Never make predictions, especially about the future

Ridley Scott’s latest film Prometheus has been heavily pre-marketed but someone of my age group, who remembers the brilliant original Alien, just had to go and see it. A prequel to Alien, Prometheus is visually striking (like all of Scott’s films, except perhaps Thelma and Louise which is powerful in other ways) and occasionally gripping. It isn’t being unkind to say that it lacks the punch and originality of “Alien”. It’s a bit opaque and ends with such an obvious excuse for a sequel that you feel slightly set up. But the acting is great and although it takes a little while to get going, it’s worth the price of admission.

Alien and Scott’s other classic science fiction film Blade Runner become know for their originality, design and imagination. But they, and Prometheus, have one common weakness: the “future” technology. Blade Runner is set in a dark, wet and inexplicably Japanese-influenced Los Angeles of a now not so distant 2019. All films and books about the future are actually about the time they were created. (George Orwell’s 1984 is rooted in the year he wrote it, 1948, though it was also a work of brilliant imagination about life in a totalitarian state). So I imagine that the Japanese theme reflected the then current American paranoia that Japan would dominate their economy. Today of course it would be China.

Alien is set some centuries in the future. Prometheus is set in 2094. But in each film you see current technology showing up in the future. Blade Runner is still very visually striking but it’s looking very creaky today because it has….cathode ray tube computer screens. Younger readers may already be unfamiliar with the first generation of TV and computer display technology, which consisted of a curved glass screen that was the front of a vacuum tube in which electron beams were directed onto a phosphor screen. They were very heavy to carry and made a satisfying crunch sound if you dropped them from a great height onto a hard surface (I won’t explain how I know this).

Computer and TV screens (the two have converged) are made of liquid crystal or plasma, with various other technologies about to arrive. What matters for my point here is that they are all flat. The curved glass screens in Blade Runner therefore look terribly old fashioned.

Prometheus obviously has flat screens but in other respects uses 2012 or even earlier technology. At a couple of points the crew seem to be using iPads to tell the ship what to do. At others, they are pressing large buttons on a device that looks like the photocopiers and coffee makers of about ten years ago. I don’t know what sort of technology people will be using in 2094 but I’m reasonably sure it will not rely on the nineteenth century typewriter technology of keyboard input. We are already using voice and hand gesture technology and engineers have made devices that can be manipulated by thought, though it won’t be very cinematic if everything is thought activated.

Alien was particularly striking in the industrial messy interior of the space ship, so very different from the shiny, bright sterility of 2001 or Star Trek. The ship was dimly lit in some places, which is great for dramatic effect but a bit unlikely. If you have solved the gigantic energy challenge of sending 20 million tonnes of space ship through interstellar space, you are unlikely to worry about leaving a few lights on.

Critics of my pedantry might argue that nobody has really done a realistic science fiction film but I would beg to differ. The most influential of all science fiction films is 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written and directed by the late Stanley Kubrick. You can see Kubrick’s effect on many films, including the sweeping opening helicopter shots of Prometheus which resemble both the “beyond the infinite” journey in 2001 and the vast opening scenes of The Shining. 2001 is one of a tiny handful of sci-fi films which remember that space is a vacuum and therefore silent. Pure action films like the Star Wars suite can be forgiven for having lavish sound effects during orbital battles. But Alien rather sacrificed some credibility in this respect. Some of the most creepy scenes in 2001 are during the astronauts’ excursion into space to fix a broken communication module. All you can hear is the sound of breathing. Otherwise there is absolute silence. No other film has conveyed so well the terrifying loneliness of space and the utter insignificance of human life in the universe.

And in 2001, made as far back as 1968 and set, of course, in 2001, there are, remarkably, flat screens. How did they know? They asked the experts for their best guess as to what technology would look like then. Not everything was right, in fact the film was over-optimistic about the progress of space flight, portraying a fully working space station and moon base to which people can travel more or less as you can take a flight today (but with a zero gravity toilet, with a sign that says “you are strongly recommended to read these instructions”, probably the only joke in the film). None of this has happened, mainly because of economics rather than technology.

It also over-estimated the speed of computer development. The film’s main character is the HAL9000 computer, which is apparently conscious and chats with the crew.We are still some way from that, perhaps a decade or two. HAL stood for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. It is also the letters IBM displaced one character. The film makers insisted this was a coincidence. Nobody believed them.

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