing, it makes an entertaining outlet for the anxieties that characterised the early-to-mid-1980s.
Were we even close? Nope, but for some reason, a lot of the post-nuclear apocalypse movies like this one are also set specifically in 2019. Further reading along these lines includes post-apocalyptic neo-Westerns such as The New Barbarians (1983) and Steel Frontier (1995).
The Running Man (1987)
We know it’s a bit pat to joke that today’s media hellscape is already a less flashy, more vanilla version of The Running Man, but there’s definitely a prescient quality to the film’s portrayal of media structures and the reality TV genre. Based on a novel by Stephen King (as Richard Bachmann), the film is about a deadly game show broadcast by a totalitarian American government, in which criminals take on armed “stalkers” in a gladiatorial deathmatch.
Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ben Richards is a police helicopter-pilot turned-convict who’s forced to play The Running Man by its devious producers, but seeing as how he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, things don’t go as they planned. Frankly, it’s surprising that of all Arnie’s films, this one doesn’t seem to be up for a topical remake or reboot, given the increasing crossover between politics and entertainment.
Were we even close? In an inversion of treating criminals like gameshow contestants, Channel 4’s Hunted positions contestants as criminals, and has them go on the run from trained police and intelligence officials in the hope of winning a cash prize. Nobody fights or dies, but the format also has an American spin-off. Combined with the current state of things, our chances of making The Running Man a reality have elevated from sub-zero to “now plain zero”.
Back in post-apocalypse land, Katsuhiro Otomo’s iconic adaptation of his own manga series takes place in Neo Tokyo in 2019, just over 20 years after the Japanese capital was originally destroyed by a singularity. Between corrupt politicians and warring bikers, vigilante gang-leader Kaneda tries to rescue his newly psychic best friend Tetsuo from the clutches of a shady government project.
Frequently hailed as one of the greatest animated movies ever made, the film’s story and themes are so specific to Japan that it’s hard to fathom what the long-mooted American-language remake would look like. The cyberpunk-flavoured 2019 in which it is set has been a huge inspiration for both animated and live-action films, as well as providing the setting for an epic, often terrifying interdimensional cataclysm.
Were we even close? This one is still pretty out there, to the point where Rick & Morty’s recent fourth-season opener remarked upon the strangeness of one character’s “Akira Boy” rampage. Heck, we didn’t even get an Akira remake this year, or in any of the last few years of the 2010s for which a live-action version was mooted. On the other hand, the finale takes place at the construction site for an Olympic stadium and sure enough, Tokyo will host next year’s summer games…
Here’s a man-vs-robot B-movie from Albert Pyun, who also directed Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg and the 1990 Captain America movie. In this one, the villainous CEO of a cybernetics corporation press-gangs retired champion kickboxer Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke) into taking part in a televised tournament by kidnapping his wife.
As the only completely human fighter, O’Brien faces opponents who have cybernetically enhanced up to 90% of their bodies, as opposed to the regulation 50% of previous contests. Clunkily mixing real-life kickboxing footage with soapy sci-fi melodrama (the new Mrs O’Brien becomes his cyborg rival’s lover and trainer), Pyun’s film is another that grapples with the unethical actions of corporations, but it also has more of a bloke kicking the crap out of cyborgs than others we’ve mentioned.
Were we even close? The dream of robots vs wrestlers is no closer to becoming a reality than it was when that season five episode of How I Met Your Mother first aired. However, televised robot sports range from Robot Wars to robot football. When the machines do rise against us humans, I expect I’ll be among first against the wall for laughing so hard and so often at clips like this…
The Island (2005)
You wouldn’t expect this Logan’s Run throwback to come from a director like Michael Bay, but it quickly progresses from the sci-fi intrigue of the opening act to a more typical assault on filmgoers’ senses. From the outset, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) believes that he lives in a safely contained community in a world that is uninhabitable due to contagion.
Weekly lottery winners get to go to the titular island and live out the rest of their days in paradise. However, when Lincoln discovers that the compound is actually a facility for holding clones of the rich and famous until their sponsors need an organ donation or a surrogate, he and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) go on the run in the real (very much not dead) world to try and expose the truth.
Were we even close? Animal cloning has been around since Dolly the sheep was doubled in 1997, but the fact that reproductive and non-reproductive cloning is already illegal in many countries drives the conspiracy thriller element of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann’s script. It suits Bay’s brand of cinematic cynicism to have humans being this awful, we haven’t seen evidence of anyone’s unethical designs on organ harvesting being achievable just yet.
In this underappreciated sci-fi actioner from The Spierig Brothers, vampires reign supreme. It’s not in the fun way that a lot of other would-be overlords might like, but the logical extreme where 10 years after an infected bat causes a worldwide plague, humans are an endangered species, and if vampire haematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) can’t develop a viable nutritional substitute, everyone will degenerate into ravening zombies.
Inflating a Twilight Zone-calibre premise into a full-on, unpretentious horror flick, Daybreakers goes full-tilt into science fiction, considering the bonkers implications of a society where most of the population are vampires and immersing us in it for 100 minutes or so. We won’t say more if you haven’t seen it yet, but the film goes on to include even more crazy twists and turns, setting it apart from the innumerable post-Underworld vampire movies of the 2000s.
Were we even close? Scientists have been trying to develop working blood substitutes since the beginning of the 20th century, with various wars and public health crises raising concerns about the viability of available blood supplies at different times. As yet, there’s no alternative, but then as far as we know, they’re not looking into it for vampires.
Honourable mention: Geostorm (2017)
Finally, although the bulk of Geostorm takes place in the year 2022, the movie’s prologue tells us of unprecedented international cooperation after a series of natural disasters. Countries around the world cooperate to fund and build Dutch Boy, a sophisticated system of climate-control satellites that effectively curtail the extreme weather.
It takes just three years for someone to exploit this to try and assassinate the President of the United States (Andy Garcia), because hey, this is a Roland Emmerich movie. As we’ve said on this site before, we’ve got a soft spot for Geostorm, and even without an international coalition to say yes to nonsense on this scale, at least we still have good old Gerard Butler.
Were we even close? Regrettably, the film’s weather forecast for this year has proven to be less exaggerated than you’d think, with The New York Times reporting that a record seven million people were displaced as a result of extreme weather events in the first six months of 2019 alone.
Are world leaders clubbing together in a bid to stop this? Well, in a White House briefing later in the year, Donald Trump reportedly asked why the government couldn’t just drop nuclear bombs into the eye of a hurricane before it made landfall, but that’s about it. On a possibly related note, Geostorm is one of a dwindling number of Hollywood movies produced in the last few years that have had the US president as a sympathetic character.