If you are alive today and paying attention, you know that Marty and Doc arrived in the future on Oct. 21, 2015, back in that 1989 time travel movie, Back to the Future II. The media have been full of that story everywhere you look. Ive done numerous interviews on what that movie got right, and wrong, about 2015, as far back as December 2014, and in early 2015.
Today began with Huffington Post Live show (internet video show), which you can see here.
When I re-watched that film the last time, I counted at least 27 sight gags or story ideas that could be counted as predictions of the future. Keep in mind that, having worked as a technical advisor on several TV programs and pilots set in the future, the writers are far more interested in “entertaining” than in “accurate prediction.” As they should be. In a large sense the writers got 2015 exactly right – Marty and Doc arrived in much more high tech society than they left behind in the 1980’s yet the world is still beset by the same personal and societal ills that in real life travel with us through time.
Here is my list ideas and gags, pretty much as they appeared. I’ll not whether the idea was right, wrong, or not yet. Most of these ideas appear in the first 30 minutes of the film, as the producers set the scene of 2015…
Fusion Reactor fueled by garbage – wrong. But then again there is constant research on fusion reactors.
Flying car & time machine – wrong. There are indeed flying cars always in prototype stage. The time machine is theoretically possible say physicists but would take galaxy scale energy to do.
Rejuvenation clinic, as Doc has had his spleen and colon replaced. Right. Perhaps not to this level of sophistication, but there is hardly a hotter idea in the bio tech world than research on down-aging and a biotech CEO just did gene therapy for down aging.
Shoes and clothing that adjust automatically to fit – wrong in terms of the cloths adjusting themselves.
Telephone booths still exist. Wrong – have you seen one lately?
Kids of the future wear their clothes inside-out as fashion. Wrong – but then again fashion has changed a lot since the 80’s.
Lawyers have been abolished by 2015. Wrong – but then again does Legal Zoom in a sense replace lawyers?
Bionic Implants – when we meet Biff, he is complaining that his implants are short circuiting. Right. So far just things like chochlear implants and artificial joints and limbs, but implanted lenses and memory devices are on the drawing boards.
Postal boxes with clunky fax machines. Wrong. In a hilarious scene Doc and Marty emerge on the street and walk past a U.S. Postal box which has attached to it an L shaped metal arm that holds a computer screen and keyboard and a sign saying FAX here. I have not seen a postal box in a while, and fax machines are mostly gone. (common future prediction error – we tend to overestimate importance of a current new technology and faxes were pretty new then)
Robot Gas Station high on building. Not yet. Gas stations are pretty automated but we do have to physically move the pump line to the car ourselves. These stations were for flying cars too.
Jaws 19 3D Movie Promo. Right. Sequels are bigger than ever. If we don’t have Jaws 19 we do have Sharknado, and shark mania every summer on TV. And we certainly have 3D and limited holography in place now.
Hoover car conversions offered. Wrong. Again with the flying cars, this shop will convert your ground vehicle to fly. Will rotary drones ever become quiet enough and powerful enough to carry people door to door?
80’s Cafe with Various Artifacts. Right. Nostalgia is bigger than ever.
Video Games where the young kids playing say to Marty, “you use your hands, that’s like a baby’s toy!” Right. Video games are huge and first experiments in controlling them with your mind have been done.
The famous Hoover Board appears. Not yet. Actually there are at least two hoover board companies using magnetic devices on special floors, and some kids building large drones that can carry a standing person.
Automatic Drying Mode for Clothes. Wrong. But we do have very quick drying materials.
Cubs Win World Series. Not Yet. This was a USA Today headline in the newspaper stand. As of today Oct. 21, 2015 the Chicago Cubs trail the New York Mets 3-0 in the final four-game play-off to get to the World Series. Hope still lives!
Dust Repellent Paper. Mostly wrong. We have dust repellent things of all kinds. What is most interesting is how paper-centric their world of 2015 was and this has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years.
Hilldale a slum and urban renewal. Right. The spiffy 1980’s suburb is now a slum, while the downtown of Hill Valley has benefited from urban growth and development, much like central cities today. This anticipated outcome is kind of uncanny in its prescience.
Flat Wall Screens You Can Talk To. Right. There were no flat screens to speak to when the film was made, except in Hollywood pictures. But they are certainly ubiquitous today.
Lights on. Right. Characters walk into a room and say lights on, rather than reaching for a switch. Not in wide use but possible today.
Drone Dog Walker. Almost right. With the prevalence of small drones just like the dog walker in the film its a wonder we have not seen this in real life at least as a stunt.
Pizza Hydrator. Right. Ok we don’t have quite this level of hydrator (it was a Black & Decker if you recall), but we do have dehydrated foods of many kinds, and the hydrator was supposed to be the next extension of the ubiquitous microwave.
Master Cook Garden Center. Right and Wrong. This was the small garden center with fresh veggie and salad greens that descends over the dinner table. We may not have that exactly, but local gardening is much more in vogue than in the 80’s.
VR Glasses. Right. The kids in grown-up 2015 Marty’s house are using immersive glasses like today’s VR glasses to make calls and do things. VR glasses did not really get invented until the 1990’s, so well done.
Video call with Wall Screen. Right. Again this is perhaps the best approximation of real 2015.
Double Neck Tie. Wrong, thankfully. Marty McFly (2015 Marty) comes home from work wearing two parallel neck ties. Fashion is hard to predict.
Read my Fax. Wrong. Marty is fired from his job via the video wall screen, but the boss says “read my fax.” I say wrong as faxes are over, but then again it could still be that certain legal documents must be sent physically.
Throughout the film we see no cell phones. Many observers suggest this is most glaring “wrong” in the film. Cell phones of the brick-variety certainly existed at the time the film was made and I’d wager that key people working on the film used them. But, cell phones create a story telling problem, when the story needs characters to not know what other characters are doing. If the characters had cell phones we’d ask, “why don’t they just call?” So the lack of phones is understandable. It could also be the writers just did not see how big a deal cell phones would become. Plus back then they were just telephones, not computers in your pocket.
The lack of reference to the “internet” is also noticeable of course, but perhaps we can assume that wall screens capable of calls suggest there is a kind of network, though just the phone network.
The most interesting question is not how much a film get’s right or wrong. It is how art influences our images of the future. The Jetsons, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Back to the Future II, The Hunger Games, and now perhaps “The Martian” all cement into the popular mind what the future may look like or is supposed to look like. Our job is first to enjoy the entertainment, then to make real what we want and leave the rest behind.
USA Today published what I think is the definitive piece on what the script got right and wrong, because the article is written by the head script writer of the movie, Bob Gale. It is terrific, check it out. It appears that the film makers were in fact trying for more “accuracy” in 2015 that we might think. Bob also speculates on what the future 30 years from now may be like – virtual reality, people own fewer things, fewer jobs, advanced robots, Google MD with related privacy issues, cash still used, crises with entitlement costs, unemployment, student debt and the tenuousness of our global economy, nostalgia for the old days, hoverboard parks but no flying cars, and, finally, the Cubs win the World Series.