Whither Went the Future, Dude?

I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting for my flying car. We’re five years from 2015 and our cars still aren’t flying, our skateboards still have wheels, and our video games still don’t plug into our brains. For a generation of kids raised on “Back to the Future,” our present can’t compare to their future. Even our current movies about the future don’t stand up next to the ones produced during the 1980s. We’ve gone from flying cars and lycra bodysuits to blue space indians and post-apocalyptic zombie shitscapes.

What happened between the ‘80s and now that has left us with so little hope about the future? More to the point, what has happened to us? What were we able to imagine twenty years ago that seems so out of reach today?

When it comes to the ‘80s vision of the future, no franchise is more significant than “Star Trek.” With five films between 1979 and 1989, it has influenced more influential geeks than any other cultural production (after all, “Star Wars” didn’t have cell phones).

“Star Trek” gave us a future that grew from the aftermath of our present. The villains in the films were, in order: a 20th century American space-probe-turned-cloud-of-doom (V’ger, née Voyager 6), a super-soldier warlord who ruled Earth during the third world war of the 1990s (Kahn), a race of wickedly profit-minded aliens (the Klingons), a giant space whale looking for its family on Earth (a family gone extinct in the late 1980s), and a pseudo-messianic religious leader promising to find heaven in the cosmos (Spock’s half-brother, Sybok). In each case, a future of exploration and adventure, with plenty of lust and no currency, was borne of, and threatened by, a past of short-sighted profit-seeking. Sound familiar?

Then there’s “Star Trek” 2009, where little James Kirk drives a 260 year old car and rocks out to 230 year old music while J.J. Abrams jiggles a camera at it. Now, I’ve been known to go for joyrides in my stepdad’s carriage while blasting J.S. Bach (who doesn’t, these days?), but it isn’t a vision of the future. Rather, it projects (the least interesting) things about the present onto a future-esque landscape.

Let’s take a much less appreciated view of the future: 1987’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The future, for the most part, hovers in the background except in one glimpse of the future’s ruling council. A dramatically different world is created from the phrases “Be excellent to each other” and “Party on, dudes!” A world without work or money; where humans have imagined ways to govern themselves that are neither self-destructive nor soul-crushing.

Then there’s “Idiocracy,” Mike Judge’s 2006 straight-to-video/cult-favorite about a dystopian future world where “stupid people” have bred to excess and taken over the world, even to the point that they’ve elected a black president! (It’s hard to picture a better commercial for eugenics being created by Leni Reifnenstahl herself.) Judge creates a future of drooling halfwits wandering gargantuan Costcos and watering crops with “Brawndo” (it has the electrolytes plants crave!). A future that, rather than being made new and gnarly by our present simplicity, is destroyed by our in-born desire to do what commercials tell us.

What happened to our transcendent fantasies about the future? In 1989, political-economist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” In it, he pondered the effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Without the philosophical and political antagonisms posed by Communism, Fukuyama claimed, Western Capitalism was without competition. Thus, Liberal Democracy would likely chug along into the foreseeable future.

The end of history, it seems, also occasioned the end of the future. After all, both history and the future are little more than stories the present uses to understand itself. Narratives of where we’ve come from and where we’ll go. Without the prospect of a world without Capitalism (which is what a series like “Star Trek” and a film like “Bill and Ted” offered audiences), without hope for something better than living to work and working ourselves to death, we’re left only with our choice of dystopia: zombie, ecological or corporate.

Over the past several years, the popularity of zombies and the impending zombie apocalypse has spread like an outbreak of the walking death. We even have Zombie Walks, events where young people buy costumes and make-up so they can take pictures of themselves at a mall and make a statement against consumer capitalism.

Then there’s the natural disaster film. 2009’s “The Road” left audiences keenly aware that the future will be grim and treeless. Since the end of the Cold War, our movies have worried much more about how to evade skull-raping cannibals and much less about how to make skateboards float.

Finally, “Avatar,” a movie about 2008 set in 2154, where naked blue savages are pitted against an evil faceless corporation. It’s a film that valorizes the struggles of the indigenous against the advances of Western-style Capitalism and imperialism — except that humans are defeated by a human operating a bio-machine created by the evil corporation itself.

What should be clear in all of this is how hard it is to imagine a better world without a prominent alternative to Capitalism. Whatever your thoughts on Soviet-style Communism, it’s hard to imagine epic space journeys without it. Indeed, without Communism, we haven’t been able to imagine much more than the end of the world.

And despite our ability to imagine the end of the world, we still aren’t able to embrace it. When the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, the solution was to build up the real estate bubble which burst in 2007. When Y2K fizzled, everyone turned their attention to the Mayan apocalypse prediction of December, 2012 (and if that becomes a movie, let us pray that John Cusack plays the lead). Every time a global crisis arises, we hit the snooze button.

We’re putting off the end of history. We’re avoiding the end of the world because there’s nothing for us to hope for after the end. When there was an alternative to Capitalism in the public imaginary, we didn’t just have flying cars and dancing green space women, we had hope. Hope because we could believe that , in the words of Durruti, “the bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history, but we carry a new world here in our hearts, and that world is growing this minute.”