In Ian’s previous articles, we’ve seen how technologies of the future (and present!) can quickly invalidate our future-writing efforts. But the easiest thing for writers to misjudge is how people themselves will be different, within the future worlds we create.
We may be very happy to accept any implausible or kitsch elements in your future-writing if they make for a more vivid and exciting world than our own – but if people (and the way they live) don’t seem to be changed, then you’re missing out on one of the massive appeals of writing the future: that it offers audiences a vision of how we could be different if we lived in such a different world, and how we could make different choices in life if they see life in that new light. The future is, ultimately, a place to play out our dreams of what life today really could, or should, look like, if only we had the chance. Future-writing creates a rare, neutral space in which to play out our conflicting visions, and fears, for the present and the future, all within the safety net of someone else’s story about a totally different world to our own.
If our technologies – or destructive tendencies – smash the way of life we know, then the post-apocalyptic visions of many popular future-stories (MAD MAX, THE BOOK OF ELI, etc etc) may prove a good guide – because people whose lives are a step backwards from ours, are likely to play out in ways that life and history can help us recognize today. So I’ll focus instead on how people are likely to change if that doesn’t happen, and if other historic trends continue instead. Here are some trends I’ve noticed which are extremely likely to continue to change our personalities and choices. If you’re looking for subjects to inspire your next script, the answer might be somewhere here!
- Ever-presents of human nature, like family bonds and tribalism and attraction, will continue to forge our key relationships and allegiances and priorities – far more than rational reasoning would like to admit. We will never actually want to be “one unified world community” – whatever we might tell ourselves, we’ll choose to keep dividing ourselves into tribes and sub-tribes. I’ll write about these in more detail another time.
- Almost every medical condition will become treatable, and most will be fully curable. People will develop ever-more-perfectionist expectations of themselves and others for their health, capacities and looks. Technologies will become better integrated within people’s bodies too, with far-reaching implications, first for treatments and then for enhancements. These trends will create losers as well as winners, mainly due to economic factors that give or limit people’s access to these treatments.
- Almost every conceivable aspect of life and the world will become connected to, or monitored by, our grand digital networks. Going ‘off the grid’ will get harder and harder, with important consequences for thriller stories in particular – many scripts we receive feel quite dated to me already with this in mind. The ‘internet of things’ will pose significant risks for privacy and security, with our everyday lives utterly interconnected with single networks that put us all at risk of having our lives invaded.
- The culture war of the 21st century will continue to be that between fundamentalism (of all kinds), against relativism and tolerance. Western countries may need to start reining in more of the free-for-alls that have risen since the 1960s – because if we can’t, fundamentalism may offer many people a much more reassuring vision than the issues that they perceive in the world around them. I notice that few sci-fi writers want to embrace religious believers into ‘their’ visions of the future. But those people will be there anyway – how will they feel about the world they’re living in? How many of those wonderful 1960s visions of the 21st century (THUNDERBIRDS, etc etc) predicted a global surge in religious fundamentalist terrorism? Perhaps, comparing modern trends to the worldview and expectations of religious fundamentalists, we should have seen it coming.
- War will also be designed to keep actual human beings (from our own country, anyway) completely remote and safe from the intrinsic dangers of the battlefield. This is already basically the case for headline conflicts, we just haven’t invented a way to occupy hostile territories without ground troops yet. I reckon the next major war between global powers will be won or lost by technology (such as cyberattack) within hours without a single bullet being fired. All this has big implications for action stories – where we want to see our heroes put their own lives on the line for the story, without getting immediately cut down by some drone-robot fly.
- Power and knowledge and the ‘moral high ground’ will continue to decentralize away from governments and religious institutions, through technology and the continued trend towards individualization of modern job roles. Improved technologies will also make it harder and harder for anyone to maintain lies and secrets (and foment conspiracies successfully). However, at the same time, we will all be relying on common technologies and platforms, such as the internet, ever more, and so the risks will grow that would-be tyrants and hostile powers will turn our powers and everyday devices upon us.
- Supposedly ‘ignorant’ patterns of thought and behaviour (from racism to superstition to religious bigotry) will continue to decline, but will keep persistently recurring in new forms in every generation, and the continued migration and tourism of people to other countries will ensure that old issues like these will never become ‘a thing of the past’ anywhere.
- Controversial cases that come to light in the news will continue to stiffen public opinion and the law against people who create injustices and avoidable suffering for other people (from our own culture or countries!). Proliferating devices like smartphones will continue to make it easier for victims and others to record and prove that these injustices are happening – albeit via networks and platforms that many governments and others may be demand to control.
- People will continue to intensively map, scan and explore any areas of life or the universe that could be described as ‘the unknown’. Fewer people will believe in the possibilities that rely upon it (such as magic, monsters, aliens and direct ‘divine intervention’) – though interest in stories about them might conversely rise as a result of their ‘otherness’! But people will continue to interpret things in the ways that feel most natural to themselves, so don’t expect religion and superstition to die off anytime soon.
- Automation and robotizing of all aspects of life will continue to render more and more job roles obsolete. The more this continues, growing numbers of people may lean towards anti-globalization movements, backward-looking politicians or authoritative voices. Meanwhile educated, versatile people may find themselves in a minority for remaining economically active and having a secure sense of their own identity and purpose in the world. Which impacts significantly upon my next point…
- While globalization will continue to make countries ever more interdependent, but sociopaths will continue to find ways to take power (click HERE to understand what I mean by ‘sociopath’ – it’s perhaps a much more widespread personality type than you realize). Pacifism will remain naïve in the face of this, and the proliferation of technologies that can empower them in new and ever-more-pervasive ways. But in economic terms, centralized nation-states will be unable to keep up with those that don’t try to maintain full control of all aspects of the economy.
- The environment everywhere will continue to be carved up and predominated by human activity at an escalating rate, until technological changes make it possible (and convenient) to live far more efficiently than people currently choose to. Changes of power and circumstance will keep upsetting whatever is agreed to protect the environment; people will have to innovate within their own spheres of influence instead, to make any difference, but this won’t change the overall direction of travel. Anything that environmentalists achieve can be easily reversed by breakdowns in international or local law and order, and crippling population pressures on resources, not to mention reverses of government policy.
Here are some things that could go either way, but won’t just stay the same.
- Our attitudes towards the suffering of other people (especially those we don’t have any connections to) and animals or nature. – Humans would mostly like to be compassionate, but they would also like to be able to take things for granted so they can get on with life uninterrupted. Economics and politics play a massive role here – and people who are struggling to maintain their way of life have a much less compassionate attitude towards outsiders and those whose inferiority makes their own way of life possible.
- The spread of decentralized media platforms such as the internet means new challenges for debate and decisionmaking. ‘Truth’ and ‘lies’/’fake news’ are heading for an interesting clash which may set in law what ‘truths’ or ‘accuracy’ can be stated or published, and what the punishments will be for those who go against that. This will be an interesting showdown between delusionals, tyrants, sociopaths and their allies (click HERE to see who I mean), and the institutions of the 20th century liberal West. It may have different results in different places, influencing the ideological wars of the century ahead.
Alright, so there’s my two cents. Hope it helps you future-proof your writing and keep clear of some of the mistakes that we see so often. Maybe you can even find the central question of your next script here! If so, let us know where you take it and how you get on…
Read more of Ian’s insights right here and check out the previous entries to this future proofing series…
© WriteMovies 2017. Exclusive to WriteMovies – To syndicate this content for your own publication, contact ian (at) writemovies dot-com.
In previous articles, we’ve seen how even visionary pictures of the distant future can look outdated within a generation. But writing the near future is actually far riskier, as this article will explore…
So, for every fine sci-fi story that gets caught on the wrong side of the future, there are much worse movies and series that can’t even present the present accurately. The original KNIGHT RIDER (1982-86) and its various spin-offs were predicated on intuitive artificial intelligence – yep, even in 1982. It was a very fun dream, in tune with the tech-bravado fantasies of the Reagan era, but it still ain’t happening anytime soon – in fact, the things the human mind does really well are exactly the kind of thing that computers have previously been very bad at (such as recognising faces), while computers are vastly better at the things that human brains are very bad at (like calculating the square root of 28402304.284904, for example).
So yes. Then there are the ‘too much, too soon’ visions of the future. CHILDREN OF MEN only came out in 2006, but claimed that human fertility would suddenly end in 2009. Not much use for the ‘long tail’ profitability of the movie. (The P.D. James novel it’s based on came out in 1992. Still, she lived past 2009 herself. The future is always closer than we think when we’re writing it. Party like it’s 1999, people.)
Famous examples like BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 have been discussed well elsewhere, so for our amusement let’s take later spinoff movie KNIGHT RIDER 2000 (released in 1991) as a prime example instead. On the face of it, setting a KR spinoff in the near future made sense, since artificial intelligence was still a pipe dream even in 1990. But in its efforts to seem futuristic, this film made a lot of other mistakes too. The world it tried to paint as the near future was way off. Let’s have a look at why. As you read, consider this. If you were writing a story set only ten years in the future, would you have fallen into any of these traps?
- TECHNOLOGY HAS JUMPED TOO FAR. Human beings can now have computer chips embedded into their brains – even one from 1982, from our 80s supercar-with-personality KITT. Meanwhile, Seattle has been incarcerating felons by freezing them for the duration of their sentences, then just awakening them and releasing them. Not what I’d call rehabilitation. (We also have no good reason to believe that we actually will be able to restore anyone who’s been cryogenically frozen, but lots of future-writers are desperate to use this possibility as a premise for their stories.)
- THE LAW DOESN’T KEEP UP WITH TECHNOLOGY. Quite the opposite, most of the time. Even if human freezing had been ‘normal’ by the year 2000, there’s no way that the law would have jumped on the bandwagon in time, or that this policy would now be up for review like I is in the movie. In any case, this was a really stupid law, that made no sense; why release someone who hadn’t even had to experience their period of incarceration since their crime? It wouldn’t even give them time to consider reforming their character.
- TECHNOLOGY HASN’T JUMPED FAR ENOUGH. There’s no sign whatsoever of the Internet and difference it made to the world by the year 2000. Everyone’s still driving around in cars from 1990 or before. We don’t even see the new KITT car doing any of the cool stunts we saw the old one doing; its virtual reality display looked pretty dated by 2000 too. Yep, it does at one point briefly swim, but the original KITT could literally drive on water (in the series 1 finale), so that was an imaginative step backwards too, and at one point the floating car needs to be caught by a passer-by to prevent it scraping on a wall. Daft.
- The haircuts, the screens, and much of the other visualisation is off. The new KITT is also a step backwards in that it’s not nearly as attractive as the old one, just an amorphous curvy red blob, with square 80s foglamps. (That did at least anticipate the bulbous car shapes of the 90s well, but ‘New Edge’ styling had already left that behind by 2000.)
- And then there’s the news story we overhear, that President Dole has declared peace with ‘England’. How many WTFs can I put into one sentence? The writer of this one should really have known how many leaps of imagination you can and can’t make, for one aside that has no significance whatsoever on plot. “If in doubt, leave it out.”
These might all sound like daft misjudments of what life in ten years would be like, but I can promise you I’ve seen others as bad in scripts we’ve received at WriteMovies in recent years.
So, there are plenty of dangers of writing near-future (or even “many of us will still be alive when this is supposed to happen” futures, which come around far sooner than we’d like to think).
We should also consider the ‘I’ll never let it happen’ futures. Think here of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, which was written in 1948 and for decades was held up as a warning about totalitarianism and the media can combine to oppress us all. 1984’s state surveillance was personified in a Stalin-esque figure called Big Brother, and for decades after, civil liberatarians used references to 1984 and ‘Big Brother’ to prevent dangerous trends from taking hold of state surveillance. However, by 2000, the same term – and its surveillance theme – were reappropriated by the famous reality TV show. As a result perhaps, these reference points fell out of use, while state surveillance and the ever-deeper encroachment of governments into private life grew rapidly. For over 50 years, simply referring to 1984 and Big Brother had been enough to prevent a tide of civil liberties infringements. Then, by devaluing those reference points, TV’s Big Brother rolled the tide right back. Edward Snowden’s revelations were already around the corner by the time the show was in decline.
This level of influence is appealing for a writer with a social conscience. You set out a future so vivid and possible – based on known realities and possibilities from your own time – that the future you’ve set out is deliberately either created or prevented by everyone who has learned from your vision.
For example, a lot of people feel that Star Trek’s idealized future was a genuinely influential force for good in the real world of the 60s and far beyond, which has helped to bring its own vision of a racially and socially integrated and egalitarian future. Live long and prosper!
NEXT UP – HOW WILL PEOPLE BE DIFFERENT IN THE FUTURE?
ALIENS fired imaginations in 1986, and remains a touchstone for screenwriting. So why does it look a bit dated now, and what lessons does that reveal for writers today? Ian Kennedy looks at how to get the details right in your sci-fi script.
So really, as we saw in my last article, most sci-fi is just fantasy, in a different setting, where we pretend that technology and scientific possibilities (rather than magic) are the reasons why things work differently from how they do in our world. And that’s fine by me. I’m writing this article to help writers avoid future-writing which is already suspect, and very unlikely to look plausible in the real future. Let’s start with ALIENS – which was directed with great vision by James Cameron, after all, building on excellent work by Ridley Scott and the team of the first ALIEN film. These filmmakers stand the test of time, and their stories too. So where did its details go wrong for me now from a modern point of view?
- The screens. There a lot of very analogue screens in ALIENS. It’s always tempting for filmmakers to load their future-visions with the best technology that the present has to offer. But there’s a lot that’s already very dated about these screens themselves. We see them close-up. A lot. They are split into very analogue patterns and none are remotely High Definition, never mind Retina quality. Pretty dated already. How many centuries in the future are we supposed to be? Nope. We’re three decades back in time here.
- Then there’s the stuff that’s on the screens. Nearly all of it is flat. And monotone in colour. Some of the photos are even black and white. Very little is moving. And the video feeds show the kinds of interference and distortion and low quality that nobody has experienced since DVD replaced VHS. When digital signals cut off, you get nothing, not static. The blueprint-like maps that the Corps use in ALIENS are also flat and two-dimensional – which even in the movie turns out to be woefully inadequate, when the aliens are able to get above and below them to breach their security. So again, in ALIENS we’re 30 years ago, not even now.
- There are the haircuts. Not much vision of the future going on there. I’m not in any way ruling out a lengthy revival in all-80s haircuts in future centuries. It could happen. But let’s be honest. It won’t. (In 1991, the original KNIGHT RIDER was forward-tracked for a TV movie set almost 20 years after the original series – KNIGHT RIDER 2000. But all the haircuts and moustaches don’t even belong in the 1990s, let alone the 2000s. We’ll amuse ourselves with some of its other errors later.)
- The tech used by the (apparently elite) Corps of marines in ALIENS also looks pretty suspect. Sure, the human soldiers are teched up by helmet cameras and gyro-stabilised machine guns, and other stuff. The cameras and other kit in the film look pretty clunky now, and Ripley even uses duct tape to bind guns together at one point, but all this we can OK for the time being; manufacturing standards are gonna be different in hostile deep space territories, and 3D printing and nanotechnology aren’t fully proven alternatives just yet. Mainly I’m bothered that these marines are still using their own actual bodies – not even under protective clothing on their faces and arms – to do most of the work. I don’t know about you, but I think the public horror whenever US troops get killed abroad, and the growing significance of air strikes and drone warfare, in our own time, is all pointing in a different direction. There’s no way human beings will be directly fighting our own battles unshielded, even in the medium term, let alone the distant future. Ethically and legally, this creates plenty of issues, but compared to having actual people actually die (and their relatives sue the government), it’s clear that non-human combat is going to be the future of warfare. (If our next major war doesn’t bomb us all back to the Stone Age in the meantime.) ALIENS even has a ready-made answer to this, in the creepily competent androids it gives other roles to. An android medic? While the humans go to war and die horribly? Who signed off on that?
I could go on endlessly about other visions of the distant future and how kitsch they look in hindsight, but FUTURAMA has basically done all that for me. Clever and deliberately backdated in its detailing, this funny show imagines that the year 3000 might have more in common with the kitsch, dated sides of the 20th century, than anything else. It’s no sillier a vision of the future than the ones it endlessly satirizes, and at least it knows it.
NEXT UP – WRITING THE NEAR FUTURE (AND THE FUTURISTIC PRESENT DAY)! Check out part one here: https://writemovies.com/insights-nothing-dates-faster-future-wheres-going-next/
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Ian Kennedy continues to discuss the sublte storytelling reneaissence in cinema and how ARRIVAL could be the sign that this trend will continue…
In the cases of MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, personally I appreciated them more than I enjoyed them! I can see why they were successful and critically acclaimed, but they never fully won me over. I took more of an interest in the film ARRIVAL, a film that applies similar subtlety in its storytelling techniques, but within the usually bombastic high-budget genre of sci-fi… and the ARRIVAL storytelling deserves a close look too.
Spoilers alert… this article will discuss the outcomes of the story in order to demonstrate how and why it works.
On the face of it, ARRIVAL is about an alien invasion, but this extremely provocative scenario provides the vehicle for subtle implicit storytelling rather than an action-packed, over-the-top, blockbuster story in the usual style.
Instead of invading or threatening humans, alien ships simply hang in air in obscure places, waiting for us to travel to them and engage them. We, as a race, have to work out why they’ve shown up unannounced and, more strangely (to audiences, at least!), why they are seemingly serene and peaceful.
Our protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), an expert in languages, is called upon to decipher the language of the aliens in an attempt to avert any possibility of interplanetary war against clearly superior opposition (or even against fellow nations). So this becomes a story, not about alien invasion, but about communication – about why we and other creatures need to reach out to one another to survive. Telling this story from female perspective with great subtlety makes it a far more stimulating and rewarding thought-experiment than the usual whizz-bang sci-fi fare.
In a clever manipulation of our expectations of storytelling, this film presents us with a series of flashbacks showing the bereavement of Louise. Only at the end of the film do we discover these are actually premonitions of what will happen to her, which are generated by her understanding the language that the aliens teach her, which enables us and them to predict the future, and link past, present, and future in ways we could not have imagined. The aliens finally reveal they’ve done this, not because they want to conquer us, but because in thousands of years they’ll need our help. War is averted – through their subtlety and inaction, they’ve negotiated a peace treaty with us.
Conventional sci-fi stories play out male obsessions with power, control, colonialism, war and exploration, whereas ARRIVAL embodies a more subtle and feminine approach to the profound questions of life which sci-fi is uniquely placed to explore. Although there is an explosion in middle of the film (something that is poorly explained and has limited consequences on the story), the real story explosion takes place in our mind and in the hearts of our main characters, as the clues fall into place and the scenario begins to make sense. This film intentionally confuses its audience, so that its reveal can be more mind-blowing to us.
MOONLIGHT, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, ARRIVAL – in all 3 of these films, we see subtlety is used to reward intelligent audiences. Audiences who are tired of having their intelligence insulted by convention get rewarded for their patience, through stimulating and often powerful and unconventional stories.
MOONLIGHT winning Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards 2017 suggests critics, audiences and awards ceremonies are now more open to subtle and implicit films.
In return, these films have been rewarded by audiences, awards ceremonies, and critics – hopefully this signals the beginning of a new era of cinema and film storytelling, in which writers and audiences will be rewarded not through explosions or CGI action, but through the emotional and intellectual connection they make through the characters they’re watching. At WriteMovies, that suits us and scripts we love just fine. We look forward to sharing more of these with you in months and years ahead…
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© WriteMovies 2017
“The reversal towards the end, when Ripley believes she has killed the alien, is very effective as it is extremely close to the end of the script… ” Extracts from a script report by our trainee Jamie White, based on a reading of the script ALIEN found online at Horrorlair: CLICK HERE (more…)