Friday, October 15, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #25: Overly futuristic descriptions

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of not putting enough imagination into describing futuristic environments. However, you should also be careful not to do the opposite by overestimating how much things will change in the future – especially in the near future. The danger is that we could raise an entire generation of people who will grow up expecting to live in chrome housing pods on the moon and traveling exclusively by or jetpack. If my childhood movie recollections are correct, we should have all been doing that for at least 20 years now.

One movie that I believe overestimates some futuristic elements is “Minority Report” (based on the short story by Philip K. Dick and written by Scott Frank), which gets so many things right that the things it gets wrong really stick out by comparison. The portrayal of touch-screen / spatial recognition computers was uncanny, as was the prediction of personalized advertising that follows you everywhere. But the prediction that our entire highway infrastructure would be replaced by such a fast-paced, computer-driven system in just 52 years seems like quite a stretch based on not only the amount of time it would take to complete that much work, but also how long it would take for that kind of legislation to pass through the Senate. Seriously, have you watched C-SPAN lately?

The problem is that Mr. Dick wrote this short story in 1956, so it would have seemed perfectly reasonable that such changes could occur in 100 years. But since that setting was only 52 years away from the movie’s release, it would have been better to tone down the level of infrastructure development or to move the date a bit farther into the future. It sucks to alter the original author’s work so significantly, but it sucks even more to release a movie with glaring problems like this. Also, even if one does buy the premise that genetically-altered people will be able to predict the future, it still seems far-fetched that we would be able to redesign our criminal justice system in just five decades to be based on three bald people floating in a tub.

Another good example of overestimating futuristic changes is from the movie “The Postman,” though the error this time was in guessing how much worse things would get after some sort of apocalypse occurs. The movie (based on the novel by David Brin and written by Academy Award winner Eric Roth) was set in 2013 and was released in 1997. Despite being set only 16 years in the future, the entire country was reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Whatever bombs our unseen enemies dropped on us apparently had road-dissolving properties because the only way to travel was by horse on dusty trails. Government no longer exists so people have holed up into walled hamlets or pseudo-military enclaves headed by evil warlords. And despite the fact that everyone over the age of 16 would have been born before the apocalypse, many adults have weird names like “General Bethlehem” and “Ford Lincoln Mercury.” People even wear animal pelts and talk like cavemen at times, describing the period before the apocalypse (waaaay back to almost 16 years ago) as the period before the “great lung” stopped breathing. Ugh.

On the bright side, an excellent example of a writer not overdoing his futuristic environment can be found in George Lucas’s “Star Wars.” The sci-fi movies that Mr. Lucas would have seen while growing up included sets made primarily out of chrome, with every single prop looking shiny and new. He thought that if people drove beat-up old cars today, then surely people would be piloting beat-up old spaceships in the future. So he made the Millennium Falcon, a complete clunker of a spaceship, for smuggler Han Solo. That hyperdrive-challenged bucket of bolts fits Han’s personality perfectly and provides not only a believable prop, but also a reliable source of comic relief.

So combine yesterday’s post with this one and my advice is to write the type of futuristic environment that Goldilocks would choose: not too far-fetched, but also not too similar to what we have today. It helps to take the number of years in the future that you will be writing about, and then look back at the technology that people were using that many years ago. Think about the technological breakthroughs that have affected our lives most significantly since then and what driving forces brought them about, then apply that same thought pattern to how and why your own story’s technology will evolve. And if that doesn’t work, go ask a nerd. They know everything.


  1. I thought Minority Report had a GREAT ending . . . and then for some reason it went on for another 45 minutes . . .

  2. How about flashbacks? Do you cover that in another post?

    1. I don't think I've written anything on flashbacks yet because it's covered so thoroughly in every screenwriting book, but I'll write out my opinion on this topic at some point. Like every other element in a screenplay, I think that a flashback should only be included if it's necessary, if it's the best way to relay that information and if it adds to the script, rather than detracting from it. The vast majority of flashbacks don't meet those qualifications.


  3. I think Real Steel and I Robot did respectable jobs of "keeping it real", as it were. Real Steel's producers mention in the DVD extras that a "not too distant" future was in order (people still drive semis, and the robots, while technical marvels, still malfunction and leak fluids). And the environment of I Robot's world remained generally workaday and gritty amid the new technology. And people still bake pies and go to church. The Matrix could probably be included here in some repects, in regards to the condition of the remaining inhabitants of the "real world" where their clothing is ragged and they subsist on tasteless synthetic proteins. Yum.