‘In the last half-century, every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California and—thanks to Hollywood—the collective dreams of the entire world.’
It sounds like something dystopia-loving director James Cameron might say, or something the irreverent former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, might have asserted from a podium during his time in office. Nut no. It’s actually a quote from indie darling and cinema’s favourite rule-shatterer, Werner Herzog. So, if this epic arthouse legend can put snobbery aside and get behind the City of Angels, so can you. But why does this little epigraph matter in the first place? Well, when I delved into my eight-years-as-a-video-store-clerk memories and scribbled a quick list of titles to write about here, something quickly became apparent: Los Angeles has been the setting for a ridiculously large number of futuristic opuses. Werner is onto something. Let’s look at some Los Angeles-based films about the future to see who was best at predicting what has eventually come true.
They Live (1988)
This lesser-known John Carpenter sci-fi film has become a cool point of reference in more recent times, but when it was plucked from the video shelves back in the day, it was often because the nerdy customer was a ginormous World Wrestling Federation fan. This fan couldn’t wait for Royal Rumble ’89 to be released and had to make do with wrestling legend ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper’s lead performance here to quench their appetite. Either that or they were a B film cinephile that knew John Carpenter films are worth every viewing moment. Piper plays a working-class drifter who discovers the ruling-class are manipulating the masses to engage in rampant capitalism and spend their hard-earned cash through subliminal messaging and marketing in the mass media. Sound familiar?
The film was a reaction to Carpenter’s dissatisfaction with what he saw emerging in Reagan consumer culture. At the time, marketing was becoming more refined and finding cleverer ways to get its message through—and here we are today, with branded content and targeted advertising showing up in our precious feeds. In an intriguing case of subliminal advertising, a 1990 television campaign for Republican candidate George W. Bush showed multiple words on the screen scaling from foreground to background. When the word BUREAUCRATS flashed on screen, a single frame showed the last part of the word, RATS, when opposition candidate Al Gore’s name was mentioned. Also, you know those OBEY t-shirts that parents purchase blindly for their teenage kids? The OBEY type logo was taken from the subliminal messaging in They Live by artist Shepard Fairey. Self-fulfilling, huh?
The Terminator (1984)
The first Terminator film scared the shit out of me as a kid. It didn’t have the gloss styling, slick computer visual fx and Guns N’ Roses soundtrack that its sequel, Judgement Day, had. It was a Los Angeles made up of claustrophobic carparks, trash-filled downtown side streets, and rundown motels. It was moody and emitted a relentless foreboding, personified in bad Arnie’s dogged pursuit of young L.A. woman Sarah Connor. It was here that the idea of Skynet was born. All hell breaks loose when the AI (Skynet) gains self-awareness after spreading into millions of computer servers across the world (Internet anyone?) and realises the extent of its abilities. As humans try to shut it down, Skynet decides that its only way to survive is to turn against us and initiate a nuclear holocaust. While the notion of computers turning against humans is not new, The Terminator realised it in a way that was palatable. Today, technology fighting in computerised landscapes is something that financial markets experience with high-frequency trading algorithms, for instance, and machine learning abilities enhance and create self-guided behaviour. The AI community has now coined the term ‘The Skynet Effect,’ and the debate around the ability (or inability) to control AI continues. Hasta la vista baby!
Blade Runner (1982)
Privatisation of space exploration is never dealt with directly, but the backstory is alluded to in Blade Runner—master craftsman Ridley Scott’s classic rendering of the year 2019. In the film, much of the population have chosen to live in off-world colonies, which we have to assume are much nicer than the perpetually dark, acid rain-soaked Los Angeles that handsome Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) operates on. There’s more to the movie than that, but for the purpose of drawing a comparison, it’s interesting to note that NASA has continually decreased from roughly four percent of the federal budget in 1965 to roughly 0.5 percent in 2017—enter Elon Musk and Space X, whose founding objective in 2002 was to enable the colonisation of Mars. So, there you have it. Future predicted.
Back to the Future 2 (1989)
Yes, I hear you. Marty’s adventures are set in Hill Valley, not LA. But I’m getting off on a technicality here—the world depicted in Back to the Future 2 was largely shot at L.A. locations, so, moving forward… Looking at this second installment of this Spielberg BTTF trilogy, we find that while we still haven’t really managed to popularise the flying car, we have manifested lace-up Nike Mags. These babies became a self-fulfilling prophecy in 2016, when demand for the fictional shoes outweighed their absurdity. One pair was auctioned for $200, 000 at a fundraiser, which was probably a touch more than Doc Brown paid in the movie. Oh, and the Jaws 13 gag is pretty much the current state of franchise movies (ahem, comic book universes we are looking at you). Doc Brown was also a pioneer of wearable tech, and Marty orders up multiple TV channels for his viewing pleasure (imagine the idea of watching more than one screen at a time! Ha!). Oh, and Biff became Donald Trump. So, there’s that.
Strange Days (1995)
Before the brutal war games of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Oscar-winning, adrenal gland-pumping filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow helmed this Los Angeles-set tech-noir. Also considered to be a futuristic erotic thriller, the film is set in the last two days of 1999 and features Ralph Fiennes as a dealer, not of drugs but of illegal experiences. He provides first person POV of extreme encounters that are stolen from other users’ avatars. The purchaser gets a thrill from the reality of a stranger’s radical experience, stimulating excitement and providing them with something they would otherwise never engage in. From sexual taboos to robberies to murder, this nasty stuff is banned, and the ‘SQUID’s’ that Fiennes sells are part of the black market. Sounds like a regular walk through a first-person shooter game, right? But in the mid 90’s the aesthetic and style of the experience was fairly foreign to audiences. This was a fairly decent foreshadowing of VR and, more recently, Virtual Reality LAN parties, where you are dropped into illegal feeling experiences. It’s like a nightmare version of Chat Roulette, and intensity is the name of the game. People, the future is now.